A few weeks ago I went for a walk to the park with my daughter. She likes to climb to the top of the climbing frame and play pirates. The game involves roaming the edges of the park for interesting treasures and on this day, she discovered big rocks. She proceeded to pick them up and roll them down the bank, watching them crash at the bottom. The only other child at the park was a little younger than my daughter and after observing her for a while, she found her own rock. She used all of her efforts to lift the rock and proudly show it to her mum. At which point, she was greeted with a look of horror and her mum quickly took the rock away and ushered her to ‘more suitable’ pursuits.
This kind of reaction is very familiar. When my children were toddlers, other parents would often ask me if my children were okay when they climbed a ladder and slid down the longest slide, as I observed from a distance. I have never been a parent to shadow my child’s every move and rarely feel the need to step in.
It is always refreshing to find a parent who shares my attitude. On a recent trip to the park with a friend, I was so happy to find someone who not only didn’t bat an eyelid when my eldest started paddling barefooted in the cold wet mud but actively encouraged the others to join in. When the children threw rocks on the ground to see if they would break , she gave them advice on how to do it safely, rather than stopping them because it was too dangerous.
You are my kind of mum friend because you let all these experiences happen.
And when you let these things happen, with a little bit of support they will have the courage to jump.
This time of the year my garden is covered in a blanket of leaves. The girls enjoy helping to rake them up but it is a never-ending task. When leaves are plentiful there are many activities that you could take advantage of. Here are a few of our favourites.
Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert is illustrated with photocopies of leaves that have been arranged to make pictures. We studied the way Ehlert uses coloured paper to create a layered background and leaves and natural materials for the main body of the picture.
We created our own pictures, starting with the background and adding leaves. The leaves work better if they are pressed beforehand using a flower press or a heavy book. Preserve them by laminating before the leaves dry out.
Young children enjoy printing with leaves or painting on larger leaves. You could also try painting with different types of leaves or dipping the stalks into paint to make marks. Dried leaves crumbled into paint could also make an interesting texture.
Leaves are perfect for investigating colour mixing. Give each child a leaf and ask them to try to mix the matching colour. Younger children could paint the colour onto their leaf, print it on paper or paint around the outline, older children may like to try an observational painting of their leaf. Small square canvases or watercolour paper would make them extra special.
Sometimes young children find this difficult so experiment with different colours and materials, like crayon, pencil, chalk, pastels or charcoal to decide which makes the most effective rubbing.
Leaf Mosaics, Patterns and Sculptures
Use leaves to create mosaic patterns and pictures. These could be individual or large group projects.
The girls collected leaves on a camping trip and used them to thread onto sticks to create clothes for their stick people.
Leaves make interesting imprints in clay or they can be used as a template to cut around. Clay leaves make great bowls, tiles or mobiles.
Sensory Play and Loose Parts
Collect leaves and put them in a sensory bin – investigate what happens to them over time. Add interesting objects hidden amongst the leaves or toy woodland animals and bugs for small world play.
If you have leaves outside how do the children use them as loose parts?
My children built a bonfire……
Buried their feet….
and added them to a potion.
Use them as a Filler
Last Halloween we made spiders to hang on the bushes outside. The bodies were made from black bags stuffed full with leaves. You could also use leaves to stuff scarecrows or guys for bonfire night.
Over a period of time we collected interesting leaves and laminated them. They looked great on the window and I challenged the girls to find out which trees they belonged to. I think they would also make an eye-catching mobile. This year we are using the laminated leaves to see if they can find matching leaves in the neighbourhood. Laminated leaves could be used for all kind of things. We have used them as gift tags, to play matching pairs and they look great on the light table.
If you collect leaves gradually from the same tree or bush as they change colour you can make a leaf rainbow.
Before you decide to rake all the leaves away, take a look at this face, I think it says it all.
Regular readers will remember that when I moved to the US, I struggled to find a preschool that I was entirely happy with. I became so disillusioned that I decided to home preschool for a year. I’d lost faith of ever finding a preschool that valued play, independence and individuality above academics and rigid schedules until a friend told me of a preschool situated on a farm. The preschool shared my belief that children learn best by doing things that have relevance in their lives through exploring, discovering and creating.
The school is so popular that it was a whole year before I had a chance to visit and see the school for myself. Children were busy pulling apart sunflower heads on the covered deck area whist others moved freely between the different activities indoors and outdoors. The teacher’s enthusiasm and passion for both the children and the setting was evident immediately and a bubble of excitement rose up within me. Our name was put on the waiting list for Sept 2015 but before Christmas a place became available in the co-op class so finally my youngest daughter had the chance to attend. This was perfect as I also had the chance to be involved in this wonderful experience as a parent helper.
There was little doubt in my mind that this was the perfect preschool for my outdoor loving daughter. My expectations were high. I have been fortunate to teach at a highly acclaimed nursery in the UK and to visit the best preschools in my local authority as an advisory teacher. My experience of this school has surpassed all my expectations, I couldn’t have hoped for a more perfect preschool for my daughter and I am only sad that my older daughters didn’t have a chance to go there. After she started, it just seemed to get better. Regularly she would come home covered from head to toe in mud. To some parents this would be horrific but to me it meant she had the freedom to be herself and have fun.
Being a part of the co-op class means that I get to help out once a month. This is the most exciting part for me as I get to join in. I love the covered deck area which enables the children to play outdoors all year. The children explore the whole farm for the 2nd part of the session, mud, water, animals, climbing and balancing. They are actively encouraged to take risks.
What makes it so perfect?
1. Children are individuals
Small classes and the dedication and experience of the teacher, mean that she understands each child as an individual. My daughter who is uncomfortable speaking in a group or to unfamiliar adults is given time to think about what she wants to say, often being presented with a question at the start of a session and returning for a response later. The child who hates to get his hands dirty is offered alternative tools and all the materials are open-ended so that children can use them as they see fit.
2.Children are competent
Children are always encouraged to try things for themselves, even when they ask for help they are first encouraged to try. The children are trusted to use adult tools for woodworking and tinkering, peeling vegetables and cooking. The teacher shows them how to use the tools safely and responsibly and thereon in they are trusted with them. The children cook their own green eggs and ham on the tiny stove, they dig with metal shovels, they observe candle flames and peel carrots with a peeler. Outside they are permitted to climb trees, feed the animals, hold guinea pigs and dig in the mud. The children are trusted to handle precious materials like birds eggs, chicks and nests.
This tinker table is always available. I regularly see children sawing pieces of wood placed in the clamps, hammering nails or taking apart electronics with a screwdriver. In the nursery I taught at we had a tool bench with real tools but we weren’t confident enough to leave it out all of the time. I have never seen a child have an accident or do anything dangerous with the tools.
3. The Preschool fosters understanding and respect for nature.
Many of the activities involve the natural rhythms of the farm, collecting the produce, understanding the cycles of the plants and learning about the animals and creatures they find.
After the first few sessions, my daughter told me they had unicorns at preschool but that it was too small to have grown a horn yet. A preschool with unicorns? Could it get anymore magical?
4. Children’s thoughts and opinions are important
Each session the children are asked a question and the answers are recorded for parents to read on the wall outside. The children listen to each others responses and discuss them with respect. The children’s choices are respected as they are presented with a number of activities to choose from at leisure. They also have opportunities to choose the songs they will sing and are confident at asking for things. The children are offered a snack, they choose when and if they would like to eat it .
5. They have fun.
Best of all, I feel that my daughter experiences something here that she would never have the chance to experience elsewhere. I feel so fortunate to have found this preschool and that my daughter has one more year there. When our time is over I will be so sad but I hope I can remember her teacher’s words of wisdom.
Great Pretenders recently asked if I could write a guest post for their blog. I hadn’t come across them before but I was blown away by the wonderful play costumes that they create. So of course I said yes . Why Schools Need to Embrace Pretend Play? talks about my experience about a lack of pretend play in schools and why I think it is important that schools embrace it.
My youngest daughter (age 4) has recently started to draw detailed pictures. Mostly they are people. She always starts with the eyes, adds a nose and mouth and then draws the circle for a head. After adding hair, she draws a torso, arms, legs, hands and feet. The finishing touch is always a belly button. I found this fascinating. I don’t remember my older children doing this for any sustained period of time, if at all.
In the earliest stages of children’s drawings of people, there is no torso. At this stage they often draw a navel (or circle) between the legs to depict that there is a torso there. I’m not so familiar with children drawing belly buttons onto a torso however.
Clearly, children under the age of 5 do not generally draw clothes on their people. Seeing a navel on her sister’s drawing, immediately led my 6-year old to the assumption that it was naked. As they talked through the drawing together, the picture became one of a daddy and his little girl in the shower and anatomically correct details were added. These didn’t survive into later drawings when her sister was not present but the placement of the belly button continued.
My intrigue grew, when a friend with a child of a similar age shared her daughter’s drawing of the family. There was the belly button again.
I decided to ask an expert and consulted Ursula Kolbe author of Rapunzel’s Supermarket:All about Young Children and Their Art for help. She suggested that children are fascinated by belly buttons and the drawing of a simple round shape is often intensely satisfying. Perhaps then, it is the circles that she finds fascinating. The drawing sequence always begins with eyes made up of a circle within a circle. Kolbe also suggested that children often copy the ideas of other children but since my little one is yet to attend preschool and only has her sisters to influence her this is unlikely in her case.
Often what children include or don’t include in their drawings is determined by the sequence in which they draw. “If a child draws a torso and then legs they sometimes won’t go back up to include a navel even if they intended to do so” says Kolbe. I watched my daughter’s sequence with interest; she always drew the whole person and then went back to draw the navel as a finishing touch.
Sorting through boxes, I came across some old photographs of me as a child. In amongst them was this.
I must have been 4 or 5 years old when I drew this man, complete with belly button. What a magnificent and timely discovery to help solve my conundrum.
‘ Let’s just go camping for our Summer holiday this year’
Hold on a moment, did those words really come from my mouth? Until my mid twenties I recoiled in horror at the thought of camping. After I left girl guide camp half way through the week because I hated it so much, I convinced myself that camping wasn’t for me. In truth, I didn’t hate it at all. A rumour that newcomers would be pushed in the cesspit if they didn’t pass initiation had worried me so much that I begged to go home. My views changed after a few great camping trips as an adult but I’d never have considered a camping trip for my main holiday.
A yearning to explore the beauty of the Pacific Northwest, good weather and the children’s eagerness to go camping, convinced me it was a good idea. An eight hour car journey with a canoe on top of the car, three young children, a dog and a heatwave; perhaps I had lost my mind?
Amazingly, the car journey was fine. The first couple of hours were spent playing ‘would you rather….’ and guessing the names of characters from books or screen. The rest of the journey we listened to cd’s of musicals and admired the view.
Our destination Curlew Lake State Park, chosen for its beauty, a place for the children to swim and for my husband and the girls to go fishing. “Fishing!” I hear my 20- year-old self, with an irrational fear of fish exclaim, ” are you intent on sending me on the holiday from hell?” Strangely none of those sentiments cross my mind as we set up the tent in a quiet corner of the campsite on the shore of the Lake.
Without a shop or a playground in sight, would the children be happy? For now the excitement of sleeping in a sleeping bag, cooking outside and trying to catch their first fish fuelled their enthusiasm.
They were eager to go to the beach to swim. I was amazed that we were the only people on the beach. The ground wasn’t soft like the lake at home but filled with slippery algae. It didn’t put them off. They used the algae and stones to create patterns on the ground and then set up their own foot spa, spreading the algae over their feet and washing it off.
I sat and watched from a distance, joining in when they asked me to. At that moment I knew why this holiday was no longer my biggest nightmare. The children were immersed in the moment, playing, discovering and sharing. In the distance, my husband was on the lake in the canoe and I was here in a rare moment of quiet. This wasn’t one of those family holidays where we rushed to cram in every little experience. I’m sure that these unhurried moments are the ones they will remember most.
There was a child went forth everyday,
And the first object he look’d upon, that object he became.
And that object became part of him for the day or a certain part of the day, Or for many years or stretching cycles of years.
They found magic in the simple things.
Look I think Eeyore has been here
Maybe it’s his barbecue?
Really! Do you think so?
My eldest had big girl time with dad, paddling the canoe at sunrise. Nights weren’t the most restful we had ever had, with five people and a dog in the same tent but there are few things more peaceful than the middle of a lake in the early morning.
It didn’t take us long to understand the rhythms of nature; the time of day that the deer would wander down the hill to visit, geese would fly across the lake, fish would start to bite or that darkness would fall.
Sometimes though, nature takes you by surprise. One night, as we were snuggled in the porch of the tent telling stories, the poles holding the porch open, fell down. As if from nowhere, the winds whipped up and tugged at the tent. Before we knew it dad and big sister had us zipped up inside while they battled against the wind and dust to secure the tent. I tried to drown out the rangers talk of trees blowing down, by telling the story of ‘My Favourite Things’ from the ‘Sound of Music’ and singing. Enraptured, the little ones soon forgot about the storm. They implored me to tell the story of ‘The Sound of Music’- the whole story, all 3 hours of it complete with every song. Thankfully the storm was short, the tent and trees survived and unlike my 11-year old self, I didn’t get the urge to run home.
One of the reasons for choosing Curlew Lake was the fishing, so in the early evenings we took the canoe out to explore the lake and try to catch fish. The girls had only ever caught small fish and were eager to catch one they could eat. Our family trips in the canoe lacked the quiet and patience needed to catch anything of note. However, on the last day their wish came true. Our neighbouring campers, who visit every year to fish, offered to take us out in their boat and help the girls to catch trout. The fish came one after the other.
Then the fish got bigger
They were so proud of their catch.
After the holiday, fishing has become a regular pastime. When dad goes out on his own, the girls greet him eagerly to see if he has caught anything we can eat. Other times, we all go to the lake together and mix up fishing with swimming and playing. On a recent trip, we explored the river bank , a place we probably would never have visited if it weren’t for fishing . Watching the girls excitement at their discoveries and creating with sticks and stones was magical. We returned home with a pile of sticks and ideas for making things with them. Moments like this are important for all of us. Resting our minds through daydreaming and play increases productivity and creativity says Daniel Levitin author of ‘The Organized Mind’. Without time for spontaneity, children lack the mental space to come up with new ideas and ways of doing things.
As I looked out across the river at the jumping fish, the blue skies and the green trees, I could picture an old couple; man fishing, wife painting the landscape or writing in a notebook. I suppose fishing isn’t so bad after all. I’m happy to spend many more years waiting for the fish.
Look I think someone has been building fairy houses in the trees!
Do you believe in fairies? On a quiet walk around Beaver Lake Park, we discovered that they had taken up residence. Had the fairies crafted their own houses or had someone else built them to entice them in? Either option was equally magical to a 3-year-old. Having recently finished our own fairy garden, she was desperate to build a house herself and ran to fetch her sister. We carefully tiptoed around the trees, discovering at least a dozen fairy houses and rooms.
It took a while to find the perfect tree to build in, untouched but with interesting levels and holes.
Meanwhile on another tree, her sister was building a bridge to reach from one tree stump to the other. We searched for the right sized piece of wood.
They set to work making tables and benches, carefully scouring the area for the perfect materials.
They really wanted to stay but the night was drawing in and mummy was slowly being eaten alive by mosquitos. Every little girl knows that fairies come out at dusk and are afraid of humans. We needed to leave the woods quickly to give the fairies a chance to discover their new home. I wonder what type of fairy will choose to rest there?
In the hot sunshine the girls don’t really need a lot of encouragement to play with water. When I suggested we set up their pirate ship in the garden and make a plank that they could jump from into the paddling pool, they thought it was a great idea.
We emptied the paddling pool to clean it, leaving water on the lawn. The girls decided that this should be a swamp where crocodiles lived. They collected branches to lay across it so that they could cross the swamp.
They then went on the lookout for something to use as a plank and decided on a large branch that had been pruned from our maple.
I had been changing the words to songs to fit a pirate themed music class. ‘If you’re a pirate and you know it say aaarh’, ‘1 little, 2 little, 3 little pirates’ and , ‘there were 10 in the ship and the pirate said walk the plank’. The girls made up songs of their own, counting down as the pirates walked the plank one-by-one.
Next they set out on a pirate treasure hunt. One of the girls hid the treasure and made an X from sticks to mark where it was. My eldest made a map and clues for the girls to follow.
Years ago, when my eldest was small, there was a tree stump at the bottom of our garden. I thought it would be magical to put a fairy door on it and pretend that fairies lived there. My daughter left notes for the fairies (some suitably spoiled by the great British weather) and they replied in tiny writing. The stump was soon forgotten as the winter set in and the bottom of the garden seemed such a long way to travel.
When we moved here we made a rudimentary attempt at creating a fairy garden in a planter. The little ones saw this as a perfect opportunity to smother it in glitter leaving my eldest a little disappointed with the messy results.
The moment I saw the garden in our new house, I knew that the cluster of trees would make the perfect fairy garden. When I suggested it to the girls they were very excited and we collected ideas, requested materials and made plans.
The fairy door was made from those mysterious small pieces of wood that come attached to a painting canvas. A lentil was chosen for the door knob.
Next we collected small stones to make a pathway to the door.
We made gates from the same pieces of wood as the door and placed small sticks around the edge of the path to create a barrier.
Many of the materials were gifted by the Buy Nothing Group including the little bells we hung across the entrance, glass beads to make the stream, jam jar lids for table tops and our very own fairy.
At a garage sale we found packs of miniature accessories for teddy bear collectors. We decided to use them to make a tea room for the fairies.
The tables were made from jam jar lids and cardboard cylinders.
Corks were painted with nail varnish to make toadstool seats.
The embellishments were added to make a perfect fairy tea room.
One of the girls wanted to make a pool for the fairies, we found a pot, dug it into the ground and she added glitter and sequins.
The girls decided to use a wicker ring as a fire pit and arranged twigs inside for the bonfire.
Next we added a stream made of glass beads and outlined the edges with pebbles.
Small flower pots created a boundary between the stream and the tea room and we sprinkled a few seeds on top.
During the winter we found a log in the firewood with a knot that looked like a door. My eldest saved it to make a fairy house. She carved windows with a pocket knife and stuck twigs along the edges with wood glue. The roof was made from moss.
As a finishing touch we added steps leading up to the house.
The fairies and elves seem very happy with their new habitat.
I don’t make assumptions about what my children will learn from an activity. I don’t presume that they will learn anything, I’m happy if they are absorbed and having fun.
Sometimes a simple activity can unexpectedly become a rich learning experience full of questions and discoveries. These for me are precious moments. I have recently become aware that the simplest craft activities lead us unexpectedly into an exploration of scientific concepts. For example,we recently acquired a movie reel canister, perfect for paint rolling . I gave the girls a small box of marbles and small balls (a ping-pong eyeball and a golf ball) and a few pots of paint. The discussion that ensued was interesting.
Child 1 : 5-years-old Child 2 : 3-years-old.
Child 1: The eyeballs go much slower. I think because the eyeball is bigger it goes much slower but the marble is smaller so it goes faster.
Child 2: It’s too sticky
Why do you think it is sticky?
Child 2: Maybe there’s too much paint.
Child 1: This one is not as sticky as the other one but it is much bigger. Maybe it’s because I didn’t put as much paint on.
What makes the 2 balls different?
Child 1: One is bumpy and one is smooth…………..but that would make it slower.
It gets stuck and the other one goes really fast. Maybe the material it is made from is sticky but now that we don’t have as much paint on, it goes fast. Perhaps the paint sticks to the material and stops it slipping and sliding.
Maybe because the golf ball is hard it doesn’t stick to the paper, maybe the paint doesn’t like it and slips off.
When we went to wash the balls we checked to see which would float.
Child 1: The golf ball and the marble sink and the eyeball floats. This one floats because it is all filled up with air.
Child 2: This one sinks because it is bigger…………………….. but what about the marble, that sinks?
Child 1: It is because it is heavier.
The connection between the mass of the ball and how fast it travelled did not register but there are many other projects we can explore to help them work it out.
These incidental science experiments happen a lot. There was the time I left an empty milk carton outside and they turned it into a tap by inserting a straw. The girls decided they needed to find a way to turn it on and off. Further experimentation helped them work out how to get the tap to drain all of the water. My role as teacher was not to give them the answers but to ask questions like ‘How could you make it better?’ What could you use to…? or what would happen if…?
Having open-ended materials readily available makes it easy for them to instigate projects . This week, I put pieces of foam in the water table soaked in bubble mixture and showed them how to squeeze the foam to make bubbles. I knew my eldest would love this. She had another idea, taking a piece of plastic tubing she blew into it creating lots of foam. The children’s ideas are always the best! She asked me for test tubes and filled them with bubble mixture and opened her own beauty parlour with potions that made your hair soft or skin younger.
In the TED talk, Science is Play , Beau Lotto views Science as a way of being. He explains,
“We normally walk through life responding. If we ever want to do something different, we have to step into uncertainty…. Science lets us step into uncertainty through the process of play.”
Our youngest children are full of uncertainty so they are naturally questioning things all of the time. Isn’t that the foundation of science? Our skill as teachers is not to feed them the answers but to give them the tools to make their own discoveries. Do we need to plan specific science lessons? Isn’t science and discovery the very essence of childhood?Children don’t call it science, they call it play and in play they work things out for themselves.
‘When I grew up, every kid put in some serious sandbox time, and it often involved building (what seemed like) complex sand structures around which fantasies were composed and competitions took place with neighborhood kids. The organic chemistry labs (at Yale during the junior year) were fun in the same way. We constructed molecules and competed with each other in the class on speed and yield. We mixed things up, and chemical transformations took place. We separated, we isolated, we analyzed. The odors were pleasant, and the physical process of working with our hands, as with sand, was satisfying. The biweekly organic labs became the high points of my week. By the end of the year, I knew that I wanted to be an organic chemist, as I realized one could play in the sandbox for a living. (Joseph B Lambert)
Playing in the sandbox for a living? ‘Isn’t that what I do?