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.
‘ 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.
Shadows provide extraordinary educational opportunities. Not only do they raise a spontaneous curiosity in the child, stimulating his imagination and exercising his emerging intellectual abilities but they are also omnipresent (even more than sand, stones, water or “pencil and paper”, because you only need a bit of sunlight or even a candle to produce them). Perhaps more effectively than other things, shadows can nourish the child’s need to do and to experiment given the ease with which the variables involved in their formation and transformation can be manipulated.
( Guido Peter – The Hundred Languages of Children)
My youngest has become increasingly fascinated by shadows. As we walk along she shouts
I can see your shadow
my shadow is long
With this in mind I thought it would be a nice idea to make shadow shapes and draw around them with pavement chalk. Some shapes worked better than others, my youngest daughter’s shadow looked a little like an embryo!
The girls drew around them. They were particularly interested by the fact that they couldn’t see the whole of their legs. It was a very hot day so only my 4- year- old wanted to colour in the detail. They were very proud of them and pointed them out to their dad every time he walked over the driveway.
drawing around shadows
The finished outline
the finished drawing
My 4- year -old has very poor eyesight and needs practice copying and tracing shapes to enhance her perceptual motor skills . I hate the idea of sitting her down with worksheets so I thought shadow tracing might be a nice alternative. We took a number of objects outside to draw around. We even attempted to draw around her bike, which was a little tricky.
Later in the week we were playing with blocks in the house.
My 2-year old declared
I have a shadow, it’s behind me
Where is the shadow coming from? What makes it appear?
Maybe the fan.
Okay, so let’s turn the fan off and see if they disappear. Has it gone?
My 4-year-old had an idea
I know maybe it’s the light, let’s turn it off. It’s gone!……………oh hang on it’s still there, it’s just fainter.
Shall we see if we have a shadow outside today?
We don’t have a shadow……. Oh wait, when you sit down there is a bit of a shadow.
When we sit down there is a bit of a shadow.
Why do you think that happens?
I don’t know. Let’s see if there are any shadows on the grass. No, not even the dog.
Do the trees have shadows?
Yes and the bushes.
investigating shadows near to the ground
My 2-year-old had an idea,
Maybe the sun has taken away our shadows.
No, that’s not right because the sun makes the shadows.
Maybe when the sun is not there it takes them away?
I know, let’s draw a sun and see if they come back.
I know we can stand in the sun and make it bright colours to see if it comes out.
In the meantime my 9-year-old came to join us. I told them the girls had a bit of a problem that they were trying to solve and wondered if she could work it out.
Why is it that when it is cloudy there are no shadows but when things are close to the ground there is a small shadow?
Maybe it’s because it is darker when you are close to the ground
But there is no sun and you need light to make a shadow.
Yes, but if it was dark I couldn’t make a shadow because it couldn’t get darker.
If we were in the sun and it was too bright what would we do?
Stand in the shade.
What makes the shade?
So what is happening to make the shade?
I don’t understand.
I drew a picture of the sun in the sky with a stick person stood underneath and a tree with a stick person underneath the tree.
Oh, the tree gets in the way of the sun.
At that moment as the girls were standing in their picture of the sun, the sun came out.
I think we might work on reflections as a starting point for our pre-school year . We could
Resurrect the shadow puppet theatre
Use the projector to make and investigate shadows
Place paper on the windows and observe and trace shadows
Continue to talk about and ask questions about shadows when we are out and about.
My eldest daughter has just turned 7 . She will soon be going to Junior school and moving away from Early Education, my area of expertise. I am not overly worried about her growing up too soon but I am sure that the Junior school years will throw up new challenges. So when the offer to review a new book ‘Where Has My Little Girl Gone?’ by Tanith Carey came my way, I thought it might be interesting to read about the challenges that might be faced along the way for all 3 of my girls.
The book ties in with a recent ‘mumsnet’ campaign ‘Let Girls Be Girls’ which campaigns to stop the sexualisation of young girls.
The book looks at the aspects of modern life that are fast-tracking our daughters through childhood. However, it is much more than a simple account of the sexualisation of young girls. It encourages parents to question the influence we have over girls growing up in this generation. It discusses influences including body image, mobile phones and the internet.
There are insights into the most extreme examples such as parents paying for their daughters to have plastic surgery and children pole dancing but is also full of practical tips on how to help young girls become rounded individuals, rather than focusing purely on beauty. The section on body image certainly made me question the messages I give to my daughters. I am fortunate that I am naturally slim but I have never been completely satisfied with my body. Though I don’t diet and try not to talk about losing weight I am sure my negative body image must have some effect on my girls. I have hoped to have breast enlargements once my child-bearing days are over. I hadn’t considered before now that this might make my girls view appearance as the most important factor in life, or see surgery as a quick fix. Though I am not having second thoughts, it has made me realise that I need to approach the issue sensitively with my daughters.
There is a particularly good section about boosting self-esteem. It gives some lovely examples of things you can do to help girls feel unique, from simply asking their advice to building a scrap book of their artwork and writing, from the very first scribbles and sharing it together over the years. I like the idea of this one and it’s something I can imagine doing with all of my girls.
There is also some very practical advice on how to praise daughters and some lovely tips on how to help your daughter to understand about friendships that fall out or people being unkind.
Another message that hit home for me was about spending quality time with your daughters, taking them for coffee and having proper conversation. I think this was something I did a lot when my eldest was an only child but we don’t spend much time together alone anymore and I can already see her retreating into a book, game console or tv programme. The book talks about showing that you are interested in what they have to say and giving them your full attention. I’m sure we have all glazed over when they talk about some television programme that we know nothing about, and how many times do we not really listen or give eye contact because we are too busy doing something else?
Spending time with your daughters, helping them to question things is a key message in the book. It doesn’t suggest banning commercial television, magazines, pop music or internet but to watch things with them and discuss the issues that arise. In our house we have always been against commercial television and rarely watch adverts. When we do we have frank discussions with our children about how advertising is often aimed at getting you to buy things you don’t really need, or promising you things that aren’t necessarily true. ‘Blah, blah, blah’ my daughter says every time an advert comes on.
There is also a lovely section for fathers and the importance of their involvement
‘a girl sees it as her mother’s natural role to care for her, she feels that time spent with her dad is his choice’
It talks about rebellious teenage girls testing their fathers to see if they would fight for them and encourages fathers to appreciate their daughters achievements instead of pushing them immediately to try the next thing.
I think that we are fortunate to have not seen too much evidence of our daughter growing up too soon. She likes pop music and pretty clothes and sometimes wears make up, she is influenced by her older friends and occasionally speaks in an annoying american accent, but on the whole there is nothing that worries me. We may not shield the younger ones quite so well as they try to emulate their older sister. I’m sure that this book will give me many valuable tips for the things that life may throw at us as the girls grow up. It has certainly made me think about the relationship I have with them and how I would like that to be in the future.
For anyone bringing up girls this is a really valuable read and it certainly made me stop and think about the quality of my relationships with my girls. Since reading the book I have reflected upon some of the messages I give to my girls. Whilst my girls were watching a Disney Princess DVD, I considered that I may need to encourage my daughters to question the notion that finding your Prince Charming is the most important thing in life. It has also made me think about the messages I give to them about the role of a mother. I would like my daughters to grow up feeling that they can achieve anything and they do not have to give up a part of themselves to become a good mother. Being a stay at home mum for a few years I feel that I may have reinforced the stereotype that it is a mum’s job to look after the children and house and that dad’s are the successful ones. I hope that I can give my girls something to look up to so that they can see that women can be successful too.
This is a very practical and thought-provoking book – a worthwhile read for any parent of girls.
The Chinese proverb above illustrates the common practice of active learning in early years education, except that maybe we would say ‘ I play and I understand’.
Early years educators are often criticised for having an easy job, because all we do is play. I would argue that play is one of the most important things we do, not only as children, but also into adulthood. Play gives us freedom as it is one of the few things that we do that has no external goal. Play is both therapeutic and a way of self regulating experience (Jennings). In play we can select our own materials and are free to choose what to do with them, helping to work out solutions to conflicts and understand one’s self. Maybe we should all take time out from our busy lives to play.
As an adult I rarely play, we might play with our children, but generally this is following their agenda or playing a rule based game. How many of us play for play’s sake ? Why don’t we build dens in the woods or take out a lump of clay and model with it?
I was once on a course with Jenny Moseley who asked us to sit for 5 minutes with an egg. We had to stay in our own space and were allowed to do whatever we liked with the egg in that time. Who would have thought that a simple egg could be so absorbing? It became my complete focus for that 5 minutes and we were then asked to put our thoughts on paper to share with others – the words poured out of me without hesitation.
I think that real understanding is achieved through more than just play. If we look at some of the most highly respected early years establishments, in particular the pre- schools of Reggio Emilia, there is one thing that sets them apart. The schools founder Loris Malaguzzi describes the teachers role as learning and relearning with the children. A favourite saying is ‘catching the ball that the children throw us’. That is not simply asking the children to tell you what the teacher already knows but retaining what the children give with a sense of wonder. We can learn a lot about the way children think by listening to them. Often they are viewed as funny or cute comments – like when my 2 year old saw manure on the road and asked ‘Mummy has the road done a poo?’, but these little comments tell us a lot about the way children think.
In the pre-schools of Reggio Emilia projects are based around what the children say and do. They would go that extra step to give the children a complete experience . A project on supermarkets for example, led them to not only visit during the day but also when the shop was closed, helping to encourage further discussion and enhance the children’s play. In the Reggio schools understanding is not achieved through simply ‘doing’ but also by having the chance to reflect and build on those experiences. It is important that when children ask questions we ask what they think and that their interpretation is seen as important. It is not the answers that are important but the process of discovery.
In our own work as teachers and parents we can learn so much from our children if we listen , share and take time to reflect both alone and together. In our own lives too , if we take time to step back and really absorb ourselves in something as with the egg exercise, we learn far more than rushing around doing things. Rather than always focusing on the present, the reflection time helps us to work out what to do next. I believe therefore that the proverb should be