Fresh from an intensive week finishing a book on Sensory Play I recently went to a large family celebration. Having previously read the draft book for me, my mother-in-law (a former childcare practitioner) confessed that the focus on natural resources had got her thinking about her own ‘practice’ and in particular, what she offers the grandchildren. Dissatisfied with the level of sensory enrichment offered by ‘her’ existing stock of toys she had spent some time gathering a collection of natural delights for the children to play with at this special family gathering. Arriving early to help set up, my five year old was quickly drawn to the collection of lavender clippings, poppy heads, rose petals and other seedpods. Unbeknown to me he had begun playing with and mixing the treasures until somewhat ironically, he was coaxed away from them and the basket of delights were put ‘safe’ out of reach, until the other children arrived!

It’s sometimes difficult for us adults to appreciate the awe and wonder presented by nature, but witnesses on that day of boys and girls of all ages playing with that collection of flowers and seedpods would be left in no doubt of their magical qualities. Take the poppy seed heads, which the eight and nine year olds used as pepper pots to make dinner for ‘their children’; the pine cones that were crushed to make sweet treats; or the rose petals, poppy seed heads and lavender, mixed by a four year old boy, to create a special concoction. Freely available treasures like these are packed with play potential as they can literally be whatever a child wants them to.

The children’s reaction to the resources came as no surprise having already witnessed my little boy deeply engaged in domestic role-play using objects from a treasure basket. In spontaneous play sessions, many lasting over an hour (some with sand, others using the objects on their own) he apparently mixed a chain with a lemon juicer; tossed a chain in a measuring cup (‘spaghetti’ perhaps) and wiped up imaginary spillages with a cloth. On other occasions he created culinary delights including mixing real spices with soil, leaves and water to make a hearty broth. It’s hard to believe this was the same boy who on numerous occasions was observed simply tipping out a basket of plastic play food and plates as if to play, momentarily pausing to look at the pretend food, before moving away. With the benefit of hindsight I now understand that these colourful and realistic play foods held little interest for him as a plate of spaghetti was just that. Even with a highly developed imagination it would be difficult to see it as anything other than a mound of spaghetti.

We can learn a lot from children’s play with objects. We can discover their schemas (repeated patterns of behaviour), interests, developmental stages, propensity to problem solve, creativity and imagination while they benefit from all of this together with fine-tuning their manipulative skills and developing hand-eye coordination. Young babies will enjoy exploring objects and discovering about the world around them. As they develop they will move onto discovering what they can do with the objects and delighting in cause and effect as they create sounds with them.  Older children’s play will evolve into symbolic play, where that poppy seed head becomes a pepperpot.  Interestingly research has shown that in order for young children to engage in pretend play, objects need to be sufficiently realistic to scaffold their imagination. With age, the object can become less and less life-like so that a wooden block can become a hairbrush or a car. For older children there is a further transition, as the more open-ended a resource, the more play potential it offers, so that prescriptive toys actually restrict play. It was this phenomenon that was being played out before my eyes when the plastic play food failed to grip his interest, while the seedpods and petals did!