These were the words of a charismatic speaker at a recent Early Years event. I know I’ve paraphrased and taken these words out of context, for the importance of igniting children’s interest as a tool for developing active learners was later acknowledged, but I do sometimes wonder whether we place too much emphasis upon our own importance.

Sadly a glut of work deadlines this weekend limited my time and ability to just play. Inadvertently it also gave me food for thought on the role of adults. Inspired by the glorious weather and the discovery of a seventies style broken wicker chair, my 6 and 9 year old turned it on its side, creating a cosy huddle in the shade.  After a few minutes snuggling in their creation, the 9 year old suddenly announced that she was making something, something secret. The next two hours were punctuated by requests for pieces of wood, nails and very occasional help with hammering.  After showing her how to perfect a safe and efficient hammering technique, her mastery was evident so I simply ‘supervised’ from a distance. Having ferreted through the shed and discovered a flat piece of wood she proceeded to find an assortment of pieces of architrave and 2 x1 which she attached to the four edges. As this was a covert operation it did not become clear until the end that tacks or short nails would have been better, and easier on the neighbours, than the 2” nails with which she was supplied. With the parts firmly attached she sanded the edges before getting out paint and watercolour crayons to transform the blank canvas.

Once finished it was time for its unveiling and for us to guess what we thought she’d made! Guesses of a picture, Hexbug track, stock car track, Uno card table, tray, table top and stair gate flowed thick and fast before she spilled the beans. What had started as a back support for their new huddle (she’d discovered its uncomfortable design flaw!) evolved into a dog bed before finally emerging as a purpose-designed TV dinner tray, built for two pairs of knees!

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I love how this project was self-driven, motivated by a need she alone had identified. It evolved as she worked with the resources and her familiarity and confidence grew.  Familiarity with objects is closely linked to creativity and problem solving and this certainly seemed to be the case as the project took shape. The result was a substantial piece of furniture, doubling up as a doggy stair gate in between use as a card and dinner tray!

Returning to the words of wisdom at the beginning, it’s clear to me that my role at the very most could only be described as a ‘plate spinner’ – providing occasional advice and resources to furnish her objective. As my presence was largely irrelevant I’m convinced that without my input she would have still persisted and fulfilled her vision but perhaps without discovering about wood grain, how to hold a hammer, sanding techniques and safety strategies. As I looked at the finished product I felt a mixture of pride in her determination and achievement and regret that perhaps we could have supported her better. Not in a hands-on way – it was a secret and she wanted to retain ownership, so that would not have been appropriate, but perhaps in providing more suitable wood and nails. With properly sawn timber the result would have been amazingly professional. But perhaps that’s not what this was about. Like a child being encouraged to colour within the lines or draw grass as green and sky as blue, where’s the challenge in that? What could be better than taking inspiration from what’s found around us and crafting it into something greater than the sum of its parts? That tandem tray certainly exudes quirky individuality and her granddad, a joiner would have bristled with pride!

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