Archives for category: children’s play

On a crisp day, with gloved fingers keeping the cold at bay and the sun warming noses and cheeks, there’s something really thrilling about venturing out in fresh snow. If you’re like me, you may even be tempted to create snow angels or start a snowball fight. But I wonder if the same is true on chillingly cold damp grey days, when all but the most stalwart adult would rather stay snuggled up indoors? For children their keen interest in just about everything outside seems to protect them from the cold and damp, much like the Ready Brek ad of my childhood. If you have children then at some point you too will probably have felt the need to explain to strangers their lack of coat when you’re wrapped up from the cold like Michelin man! Children, unlike adults, show little awareness of the cold and given something exciting to do, can play absorbed in low temperatures for hours. Adults however, myself included, are much less likely to respond enthusiastically when cold which makes me wonder if it is the adults rather than the children in nurseries and schools, who need the protective clothing! So if the right clothes and being absorbed in something are key, here are some ideas for fun things to do on those cold grey winter days:

  • Make a mud pit as this is great for splashing in; experimenting with  consistency for creating mud pictures; mixing up hearty concoctions with old pots and pans; and of course, making mud pies.
  • Fill an old ice cube tray with mud and leave outside overnight to freeze in the freezing temperatures. Turn the mini bricks out for lots of building fun. Add small world figures for firing imagination.
  • If you don’t fancy getting messy, make frozen mini ice bricks instead to build igloos with.
  • If it’s damp and cold outdoors then why not create a fire pit for charcoal making, toasting of marshmallows and warming chilly fingers by the fire? Share a flask of hot chocolate for the best snack ever!
  • Make ice sculptures to hang on the trees. Simply arrange holly and other foliage or sliced citrus fruit in transparent plastic takeaway containers. Add a loop of string for hanging, fill with water, put the lid on and leave to freeze over night. Freezing accentuates the colours in the leaves, berries and fruit creating a truly mesmerising display guaranteed to melt even the frostiest heart!

From Japan to Malaysia and America to Australia, helicopter parenting it seems is a universally recognised phenomenon credited with reducing physical activity, stifling risk-taking and creativity and developing depression in children. We know of the health and emotional benefits of children accessing outdoor environments, but should they really have to do so in order to recover from the stresses of everyday life? With children’s lives increasingly mapped out, filled by an endless stream of classes, clubs and tutoring designed to give our children the best start in life, it is ironic that freedom to play with sticks, stones and mud outdoors may actually be what children need best.

I firmly believe that our role as adults is as ‘memory and meaning makers’ for children. It is also about instilling children with the confidence to explore the unknown, take calculated risks, make mistakes and ultimately learn from these. This cannot happen if children are cosseted and deprived the freedom and opportunities to practice making decisions.

So how do you make decisions in your household over what to do and when? Do the adults make all the plans? Are the children in control or do you manage to achieve the holy grail of calm consensus? With a background in consensus building – it’s what I used to do to help disparate groups make decisions and galvanise action, I find these same techniques have currency in family life too. That’s not to suggest that processes like these should happen all the time, as that would tip this into the realms of micro managing and would be far too unspontaneous for my liking, but when I get out coloured paper and start cutting it into business card size pieces, the excitement among my 7 and 10 year old is palpable. In fact they have now taken over the paper cutting stage of the process! What makes it all the more special is picking a good family moment, like a leisurely Saturday morning breakfast, where the plan evolves magically from a table strewn with paper and cereal packets.

We start by each writing our own priorities on separate pieces of paper. The only rule is that this needs to include a couple of essentials like ‘tidy my bedroom’ or ‘put my clothes away’, after all this is essential preparation for life.  Once finished all the ‘cards’ are turned face down and we take it in turns picking a card to turn over and read. If we agree with the idea we leave it face up, if not it is turned over. Any cards left face up at the end of this stage have been agreed by us all without a smidgen of sibling rivalry. With a firm foundation of consensus we then look at the face-down cards to agree what should happen to these ideas. Often the reason the card was turned over becomes readily apparent, with ideas like ‘Go to the moon’ having crept in from my 7 year old! We talk about why we can’t, in this case go to the moon, and then I secretly plan a moon-themed tea anyway, because, why not? Sometimes we add headers for Saturday and Sunday to start to plan each day, other times we just go with the flow.

If you’re thinking that this all sounds too planned and contrived for your liking, don’t worry there’s plenty of scope for being spontaneous. Some of the actions are as quick and simple as ‘buy a bone for the dog’, while others involve much more preparation and time, and some, dare I say it chore-orientated actions never seem to get done! So last weekend a trip to Ikea was agreed but there was still time and space to combine this with our first family trip to Lakeside, bungee trampolining and meatballs, (beef and pork I hope), at Ikea for tea! Consensus building may not be for everyone but for us it is a fun and satisfying way to avoid wasting time bickering in a family with two independent-minded children. Most importantly perhaps it’s a delight watching children’s growing sense of responsibility and pride at being listened to and valued, as their vision and ideas, even that trip to the moon, are realised.

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After a break from blogging and what felt like a very long winter, Spring it seems, is finally here. Typically a time for new beginnings and a dose of spring cleaning, changes are certainly a foot in the British education system. However, the proposals being mooted for early years could not be described as a metaphorical lick of paint or sprucing up, but something fundamentally different – a wholesale demolition of the cornerstones of early learning. It seems that no amount of evidence will convince Whitehall of the value of play, and by that I mean unashamedly free, child-initiated play. Fundamental to young children’s social, emotional and physical development, play is often described as children’s work. It lies at the heart of every aspect of a child’s healthy growth and development and if not given adequate opportunities to vent this innate drive, children’s physical and emotional development will quite literally be stunted. If we want children to grow up sheepish, blindly following commands or conversely so disengaged from learning that they already feel labelled as failures, then the sort of system envisaged by Truss, with increased ratios, may be exactly what the Doctor ordered. If on the other hand we aspire for children to develop into free thinking innovators, able to solve the challenges of the world and deal with the problems that the excesses of previous generations have left behind, then this is not the best approach. We cannot miraculously expect to ignite children’s creativity and problem solving simply by the flick of a switch if they have been bought up expecting to be spoon-fed knowledge and to think inside the box.

In fact as these latest ill-conceived proposals demonstrate adults do not have a monopoly on good ideas, often failing to see what’s before their eyes. Children in contrast are technically geniuses before they enter the education system!  Whilst walking through a flower speckled field at the weekend, my 7 year old son stopped to pick three buttercups. A little further on he paused to look up at a tree before selecting a small heart-shaped leaf to pick. Turning to me he asked how he could make a small hole in the leaf. I helped him (purposely not asking him why) and having threaded the flowers through the hole, was rewarded with a beautiful miniature bouquet, fit for a fairy princess. No amount of guesses as to what he was going to do with the leaf would have yielded this exquisitely proportioned bouquet and he rather than I would have excelled in a creativity test. He had a vision and spent time selecting the tools, in this case flowers and a leaf that were fit for purpose.

Returning to the current political debate it is dangerous to look at the experience of other cultures and pick the bits that best fit with our agenda. The Government may see the appeal of orderly French early years settings but not be so drawn to the strongly unionised (dare I say rebellious) culture that predominates French adult life. Of course we want children to grow up having manners and respect and in some households no doubt this is lacking and needs redressing, but Elizabeth Truss is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. To control play is to destroy the very essence of childhood. Any good early years practitioner knows only too well that subservient robotic children is all too often the sign of something sinister at work. It is as absurd as assuming that the lack of crying in pre 1990 Romanian orphanages was a sign of happy children. We know at all too costly a price what social and emotional deprivation looks like because we can see it from these neglected children’s brain scans. We can also surmise that the reason these babies didn’t cry was not because they were happy but because they knew it wouldn’t make any difference, having learnt all too soon that they would not receive affection  or comfort. If you’ve ever seen children lacklusterly following adult commands, (because they have no interest or ideas of their own); not asking those all important ‘why’ questions, (because they know they won’t be answered, or worse still these will get them into trouble); or trying to please adults by carefully not making any mess during play (because they can read adult’s emotional cues), you will know how stilted and unnatural these ‘play episodes’ are. Yet if we are to listen to Whitehall this should be what we aspire to!

In a literacy lesson last week my 10 year old daughter was considering Government proposals to lengthen the school working day and reduce holidays. The task was to consider the pros and cons of these changes and write a letter to Michael Gove in response to the consultation. After discussing the relative advantages and disadvantages she drafted a well-considered consultation response where she proposed that the school day could be lengthened in the summer term if the extra time was dedicated to outdoor activities – what a great idea! Not only are physical education and outdoor experiences vital to children’s physical, social and emotional well being, providing a buffer to the stresses of everyday life, but if you’ve ever managed to crack a challenging problem after taking the dog for a walk or gardening, you’ll have experienced for yourself its benefits to critical thinking and problem solving. The last line of her letter delivered a decisive blow as she reminded Mr Gove that ‘more time at school does not necessarily mean more learning’. It was this final line that made me bristle with pride and dare I say it encapsulated the fruits of a playful mind nurtured by a playful childhood.  Roll on National Children’s Day and our chance to put children back at the heart of the early years.

I’m convinced that collecting is in the blood. Just as infants are intuitively drawn to explore novel and familiar objects with their hands and mouth, you may have noticed how babies and children playing with the treasures in a Treasure Basket frequently appear to sort the items into different piles – the significance of which sadly we will never know. I also firmly believe that in the right hands (and mind) anything and everything can form a collection and provide satisfaction and meaning in the way it is arranged. Like the shiny drawing pins which I’m guessing were hastily removed from my son’s door judging by the paper signs strewn all over his floor.  I ventured to ask if he knew where the pins were as walking barefoot was in danger of becoming hazardous and he replied with evident satisfaction “They’re here guarding my shark’s teeth!” True to his words his lining up schema had metamorphosed the humble drawing pin into protection for his precious shark’s teeth. His arrangement of special pebbles and finds, which may look like clutter to the untrained eye, to this 6 year old is tantamount to a shrine! I marvelled at the ingenuity and wonderful fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination needed for the feat of balancing the pins without piercing fingers and wondered whether this is how the idea of barbed wire came to be?

On walks to the river through the industrial estate passersby will see another favourite form of collecting in motion. With eyes peeled on the dusty ground for scrap metal, the intrepid metal detectives transport their hoard of finds on bike and scooter, making for some unusual sights and sounds. Back at home their greasy finds are cleaned ready for use, display or simply left forgotten in the graveyard of useless things found in the utility room.

And now it seems our puppy too has the collecting bug. With walks incomplete without another stick or bone to add to the collection accumulating in the front garden. Yesterday’s log was so huge he looked ridiculous!  So important is this urge that even though evidently keen on a walk and all that that entails, on finding the right stick he has taken to stopping resolutely until allowed to return home, be it 5 metres or 50 meters away!

Now I don’t normally mix blogging with mentioning our resources, but with collecting at the forefront of my mind – we’ve just developed two great new collections, and the comments of Teach Nursery ringing in my ears “Wow I love them. How do you go about deciding what to put in the collections? They’re brilliant”, I thought I’d make an exception. There’s definitely something very appealing and satisfying about developing collections of sensory-rich resources. Maybe it’s the opportunity to look at everyday stuff with child-like eyes and appreciate its awe and wonder or perhaps sheer escapism. What’s clear is that my children also share this passion so the looming summer holidays are destined to bring lots more collecting opportunities with or without sun.

Don’t you just love those moments where a combination of children’s creativity, intelligence and mischievousness shine? One such example last week means that I can no longer look at Salad Hands in the same way!

It happened amidst the usual morning rush when I asked my 6 year old if he could get the sandwiches out of the fridge to go into their packed lunch bags. I knew something was occurring when he sat protectively clutching both bags, something I normally struggle to get him to take responsibility for! When I eventually peaked inside his lunchbox I discovered a pair of wooden salad hands! With a wide grin he explained, “I was going to eat my lunch with them!” On his way to the kitchen he’d spied the salad spoon samples that I’d sourced for a possible product. Sadly supply problems meant the product never actually came to fruition. Shame really judging by how they caught his eye and inspired his imagination.

The image of him sitting at school grappling Edward Scissorhands-like with his wrap has made me smile ever since. A bit like that classic Red Dwarf episode, the one with the mind boggling Mimosian anti-matter chopsticks.  As for his explanation, it was the sort of comment which makes you bristle with pride and know that they’re going to be OK when they grow up! In his sister’s lunchbox he’d included half a chocolate bar. Once rectified and returned to the fridge, this gave great cause for celebration at this wonderful moment of brotherly love.

So often when it comes to working with children our role is critical in either supporting or crushing children’s ideas. The chocolate was easy, being banned at school and only allowed as a rare treat, but what of the salad hands? In my rush I reasoned with him that he would probably get into trouble if he took them to school and he accepted this logic. But since then I can’t help feeling that in doing so I robbed him of his magical idea. Which brings me to tea tonight…!

There must be something in the air at the moment as signs are springing up all over our house. Visitors would be intrigued by the abundant signs, from the handwritten decorated sign on the kitchen door, welcoming you to the Italian Lounge Diner restaurant  to the sign on the wall emphatically instructing you to take  a seat in the lounge NOT THE KITCHEN. Hand decorated placemats signal who should sit where at the table and my office features a job satisfaction questionnaire neatly written on a whiteboard! Upstairs the signs continue ‘Mummy and Daddy’s’ bedroom door is a feast for the eyes with eight separate signs spelling out We ♥ U. The trend continues with welcome signs and arrows on the landing walls and yet more signs on my six year olds door proudly stating I AM ZACH complete with sword pictures. Subtlety is the name of the game in my nine year olds bedroom, with a ‘secret’ area created behind the door for displaying messages from her special friends. 

In case you’re wondering the signs are not the fall out after a major argument or part of a sponsored silence! They are not a substitute for talking or body language, both of which are evident in abundance in our house! Nor do they share a common theme, but rather a sophisticated repertoire of communication. Some seek to control and influence the child’s environment and routines; some to convey empathy and love; some provide a statement of fact and affirmation; and still others a stepping stone into a wonderfully fertile world of imagination.

Research shows the literacy benefits of surrounding children in a print-rich environment, especially one that has resonance for them as presumably one created by children themselves would have.  We also know how self affirming it is to see our own efforts displayed for all to see as well as receiving positive messages from loved ones. For children writing needs to be relevant, rooted in children’s own reality and have a purpose. That would seem to be the case in my home as the many holes in the doors and walls bear testament to!

In my quest for a healthy work life balance I decided to combine a speaking commitment at Derby University, with a family weekend in Derbyshire. As with most family weekends, it was characterised by highs and lows. The cable car ride at Matlock Bath was a hit and the picnic in the sun and exploring Chatsworth’s beautiful grounds made up for the 11pm bedtimes! My trip also gave me some food for thought…

Amongst the carefully tended beds of the formal gardens, a daisy speckled lawn featured three magical looking circles, each a metre across. I found these glistening pools of waterlogged grass mesmerising and was clearly not alone in thinking this judging by the various children who slowly approached the shimmering circles before standing, walking and jumping in them! Mother Nature and our bountiful weather certainly know how to provide intrigue, awe, wonder and excitement in abundance!

Having explored much of the gardens we reached a series of bold metal sculptures near the magnificent house. Unlike the wonderful wicker sculptures whose bulbous curves intertwined around trees, successfully merging the natural and manmade landscapes, these hard cold sculptures stood stark and distinct. As my six year old ran to the first of these industrial-looking sculptures, we read the sign saying Please do not touch the sculptures and quickly stopped the inevitable touching and climbing. A group of ladies approached us and lamented the fact that children couldn’t play with the sculptures, ripe for climbing and playing on. It was then that I realised that while these crude sculptural pieces may not be to my personal taste, they would undoubtedly have been greatly enhanced and their relevance within the landscape increased, if designed for children to enjoy and be inspired by or for adults to pause and perch on. This would have instantly softened their hard edges and created a bridge between the beautiful landscape and its admiring visitors.

The fantastic children’s play area at Chatsworth showed just how successfully large architectural and industrial sized pieces can blend with the environment and offer heaps of play potential. Two working Archimedes screws, a water wheel and a series of robust metal channels and pools encouraged children to draw water from a babbling stream and direct it into a huge sand pit to be shaped with diggers, hands and minds. This provided an altogether different experience for children as they were invited not just to connect with the open ended environment but to actively shape it, something which children across the ages actively did.

Archimedes Screw

All in all it was a magical day of exploration, sensory pleasure and play, only slightly dented by the four hour journey home!

These are my wonderful mum’s pearls of wisdom, and how right she is. She was talking about a picture of a magnificent specimen of Ceanothus, with pillowy mounds of undulating vibrant blue flowers, snapped on my walk back from school. This reminded me of the awe, wonder and pattern to be found everywhere in nature, from the regal candelabra flowers on the horse chestnut, to the delicate tapering fronds of soft lilac petals on the wisteria, draping lace-like over the fence. Speaking of lace, when looking at a fragment of dead coral the other weekend, my mum reflected on how this must have been the inspiration behind lace, its intricate repeating pattern just like a priceless piece of antique lace.

Like nature itself, children’s brains are programmed to seek out pattern to help make sense of their world. Not just pattern in the literal sense, differentiating between spots, stripes and checks, but also in terms of decoding the potential links between objects and events. We now understand that it is only through repeated exposure to a wealth of sensory-rich objects and environments that infants build up a large enough bank of rules about objects, such as dogs have four legs and a tail and a ball is round, to develop categories, (a complex neural filing system), in the brain. With enough rules and categories formed, they can then move onto making judgements based on the similarity between two or more things, rather than starting at the beginning each time they encounter an object. Using the analogy of dogs, with time and plenty of opportunities to encounter and experience different dogs, an infant will understand that all dogs share common characteristics and yet are unique. When encountering a dog breed which they are not familiar with, say a Dalmatian, given sufficient experiences their starting point will be this dog is spotty rather than what is this thing?

And this is where again we discover how wonderful nature is. Not just are children hardwired to explore and spot details in the environment all around them, but the ever changing outdoor environment, its flora, fauna and natural treasures offer infinite opportunities for exploration and discovery, perfect for captivating children’s interest. And so closes the circle as nature has perfected an environment which enraptures children and the human body and brain designed to capitalise on this, that is, if we adults allow it!

Yesterday my 9 year old daughter blew my socks off – not literally of course! She had a sale with two friends and raised a “whopping” £35 in the process (her words). Not only were her powers of weather forecasting exceptional, it being the only dry weekend in weeks, but if you’re picturing an amateurish affair, think again. With gazebo decked with bunting flags; cloth covered table pleasingly arranged with various wares including a tempting box of 20p goodies; drinks and biscuits provided for customers; keenly priced goods showing excellent awareness of pricing, value and margins; and skilled negotiations and easy rapport, one couldn’t help but smile as customers were expertly enticed to the stall by well-chosen products and persuasively charmed not just of their pennies but also their pounds!  If you’ve heard me speaking at events you may know that this is not the first of my children’s sales. Inspired I guess by my business and exhibiting at events, over the years their ‘stalls’ have  specialised in selling homemade ‘perfume’ and ‘wine’, to toys, fossils and cockles, sadly inedible as found near a sewage outlet! What they share is the opportunities for bringing rich learning to life.

With the benefit of 5 days planning the well conceived marketing campaign included postering school year groups and the local area with laminated artwork; paperwork logged the process of selecting which products to source and documenting agreed prices for sale; and the full cash tin measured their success. These three 9 year olds showed huge determination in planning the event, persuading parents, sourcing sales goods and refreshments and delivering a successful and fun sale

Visiting with my 6 year old I saw in those children an excitement, energy and joie de vie which is sadly lacking in some adults. For children anything and everything can be fun, from washing-up to picking up horse poo – or is that just Granny’s special touch?  What is key is the sense of agency that they have over what they do,  when and how. On Sunday it seems they were even in control of the weather!

I remember it clearly, a large wooden box covered in that red textured vinyl, all the rage in the 60s. Its two metal clips reassuringly snapped shut protecting its precious contents. I loved my record player, with its distinctive smelling rubber turntable and the satisfyingly clicking arm that gently hovered in position. It didn’t matter that my playlist was limited – Boogie Wonderland, Ernie and Two Little Boys, as I recall, supplemented by David Bowie classics when I got a little  ‘cooler’! When the needle was in the groove I slipped easily into my own world, far removed from teasing older brothers. And this is where the problem lay. For my brothers, three and six years older, that record player presented a challenge in the quest to find out how things worked. So one day, with confidence brimming my eldest brother began the important job of dis-assembling my beloved record player, without permission I might add, only to find that he couldn’t actually reassemble it.

Even then, although I was sad at the loss of my precious record player, a part of me could understand why my brother was compelled to take it apart. Just like some of the wonderful stories in Brenda Crowe’s brilliant book Play is Feeling, children’s action are rarely a sign of wanton destruction, but rather, some greater logic at play.

An email from an enlightened Montessori practitioner last week, (thanks Charlotte Stokes) reminded me of just how important it is for children to have the opportunity to find out how things work, just like my brother and that beloved record player. Sadly the technological gadgets of this era rob children and adults of this opportunity, much as credit cards and price increases limit children’s brush with currency. The result is a more passive involvement in life, with many 21st century toys never moving beyond the ‘what can this do?’ stage of play to the far more creative, ‘what can I do with it?’ stage. Hughes, (2003) describes such toys as entertainment, lamenting the loss of creativity, with the exception of the toy’s creator. Thinking about how play resources have changed and crucially people’s budget and attitude towards what makes a good toy, my mother-in-law reflected upon the play group that she set up over 30 years ago and how those low or no cost resources, like the box of switches, plugs and wires, (from a house being rewired) offered endless play value, particularly to the boys. With the benefit of hindsight we can appreciate the creativity, forward thinking and play value of this approach. I wonder if it sparked a wave of electricians?!!