Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Summer Fun Mini Themes: Hogwarts MiniCamp Part 2

Welcome back to Hogwarts! Today you'll join us in our first few classes--so get your wands, your robes, your Quidditch brooms and your cauldrons ready. You're going to need them!

Potions Class:

A lot of our activities these next two weeks will involve something kids of all ages LOVE--mixing up potions for play. With some household ingredients and a few teaspoons of imagination, you'll cook up some great recipes for exploring science and sensory play. I use this also as an opportunity to talk about how magical science can be. Beginning our week in the usual theme of Mad Science Mondays, I decided to have the boys try their wands (and hands) at making Wizard Slime.

My favorite slime recipe is the simple 3 ingredient one with 1/2 cup water, 1/2 cup school glue (I like clear gel), and 1/4 cup liquid starch (like Stay-flo). When you set the stage with some unique containers and tools for pouring, mixing and concocting, this becomes really quite magical! (And messy...let's just say, I think I understand a little more how a Pandemic spreads after letting 2 kids make their own slime with 2 kinds of green glitter...)

The recipe is pretty flawless because you can add more liquid starch if it is too sticky and it will become stiffer. Add too much and it's rather stiff and bouncy, but that can be fun, too! The boys started by pouring their glue and water into their cauldrons and mixing it with a "stirring wand" (I offered toy wands and chopsticks for this). They added in the liquid starch from a squeeze bottle and began to stir. It immediately starts to form into slime! They added in their glitter and their hands and worked the slime (with some help from me and a little more liquid starch as needed) before digging in to play. They asked for some toy bugs to use with it, so we added those in as well.

When it was time to clean up I freaked out a lot and put the slime into some jars to store for future play sessions.

The next day's Potions Class was outdoors where the boys used a giant bowl and some spoons, about 1 1/2 cups cornstarch and 1 cup water (dyed green with food coloring and prepared in a glass flask because it looks extra cool!) to mix up their own Confusion Concoction (aka: Oobleck).

The science end of this involves explaining and exploring non-newtonian fluids. It's messy. It's fun. It's pretty fool proof as you can add more water or more cornstarch as needed for thinner or thicker consistency. Outside is definitely a great place to do it, but if you're brave enough to try it indoors, you'll want to set down a drop cloth of some sort.

Transfiguration Class: 
In our first transfiguration class, the boys arrived with their wands ready to practice their first "spell" [science experiment], growing crystals! For this activity, we used pipe cleaners (in Hogwarts House colors), clear glass vases (you can use a bowl or glass), hot water and Borax powder. The boys also brought their magic wands and used some "stirring wands" (chopsticks) for mixing the solution. You'll also need some twine or fishing line, skewers or chopsticks and measuring cups/spoons.

I prepared the Borax solution in advance by heating up some water in the kettle and letting it cool just a bit. I used about 3 TBSP Borax powder per cup of hot water. The boys wanted to help mix the solution. They shaped their pipe cleaners as they desired. You can even shape them into letters of your name! I helped tie them from the chopsticks with some twine and we placed them into each of the jars, trying to keep them separated from the sides, bottom and each other. Then it was time to use their wands and say the magic spell (they chose "expecto petronum!") and wait. Waiting is the hardest part! But even in a couple of hours, you'll begin to observe crystals forming on the bottom and sides of the jar and even on the pipe cleaners themselves. When they are completely crystallized, you can display them in a sunny window.

The science end of this involves explaining how a suspension works and how the solid particles of the Borax powder remain suspended in the solution and connect to the jar and the pipe cleaners and to each other to form crystals. S had an amazing moment of scientific thinking when he wondered if ice and snow were forming. We thought about that and whether it was cold or whether our room was cold enough and decided that this was not indeed ice or snow, but that snow and ice are crystals, too!

Quidditch Practice: This daily class gets us all moving in one way or another. I prepared some "Quidditch hoops" in our backyard using garden stakes, hula hoops and duct tape plus a couple of traffic cones to help prop them upright. The boys used their Quidditch brooms (made from a large branch, dried grass/weeds and wire), balls and their imaginations. They also invented a game called "Water Quidditch" that involves shooting water through the Quidditch Hoops and even C got in on the fun using a large bowl of water as her Quidditch Hoop and some balls of her own.

Daily Quidditch practice helps the students hone in on their broom flying skills, ensures that everyone gets moving a bit and helps us prepare for any future tournaments...stay tuned!

We'll be back with more soon and until then...

Wingardium Leviosa!

I mean,

Happy Playing!

Tuesday, July 7, 2020

Summer Fun Mini Themes: Hogwarts MiniCamp Part 1

I always love planning and preparing play themes here. It's an odd hobby, I know. But once in a great while I love joining in just as much as I love the organizational end of it and in the case of our current Hogwarts MiniCamp theme, I think I love joining in even more!

I am categorizing this under summer fun mini themes but I'll give the caveat that this particular one was a little more involved and in depth than some others I've shared here. That's partly because it's the first time I've done it, partly because I've gone totally overboard and partly because there are so many creative and playful ways to take young fans (and older ones) beyond the books of Harry Potter. I will also give the caveat that I struggled with the decision of whether to carry on with our Hogwarts MiniCamp when JK Rowling made the news with some rather unsavory comments of late. My decision to move forward with it was made because my children were already looking forward to this and because I think the author's books give young readers characters and ideas to connect with. While I do support a love of literacy, imagination and wonder in children's literature, I do not support some of the values the author has shared on a personal level. I do think as my own children get older, the many authors who line our bookshelves with admirable fictional characters and less than admirable personal characteristics will spark important and ongoing dialogue about kindness and inclusion. My final caveat is that while these books explore a world of magic and make believe, I use the opportunity to embrace imagination and fantasy while also teaching about the science end of it! So you'll notice a lot of activities involving sensory play, science experiments, animal and nature studies, games and movement and more!

With that all out of the way, let's dive in to the first part in a series that will take you on a Hogwarts bound adventure with us! You can select activities "a la carte" style, making a day of it, a week of it, or randomly sprinkling them throughout the year as inspiration strikes.

Before Beginning: I love the challenge of coming up with creative ideas for learning through play. I also love collaborating. And I also know when my own breadth of knowledge is rather narrow. I am somewhat informed on the wondrous world of Harry Potter, but my husband is far more knowledgeable than I am. Actually, so is S at this point! And when it comes to amazing early childhood ideas, I often consult with fellow educators. I have a talented connection who is a mom of children close in age to S and Y and a preschool teacher and a Harry Potter fan. She had recently done some amazing themed activities for her daughter's birthday and she was generous enough to share her wisdom and creativity with me! Multiple heads are better than one. Unless your name is Fluffy... S has come up with quite a few additions to our camp repertoire as well. In terms of materials, times are tricky so I aimed to use what we have and make what we didn't have from home. I did make one quite useful downloadable purchase from Etsy. I'll list the materials used for each activity, but substitutions can be made, some left out and others added in as desired.

Setting the Stage:  The Friday before Hogwarts MiniCamp began, I set the stage, or rather, our small world play shelf with a mini Hogwarts. I created some wooden peg dolls to play the roles of Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, Hermione Granger, Professor McGonagall and Dumbledore (ok, I actually swapped in my Father Winter peg doll from a previous activity, shhh!).

In addition to those, I included a wooden castle toy we bought from a craft supply store several years ago around Purim, our toy trains and tracks for the Hogwarts Express, some accessories from our collections of blocks, toy animals, prisms, marbles, small loose parts, rocks/gems, wool roving, fairy garden accessories and  even some of the graphics I purchased from Etsy printed onto card stock and cut out/taped. I took a lot of creative license here in order to use what we have at home. My friend who originally gave me this idea said her children played with it a ton, but I will admit that my own kids usually play with these setups a lot at first and then sporadically until I finally switch them out. Well, she was right! They really love his one! It's always fun to engage in dramatic play and explore imaginary worlds. It is somehow even more fun when that world is teeny tiny!

The night before we'd head off to Hogwarts, I set the [larger] stage for the day ahead. That included hanging our little Headwig (forgive the screech owl in place of a snowy owl) from the side of our stairs so the boys kids would see some exciting mail as they came down for breakfast. Inside of the envelopes, each of them would receive their acceptance letter to Hogwarts and a supply list of items they'd need before making the trip.

They would need to shop for supplies as well, so I set up "The Leaky Cauldron" shop at our little table (again, forgive the creative license here) with some wands to choose from (stay tuned though, because we will be doing more with this later), some wizard robes, a little notebook for each of the boys I made from the graphics I bought, a couple of cauldrons we had from the dollar store several Octobers ago, some tiny backpack wands for mixing potions (these were from Five Below) and some wand pencils for writing/drawing I made by drizzling hot glue on some pencils and painting them with acrylic paints and glitter. 

Some additional books and sensory bottles helped set the stage for our one stop shop. If we had a bit more room here, it would have been fun to have separate shops for different items and activities as portrayed in the book, but this would suffice. You'll notice we don't have any brooms for sail, but rest assured, we have a couple of perfect for Quidditch brooms in our backyard made from sticks, dried grass/leaves and wire! This would be a great activity in and of itself and we loved taking a "stick walk" to find the supplies we needed to make them back when we did the activity in the spring.

I had a frog shaped chocolate mold I used to make some chocolate frogs and I even found some free printable Wizard cards. I packaged these up and some jelly beans for "Bertie Botts Every Flavour Beans."

Lastly, I crafted a Sorting Hat out of card stock, a themed chandelier from recycled toilet paper tubes with hot glue dripped down the sides to look like melted wax and an LED tealight inside hung from thread above our couch.

Our Hogwarts Express was pretty low tech as you can see, but the adventure was ready to go, right after about 4 pitiful hours of sleep...
A wand must choose its
owner. S takes this very
seriously as he takes a few
for test runs.

The kids were so excited when they walked downstairs in the morning. I had the Harry Potter movie soundtrack playing in the background and they could barely wait until after breakfast to head to Hogwarts. When it was time, they got to open their letters, shop for supplies with toy money, pack up their old school backpacks and board the Hogwarts Express at Platform 9 3/4!

Aboard the train, they got to buy and eat some chocolate frogs and Bertie Bott's Every Flavour Beans. Yes, in the morning. You only go to Hogwarts for the very first time once! When they finally arrived to the campus and settled into their dormitory, it was time to sit underneath the Sorting Hat who would select their Houses. Everyone (even Tatty) got to sit in the special seat as the Sorting Hat went to work. Each of the kids were presented with a House bracelet (from Five Below's party favor section).

Soon it would be time for the first of their classes to begin. I hope you'll join us next time to read all about it!

Until then, make sure you're studying up and practicing your broom flying skills and, as always...

Happy Playing!

Monday, June 22, 2020

Summer Fun Mini Themes: Star Wars Jedi Training Camp

One of my favorite things about these [many] days at home is our ability to follow the kids' interests on a whim and dig deeper. It's kind of like emergent curriculum for play. And that's why last week, the Sprout Scouts took off on an intergalactic adventure and enlisted in Star Wars Jedi Training Camp! The experience was out of this world...

S in particular is very into Star Wars. It shows up in his play quite a bit and I loved the challenge of creating a play theme out of that interest. When I happened across some amazing (and free) printable Star Wars art and activities from Fiddlesticks Education, I decided to run--er, fly with it! I was introduced to Fiddlesticks Education resources through a large nature based summer curriculum bundle I purchased on my own whim (and on major discount). I love planning, curating and creating materials for play and learning but I also love the ease of "one stop shopping" and the ability to skip some of that time consuming searching--especially now! I also love to be able to support fellow like-minded educators. Her watercolor work is absolutely stunning and I was particularly inspired by her Curious Kids Club to create a way the kids can keep track of their summer activities and accomplishments. Everyone was very excited last Friday to earn two of their first "trophies" in their Curiosity Cabinets--one for their study in robotics and another for their successful completion of Jedi Training Camp!

So, what exactly did we do at Jedi Training Camp? Well, we started off the week by adopting an Ewok! The boys each got to color, cut and paste their own little paper doll to play with and care for. There is something so fun and quaint about paper dolls. I have such nostalgia whenever we use or make them and the graphics I collected printed onto cardstock were just perfect for that.

S and Y were each presented with their own Intergalactic Passports. They used watercolors to decorate the cover and I told them each day we would visit three planets for activities. Their mission each day was to find the 3 planet pictures I had sneakily tagged around the house and yard and to glue the corresponding picture into their passports. Finding the planets became a favorite activity in and of itself!

Of course the boys needed light sabers to train with. I created those with sculpting balloons, recycled toilet paper tubes and plenty of duct tape. As you can imagine, there were many replacement balloons throughout the week! S even asked for a double sided light saber like Darth Maul at one point, so why the heck not?

As you can see, S took his light saber Jedi training very seriously. One of our favorite (and most often repeated) activities last week was Jedi Training Light Saber Yoga. We used cards from Fiddlesticks Education and I highly recommend them, but you can just as easily make up your own moves and routines. The boys and I took turns pulling 3 cards from the deck at a time and holding each pose for about 10 seconds.

As you can see, this was really just a fun and playful mini theme. I think it made S feel particularly honored to see his interest taken into action last week. And the fun is continuing this week. We haven't quite returned to Earth yet, but we are back in our own galaxy as the Sprout Scouts enroll in Space Camp! But that's a post for another day--and until then...

Happy Playing!
Image may contain: indoor

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Summer Fun Mini Themes: Robots

So, what do robots, Star Wars, magnet science and squirrels have in common? Not a whole lot, but summers here at the Sprout Scouts Playcamp have always been about following the kids' whims and wonders. Particularly as S and Y get older, they have many transient interests and questions about the world around them. Playing about those together is a great way to learn! It's also a great way to honor the playful spirit of summertime--even, and especially this year with the pandemic going on.

This was our first "official" week of Sprout Scouts Playcamp 2020. We kicked off with some new camp shirts (tie dye this year--which proved to be a wise choice after one messy day in the mud, eating pizza and decorating cookies, painting and more...). S has been asking to do a robot theme for a while, so that seemed like a great way to begin. At the last minute, he also mentioned he'd like to play about Star Wars, so why the heck not? I decided to enroll the kids in Jedi Training Camp this week, too! But that's a post for another day...

With these Summer Fun Mini Theme posts, I hope to share some fun activity ideas you can incorporate into your own themed play and learning. You can dedicate an afternoon to a theme, a whole day, a week or even longer. When it comes to play, I let the kids take the lead. If they lose interest, we move on. If they are engrossed, we keep at it. If they want to practice Jedi Training Lightsaber Yoga while wearing an Ironman costume, have at it!

But back to bots... Here's a peek at how we explored early concepts of robotics here this week through play, literacy, art, science and building:

Setup & Materials:
When it comes to mini theme setups, just like anything else here, use what you have! This pandemic has really enforced that for me. While we have (maybe too much) access to Amazon, we've been able to get really creative with using (and re-using) what we have on hand right here at home. I stocked our play shelves before the week began and included a wooden robot toy we have and a game and also some magnets. I decided that magnet science was one of many great science elements that are part and parcel to robotics. Some other supplies we used include:

  • magnets/magnet kit
  • metal loose parts like paper clips, metal craft bits and pieces, washers, nuts, metal picture hanging hooks, magnetic counters...
  • recycled cups, containers, boxes, tubes, etc. from our recycling bin
  • craft materials like tape, pipe cleaners, stickers, paper/colored paper, glue, zip ties (those are a craft material here), markers/crayons/colored pencils, paint/paint sticks, felt, google eyes
  • old, broken toys
  • safety goggles
  • screw drivers (small ones are great for small hands)
  • metal cookie sheets
  • 8x10 magnetic sheets with adhesive back (optional)
  • playdough, model magic clay
There are a lot of great books for children about robots--both fiction and non-fiction. If you don't have any or cannot currently access a library, look up some children's books about robots or short videos on YouTube or similar sites. Another fun idea is to read any of your favorite books together but in a robot voice! We read:
  • Hello Robots by Joan Holub, illustrated by Chris Dickason
  • Boy + Bot by Ame Dykman, illustrated by Dan Yaccarino
  • Robots, Robots Everywhere by Sue Fleiss, illustrated by Bob Staake
Magical Magnet Science Tricks:
Magnet science is so fascinating! It is really fun for kids to explore magnetism and it's a topic that could produce a stand-alone unit of play and learning. It is important to carefully supervise children with magnets and to keep small parts out of reach (and mouths) of very small ones. C was very interested in what her brothers were playing with this week so I made sure to join her on the floor to support with play and to keep the less suitable materials out of her reach when I couldn't. She also got to play with magnetiles and other toys and materials more independently. There are a lot of great magnet science experiments you can do at home with what you have. We have a magnet kit that had a lot of tools and magnets combined and these can be found fairly inexpensively on Amazon or Walmart. We chose a couple of "tricks" from our kit. One used a magnet wand and a smaller magnet. I asked the boys if they could take the magnet for a walk across our kids' table. They were so intrigued and amused by seeing how a magnet is strong enough to work through a tabletop! You can try the wand in both directions to demonstrate how magnets attract and repel depending on the direction of the poles. We also had a magnet car that could drive across the table or floor when the magnet wand was placed with the repelling pole toward it. We tested out driving it away and bringing it back (by flipping the wand to the attracting pole). If you do not have a magnet car, you can make one by using masking tape to affix a strong bar magnet to the car. But magnet science doesn't even need to be demonstrated in tricks or with kits. You can simply go on a magnetic scavenger hunt around your home to see what is magnetic and what is not. Your refrigerator door is a great place to test this out. A metal cookie sheet will work as well (we have a bunch from the dollar store).

Building a Robot: Transient Art with Loose Parts:
We extended the theme of magnetism and robots by using magnetic boards and small metal loose parts to design. I have seen magnetic boards for sale online, but we just made our own using a couple of dollar store cookie sheets and a magnet sheet with adhesive backing. It's a portable way to explore magnetism and made a lovely work surface as well. I envisioned the boys designing robots and they did for a bit before exploring design in more abstract ways and even just testing out what "sticks" and what does not. Even C was very curious about this activity and I sat with her for some time to explore the bits and pieces (and make sure she didn't eat them).

These same little loose parts were great for creating clay robots with Model Magic clay and for a fun playdough invitation. For those, I added in some pipe cleaners and google eyes as well. Using the same materials for multiple activities saves on time, money and space. It also allows the children to explore them in a variety of ways and venues.

Toy Deconstruction: Yes, you read that right! I first saw this done at a special event at our local library last summer and thought it was brilliant. Once in a while, I introduce it again--and it's worth repeating. We gather a collection of old toys that are broken and on their way to being tossed out, but before they go--I toss in some screw drivers and maybe a couple of pairs of safety goggles because everything is more fun in goggles. This activity does require supervision and support (although S is quite proficient with a screw driver now!). Make sure to remove any batteries or other unsafe parts from toys before tossing them into the mix. S and Y worked on deconstructing toys for 2 days! They would have gone longer with it, but I decided it was time for them to make their final departure to the dump. For those who are concerned that this will teach children to take apart things they should not take apart, my experience has been the opposite. I've found most kids go through a play schema of exploring deconstruction (or what we see as destruction) at some point. Rather than disallowing it and having it happen anyway, I allow it in a directed manner. The boys knew they could use the tools to take apart the toys in the sensory bin. They even help to pick out the ones that are ready to deconstruct. They also know they cannot do this with other toys and household items without asking one of us first. One of my fondest childhood memories is of a large cardboard box housing an old VCR just for deconstructing!

Robot Collage Process Art:

Here's another great "use-what-you-have" art activity. I set out some colored labels, paper and markers. I did not make an "example" or give much direction other than a prompt to "make a robot collage." Y used a sheet of colored cardstock and labels to make his collage. S used a sheet of colored cardstock to draw and then cut out a robot that he added details to with more drawing and some labels. He gave his robot a mask to keep him safe, a sign of the times (and how he is processing that). His collage became a fun paper doll to play with!

Recycled Robot Art: This is an activity I have done in large groups including my classrooms and outdoor playgroup. It's also perfect for home! I saved a few boxes from recent deliveries and brought out our recycling bin full of treasures. In group settings, I would bring additional supplies and materials along and set them out, but in smaller settings and even in my classrooms, I would leave it at that and let the kids choose what to use and how to use it. The boys wanted to make one BIG robot with the larger boxes. They needed a little bit of help with assembly (and some duct tape) but they really did this all on their own. Even C got in on the fun with some tape and stickers she helped to add on her own. S named the robot Ruby and she has become an honorary member of the family! The boys have continued to add on to her and are working today with a couple of smaller boxes to build her a baby. One of my favorite things about process art is the narrative end of it and how children use it as a venue for storytelling. A whole evolving tale has emerged about Ruby and her life. She was unable to talk because she needed new wires. S and Y worked tirelessly sticking pipe cleaners through a crack in her belly box because, as S put it, "they are real wires but they are soft on the outside so she will be comfortable." I have a feeling that when it is time to deconstruct and officially recycle Ruby, I will find an enormous collection of pipe cleaners to add back into our craft stash! Ruby has been invited to join us at the dining room table for dinner. She attended a Zoom playdate yesterday with S and his friend from down the street. She even sneaked up on me in the kitchen this morning when we were making snack (and Y had a little bit to do with that one). Yes, she is made from cardboard, tape and lots of pipecleaners, but Ruby is living her best life...

Build a Robot Felt Board Game:
We incorporated this theme into our weekly "storytime," and this simple DIY game was a real winner for all 3 kids. I used felt to cut up a whole bunch of shapes and robot parts. I used a large die and color coding dot labels but you can use colored paper to make cards, make your own die out of cardstock and color code that or just cut out smaller scraps of the felt you already used as color signs. When it is your turn, you roll the die/pick a color and choose a part. You can decide to build one large robot as a group or to each build individual robots. You can use your felt on a felt board, on a large sheet of felt, right on the ground or a tabletop. If you don't have felt, you can cut your shapes from paper. If you don't want to do all the cutting prep work and you do want to add in an element of drawing/pre-writing practice, play this game with colored markers or crayons and have everyone draw a part of a robot when you call out/roll a color. You can have the artists choose what they draw or also call out a specific part (i.e.: red arm, yellow head, green hand...) and see how many colorful, creative robots emerge!

Well, that's a wrap for this mini theme. There's definitely more you can do with robots and you'll find some posts about them here. Next time I'll tell you all about our intergalactic adventures in Jedi Training Camp, but until then...

Happy Playing!

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Getting Ready for Summer at Home with Kids: The Corona Edition

I'm baaaaaack. Ok, let's be honest. I've been here the whole time. In fact, I had not actually been into a store or public building since March 11 until today. And I can't even remember where I went that day. This pandemic has definitely changed the way we live, but it hasn't changed the way we play. Just that we do a lot more of that. Close to home. And with Zoom school about to end, we're about to have even more time for play as we enter another summer of Sprout Scouts Stay-at-Home Play-at-Home Camp. Perhaps you are in a similar boat. Maybe your kids' camp was cancelled or maybe you usually spend the summers at home together like we have in the past. One thing is for sure--this summer will be different for all of us in some ways.

Summer at home with kids and limited venues (if any) for outings presents a whole new playing field. For me, the greatest challenge is the lack of social opportunity for my children and I'm still creatively approaching that one. While Zoom school has not adequately replaced actual face to face social interaction, it has provided a source of connection and comfort for the boys, especially S. He has had some Zoom playdates and even though I spent countless sleepless nights pondering how kids could have a "virtual distance playdate," leave it to a couple of kindergartners to figure that one out! Just yesterday he and his friend went on several out of this world adventures via Zoom background and landed back at home an hour later, just in time for dinner!

Setting up a summer routine has often been a source and anxiety and overwhelm for many parents whether they are already at home, work from home or work out of the home. And now many parents are in the dual role of being at home and working from home while the kids are also at home. If you want to quell your nerves a bit about that, revert back to my last post before you go and make a color coded schedule for your refrigerator (unless, of course, you happen to like making color coded schedules for your refrigerator and then get right to it!). And for those of you who are ready to jump right in, or at least dabble a big toe--here's a few tips and tricks I have up my sleeve for this summer.

Planning is NOT everything. I'm saying that and I love to plan. It's a hobby, even. But it is not the be all and end all of everything. I have a general system in place and some main anchors in our routine that keep us grounded and calm. But I am also going into this knowing that I will tweak and change things and move with my kids' interests and needs as they arise. Preparation is helpful. A schedule is not something I feel inclined to stick to, especially in this current environment. We don't have a storytime to get to at the library or an event at the museum or even a playdate at a friend's house. And in some ways that's kind of nice. Being able to move at our pace at any given moment is helpful. It's also a little disorienting after a while (like after 3 months...) so a routine is helpful. For us, that's a series of repeated events or types of activities we rotate through on a weekly basis. Some refer to that as a weekly rhythm. We change ours from time to time, but for the most part during the last few months, it's looked like this:

Mad Science Mondays --where we've explored various science topics and experiments
Library/Storytime Tuesdays -- where we "visit" our home library and the kids select books to check out (and bring downstairs) for the week and then we have a home storytime with a particular theme and related activities or a particular book and related activities
Artful Wednesdays--where we do some sort of directed art activity, project or longer term study (we recently wrapped up a month long study of color theory)
Homegrown and Handmade Thursdays-- where we do some sort of activity related to our garden, kitchen or hand crafting
Play Day Fridays-- where we delve a little deeper into dramatic play, sensory exploration or backyard shenanigans
Some days the activity is more structured and fills a specific slot of time (never too long with kids nearly 6 and under). Other days we split up activities throughout the day. Sometimes a day's activity is a one run and done type of thing (like a STEM challenge to build a tin foil boat during our Building Science Unit). Other times, it's an activity that's part of a longer study or theme--like painting vegetables on Wednesday that Peter Rabbit might like to eat during a week long study of rabbits that also included a compost tea garden experiment in our "plant lab" on Monday, an outdoor storytime featuring Beatrix Potter books on Tuesday and then a Peter Rabbit Garden Iced Tea Party for lunch on Thursday.

I don't stress if an activity or theme takes more time nor do I stress if it takes less time or even if it's a complete flop altogether. I like having the basic foundation for a flow of how we spend each day and I think it is also something the kids find calming. But there's no sweat if we veer off course or change course altogether.

We are very fortunate to have outdoor access here and the backyard has become essentially another room in our home. As we transition from the school year into summer, I envision spending even more time there with plenty of breaks to cool off indoors. It is our playroom, our dining room, our laboratory, our studio, our classroom and a source of wonder and adventure. It also provides and supplies nearly all of our summer activities--especially this year. I find it helpful to have some basic preparations in place so that we are ready to go with minimal stress and interruption. Here that looks like getting everyone slathered in sunscreen first thing in the morning before our first burst out the back door. We fill water bottles even though we're just a few feet from the kitchen. I keep a tote bag with our basic outdoor supplies that can't be kept outside hanging on a closet doorknob just behind the back door so I grab it, stash our things in a tin basin and we're ready to go.
Some of our "basics" include our nature journals, some field guides or other relevant books, and supplies for drawing/writing/documenting. I also stash in other materials as needed for activities or just plain exploration.

My rule of thumb is that just about anything you can do indoors you can take and do outdoors. Sometimes that involves a bit of creativity. Some other basics I keep at the ready are a large blanket for sitting on, an extra bin or basket for collecting any trash or dirty picnic dishes, and a towel or two for drying wet spots or hands after a rinse at our outdoor hand-washing station (which is just a bar of soap in an old section of pantyhose hanging from a garden hook, water from our jug and a cup for filling and pouring).

Get to YES. This is my mantra when it comes to parenting and teaching. The world of a child is filled with limits and "no's" and "not that way's" and "not yet's." And while those are all a healthy and realistic part of the world, when I can, I like to get to YES. It also mitigates a lot of the battles that ensue after one too many "no's" leaves a child feeling frustrated, powerless and combative. Additionally, some of the gut reactions I have to immediately say "no," can be completely mitigated when I wait and watch. So our space here is a little messier than some and my kid maybe resembles the one on the cover of I Ain't Gonna Paint No More by Karen Beaumont, but getting to YES on this particular occasion meant that Y explored mixing colors, pouring and created rather a stunning work of art in the end!

Had I immediately said "no" when he began to pour and balance tiny glass dessert cups one on top of the other, I would have completely cut off his unique and intentional exploration and completely missed this stunning result. But aside from learning to embrace the space and bless this mess, finding ways within my own limits and boundaries to support theirs helps us all to get through the day more smoothly and promotes a world of wonder and curiosity that nurtures their growing minds.

Let's PLAY! This year has been monumental. It was a first year of kindergarten for S. A first year of preschool for Y. A first year of life for C. And a first pandemic for, well, all of us. We need this summer to be a time to decompress. While there's always worry about "summer slide" and skill loss, this year there is likely even more concern for children who have been out of traditional classrooms for the better part of 3 months and will accrue at least 3 more before returning. I'm a big proponent of the idea that children learn through play and natural curiosity. So I'm following their whims this summer while sneaking in a bit of wonder. We have just begun meeting some fantastic animal friends through a little bit of imaginative play, storytelling, literature and mail.

Mail? Yes, Notes from Nature. Each week the kids receive a special delivery from an animal, a plant, a tree, a flower, a bug or a rock or maybe a seashell eager to make their acquaintance as we explore our backyard and the vast world beyond it. It began with a letter from a very friendly eastern cottontail rabbit as we learned about rabbits and hares and heard some great stories by Beatrix Potter and Thornton Burgess. This takes them into a world of whimsy but also gives them factual information of various species of flora and fauna both nearby and farther away. These adventures in science and literacy are rounded out by explorations of art, cooking/practical life skills, movement through obstacle courses and neighborhood nature walks and even math.

Math? Yes, math! But not with worksheets and definitely not inside. We just pack it up and take it with us with our "Math on the Go" Kit. I made it somewhat more with S in mind as he's really quite enjoyed kindergarten math--but today Y and I took a Counting Walk to a wooded area near our home and he collected 1 stick, 2 pansies, 3 leaves, 4 pine cones and 5 little rocks. He loves counting. He loves collecting. He didn't even know he was learning!

It will take a bit more ingenuity to meet the kids' needs for movement and socialization this summer--but one muscle that is surely going to get its workout is their imaginations. Whether it's an afternoon of playing "Harry Potter" with wands made from painted sticks, Quidditch Brooms made from fallen branches and dried grass, and colorful capes made from old tea towels--or just a half dead bouquet of cut flowers set out with their mud kitchen and some colored water before it meets its final deposit to the compost tumbler--these days are about setting up the kids for setting their own stage. They are the narrators, the actors and the audience in this show and with or without a pandemic in the background, the show must go on!

Favorite Tried and True Tips: This summer and all year round for that matter, I recall and tap into some of my favorite tools of the trade.

  • Just Add Water. For just about every challenge you might face in the course of a lifetime or even one hour--water usually helps. Thirsty? Tired? Hot? Bored? Kids fighting? Dirty? Messy?Got a boat? Just add water. Yes, add a little water and an empty cup is more than half full. Add a little water and all that dirt becomes a glorious mud kitchen. Add a little water and that wilting garden, kid, husband, dirty laundry pile, comes right back to life. Water play is fun for kids (and adults) of all ages and a great activity for multi-aged groups. No pools? No problem. Even a giant bowl can make for hours of fun...

  • Use what you have. This summer more than any other, we really are limited to using what we have on hand or can easily access. So we stretch our imaginations instead of our wallets a little more right now. Great souvenirs cost nothing at all if you ask my stick and stone collecting kiddos. All three of the kids are obsessed with the "recycles" bin (as S calls it). And less is more. We swap things in and out a little more frequently now that we are always home, but absence makes the heart grow fonder and something stashed away for a bit feels brand new again when it comes back to the toy shelf or sandbox.
  • Don't reinvent the wheel. Novelty is lovely, but not every hour of every day needs to be filled to the brim with it. It's OK to repeat activities. Often. Each time a child explores the same thing, they have an opportunity to delve deeper and take it to a new level. We've repeated science experiments, sensory bins, dramatic play themes and art activities here over and over and over again. Sometimes it's because someone asks for it, other times I initiate it. And you don't have to overthink it all--in fact, sometimes the less thinking I do "for them," the more thinking they do for me! I've learned a lot about play ideas from watching and listening to kids, especially my own. Even when I do prepare an activity, a play setup, an art project--many times the kids will take it entirely in their own direction and I love to be privy to that. I'm even luckier if I'm invited to join them in it! And does it take a load off of me? Yup!
  • The simpler things... You don't have to pull out the rolling pins and cookie cutters and icing and sprinkles and hours of labor between prep and cleanup to cook with your kids. Let them join you in choosing one recipe for the bread they will eat this week. Or have them help you make this next batch of playdough. Have them help wash and dry the lettuce--whether it's from your garden or your crisper bin. Let them help you with the dinner you're making anyway. Do kids love iced sugar cookie cutouts? Yes! But is that what they're seeking every time you hit the kitchen? No--it's really the closeness and connection and the honor in their competence even though they are small and require a step stool to reach the kitchen counter. And you can totally count that as an activity. We are putting together a binder with our favorite recipes for food and play so we have it all handy. I like to have at least one of the boys help me out on Sunday choosing and preparing one for the week ahead, but even C is thrilled to join us anytime in the kitchen for whatever task she can get her hands (or mouth) on to help with.

I'll try not to be a stranger to these parts as we slip into summer days here. It's certainly been an adjustment to go from being out and about, in school buildings and offices to being in all the time together attending classes, appointments and meetings from the dining room, the couch, the kitchen, the yard and even the minivan. It will be yet another adjustment not having kindergarten in the kitchen and preschool at the dining room table come Monday morning! But one of the many silver linings has been the opportunity to see my kids really dig deep into their play and exploring and finally feeling like I have "the time" to do all of these things I've so wanted to do with them for so long. In the meantime, I've also completely revamped my outdoor playgroup that met in parks for going on three years to a virtual group that now includes a curbside lending library of over 75 Nature on the Go Kits for kids ranging from infancy on up so a bit of that play and wonder can still reach other homes and yards. And I will aim to tweak activities and ideas I post here to work within the plethora of circumstances families are finding themselves in during these times. 

It is important now more than ever to be kind to ourselves and patient. To do our best in any moment and know that this is enough. There are no "should's" when it comes to getting through and if this blog and others like it are sources of support and inspiration, I'm sure glad to share it! But also know that the pictures and ideas you see here are representative of my own form of self care. I enjoy planning play activities and it's a hobby. If it's not your hobby, that's fine! Unstructured play led by and created by the child is inherently valuable to their growth and development. And know that plenty of that happens here as well. There are times I'm checked out on my phone, glued to my couch, sitting on a lawn chair, eating Skinny Pop out of the bag and wondering why it hasn't lived up to its name. My husband does nearly all the cooking. The laundry is never done. I haven't made a sourdough starter. I have raised my voice on many occasions and not just to sing the "daddy shark" verse in Baby Shark. May we all come out of this whole, healthy and happy! I'll be back soon to share some more about this year's Sprout Scouts Camp misadventures and until then...

Happy Playing!