Sunday, April 15, 2018

DIY Nature Slides & a Few Ways to Use Them

Ah, the first blooms of Spring! Y had me nap trapped in the car on Friday morning, but as I drove by a local produce shop with a huge display of colorful annuals out front, I decided to end his car nap and my own entrapment and pick out some pansies for our play garden. We have a small but workable gardening space in front of our apartment, and while I have definitely bit off more than I could chew in previous years with planting, I've decided to try again this year. S is certainly old enough now to do more work in our garden with less help from me. Rather than taking an "all at once" approach, we are slowly and steadily working on planting--and these pansies were a first small step! They are planted in a small row right in the area where we play and this was intentional! Rather than having the "living" portion of our garden separate from the play portion, I am integrating it. This provides an opportunity for my children to play in an area that is aesthetically pleasing and as alive and vibrant as they are while also encouraging mindful steps and movement. Just as children can learn to be careful not to step on each other, their belongings or other living creatures, they can learn not to trample on the pansies! And if the flowers and plants we are growing are right where we are playing, we will likely not forget to nourish them with water and care.

I've selected seeds and plants this year that I know do well in our yard. The process of planting and growing a garden is just as meaningful as harvesting the product down the line. Pansies are a hearty flower that do well even early in the Spring here. They add a splash of seasonal color that begs me to join them outdoors. And yet, like all living things, those early colors of Spring are temporary. Don't you wish you could somehow preserve them forever? Oh wait, you can! With these simple DIY Nature Slides, you can bring a bit of the outdoors inside for further exploration and appreciation.

You will need:

  • a selection of blooms and foliage from outdoors (or even cut flowers indoors) that you wish to observe and preserve
  • a laminating machine and laminating sheets (or you can use an office supply store/copy center)
I cut a single bloom from each of our four plants and spaced them out on one laminating sheet before running it through the machine. If you want your flowers to better maintain their detail and last longer, you could press them first either with a flower press or between some paper towels and a stack of heavy books until dried. I cut right to the chase and ran them through as is, applying a bit of pressure with my hands first just to flatten them out a bit.

Nature slides with real pansies paired with some artificial flowers as observed on our light panel

 The results are lovely! You can use your nature slides to observe on a light table or light panel as in this above photo. Nature slides can be made from all types of flowers and foliage and in every season. Imagine the lovely shades of Autumn you could capture in a set of leaf slides or Winter's evergreens...

Even if you do not have a light table, sunlight is a great tool. All you need is a window! Just look at the way these add color, light and inspiration to our Little Gardener's Sensory Bin!

 And speaking of inspiration, imagine all of the ways you might use these nature slides to inspire or become artwork! I hole punched each slide and attached them to a metal ring to keep them together. Stored in our art center, they invite creative little ones to explore their colors and texture through a variety of mediums. We are especially into oil pastels and colored pencils here lately and any medium that can be blended (like watercolor, chalk pastels and paint) would surely be a great one to use.

Pressed and preserved flowers can easily become artwork in and of themselves. You could create lovely Spring bookmarks (what a cute Mother's Day gift) by arranging blooms on a laminating sheet in a long, narrow strip, cutting, punching a hole at the top and stringing through a tassel out of yarn or embroidery floss. You could also make a single sun catcher or set of sun catchers for a loved one's window (or your own, as pictured above by our sensory table).

However you choose to preserve those first blooms of Spring, surely time spent planting the seeds of great memories through play will leave a lasting impression. We'll be back soon and until then...

Happy Playing!

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Spring Sensory Bin & Art Center Fun!

Ah, Spring is in the air... It kind of makes you feel like getting your hands nice and dirty and digging into some good ol' fashioned gardening! Whether your ground is fully thawed or still covered in snow, we've got you covered with some sensory bin fun you can enjoy indoors or out. But first, here's a peek at a unique addition to our art center shelves.

Many times when we think of art, we think of permanent creations. Perhaps a picture you can hang up or a sculpture that can be displayed. However, a great portion of art work is the creative process that goes into it, particularly when it comes to children. We enjoy a lot of product oriented art here using many mediums. We also enjoy exploring the use of loose parts in art work in a variety of ways. The inclusion of options like tape, glue, even clay or playdough can encourage a way to preserve artwork and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. It can, however, be limiting to budding artists and shift the focus from process-oriented to product-driven. When loose parts are provided in an art center or area, young artists are encouraged to create and design repeatedly--to revisit the process in a new way and to really tap into their creative work as opposed to the constraints of producing something permanent. Floral arranging is one way to create art and with the use of artificial flowers and plastic colanders, little (even quite little) ones can practice the art and fine motor skills of floral arranging again and again, in a variety of ways.
Alternatively you could provide glass vases (with older children) or use floral foam (as pictured below) or even clay/playdough for "planting" and arranging flowers. You could also pick wild flowers or use cut flowers for this activity.
Floral foam is such a unique material! Sometimes the exploration of it in and of itself is half the fun!

Our Little Gardener's Sensory Bin
 Meanwhile in the was time for a sensory table update! How cute is this Little Gardener's Sensory Bin? I used a few bags of dried beans as our base filler. I love that in addition to being a fabulous sensory material, it is also a seed and therefore theme related. If you prefer not to use food fillers, you can substitute in some paper shreds or even leftover plastic grass from the recent spring holidays. I included some plastic planting pots, plastic gardening tools, a couple of sets of gardening gloves and a selection of artificial flowers. I opted to use things I already had at home or even outside and you could get creative with this. Perhaps a watering can might be fun or if you prefer "real" gardening tools, add in some of those.

This sensory bin is a great one to use indoors or outside. You could even use actual soil as filler or used/dried coffee grounds as "soil." You could swap out the flowers for some creepier crawlier options like toy bugs, butterflies and worms (below). If your little ones are too young to appreciate sensory play in a bin, try out the adorable Tiny Seed Sensory Bottles in this story stretcher post.

It's not quite warm enough outside for planting in the ground. I am eager to start some seeds indoors in the weeks to come and just as eager to dig in outside when the time and temperature are right. But until then, some Spring themed sensory play will have to tide us over...

Looking for some more seasonal fun? Check out our other Spring themed posts, gardening themed posts and flower themed posts!

We will be back for more Spring themed fun... Until then, enjoy all the season has to offer and happy playing!

Monday, April 9, 2018

An Updated Peek At Our Playroom!

Ch-ch-ch-changes! Spring is in the air (with the exception of that slushy white stuff that was also in the air this morning) and it was time for a playroom revamp, especially after a long holiday at home. In other news, Y is very mobile these days. He may not quite be walking independently yet, but he sure gets around and into everything. For S, this is a mixed bag (kind of like that "Spring" weather I mentioned earlier). Y is very playful and loves nothing more than to join his big brother in all of his escapades. S enjoys the company sometimes. Other times, he feels frustrated at his little brother who is now able to get into just about everything at his level.

When S began to move around this much, he was quite a bit older. He understood when we told him "no," and his personality was such that he was most content playing wherever the adults in the house were with whatever was set before him to play with. Y has a different personality. He is most content playing EVERYWHERE with EVERYTHING. Whereas we used a baby gate maybe once or twice with S, Y is faster than the speed of light and sneaky to boot.

We have made some changes in the house to best accommodate these exciting milestones, one of which is that the boys are working toward sharing a room now. S is thrilled about this change. Y is learning to be thrilled about it. S even helped set up the new mattress, pick out sheets and offered his stuffed Lightening McQueen to Y (a toy he chose with great ambivalence upon giving up his pacifier last summer). Mattresses directly on the floor are easy for both my boys to access and Y has already mastered safely maneuvering on and off. In related news, staying in bed is not currently his forte.

Changes in our playroom were also a necessity. Y has discovered with great zeal the joy that is dumping things off of shelves within reach. Particularly art supplies! I could spend all day moving things up higher and higher, but that would leave things out of everyone's reach (S included), be boring for Y and probably be exhausting for me. Creating a space that is conducive and accessible to both boys seemed a more practical approach at this point. S has loved being able to access and lead art projects on his own. Although, after quite some time with our art center looking the same, it needed a little sprucing up and our new set up allows S to access art supplies from the top shelf and Y and S to access items from the bottom two shelves. (See photo below.) I know it is only a matter of time before Y does manage to get to that top shelf, but for now, the set up works perfectly and we will traverse that terrain when we get there.
Introducing the new and improved art center & toy shelf!

 I love these plastic drawers. For one thing, they are space creators--even though "losing" two rows of shelving limits the amount of space for art materials in our art center, the use of drawers creates room for more without taking up additional space. Our small drawer set is home to options for coloring. Right now we have colored pencils, crayons and skinny markers out, though I like to change it up a bit and rotate in some of our other supplies when I notice these get a bit "stale." I also used a stacking tray organizer (Dollar Tree) to create two rows for paper products. We have solid paper in white and pastel spring colored cardstock out right now as well as some bird coloring and tracing sheets. I keep our scrap paper tray on a shelf that Y can reach as he also loves to explore, dump and tear scrap paper and those are skills I don't mind him cultivating right now! There is room alongside and above our smaller drawer set for our family's sketch books and some writing utensils.
 In our larger drawer set, I stashes some new Spring themed materials like beads and beading elastic for my little fine motor lover. S was thrilled with these! He made a necklace for himself, one for me and has a date with his Tatty to make one for him tonight! Using real beads and materials with little ones might seem strange, but this is a great way to practice those fine motor skills and "real" art materials carry a true sense of value to our budding arts. We show that we respect their creative process and they tend to treat these materials with reverence as well. This, of course, does not mean that you must spend a fortune. You can find quality art materials on discount at big box stores, secondhand stores and dollar stores. You can also find clearance items and purchase with coupons at craft supply stores.

Spring is in the air and we love collage opportunities here. A selection of Spring themed stickers, gems, and floral fabric scraps invite all kinds of creations. I stashed a small stack of pastel toned felt rectangles with embroidery floss stitched to the top to create blank banners. Creating pictures and collages on paper is always popular but sometimes offering an alternative medium (like felt, fabric or even artists' canvas) can inspire artists young and old.

Additional staples like tape, glue, scissors and paper edger scissors are stored in the bottom drawer along with some Spring themed additions like floral patterned tape, roller stamps and a leaf-shaped hole punch. 

I must say that as much as I adored the "open container" look on the shelves before, I love the tidiness and accessibility of the closed drawer look now! Our bottom rows are home to some favorites that both boys can use and appreciate. I attached a laminated print of a Spring themed painting depicting a bird in a blossoming tree. I love including "real" art in our art center to inspire the artists in our family. I used to set out a glass picture frame with art in this area but now a laminated version affixed with Velcro makes it accessible and safe for both boys to remove and appreciate. Y in particular has taken a great love of removing laminated labels that are attached to other areas with Velcro! Both boys love the colorful nesting boxes I saved from their Purim shalach manos (Dollar Tree) and a basket of plush ducklings alongside some bird and duck themed books perpetuates the bird and Spring themes that have infiltrated our play here. The bottom shelf is currently home to some Bristle Blocks, Magnatiles and toy trains. Both boys are loving the set up and both are far less frustrated now!

Meanwhile, our main toy shelf (pictured at the top) is currently storing items to inspire small world play that is safe (with supervision) for both boys. Extra small items are stored on top including a Playmobile playground set S recently got (and does not want to share) that he knows he must play with at the table. The middle shelf is an expansion on our bird theme that includes bird figurines, tree blocks, tree cookies and driftwood blocks as well as some artificial nests, eggs and a small collection of stones S and Y recently brought home from the Science Museum. As with any small items, it is important to carefully supervise and consider choking risk. The bottom shelf is storage to our dollhouse furniture, a doll family and our wooden barn--items both boys can safely play with together.

In considering spaces that are shared by multiple ages, creativity, ingenuity and patience are required! We want our home to reflect the developmental and play needs of both of our children. We also want it to be inclusive and accessible to both of them while reflecting their current interests and curiosities. Now, if I could just also synchronize their napping schedules...

Until then...
Happy Playing!

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Birds of a Feather Flock Together!

We are on Spring Break here and have even had some Spring weather to go with it. In between enjoying the Pesach holiday, we have also been enjoying some extra time together as a family. I love that S is now in the age and stage of being able to direct our home play and learning activities based on his current interests and curiosities. Lately he has really wondered a lot about eggs and animals that hatch from eggs. This began with a book we checked out of the library (and later bought used) called Guess What Is Growing Inside This Egg by Mia Posada. This beautifully illustrated book contains several little riddles with some clues about what type of animal is growing inside an egg. As the egg's tiny resident is hatched and revealed, additional information about the creature inside is given to curious readers. Well, this led S to want to play and learn more about eggs and birds in particular. 

We began by creating this Build A Bird's Nest Sensory Bin! S helped cut yarn we re-purposed for a third (and final) time from his "knitting" basket that contained scraps of yarn from my own projects. As we cut and collected the colorful yarn in our sensory bin, we talked about the types of materials real birds use to build their nests and what textures and colors they might like. We may at some point make a little collection outside in our play garden for the birds to use nearby. We added in some artificial nests we had from a craft supply store, some eggs I had purchased on discount as well as some fake worms for hungry birds to eat (these we found in the fishing section of Walmart!). Of course we needed some resident birds! I added in some birds we had purchased a while ago at our local Dollar Tree and later on some plastic toy birds as well as some craft feathers. Additional plastic cups and containers made for the perfect nest foundations and some tweezers and tongs offered a fine motor component for play.

Both my little birdies loved this sensory bin and S wanted a nest that he could go in. That led to today's activity of building a nest for the boys to play in using a laundry basket, plenty of soft blankets and play silks and colorful ribbons woven around the edges by my fine motor activity lover, S! They played in their nest, sat on their "eggs," took care of baby chicks and even listened to nap time stories in there!

Some of our favorite bird and egg themed reads include:
This is the fabulous book that sparked our current play theme...

We are huge Jan Brett fans. In this great classic, Hedgie helps Henny trick the chronically hungry Tomten who is eating her eggs each morning. The end includes a couple of surprises--one very prickly one and several very fluffy ones!

This is a great non-fiction read about eggs and the creatures that hatch from them! It is quite wordy, but you can pick and choose parts to read more about with your little ones (or read the whole thing for particularly curious listeners who may also be potty training this week...)

I love the series of nature-themed picture books by this author and illustrator pair. This one in particular is so lovely to read and view as each page unfolds with gorgeous illustrations and text about eggs and the creatures inside of them.

We extended our theme into a field trip to our local botanical gardens. I brought binoculars and two curious bird watchers. Can you spot the male cardinal in this tree?

Birds and eggs are a wonderful theme to ruffle your feathers off with as Spring finally emerges! You can check out some of our previous bird-themed activities here. Bird watching and journaling/drawing about birds can be a great way to supplement your outdoor adventures and park visits. I especially love this free printable workbook about birds available from Cornell. Once Pesach is over and we reintegrate the use of flour here, I look forward to making some homemade playdough for this great Bird Nest Play Dough Invitation from Fantastic Fun and Learning. S also wants to make some more bird seed treats for our feathered friends outside.

Hope you enjoyed this great egg-xample of egg-spanding on children's play interests. My little chicks' sense of wonder truly inspires my own continued learning and egg-sploration. Egg-stra time at home has taught me just how frequently a 3 year old can ask "why" in one hour, let alone one day. Following their lead allows us to indulge those curiosities and to build on the many conversational, social, scientific and critical thinking skills that are developed through asking and answering. Wishing everyone a happy spring and happy playing!

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Outdoor Play With Loose Parts

We will be back soon with some great Spring themed sensory and dramatic play fun and even some science and literacy thrown in, but until then, check out my latest article on Outdoor Play With Loose Parts over at Fantastic Fun & Learning. You might also check out some of the other great Spring themed activities while you're there!

Happy Playing!

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Pesach, Pesach! Play All About It: Frog Prints & Some Little Tips to Keep You Hopping into the Holiday

We're in the final countdown to Pesach here! I'd love to tell you that our house is spic and span and ready to go, but people live in it. And some of those people are children. And one of them decided all on his own to ditch the diapers and give the potty a go this past Shabbos (woohoo!!!) so Pesach prep is a work in process. And speaking of process, here's a great Pesach themed process art activity that is just the right way to have a hopping good time (maybe before you finish cleaning for the holiday).

I think it can be so easy this time of year to make it so hard. As we prepare for a holiday that commemorates our redemption from slavery, we become enslaved to the very tasks that are necessary (and some that are not) to prepare for this holy experience. And in that, sometimes, we lose sight of the joy and the beauty that is our freedom--an exodus that not only our ancestors experienced, but that we experience again and again. This holiday is such a special one for our children. They are invited to our Seder tables and encouraged to ask questions. They are held up not only as leaders of our families on these nights, but as leaders of the Jewish nation. It can be hard to shift our task-driven focus to include the very little hands that will lead us, with G-d's help, to Jerusalem!

And so I find myself taking a breath and regaining that ever important mindset to approach this holiday b'simcha--with joy--and to include my tiny helpers in that preparation as well. Sometimes that means we all need a break to splash in some ooey gooey green paint!

Remember the incredible shades and hues of green paint S concocted in this process art activity? Everything goes to good use here, and I set out a variety of green paints for both boys to use in a tray with a paintbrush (should they choose to use it), some plastic frogs and a few other items for inspiration and creation. Each brother had a piece of light blue card stock and we used aleph bet stickers to spell out "tzfardeah," the plague of frogs in Hebrew. At that point, I let S have at it and gave Y a little help to navigate his painty frog to the paper (and not his mouth). S favored making his frogs hop along the paper and Y liked to drag them across and then use his own "flippers" instead of the frogs'! Both boys had a great time with this activity and it was a hands flippers-on way to jump right into the Pesach story.

With so much to be done and so little time, these final days approaching the holiday can be a little tricky. Every family has their own style and routine that works for them this time of year and here are a few little tips that work for us:

Utilize Your Helpers: S in particular is quite excited and eager to help Mommy and Tatty with anything and everything that needs to be done. These are opportunities to naturally involve kids in household tasks rather than trying to come up with ways to "entertain them" while you try to plow through on your own. Both boys got into cleaning our upstairs to get it ready for Pesach! Rags, squirt bottles, our "toy" cleaning supplies and real ones all got put to use as we worked together.
S was especially excited to hang up a door hanger he made at school and a few we made last year at home that designated the spaces we had cleaned as ready for Pesach!

This was from last year--check out that tiny
newborn Y in the background!
Make It a Shared Task AND a Learning Opportunity: With two little guys on the move here, shared playing areas and toys become a breeding ground for hidden chametz. Some toys do get put away and rotated out until after the holiday. It can be helpful to include children in choosing toys to rotate in and in our house we often raid the stash of yet to be opened Chanukah or birthday gifts in the closet... Nothing like something new to spark the excitement of the upcoming holiday.
Both boys love playing in the the kitchen set, though, and this is a great way to bring some learning into the mix as you prepare. We sort out the toy "chametz" and set up a soapy water sensory bin for a Toy Wash station to prepare any toys that will stay in the area for playing over Pesach.

Bring Them to the Table: Once the holiday finally starts, there is a brief sigh of relief until it's time for the Seder. This time of year, Sederim start late and it can be hard on the children (and the adults) to manage energy levels well past bedtime. In our house, it has worked best in these scenarios to include the children as much as possible at the actual seder and then to have a special "kinderlach seder" (kids' seder) on the second day that is geared toward the shorter set of folks in our house. We go at our own pace, make it playful and fun and really invite those thought provoking questions and observations. On most other nights, we don't allow books and toys at the table, but on this night, you might just see some 10 Makos Finger Puppets, sensory bottles, haggadahs made at home and at school and a variety of child-crafted Pesach props.

I printed off a couple of sets of these adorable finger puppets. One I printed onto card stock and prepared as directed and the other I laminated and applied velcro dots so they could be used with a pair of gloves. Many families enjoy using a version of Bingo or a printable game board to keep track of the parts of the seder as they occur. This year I hope to also set out a small world scene of the Jewish people walking through the Nile in the middle of our table to spark some creative play and discussion during our kids' seder. If you're looking for some more inspiration, check out my previous Pesach posts from years past...

My final tip (to myself) is to breathe and slow down. If a task is urgent, I tend to it--maybe even pop in a fun video for the kids (I still love Bubbie's Boarding House!). If a task is not urgent, it can wait. (Maybe I need a break to watch Bubbie's Boarding House, too!)  I wish all who are celebrating a Chag Kasher v'Sameach and through Pesach and all year round....

Happy Playing!

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Pesach, Pesach! Play All About It: Build a Basket for Baby Moshe Science Experiment

Every year, we read the story of Pesach, beginning with the cruel decree by Pharaoh that all Jewish babies be killed and the difficult decision made by baby Moshe's mother to send him via The Nile River to (hopeful) safety. We know that Moshe did indeed arrive to shore safely and was found and rescued by Pharaoh's own daughter. He would be raised in the Egyptian palace and eventually grow to lead the Jewish people out of slavery and into freedom.

I have to be honest here--I get nervous when my boys are in the bathtub, forget about the Nile River! I wonder if Moshe's mother applied some scientific experimentation and critical thinking when she prepared the vessel she would use to float her baby down the Nile? As we play at home about Pesach, I decided to invite the boys to test out the best way to build a basket for "Baby Moshe" in this simple (and low cost) science experiment:

Build a Basket for Baby Moshe Science Experiment

You will need:
  • toy baby dolls (I like the little ones from Dollar Tree for this experiment since it's affordable to provide one for each scientist and the prospect of them getting wet isn't too worrisome at $1 a pop)
  • a selection of buckets, bins, trays and baskets in a variety of materials--invite your scientists to help you gather these and talk about what might make a good flotation device and why
  • water! either in a sensory bin/water table or even the bathtub--you can even take this experiment outdoors if your weather allows for it
  • you might also want to add in some towels, baby/doll blankets, toy bottles and baby doll accessories and talk about things that would help make the baby more comfortable and safer as he travels down the Nile
We started out by gathering our babies, baskets, buckets, bins, bowls, trays and accessories. I set out a vinyl shower curtain on the rug so the boys could work on the floor and had some towels handy as well. We have done sink and float experiments here before, like in this Noah's Ark themed experiment and even explored the mechanics of boats. I always say that great play and learning activities are worth repeating, and this experience reminded me why!

S has done a lot of versions of sink and float science over the years. Y had his first run with it this time (aside from natural exploration of buoyancy in the tub and in water play). Even though S has done this before, his understanding of buoyancy has evolved. He now understands that holes in a basket let water inside and that water inside makes the baby wet and the basket sink! He was quick to problem solve this before selecting a bucket with no holes at all to safely float his Baby Moshe down the Nile! Y had plenty of fun exploring the mechanics of the wicker basket he chose, water, baby and all!

When we were done with the experiment, we wrapped up our slightly soggy babies to dry and added some soap bubbles, a plastic baby doll, some plastic frogs, washrags and brushes into the sensory bin for some baby bath fun. Both boys had a great time splashing around (and simultaneously helping to wash our rug and their clothing). 

Water play is an activity that never gets old here, and as the saying goes, it's only water! We will be back again with a great Pesach themed process art provocation that will incorporate our green paints from this play activity and some amphibious friends...

Until then, Hoppy--I mean,Happy Playing!