Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Handcrafting for Little Hands (and Bigger Ones)

If you are around my age and were blessed to know your grandparents, you likely have memories as I do of your grandmothers knitting, crocheting, sewing, needle-pointing, embroidering and otherwise using their hands to create. The next generation was the first to see the shift from hand-crafting into using your hands to type a keyword into a web browser's search bar. And my own generation can order a garment in seconds and have it delivered to the door in just days, even hours. Yet there has been a resurgence in young adults, teens and children taking up the arts and handcrafts of our grandmothers and great grandmothers. The two worlds have collided in that we can order our supplies off Amazon, search for patterns on Ravelry, post our successes on Pinterest and even sell the results on Etsy. But what is the true pull toward handcrafting? I believe it is an innate desire to slow down, to feel the work of our hands through the texture of yarn, burlap, wood, embroidery floss and not just plastic computer keys. To hear the clinking of aluminum knitting needles or the whir of a sewing machine and not just the clicking and beeping and pinging of our screens, tablets and cell phones. I think we have a desire to bridge the gap between this not so distant past and to embrace the way it can now connect us in our faster-paced, modern lifestyle. I have wonderful memories of watching and sometimes learning from my grandmothers as a little girl and later through organizations like 4H Club. And now that S is 3.5, even his little hands are eager to learn and explore the handcrafts of yesteryear at his own level. 
I love teaching and learning handcrafts with young children for a variety of reasons. It is a beautiful way to share quality time together. It is also a sneaky way to incorporate fine motor development and pre-writing skills for developing hands! Many handcrafts are portable and can be great take alongs for appointments, trips to the park or even your own yard. Additionally, I believe that using their hands to create beautiful and creative works of art also instills a sense of value in beautiful and artistic materials both in the home and beyond. 

One of my personal pet peeves when teaching in a classroom and with my own children was the natural tendency for children to believe that all of our resources are inherently always available, disposable and replaceable. Food can be thrown away after one bite. Water left running. Caps left off of markers. Toys and books stepped upon as little feet run toward the next best thing. One line drawn across a piece of paper before it is set aside and another one is claimed. And then, I must ask myself as a teacher and a parent, what have I done to teach about the value of our resources? If children do not know how things are made, acquired and maintained, they cannot be expected to feel any level of reverence toward that. Adults feel a strong connection toward items that are delicate or expensive or finely made or irreplaceable, but as children, we were not able to discern between a hat purchased at a big box store or one hand knit by a loving Aunt unless someone told us! And so I do make a point to talk about using materials to their greatest potential. And being resourceful versus wasteful. And letting children see how things are made and even making them on their own.

S has recently taken an interest in my knitting. To allow him an age appropriate ability to enjoy the craft on his own level, I stocked a basket full of yarn scraps that were left over and too small for any of my own future projects. At first he enjoyed cutting the yarn and exploring ways to tie knots. He liked taking the basket outside to decorate "trees" (branches we found on the ground). Later he really wanted his own pair of knitting needles, so I shared a large sized blunt wooden set for his "knitting basket."

S also really enjoys lacing activities and I decided to expand on that and introduce us both to the art of needlepoint and embroidery! I have never done needlepoint before, though both of my grandmothers did and even my own mother at certain times. I bought a couple of wooden embroidery hoops and some burlap (a particularly easy material to work with for little hands). I also purchased a set of large, blunt tapestry needles and gathered my collection of colorful embroidery floss. Handcrafting with children as with any art form is very process based--this is naturally the way that children explore and also ensures that creating together is something enjoyable and not frustrating. S was so excited to learn something together and I could tell using "real" materials made him feel very important. He chose the color he wanted to work with and I helped thread the needle with a large knot at the bottom so the embroidery floss would not pull all the way through the burlap. He needed a little help to get the rhythm of pushing his needle through one side and then back through to the other and when to flip the embroidery hoop. The great thing about burlap and a blunt needle is the ability to easily "undo" a stitch if the string gets wrapped around the hoop (which happened a few times). He loved making "designs" on the burlap. 
I took him to a space on our wall where a needlepoint created by my late Nana hangs and he was enthralled! He couldn't believe we were doing something like that! Ok, we both probably have a while to go before creating something like that, but the process has been so enjoyable and meaningful! For now we will continue to practice with our needlepoint to add more colors and designs. Later, we will use it to create another, more permanent work of art. Handcrafting together has been a wonderful way to quell S's thirst for special time with just me, a beautiful tool for us both to slow down at the end of a long day and a meaningful means to connect with family members both alive and in the World to Come who inspired me with their handcrafted works of art and now continue to inspire yet another generation. As my boys grow older, they may continue to work with their hands creatively or they may not. They may at some point give in to gender stereotypes and set aside crafts like knitting and needlepoint in favor of other hobbies. But whatever they do choose, I will treasure these times spent creating together and enjoying the benefits of art through play!

Happy Playing!

Monday, February 5, 2018

Playtime for YOU: Nurturing and Rediscovering Our Own Creative Side

Moms, Dads, Grandparents, Educators and Caretakers of all kinds--this playtime post is for US--the grown ups. I write here a lot about the importance of play in children and more recently, I've remembered how important it is for adults as well. We might call it self care or hobbies or "me time," and there are a number of ways we might choose to spend it. And while we often recognize the need for our children to have free time in which to play and explore and express themselves creatively, we do not always recognize (or honor) that need in ourselves. For me, it comes out as feeling completely spent by the end of a day, desiring something more, something challenging (well, differently challenging than getting through a day with a 10 month old and a 3.5 year old!). There are many ways in which we can care for ourselves:

  • Physical/bodily self care might include nutrition, fitness, enjoying a manicure or a massage...
  • Spiritual self care might include observance of holidays/traditions in the home, religious or spiritual practice, meditation or whatever practices are meaningful to you
  • Social self can involve engaging with friends, family and community--everyone's needs in this area are different and depend largely on where one falls on the spectrum of being introverted or extroverted
  • Mental/emotional self care encompasses the paths we utilize to navigate difficult emotions, resolve conflicts and work on personal growth
  • Intellectual self care can be expressed in how we continue to pursue education in areas of personal and/or professional interest. For some that may be taking a class or joining a club, for others it may be meaningful to engage in volunteer work or connected specifically to your career
For the sake of this post and in regard to the basic theme of this blog, I am focusing today on creative self care. I have heard so many of my friends claim that they are "not creative," and I could not disagree more! I think there are a lot of ways to express creativity, although many of us associate it in particular with artistic work. That being said, anyone who has seen very young children explore art materials can see that there is no struggle in early childhood to express creativity! Children are process oriented, rather than focused on a product. And then, somewhere along the line, a message about art and creative work is internalized: art should look a certain way. I would not personally describe myself as being artistic, though I do feel I am a creative person. I find it meaningful to engage in activities that create something. I especially like activities that use my hands--where I can touch materials and manipulate them into something else. I believe that being creative is like being fit--you need to exercise the muscles involved. I would further argue that exercising those muscles is just as important! And while it is easy to go through days and weeks of "not having time" to nurture that side of ourselves as we are busy with family, work, household tasks and other obligations, there is a price that we pay ourselves and inherently, a tax that is put upon those whom are in our care. Perhaps you feel guilty or selfish pursing personal hobbies and creative activities during "family time," but I have recently re-framed my thinking about that. Not only is it important to integrate self-care into your daily routine for YOU, it is equally important for our children to see and intuit that this is important. Children who see their parents being creative and experiencing joy in that process will likely grow to value their own creativity and self-care down the line.

When it comes to creative expression, there are a lot of activities that are enjoyable for different folks. You may already know what you enjoy. Perhaps you want to try something new or perhaps you have no idea at all where to start. Websites like Pinterest are a great place to search a wealth of artistic, culinary and other creative activities. Library shelves are also stocked with books full of great ideas. Many libraries and parks and rec centers also offer free or low-cost classes to adults to try out a new hobby or craft. Art supply stores and craft stores often offer classes for adults as well as aisles stocked with materials, books and even free pamphlets for project ideas. Taking up an old hobby or even starting a new one does not need to break your bank either. You can utilize materials you already have, purchase secondhand or perhaps borrow from a friend or family member. 

Here's a peek at some of the creative work I have found meaningful lately. I'd love to hear about your favorite ways to play--feel free to comment below! (I may or may not be looking for more hobbies...)

Whenever I think of my grandmothers, I always remember their hands being full of yarn, knitting or crochet needles, tapestry and embroidery work or other portable projects. They often worked in front of me and sometimes even showed me a thing or two about their craft! They also created beautiful gifts and priceless heirlooms for their loved ones. My own parents were also very creative, though often their creative hobbies were reserved for later hours after we were asleep. My mother was quite crafty and I remember waking up to the results of her late night labor. I did not know until adulthood how long it took her to fabric paint canvas bags or sew us a pillow case. My father took up hobbies like guitar lessons, tennis classes and Tai Chi in adulthood and gave over the important lesson that you do not need to be incredibly talented in an activity to enjoy it. (Dad, I hope you'll forgive me for saying that!)  Additionally, my parents both supported me (without pushing) in my own creative endeavors as I was growing up, whether the activities were ones they personally enjoyed or not--I think this was a huge factor in why I am a creative adult.

Knitting & Yarn Crafting: I took up knitting as a tween and revisited the craft with fervor in my college years. I always imagined once I was married and had children, I would knit all kinds of things for my children and husband. Well, it never happened. Until recently. I let go of long, complicated and detailed projects for the time being in favor of simpler, smaller projects that can easily be picked up and put down as needed. These are the One-Skein Wonder Years and since I like to see the fruits of this meaningful labor rather quickly (or at least in this decade) I tend to gravitate toward little projects like loom knitting pumpkin hats for my boys this fall or some little hats for their baby dolls or even an abundance of washcloths and dishcloths. I can easily leave a ball of yarn and needles with a small work in progress in a few rooms of the house so that wherever we might be, I can grab it and go for a few minutes when the timing is right. Whereas I used to have bin loads of yarns and needles and UFPs (Un-Finished Projects) in college, I now favor and savor a handful of carefully selected yarns and a few sets of quality wooden/bamboo needles. 
I used to wait to knit only at night or nap times. Recently S asked me to make a hat for his baby doll and the next morning when he woke up, there it was! He was ecstatic! Then his other baby doll wanted a hat. The next morning, when he awoke to the second hat, he asked if he could cut it with scissors. My gut instinct was to be appalled and offended. I'd spent a couple of hours working that yarn into a doll hat and he wanted to cut it?! Then I realized that was his way of wanting to work the craft of knitting as well, although he'd never seen it done! I leave a "knitting basket" out for him to explore that contains bits of yarn and string too small for other projects and allow him to explore and experience the textures of the different yarn with scissors, glue and paper and whatever else draws his inspiration. Yesterday, he saw me knitting for the first time and saw how each little knot with the yarn caused that string to slowly, slowly, slowly turn into a piece of functional fabric: a washcloth! He was amazed. He wanted to knit, too, and this knitting basket was the perfect way (for now) for him to experience the craft. Y, too, can enjoy exploring the colors and textures of a ball of yarn or a homemade Pom-Pom. In this way, you can include your children in your own hobbies, even if you are working simultaneously on different levels of a craft. 

Paper-crafting is another hobby revisited for me. I used to scrapbook and make greeting cards in abundance when I was in college. I don't feel as drawn to those particular crafts at this point in my life but I do love recycling my children's artwork into simple greeting card sets for a meaningful holiday gift or making bookmarks with S to use in one of my other favorite hobbies, reading!

The nice thing about paper crafts is the pretty instant results and the ability to work with materials you already have at home. The two dimensional aspect of it is also a big space saver--your hobby won't need to take up a whole room!

I had been inspired by needle-felting for over a decade but always thought it would be "too hard" to learn the craft. S has a teacher in school who is quite a talented needle-felter and gifted me a little starter kit for my birthday. It proved to be one of those gifts that just keeps on giving! I instantly fell in love with the craft and invested in a few more tools and some additional roving. As it turns out, there is something hugely rewarding about repeatedly poking and prodding wool with a needle and watching it turn into something! It is a remarkable forgiving art form and the results are so much fun to use in play and display.

Speaking of play things, I've really enjoyed painting peg dolls for use in our play areas, indoors and out. I love the feel of natural materials in play and the creativity more open-ended play materials inspires in children.

S has enjoyed woodworking creatively with his Tatty, using simple kits and sometimes even scrap wood, nails and a hammer. I so appreciate that building together is an activity my husband has taken on to do with S. So much of our children's exposure to creative work comes from female adults--most commonly teachers, mothers, grandmothers. Fathers and grandfathers also have hobbies and are creative and particularly for my sons, I feel it is so important for them to see male role models being creative and enjoying such hobbies. My husband is one of those folks who would describe himself as "not creative," though I strongly disagree. Nonetheless, this does not stop him from joining in to create a huge family picture with markers and crayons and easel paper on the floor or painting pottery with the kids at a paint your own pottery shop. I love that about him! 
My husband is also more likely than I am to ask for us to spend an evening creating art together! I had this in mind when I purchased some discounted sketch books a while ago for each member of the family. Journaling was a huge area of creative expression for me as a child, teen and young adult. Journaling can take on many forms at different ages and stages. It can include drawing, writing, collage, photos, poetry and more. The only boundaries are the book that is used to contain it! I favor a blank paged sketch book particularly for pre-writers so that drawings and later, early expressions of written word can be accommodated. I'm excited to try out art nights here using our journals for a variety of means of expression. Perhaps you might try out the concept of still life by setting out something from nature or indoors that is visually appealing. With young children, we mostly focus on what colors or shapes they see or how an object makes them feel. A couple things to keep in mind with journals and sketch books:
  • Using real, quality materials from the journal itself to the art or writing materials you choose can add a feeling of importance and value. I admit that I have "my own" markers and crayons and ones that are always accessible to S (and eventually Y). Nonetheless, there are times I "share" my own art materials with S and I favor quality art materials in general over quantity. Better to have a small set of chalk pastels that really work than an abundance that do not work as well and cause frustration. I find of a lot of art materials inexpensively at places like Five and Below or even thrift stores. It's also helpful to reserve those 50% off coupons at craft supply stores for things like this. The use of a journal or sketch book also indicates a level of value to children that plain paper may not. A book is "permanent" and shows a huge level of respect to children's creative work. Even children who are less drawn to drawing (pun intended) might love to do so in the space of a leather bound sketch book.
  • Personal space extends to a journal. In this particular style of journaling, I encourage respecting those pages as an extension of each person's personal space. I do not draw or write in a child's personal journal and likewise, my own journal is entirely my own. We do shared work in other mediums. While we might engage in a set-up that invites a certain idea of expression, I don't specifically tell anyone what to write or draw about. Our journals are always accessible to grab and use on a whim or we can set a specific time to all use them. As children get older, they may wish to journal as a way to express and contain private ideas and I really encourage parents and caretakers to respect that privacy.

And the biggest rule of thumb for creative expression as self care--both your own and your children's--is that if and when it is not enjoyable, don't do it! If you don't love a hobby, set it aside. If the timing is just wrong, set it aside. This is a safe space to try something and totally fail at it. It's also a safe space to try new things and learn a new skill. I'm actually quite eager to begin exploring the art of embroidery with S and we are both beginners! He is at an age where he can use a blunt needle and some burlap in a smaller embroidery hoop to explore the texture, color and experience of this needle art. I will be right there learning with him! That beginner's mindset is one that is so important to cultivate in our children and continue to nurture in ourselves.

Wishing you all meaningful, creative playing!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Month at a Glance: January

This past weekend as we were driving home from a family day trip, S announced from the backseat that he was inventing a new holiday. He's calling it Kid's Day. On Kid's Day, he explained, we will cut herbs and cut playdough, and use scissors...and he would like me to make special snacks. My heart melted a little as my son conjured up a reason to celebrate. My son who needs no reason to celebrate at all, but can recognize the value and status in a holiday or special occasion. I can remember how the natural rhythm of holidays and seasons marked my own years growing up. There was great comfort in the cycle of time passing through the lens of celebration. On the secular calendar, January marks the beginning of the year. On the Jewish calendar, the new year is months behind us. The festive lights of Chanukah have dimmed to a memory and this is somewhat of a slower season. This week we will celebrate Tu B'Shevat, a minor holiday honoring the first budding of trees in Israel, while here most trees are still dormant and bare. Nonetheless, this new year of the trees falls right in the middle of our Winter for a reason. It is a gentle nudge from deep beneath the frozen layers of soil that life is still there--that growth is still happening even when we can least tap into it.
January here is a smorgasbord of weather--one week we are blanketed in the white fluff of freshly fallen snow, huddled up inside to avoid single degree temperatures. A week later, we are out with no coats at all chasing away the hours in our play garden. January is a month of ins and outs. We are indoors, craving to be out again. Then we spend invest a solid twenty minutes bundling up to get out only to come right back in again, disrobe, and repeat! Inspired by S's need to find and create the celebration in each day and season, I'm beginning a series of Month at a Glance posts this year. It's your monthly one-stop-shopping for our favorite in-season activities--ways to appreciate and celebrate the moment whatever the weather!

I often muse that if a parent wishes to introduce one "educational" activity to meet all of the developmental needs of a child under 5, sensory play is your guy! Sensory play engages young children, encourages abstract and critical thinking, introduces vocabulary and language development, mathematical concepts, science, fine motor and gross motor skills, spacial awareness and more... It's a great way to bring the outdoors inside when conditions are not conducive to outdoor play. A few of our favorites this month were:

Arctic Slime! We jumped on the slime bandwagon this month and had repeated play sessions with this fascinating play medium! Perfect for a snowy day or rainy day or any day at all...
When it was too cold to play outside in the snow, we played inside in the snow! Both boys had a blast playing, shaping (um, eating by one brother...) and painting the snow in our sensory bin. The best part of playing in the snow in your kitchen is the shortened distance between chilly hands and warming up with a cup of cocoa!

For a warmer version of snow play when snow is not available, we love this baby-safe sensory bin. We used mashed potato flakes along with some favorite forest friends and a couple of toy sleds for this story stretcher activity with the book red sled by Lita Judge

When the winter doldrums have you longing for the beach, this simple sand table with a selection of rocks, a few pouring bowls, a scoop and a large paint brush is the perfect reminder of summer days. S likes to make "ice cream" in the sand table. Something about sand play is so peaceful and relaxing. It is also a versatile sensory play medium that can be used with a variety of tools and add-ins, or even on its own. S does pretty well with a reminder to keep what's in the bin in the bin, but I also keep a dust brush and dustpan attached to the bottom of our sensory table for easy clean-up when spills happen.
 Books and reading are a year round endeavor here. We read in all kinds of weather, outside, inside and even at the library!
We have lately been on a Jan Brett kick, particularly enthralled with some of her well known winter books like The Hat, The Mitten and The Three Snow Bears. S and Y had fun using a selection of forest animal stickers to decorate our own set of paper white mittens. We also spent many a day playing with "tree blocks," a pair of white mittens and a selection of toy forest and arctic animals.

When we need a change of scenery, our local library is the place to be! We have a great library system here and frequently take advantage of story times, craft events and "just playing and looking at books."

At home, we got into some chapter books as read-alouds. To accompany and honor this newfound interest, we also got into making bookmarks! We have quite the collection now, many made by S and some made by me (mommies need hobbies, too!) and whenever we need to set a book aside for later, we head over to the bookmarks basket to grab one of our special creations. It definitely eases the transition of having to stop reading to go to sleep or go to school and it's a lovely way to save our spot until we can come back to reading later.

 January begs for a splash of color. In a season when we are more restricted to indoor play, I like our environment to encourage movement and inspire creativity. This colorful play area set up was the perfect way for both boys to engage in movement at their own developmental level while building, creating and exploring toys and materials through the lens of some favorite children's literature.

S explores color and fine motor skills with this basket of yarn scraps that he enjoys cutting. It's the perfect way to use leftover yarn. We recycle it for use in crafts/collage, sensory play and even outdoor activities...
 S has also taken to more loose parts play. As we have talked a bit about trees and Tu b'Shevat, I've been more mindful of talking about how we can help the trees that help us in so many ways. Children at this age do not inherently have an understanding of protecting natural resources. Through the addition of loose parts and "non-permanent" art materials in our art center, S has explored his ability to create artwork that can be created and recreated again and again. I do still keep glue and paper at our art center and we still make collages and permanent artwork. We even upcycle a lot of our artwork into new artwork. S is also learning to create and experience art using mirrors and recycled picture frames and arranging buttons, glass gems, and other interesting small items. When we work with paper, scissors and glue, we talk about using the whole page, or using scrap paper for cutting practice as opposed to a whole page. I do not disallow use of "new paper" for cutting practice as it is meaningful work, but I do encourage S to use the smaller pieces in a new way. We also keep a selection of interesting scrap paper, recycled magazines and greeting cards, even junk mail for cutting and gluing when the urge strikes.

Pipe cleaners and floral foam are another fascinating medium. We spent a morning building menorahs and lighting pipe cleaner candles, per S's lead. When this set-up became a bit stale, I swapped the craft foam out for some beads that S enjoys stringing on the pipe cleaners to make necklaces, bracelets, bookmarks and decorations. He has already made everyone in the family bracelets for Tu B'Shevat and a decoration for a tree!

Dramatic play is a big attraction at home after S spends the morning in school. Lately he is particularly into small world play using our "tree blocks" and other small loose parts like wooden peg dolls or toy/needle-felted animals, items collected from nature and some from indoors. I love seeing how he combines materials as he weaves a story to go along with it! I also recently purchased some silk scarves very inexpensively from a secondhand store after years of dreaming about play silks without the budget to necessarily support it. This was the best few bucks I've spent in a long time! Our play silks have become rivers and sunsets, tablecloths and doll blankets, a tichel, a bandaid, and dress up clothes of all sorts. My favorite spontaneous costume to date has been S dressing up as "a rainbow!"

When weather has permitted getting outdoors, our play garden has been the perfect haven for taking along some favorite small world materials and even art supplies.
 Remember that yarn we were cutting inside? It was just the perfect way to decorate "trees" (unique sticks and twigs we've found) outside and making "magic wands."

Y loves exploring the soft and colorful texture of these DIY ribbon dancers made from shower curtain rings and strips of ribbon in a variety of colors and textures. I keep a set outside in our play garden and another set inside.

 Both boys love exploring the mud kitchen in their own way. Tea parties are had, rock cakes are baked and music is always playing in the background as both boys explore the sound qualities of tin and copper....
Yes, I'm pretty sure our neighbors love us right about now!
S loves this tiny dinosaur world created with a collection of small gravel
and pebbles and plastic dinosaurs set inside of a foil pan. I poked a few holes in the bottom of the pan so rain water can drain out.
We also had a great time adding vibrant color to our walkway using chalk pastels. Our recycled frames made for a museum like work space as we doodled and designed. 

 I also started a Mommy and Me Cooking Club with S this month. It's a way for us to have an activity that is just for the two of us together. S is a somewhat particular eater as well. He may or may not try many new foods as we explore grocery aisles together, look up and try out new recipes. We are both learning a lot in our adventure toward trying out new foods and recipes. We had a blast taking a color scavenger hunt in a grocery store to find foods that are purple (that was S's idea) and he loves joining me in the kitchen as we plan, prepare and serve new recipes. He's tried a few new things and perhaps not yet found any favorite new foods, but all the way we are enjoying each other's company and the many skills that are cultivated through culinary experience!

To feed a need for some green, living, breathing (and tasty) foliage this time of year, we selected some herbs to grow in our kitchen window. My husband picked out some planters that can be mounted on the wall and although not all our herbs are exactly thriving right now, the ones that are add flavor and joy to our kitchen and our plates. Even staying hydrated is more fun with a slice of lime and a sprig of freshly cut mint--in January!

January may be a month of ins and outs here, but we roll with it! Sometimes that less predictable weather is a blessing; if you don't like the weather now, wait five minutes!
Sometimes the absence of major holidays is also a blessing. It allows us to slow down and spend longer stretches of time engaged in play, creating or simply reading a great book. It allows us to remember that every moment can be celebrated, whether it's a holiday or just a "regular day." In the last two days alone, we've seen rain, hail, snow and sunshine. We are ready for whatever this afternoon holds and so, too, we are ready for the new month ahead! For those who are celebrating, happy Tu B'Shevat--may this time of year find you rooted in the comforts of family and home while branching out toward new adventures as the opportunity strikes. We'll be back soon and until then...

Happy Playing

Monday, January 22, 2018

An Updated Peek in Our Play Garden

 Yesterday, I posted about my favorite take-alongs to inspire outdoor play in children (and adults!) and today, I invite you to our little apartment front yard for a peek into our play garden. I know, I know...January is not a month that makes you think about outdoor play or gardens, for that matter. Indeed, our weather has taken us through multiple seasons in the course of one week! I spent a chunk of time clearing the remains of our unplanned tomato forest out of the garden while the boys were resting yesterday (and we are very likely going to have another tomato forest this summer with all the tomatoes that went to seed!). My husband took Y to do the grocery shopping and I spent some time at home with just S. He was ecstatic! While we both take turns going out with the boys one on one, for S, an afternoon at home with just me was like hitting the jackpot. We decided to start by playing outside. He put on a tie for the occasion. I let him lead the play and even lead the way as we "walked hula hoops" that became a dog and a cat and traveled around our neighborhood. When it comes to outdoor play, everything you need is truly already there. Anything you add is icing on the cake.

In the Spring and Summer, our play is more about water and bubbles and creating potions and mud pies. In the Autumn and Winter, our play is more about foraging and collecting. All seasons can inspire movement and exploration. Use of loose parts both found in nature and from around the house can inspire a world of play outdoors. Hula hoops and gardening tools might be likely residents in a family yard. I also include some less typical loose parts to the scene and watch in awe as the world of practicality and imagination collide...

 Baskets, containers, planting pots and tins provide a practical means of storing materials and also a way to collect and transport objects from place to place. As a little girl, I loved collecting leaves and grass inside a basket to make pretend salads. Tools like rakes and shovels and a pair of children's scissors are on the ready.
Some baskets and containers store our many treasures collected and found in nature, like pine cones, acorns, seed pods, rocks, sticks and interesting twigs... Even some of our tree cookies have made it outdoors for use in dramatic play or building activities.

One of S's very favorite outdoor "toys" is a child-sized broom I found at a secondhand store last year for a couple of dollars. He loves sweeping!
Around that time I also found a large ziplock bag of cookie cutters on sale secondhand and snatched it up for using with playdough and art. Then I wondered to myself what kind of play might happen outside and filled a basket with a selection of metal cookie cutters in our garden. I can already imagine how they might be used in the dirt and mud. Perhaps the animal shaped ones will be used in dramatic play. Perhaps Y will explore how they sound when clanked together...

S often uses the water table as a mud kitchen. Tea parties and baking cupcakes are popular outdoor activities. A selection of inexpensive bowls and baking tins found at a thrift store make for great dramatic play. They also are useful for collecting and transporting and (apologies in advance to our neighbors) make for a wonderfully thrilling sound garden when explored as musical instruments using large mixing spoons (recycled or purchased secondhand or at a discount store).

And who says Winter isn't a great season for outdoor play? Imagine the interesting ice shapes that could form from pouring water into one of these baking tins? Add in some leaves and pebbles, twigs and acorns...

A simple garland made from twine and clothes pins hangs against the wall of our staircase inviting little hands to hang leaves, flowers, perhaps some ribbon and fabric or a small tin can... It's really a lovely way to look at our "treasures," and a practical way to hang a leaf or flower to dry before bringing it indoors to use in artwork.

These are items that we leave in our play garden. Using materials from around the house or purchased secondhand is an economical way to inspire outdoor play while not breaking the bank and worrying about how the outdoor elements might take their tole. This is a great way to give thrift store purchases like baskets, baking pans and kitchenware a second life! Sometimes, we might still bring something interesting from indoors outside with us, like we did yesterday with this impromptu sidewalk art:

Chalk pastels that rarely get attention inside found new life on our front sidewalk along with some recycled picture frames (with the glass and back removed) to create our "work space." 

Setting up an inviting play garden definitely comes at a price: your little ones will probably have a hard time coming inside when it's time. That being said, the price doesn't have to affect your wallet. 

Happy Playing!

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Quick and Easy Take-alongs to Inspire Outdoor Play in Children (and Adults)

We had an unseasonably warm and sunny day today (yes, this is just days after our last snowstorm shut down the whole town) and we took advantage of the weather and headed to our amazing local botanical gardens. We are fortunate to live in a location where such a venue is open year round. It may not be prime season, but there is still much to appreciate and explore. Like a rock with S's favorite letter, seed pods in abundance, trees for climbing, dirt and sand to play and explore in... Even as much of the living world lies dormant this time of year, our senses were alive with exploration. Exploring the outdoors with a mobile child often involves a lot of movement--fast movement. Chasing, even! But today, as we were running, skipping, zig-zagging like busy buzzy bees and jumping across the Children's Garden, S said something immensely sweet, innocent and profound: "Mommy, let's stop and look for a minute." And we did. We stopped. We looked. I waited and he gleefully shouted, "Ok, let's go!"

Last week I had a conversation with S's preschool director, a close friend of ours and also my own former supervisor. We were discussing getting children outdoors. As a teacher I was notorious for being the one to "take them out no matter what." Rainy days called for duck waddles across the parking lot. Snowy ones meant we bundled up and painted the playground with every color imaginable to three primary shades of food coloring mixed in water. And sunny, beautiful days? You'd better believe we were outside at least once in the course of our short time together, maybe even twice.

But here's my confession: Throughout my career as a teacher, outdoor time was often more of a time during which children played and I caught up on busy work or managed to sneak a snack while intermittently perusing the playground to visit with the children, support any issues of conflict or safety, and then recede to my adult-stance on the sidelines. And I know I missed a lot. A great deal of exploration, imagination and discovery. Opportunities to support risk-assessment, problem solving, critical thinking and social skill development. And even more--opportunities to join that world of wonder and play--something adults need, too! Sometimes there are aspects of our "stepping back" that are important to children, particularly in an outdoor setting. The child who discovers a cicada by watching a YouTube video has a different experience than the one who is directed by an adult outside saying "do you hear that buzzing sound? It's a cicada!" And the child who discovers a cicada shell shining in the sunlight on a sidewalk has a different experience altogether. All three experiences have value, but there is something altogether priceless about self-discovery.

And with my own children? My second confession is that we hardly get outside these days. I don't mean that we don't leave the house--we do! We go to the library, the store, the mall, museums...sometimes even playgrounds. But hardly ever do we go outside and just play. Some of this is due to time or extremely low temperatures. But a lot is due to laziness. I think of one of my favorite classic Oliver and Amanda Pig stories by Jean Van Leeuwen in which there is a snowstorm and Mother Pig spends an exorbitant amount of time and energy getting her two little pigs dressed and prepared for playing in the snow. At last, she sits those two marshmallow puffed bundles on the couch to go and get herself ready only to return and find them both undressed again. She bursts into tears before getting everyone dressed again and finally going outside. Oh, how I can relate to this story. And somehow, the investment of time and energy of getting a dozen children belonging to other adults ready to go out only to repeat it in reverse after coming back in does not feel nearly as ominous and handling my own little guys.

Well after hearing S's wise statement today and rethinking that brief conversation with his school principal last week, I revisited and reevaluated my own tendency to hole up indoors this time of year. I also thought about those years of "teaching from the sidelines" on the playground. While some children are inherently creative and exploratory outdoors, others need a little nudge to tap into the natural sense of wonder that nature can inspire. And with these simple outdoor take-alongs, you can easily support play with your own family outside or even a group of students. You do not need to spend a lot. You can use what you have on hand. You may just want to step away from the park bench and revisit your own childhood sense of wonder and exploration...

Here are a few of my favorite quick and easy take-alongs to inspire outdoor play in children:

Things for collecting and transporting materials: Recycled containers, small tin, plastic or hard glass jars (like from baby food), baskets and buckets in all sizes are great for collecting found objects and transporting them from place to place. I am in the process of revamping our play garden and will discuss in a future post how I utilize materials like this in our yard. For the sake of travel, a simple basket with a handle and/or a few smaller options can be great. You can recycle containers from food and produce, find baskets inexpensively at secondhand stores or purchase tins and jars very inexpensively at dollar stores or discount stores. S in particular enjoys collecting things in clear jars for Y to be able to safely observe and shake. You may even wish to bring along a bug container for collection of live critters (or a Bell jar with an open top will do). Secondhand pots, pans and dishes can also be great for collecting and transporting--not to mention the element of sound when they are gleefully banged together by an eager baby or toddler! 

Things for the purpose of observation: I love to bring along magnifying glasses or binoculars for observing and exploring parts of nature both far away and close up. Prisms and looking glasses can also add an interesting visual element. If you have a budding photographer, consider bringing along a camera. Even if you do not happen to have any of the above, recycled cardboard tubes make for great binoculars or telescopes.

Speaking of pictures... Recording outdoor adventures can come in many forms for children ranging developmentally as they grow from pre-writers to independent writers and artists. I rarely leave home without a little notepad and some colored pencils. Check out this post about using leaves and textures in nature along with paper and unwrapped broken crayons for nature rubbings. If you need more direction, you can try a color scavenger hunt or another nature-inspired scavenger hunt. You can see what happens if you all decide to stop and draw what you see. Sidewalk chalk is another great take-along and can be used on a variety of outdoor surfaces besides just the sidewalk.

Remember these DIY color cards? We still love toting these along with us, sometimes even adding in some clothes pins for collecting/attaching objects found in particular shades of a color.
Tools & supplies like tweezers, scissors, and masking tape can come in surprisingly handy! You never know when you might need to grasp the tiniest little objects with those tweezers. Scissor lovers reach a whole new level of enjoyment (and fine motor development) outside clipping grass, weeds, bushes and anything else you'll let them. Masking tape can be wrapped around a wrist, sticky side out, for collection of beautiful little fall leaves or spring wildflowers and instantly you have a lovely bracelet fit for a queen (or king). A small tin of leftover clay is great for taking along and making impromptu nature prints or sculptures...

Things I Keep in My Car: So I may or may not have been known to accidentally forget our diaper bag at home on occasion, but I almost always have a basket with a handle in my car and a towel or blanket. A basket is always handy for carrying along things we bring along or treasures we find along the way. A towel/blanket is handy for drying off wet play surfaces as well as for providing a place to sit upon for very little ones or older children who do not prefer to sit directly on grass.

Small world play and dramatic play outdoors? You bet! I made these little wooden peg dolls to add to our outdoor travel packs (and indoor play) and they had a great time on our botanical gardens visit today. S was absolutely enthralled with them, creating and telling stories in every area we explored.

How do I carry all this stuff? With just my own crew, I don't always bring everything along. I might pick one or two take-alongs. Today I only brought the peg dolls (that S dotingly named tree kinder). With a class or large group, I might bring a basket with a selection of take-alongs. My favorite way to store these is in pencil pouches. They can easily be stocked inside an old binder and there you have it, easy transport and easy access.

It goes without saying that the outdoor world needs no add-ons. And yet, adding in some interesting indoor tools, supplies and objects can really inspire and enhance outdoor play for children--and adults alike. Now to get my own little ones back outside before the sun goes down. We have to take these sunny Sundays as they come! 

Happy Playing!