Thursday, February 22, 2018

Think Outside the Box Thursday: Woodworking with the Very Young

Nothing goes together like a three year old, some scrap wood and a hammer and nails. Wait, what?! Give a small child real tools and materials? You'd surely be asking for trouble and you may as well buy stock in Band Aid brand while you're at it... Today, however, I am here to say not only that woodworking can be done with young children, but also that it is an incredible tool for building skills in a variety of developmental areas, creativity and confidence (puns, of course, intended).

When I was a preschooler, my nursery school had a room known as The Block Room. Just as the name suggests, there were a variety of wood blocks in the room as well as a functioning woodworking area where a four year old version of me once hammered real nails into real wood making a real couch for a real pet rock. This was the beginning (and until very recently, also the end) of my woodworking career...and I still have all my fingers. In our house, the toy tool box is one of the most often revisited toys. S loves to hammer and tinker and build and fix things. If there is a household repair that needs to be done, he's first in line to help. He was enthralled when he discovered a Dollar Tree purchase gracing his tool box one day: 3 real screw drivers! Before Sukkot, I had a vision of beginning some creative woodworking with him and although we started with a bang (literally), the scrap wood and hammer have been collecting dust and taking up space in our pantry closet for months. We simply do not have the space for a wood shop in our apartment!

S's interest in building did not wane at all. Over the last few months, he's enjoyed playing with his tools, doing woodworking craft kits with his Tatty, even hammering holes in a giant cardboard box we kept for him to play with for a couple of days before it made it to the recycling. If there's something to be "fixed," he will find it; if there is nothing to be fixed, he will find that, too! And as I have been working with our outdoor space and play garden, it occurred to me that this would be the perfect new home for a woodworking station! With a collection of items we already had at home, a few small additions and a little bit of set up, we had an afternoon of child-led tinkering, creativity and fun. S is already planning another afternoon spent "working hard to build with wood" today!

What Will I Need to Create a Woodworking Station? Creating a woodworking station need not require a lot of money. You may have much of what you need already at home. The rest can be inexpensively acquired at second hand stores, discount/big box stores or even garage sales. Many hardware stores have scrap wood and materials they would be happy to donate rather than throw away. Perhaps a friend or relative has some things sitting in the attic or basement they are looking to part with. There were very few items I actually purchased just for the purpose of our woodworking station. One was the toolbox itself as I wanted something durable that could remain outdoors. That said, it is the least expensive model from Walmart! Here's a peek inside and some ideas of what you might include. Choose items that you have or can easily access, add in a few ideas of your own and keep in mind that less is more--you can have a fully functioning and exciting woodworking station with just a hammer, nails and wood!
I used a simple wooden crate to hold our scrap wood collection. We have wood in a variety of sizes and shapes. In the top section of our toolbox, I added a selection of nails in different sizes. Longer nails and nails with a wider head (like roofing tacks) are easier for beginning woodworkers to manipulate. I also have a variety of screws, nuts and bolts. Even manipulating larger nuts and bolts with their fingers is a great fine motor activity for beginning woodworkers. 
Some safety goggles are a playful and functional addition. A notepad and pencils are on the ready for recording blueprints, ideas, capturing memories or taking important notes along the way (even for pre-writers). We had a bunch of brightly colored zip ties leftover from building our sukkah this year and I thought they would make a fun loose part for S to explore.

A construction vest and work apron are a fun way to inspire dramatic play in the process. Somewhere we also have a couple of hardhats in our costume collection that could be a great addition. One of our favorite outdoor activities is "painting" with water, so I included a large paintbrush and roller for this purpose. Perhaps we will bring out some actual paints at some point to add an element of color to our work. A sandpaper block is great for beginning woodworkers to smooth rough edges. I included a collection of tools we already had multiples of at home in our toolbox. I opted for hammers and screw drivers with wide handles for easier gripping and shorter tools whenever possible. I also included an extra tape measure and level we had in our collection. 
Ok, I've got everything! Now what? Utilizing a woodworking station is a bit different than setting out to complete a specific project. It is process oriented and child-led. My role was to provide support and supervision, to give assistance as needed and to answer questions or help problem solve when issues came up. S's role was to explore and experience. He chose the materials and tools he used. He asked questions about what tools were and how to use them. If he needed help to get a nail started, I helped him. When he wanted to practice using a screw driver, we problem solved by using a larger nail to make a wide hole in the wood that would accommodate the screws we had. I ensured that he used tools and materials safely but did not jump in if he was using them in a novel way (like wanting to hammer a nail through a nut).
He sometimes needed help to start a nail into the spot he wanted, but once he got going, he was able to work independently with minimal assistance. He decided he wanted to build "a house." I encouraged him along the way with questions like "what will you add next?" or "what does this part do?" I did not worry at all if it didn't look like a house, especially if he wasn't worried about that either! 

Practicing using a screw and a screwdriver...

What are the benefits of woodworking with children? Woodworking like other handcrafts is a great way to nourish childhood creativity and curiosity. Using their hands to create meaningful work builds confidence, competence and a sense of reverence for resources and materials. Using real tools and materials shows children that their work is valued and respected. Surely, toy tools are fun and have their place as well, especially for little builders like mine who could hammer in the morning, hammer in the evening and even at suppertime...

Many teachers and parents are concerned about safety and age appropriateness when it comes to using tools with young children. What I have observed in my years of teaching and as a parent is that when children use "real materials," they inherently also recognize the value in using them carefully and appropriately. Children love to feel more grown up and using our tools nurtures this feeling. There is definitely a need for adequate supervision and support and you may wish to start with some simple activities beforehand to gauge your child's readiness for using a hammer and nails. Here are a few ideas:

  • Use a plastic hammer and golf tees in playdough, clay or floral foam or Styrofoam. Practice setting up the "nail," and hitting the head to push it in. Playdough would be the easiest of materials to work with, followed by clay that is a bit thicker and finally the foam, which would require a bit more fine motor coordination to get started.
  • Hammer and peg toys and toy tool sets are also a great way to practice the general movements associated with woodworking. You can often find these at thrift stores.
  • Nails with a wider head are easier to manipulate for little hands. Roofing tacks are great. Softer wood like balsa is a good starter base.

For sure, there is a huge fine motor component with woodworking. There is also a lot of gross motor development involved in hauling lumber, swinging the hammer, building and constructing and beyond... Here's a shot of S hauling wood to his work site. Lifting and moving large objects is such a rewarding and valuable task for young children and they are oftentimes drawn to activities that encourage this, like moving furniture, pushing strollers and shopping carts, etc.
 Language development and vocabulary associated with learning about tools and building is a literary component associated with woodworking. Writing and drawing out plans is another great component, even for pre-readers and pre-writers. The act of creating and sequencing plans is a huge part of literacy development and mathematical concepts as well. And speaking of math... This shot of S using our filling station for his mud kitchen may not have entirely to do with woodworking, but it did lead to the shot below of him "measuring" his puddle! He discovered the measuring tape in the toolbox and asked what it was for. I told him it can show how big or long or tall something is. He quickly got to measuring his wood, his shadow, the stairs, and even a puddle of water!

For sure there is a science component to woodworking and exploring force, trajectory and a variety of engineering concepts. When we talk about STEM with preschool aged children, there is often a focus on "modern" technology--but let's not forget about the technological value of tools!
Finally, woodworking involves a great deal of critical thinking, concentration and focus as well as problem solving. These are important aspects of social development at this age and stage. And even if the "product" does not resemble a functional structure, I encourage you to work with your little carpenters to create a functional way to use them!
S demonstrated number sense when he carefully counted six nails that we hammered into this tree cookie. When we came inside, I grabbed our old collection of plastic pony elastics from when he still had long hair and we created our own tiny geo-board He was super excited to make a pentagon! Later we may try out connecting multiple geo-boards with rubber bands. Perhaps we will try out some yarn or ribbon instead... 

S sat with intense focus and concentration to create "a rose" out of some colorful zip ties. He was so proud and excited by his work experience. He is eager to return to his work and having a woodworking station allows this to be an activity he can take his time with. There's no push to produce or perform. There is no agenda. When children see that we value their work and tinkering, they value it as well. This morning on the way to preschool, S told me "People do hard work." 
"Yes, that's true! Big people and little people do hard work!" I responded.

"I worked hard building with wood!" he continued.

"Hard work can be fun, can't it?" I mused, and S agreed. When I think about work ethic, I truly believe it begins with inheriting a sense of value and meaning in our work--and that begins in childhood. When adults value the work that children do through play, they intuit that it is important and meaningful. S may not grow to be a carpenter (or he may!) but I do have high hopes that he will grow to love his play and work, wherever that will lead.

Happy Playing!

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Outdoors: A "Living" Room for Children

This has been one heck of a rainy day here and as I stepped out from the warmth of my living room into our play garden to dispose of some cut hydrangeas that had past their indoor prime but are in the prime of their life for outdoor exploration by one very short botanist in training, I thought to myself--this is going to be the perfect afternoon to play in our garden and mud kitchen. Yes, it would be warmer and cleaner to stay in the warmth of our living room, but a child's living room should be just that--living. Mud washes off, children come clean (and dirty again just as quickly) but these are the memories that will last a lifetime--well after the laundry is done, hands and nails are scrubbed clean and the children are bathed.

Outdoor spaces are also great for "indoor" messy activities, like
painting a wooden play castle!

I have some incredible childhood muddy memories of my own. I loved digging up worms and making potions and mud-pies and eating fists full of fresh grown chives straight from the whisky barrel my mother used as a planter. I'm pleased to say the onion stench has nearly worn off after about 30 years, but the memories have not. We had access to a variety of outdoor toys and trinkets, but my very favorites were something for digging and something for gathering and transporting. Everything else I needed was already there: dirt, water and life. And it was all abundant; no sharing! There was always enough dirt and water and worms and weeds to go around. Perhaps to me this was all child's play, but there was immense learning and growth happening as well. Gross motor and fine motor skills were developed through collecting, gathering, mixing, transferring and transporting. Spacial awareness, number sense and mathematical concepts were developed through measuring, sifting, filling and pouring. Language skills emerged as I learned the names of creatures great and small, animal and plant. Science happened in every moment. I still remember the fascination I experienced when we moved from our home in one neighborhood to a new one about 20 minutes away and the soil was entirely different! Our new yard was full of natural clay and the art, sensory play and experimentation that happened was invaluable. 
Y explores sound, rhythm, color, texture and fine motor coordination with a selection of tin utensils from the Mud Kitchen, a DIY ribbon kite, a plastic rake and a wooden toy rocking horse that S selected for him to play with.

As a classroom teacher, some of my favorite moments were ones in which I was privy to join in a child's natural sense of wonder and astonishment at finding a snail on the sidewalk or discovering a caterpillar under the slide. Waddles through the parking lot in the rain led students to question the puddles that formed and why the water dripped down the slope of the lot to gather in one place. Sure, I could demonstrate and teach about gravity and trajectory indoors, but how much more did these children gain by discovering it for themselves? 
Something about things that are tiny instills a natural sense of
wonder and curiosity--almost magic! S returns again and again
to our outdoor "dollhouse" to play out dramatic stories and scenes
in our play garden. He especially enjoys including natural
loose parts into the scene, like rocks and grass and wood chips.

Now that we have revamped our play garden and incorporated a mud kitchen in our own small front yard, I have seen both my boys' curiosity and wonder re-emerge. We took a family day trip to Washington DC and back to see the festivities for the Chinese New Year. Of the many exciting things we did, one of S's favorite parts was stopping to run at a rest area off the highway and picking up a stick and a seed pod to bring home to our play garden. When I first set out a selection of loose parts in our yard including a basket of secondhand metal cookie cutters that had been all but collecting dust inside while waiting their turn for use with play dough or paint, a friend asked me what they were intended for. I sheepishly but eagerly admitted that I had no idea! I came up with some thoughts on how they might be used outdoors, but I was certain my boys had their own--and they did! S collected small pebbles and gravel in a tin pie pan and then observed how he could gather them inside the parameter of a cookie cutter in the shape of car. Y used a flower shaped cookie cutter with a small handle to practice grasping while banging it rhythmically against a copper cake tin. Then he reached his other hand to pick up a spade shaped cookie cutter and observed the sound that it made from the inside of a metal bowl when he shook it. Both boys made developmentally appropriate discoveries and neither one needed my input to do so. 
These cut hydrangeas had their time in the limelight of our dining room table. Now they will experience a second life being explored in our play garden before being returned to the earth.

Over the years we have lived here, I've had a surge of energy to create a play space outdoors only once the spring came. I worked within a budget and purchased standard outdoor toys and accessories: bubbles, shovels and pails, sidewalk chalk, hula hoops, perhaps some balls and other toys. We planted seeds with gusto and in the heat of the summer, I tended to lose that gusto. The space was wonderful and S had fun no matter what when we were out there, but I saw it as a space I needed to care for and maintain rather than as a space I would empower my children to care for and maintain. I also tended to limit its use to when the conditions were most comfortable for me. We had some great times in the play garden and wonderful discoveries, but we all ended up cooped up back inside or perhaps focusing our outdoor time more on visits to the park instead of our own front yard. 
Yarn, ribbon and fabric can all add a "more natural" splash of color to natural elements...

A selection of DIY ribbon kites hang on our banister made from ribbons tied to shower curtain rings in a variety of colors and textures. Y can explore them by grasping them from below or they can easily be removed for him to play with (as well as Y) and used in action rhymes and songs.

This winter, I realized I had somehow transformed from the teacher who got her students outside no matter what into the parent who never took her kids outside at all. I set out to revisit and resolve this issue and this time, did so with the vision that our outdoor "living" room should be one that reflected everyone who uses it--the adults and the children. It should be a space that we all can enjoy being in and exploring, not just one for a preschooler while the baby is in a stroller or for the children while the adults are checked out on our cell phones. In creating this vision, I also recognized the importance of being thoughtful to how I can empower my children (especially S) to maintain the space as well as to navigate what we do there and what goes into it. Sometimes S's ideas are easy and simple to accommodate. He loves to cut with scissors, especially to cut on novel surfaces, like blades of grass, leaves or wilting flowers. He asked to keep a couple of pairs of his scissors outdoors and I quickly obliged. Do we really need to have four pairs of scissors inside? No! He also wanted to add water to his play on a dry day a couple of weeks ago. We do not have a hose or water access outside here and while at first I didn't mind helping him to open the door and get what he needed independently from inside and carry it back out, after a  while I was tiring of the muddy footprints in the house and our apartment being left open like a barn! In revisiting the idea, I realized I can easily purchase one of those large spigot jugs of water and refill it as needed for S to use outside. He is more than happy to fill containers and transfer the water himself.
Containers for gathering, transporting and collecting are a must in our own outdoor space and on the go. Here S is collecting small objects at the park inside a recycled baby food jar to make a "nature grogger" for the upcoming holiday of Purim!

I often joke about my parents' refusal to put up a swing set for us when I was growing up. We certainly had the space for it and rumor has it that they were too worried we would get hurt. As a teacher, I have been on many school playgrounds. Many of them had incredible equipment and toys and many did not. What I have learned is that children inherently know how to have an incredible time playing outdoors whether or not they have access to play equipment. For sure, their experience is optimal when the adults are also engaged and when they are able to safely explore the environment at their own whim and pace. Nonetheless, I also think there is a certain draw to "toys" that are not toys! By the end of the summer season, plastic shovels and pails are other outdoor toys are often broken and no longer functional. These materials may be financially more disposable (it's easy enough to replace a $1 rake and shovel) but they are not so friendly to our outdoor environment. Including materials and loose parts found from nature, collected from indoors, rescued from trash/donation piles or purchased secondhand is both aesthetically more pleasing to the eye and more environmentally sound. And the proof is in the [mud] pudding. Last week on a warm and sunny afternoon, many of the neighborhood children were outside playing. When we got outside, we saw children riding bikes, throwing balls and taking toys for walks along the sidewalk. S joined in the fun on his tricycle and also enjoyed walking a hula hoop down the block and pushing his doll stroller. Then he and another little girl abandoned their colorful, plastic toys (and please know that these, too, have a place in play--I am by no means diminishing their value in childhood experience) and joined in our mud kitchen to make some "pasta" and a "salad" using metal bowls and spoons, mud/dirt, rocks and bits of cut up grass. 

A mud kitchen can be set up very inexpensively. We like to use our water table as a "kitchen set," but really you only need a few metal kitchen utensils--real ones in adult size are really best and can be brought from indoors, purchased second hand or rescued from the rubbish pile. If the thought of mud is a major turn off, you don't have to actually have mud! You can work with sand, on cement with just water, with gravel or control the amount of water added to your dirt. That said, mud does wash off! I also think there is great benefit (and convenience) in children being able to access water on their own. If you don't happen to have a spigot outside or a rainy day to fill your cups, a jug of water can be brought outdoors and refilled as needed for children to access as needed.
I could write extensively on the topic of creating an outdoor space that nurtures curiosity and there are so many incredible resources already out there on the topic. I have also posted here previously on some of the ways we incorporate nature based play. When I think about the outdoors as a "living" room for children, I am reminded that living things are always evolving and adapting. So, too, do we need to be mindful that our outdoor spaces and experiences must evolve and adapt. When we look at our indoor play spaces, both home and in classroom settings, we are mindful of the space being accessible to children, maintaining their focus and reflecting their interests. We recognize when a child loses focus in a space that perhaps the toys and materials in that space are no longer engaging or perhaps there are too many things out and we need to put some away. We rotate materials, we add things in that are reflective of the season, a holiday, or our children's current interests. So, too, should our outdoor spaces be set up to engage our children in focused play and exploration. Our outdoor living spaces should also reflect the seasons and traditions we embrace indoors. When there is a lull in attention or interest, ask what might be behind it? Are there too many toys and objects out? Not enough? Have the children lost interest in what's out and, if so, what could reignite their interest? The addition of something else? A change in its location or display? Just as we assess the intention and function of materials indoors, so, too, can we do this outside. And many times, it is the adults in my house who have lost that spark to be out in the yard, yet again. How can we work with the environment to make it also more inviting to us? Perhaps it means bringing a basket of knitting outside or a book, a journal, or a refreshing beverage. Or maybe a cozy blanket for sitting on or a lawn chair is more comfortable than the grass. (Incidentally, comfortable and dry places to sit are also an important factor to keep in mind for little ones.)

Finally, in both the indoor and outdoor scenario, I find it helpful to reflect on what the adult role might be when play becomes a bit stale. Are we over-involved and directing too much? Under-involved and distracted? Particularly when it comes to the sensory experiences of the outdoors--mud, dirt, bugs, heat, cold, moisture and more--there can be a variety of reactions and responses. Children intuit very strongly when adults are not comfortable even if we say nothing at all. I encourage my sensory-sensitive peers (I'm right there with you) to take off your gardening gloves and get dirty right there with your little ones. There is so much to be gained by playing in the mud! Since re-vamping our own little outdoor space, I have noticed my own sense of curiosity and creativity reawakening. So, too, have my boys re-engaged with nature. They love our own yard and S is even more eager when we visit parks and other outdoor areas to grab our "gathering basket" or whatever his two hands can carry and bring back something special for our play garden. This is truly a sign that he reveres our space as well as the natural world at large. I, of course, keep in mind that we collect only what we can use and what is not still attached to a living plant or in a preserved area. These lessons are also important ones for my children to learn. 
Early moments of symbolic play in action!

Well, it's just about time to wake up my napping beauties and head out into this Muddy Monday. I have a mat set up for sitting on and towels at the ready to collect the muddy footprints and shoes that will inevitably stomp back inside. May your day be filled with wonder whether or not the sun is shining and may your play inspire memories that last far longer than the mud stains on the knees of your jeans!

Happy Playing!

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!