Thursday, August 16, 2018

Think Outside the Box Thursday: Art for ALL

 I used to know "everything" when I first started teaching and then I finished my college degree and still knew a "few things." Once I had my first child, all of my knowledge and wisdom about teaching and child-rearing magically vanished (unlike the baby weight) and I am now as blissfully ignorant about the early childhood years as the next guy!

I returned to the classroom 5 weeks after S was born and was thrust into this brave new world of knowing absolutely nothing. Parenthood has turned me into a student both at home and in the classroom. I am constantly watching and learning and questioning. I use my village as necessary and it's necessary more often than I'd ever imagined. And perhaps the greatest asset to that village are the children themselves! Young children may have different ways of communicating than adults, but they tell us a lot when we are willing to listen and observe.

Whether you are a parent including structured play activities at home, more formally home schooling or a classroom educator, I hope you'll find these "troubleshooting" posts to be yet another part of your own village. The ideas I will share are all based on my own observations and home or classroom practices. Every child and setting is unique and as such, we need to adapt (and often adapt again and again and again) accordingly. Feel free to try what makes sense and ditch what doesn't! Also feel free to share some of your own thoughts with me in the Comments section or through personal contact. I'm always looking for fresh ideas!

Since we have been exploring Art and Artists this summer, I wanted to kick off our first post with a theme about art with young children. Why is it that some children are naturally drawn to art activities while others are not? Why do some children fill a page while others flee the scene after just a line or two? One child will mass produce picture after picture and another will sit with the same piece of work for hours on end. A little boy rushes in to the art table and begins his work even before being given instructions. Another little girl is sitting, staring at the blank paper, well after instruction has ended. Certainly, children all have different areas of interest, different strengths and talents and different areas of growth and rates of development. How can we as parents and educators work with this to create an environment that encourages art for ALL?

I will (over)simplify this into four basic steps:

  1. Plan for Success
  2. Assess and Address
  3. Revisit and Revise
  4. Observe and Evaluate

And now, for the juicy details...

  1. Plan For Success: Whether you are setting up your art center/materials in a classroom or at home, whether for a structured activity or simply for open access, it is important to plan ahead for maximum success. Here are a few key pointers to consider even before you begin...
    • Can children reach and access all of the things they will need independently?
    • Are materials at child level and visible?
    • On the other end of that coin, if you intend to give verbal and/or visual directions first , are your materials out of accessible reach so that they will not provide an immediate distraction. Please remember that we want children to engage with art supplies. However, expecting them to not handle supplies within their reach while being given directions is very challenging for most.
    • Do the children know all of the steps involved to get the materials they will need and to put them away when they are done? 
    • If you are doing a structured activity or project, do you have everything you need out and accessible? It is helpful to think of all of the steps of your activity from preparation to execution to cleanup. If children need to color and glue, you might want to have markers out first and then the glue when they are done coloring (otherwise, your markers may get super gluey and stop working properly). If the children are painting, do you have an open space set up for drying finished work? Do you have wet rags or wipes nearby for painty hands? Where will children need to go to wash up when they are done and how will they get there?
    • Consider the space and time. Do you have enough physical space and time for the project you are about to embark on? Would your setup work best at a table or on the floor? Seated or standing? Can you provide options within these parameters for children who work better standing or laying on their tummy on the floor?
    • Are your materials all functional? Nothing is more frustrating than finding empty glue sticks or dried up markers and crusty paint brushes when you're ready to get to work! Do your best to weed those out in advance and also to instruct the children to manage their materials as well. Children can throw away an empty glue stick and help wash brushes and remember to cap those markers. Invite them to be resourceful and responsible with materials and this little bit of effort will go a long way!
    • What skill sets are necessary for completing an activity and are these all within your child[ren]'s range? Tasks as minute as pressing a cap all the way down on a marker or squeezing glue out of a bottle or using a "helping hand" to direct paper as the dominant hand cuts are all new and challenging to young artists. Spending the time to support them in the development of these skills can go a long way in eliminating frustration. I would even go so far as to encourage adults to work with children to master these skills rather than always stepping in to do so for them. The self-confidence that inherently comes with self-competence truly feeds creativity in art and other forms of work and play.
    • Safety as always is vital. Make sure that appropriate supervision and support is provided with materials that can pose a choking risk or sharp objects and even permanent paints and markers. 
    • Do allow for use of "real" materials and art supplies, even those that are sharp and permanent. This provides a supported environment in which these forms of "real work" are mastered and children develop a confidence in and reverence for the use of these tools.
    • Protecting spaces and clothing is something to consider as well. Some adults are not too concerned about colorful mishaps and others are. Some children are also more likely to feel concerned about this than others. Make sure that you have adequate coverage options for your work space and for the children themselves. I love using cheap vinyl placemats as "art mats" for smaller scale projects and activities and leaving smocks optional and accessible at home (sometimes less optional in a classroom setting since parents may not appreciate newly tie-dyed clothes coming home). For larger scale messy activities, you may want a cheap shower curtain, tablecloth or sheet to use as a drop cloth and to cover the area. You may also want to dress yourself and your younger artists in clothing that is OK to get messy.

    2. Assess and Address: This is where the rubber meets the road! You've put all the preparations in place and now your activity is underway. You notice that while some of the children are taking to it, some are struggling to begin, rushing to finish or otherwise displaying distress. Here are some common concerns that may come up and ways to address them in the moment...
    • The activity feels too challenging. Many factors can play into a child perceiving that an art activity is too difficult. Perhaps there are too many steps. Children with difficulty processing verbal directions may do better given a visual support. I like to use 3 prompt cards made with movable Velcro parts to support these children. Even pre-readers can use a 3-prompt card with a pictures. If there are more than 3 steps, remove the steps as they are completed and add the next one. I do not like to include more than 3 at a time because this can feel overwhelming. Sometimes having too many supplies out at the same time can be overwhelming in a multi-medium/multi-step activity. Consider having only pencils and markers out to begin with and then handing out the scissors and glue, etc.  
    • There are not enough supplies. It can be hard to wait! If you are working with a large group and do not have enough of certain supplies for each child, consider having rotating stations. One area can be designated to gluing, one to cutting, etc. Alternatively you may consider making sure that there are enough glue sticks and scissors for each set of hands. This can go for both open ended process art and directed art activities. 
    • There are too many supplies. Whether you are setting up an open-access art area for process art that is child led or instructing a project, there is such a thing as too much. Option overload can cause some children to use materials in excess while others may feel altogether inhibited. Keeping shelves and the table stocked minimally and swapping out materials as needed to make space and opportunity for new ones goes a long way. There are certain things that I always have accessible: paper, scrap paper, scissors, glue... and others that I rotate in and out, like a variety of mediums for coloring, writing, drawing, collage, sculpture, etc. Within that framework, I also provide recycled trays and containers so children can easily contain and carry what they need to their space and not have to take everything with them. This is kind of like art portion control but is also generally more aesthetically pleasing to the young artists as they work.
    • Time is of the essence. This is a delicate dance. Too much time, and some artists may grow bored and want to move on. Not enough time, and some artists may feel rushed--reluctant to leave a project and sometimes even reluctant to begin one. Consider how you can allow for artists to have the right amount of time--whether in one session or through the option to leave and return to work at a later point. If a child seems disengaged with an activity, can he or she leave and return to it at another time?
    • Proper Prompting: Do you always finish a big project in one sitting? Alternatively, if you were in the middle of a project and someone said "Ok, let's go!" how would you feel? Consider the fact that even retailers give 15 and 5 minute warnings before they close to their adult customers--all people do best with prompts. Prompting children when time is about to be up can be done quietly from table to table or individually as opposed to through a turn-off-all-the-lights-and-listen-to-my-booming-voice way and it can be helpful to offer a verbal option of returning to the work at a later point if it is not done. It is also helpful to inform young artists in advance if their work will need time to dry or be completed before it can be brought home.
    • To demonstrate or not to demonstrate? That is the question. When adults provide an adult sample--or even a child's sample, is this helpful or hindering? My answer is YES, to both. For some, it is helpful, for some it is intimidating, for some it is limiting, for some it gives structure. This is an area you will need to assess on an individual and time-by-time basis. I have worked with the gamut of personalities, from those who want an adult to draw for them to those who cringe at an adult writing their name at the bottom corner and everything in between. I try to be sensitive to all of these feelings whether they are all rolled up into one child or across a classroom. In a classroom setting, peer work can also play an influential role, for better or for worse. Using language like "everyone's work will be a little bit different" and "I did it this way, but you might have another idea and that is OK" seems to help. 
    • In Praise of [Not] Praising:  How we speak to and about a child's work also contributes to his/her feelings about it. Avoiding comparison remarks and even avoiding quantitative and qualitative remarks in general--whether positive or negative is challenging but also important. This is not to say that we should never praise a child's work and say how beautiful it is. It is simply to say that we should also include statements that notice the work (Oh, I see you chose to use a lot of red in this area, can you tell me more about that?) or praise that reflects the effort and invoke's the child's feelings of accomplishment (You worked for a long time on that with a great deal of focus, I can tell you really feel proud about it!).
    • The Good Enough Artist: Perfectionism is a quality that can lead to a masterpiece or stifle creativity altogether. In myself and in my students and in my own children, I have seen it do both. Allowing and encouraging the Good Enough Artist is a unique balancing act. Self confidence can be attained in many ways. While external praise can initially increase confidence, the most sustainable form of cultivating confidence in our children's creative work is through their own feelings of self mastery. Sometimes children will become distressed at wanting to draw or create something they "can't do." I appeal to what they can do. What colors is it? What shapes? What do you feel when you see it? It doesn't have to be a photograph--so much of our art is not! Introduce these young artists to impressionist paintings and abstract art by great artists--there are many right ways to capture the same object or idea.
    • Helping and Hindering Environments: Some children work well in a quiet environment, others work best with some music. Some may be distracted by very bright light coming through a window or extraneous noise or even a strong smell (and some art materials do have a strong smell). Some children are averse to certain textures or messy art and having options within this to wipe or wash hands intermittently or perhaps to use a brush to paint or tool in clay rather than bare hands can go a long way in making sensory sensitive children feel invited into the art process. Additionally, the amount we, the adults, are speaking can go a long way in helping or hindering an artist. Too much adult talk can be quite distracting and too much adult presence can feel intimidating. I try to maintain longer pauses between my own talk during art times and to allow artists who do need more space and quiet for focus to have that. In assessing your art environment, I encourage you to sit where and how your young artists will sit, to stand at child level and really try to gain a sense of how they will experience the space. You may notice something that needs tweaking even before the issue arises!
3. Revisit and Revise: This is kind of the troubleshooting phase. This is where you tweak things a bit to meet the current needs of the artists in you room. This will certainly be a very unique to the individual and unique to the circumstance step, but here are a few out-of-the-box ideas that I like to incorporate in general:
  • Alternative work space: We generally view art as a seated activity. Perhaps we also envision standing at an easel. The option to work standing at a table, seated with a tabletop easel, outdoors, indoors, laying on the floor, on a vertical surface and even lying on their backs underneath a table with the bottom covered with paper and reaching overhead can all be ways to encourage a reluctant artist or inspire an eager one. 
  • The Scribble Sheet: We all know at least one kid who loves to scribble. Whether or not that is developmentally related (and scribbling is where they are at with drawing and writing) or personality related (it feels good to scribble), I provide the option of a Scribble Sheet. Children can get a piece of paper from the scrap paper bin and get all of those scribbles out before beginning to work, during work times and whenever they feel the need and desire. I do not judge scribbles as "less than" a form of art, but rather a part of the process for some children, and they can, in fact, be quite beautiful! A Scribble Sheet also provides an option for young artists who wish to have a space for a rough copy or practicing a technique.
  • Size, texture and color matters: When it comes to paper, sometimes introducing paper in a different size makes all the difference! We tend to steer straight for the standard printer size, perhaps the slightly larger construction paper. Consider providing large easel paper or small blank index cards. Or graph paper. Or paper of different colors and textures.What about canvas or fabric or tin foil? A great way to increase your options is to make use of your scraps. Save bits and pieces from projects in a plastic bin or tray for artists to use. Standard white paper is great, but not every artist is drawn to drawing on it.
  • And while we're on the topic of drawing on paper... This is not every artist's favorite medium Sculpture, clay and dough work, wire, beading, building, designing, sewing, fiber crafts, collage, and photography are just a few more forms of visual art. The world of computers have also added a whole new world to design and graphic art. Allow for opportunities with a variety of artistic methods and mediums. Everyone has at least one artistic bone in his or her body--you may just have to find it!
  • Join 'em! While adult samples and modeling are something I feel we should be mindful of, actually sitting in and joining our little ones in art together can be a great way to bond and inspire each other's creativity. Whether at home or in the classroom, engaging with children during art times, even participating, can be such an asset to all artists (yourself included).
  • Expose children to art. And all types! Hang artwork at their visual level--their own and that of "The Greats." Let them touch art, let them see art and let them appreciate art--even if it means slowing down to admire things in nature or in a book... Make time to expose children to art in a variety of forms and locations and let them catch you doing the same!
  • Stop, drop and roll with the punches. Sometimes, you really just need to stop and drop an activity. Maybe the timing isn't ideal. Maybe the activity isn't ideal. Maybe you will tweak it and return to it, maybe not. Be OK with abandoning ship when that feels like the best thing to do. Also be OK with letting young artists see you make that choice. "Gosh, I'm just not feeling this right now," or "this really isn't working how I wanted it to and I'm frustrated. I'm going to take a break from it and maybe I'll try again later.
  • When is it done? Who decides when a piece of art is finished? This is a particularly sensitive area for the young minimalists in your life. When a child does leave a great deal of "white space" on a project, perhaps only adding one or two colors or lines and walking away, do you push him to "add more" or allow for the white space? Here are a few things to consider: Was the work, however minimal, intentional? S will quite often leave a good portion of a paper blank. He is, however, very intentional in how, where and why he places his work. If, on the other hand, you sense a child rushed through an activity and is leaving the project for another reason, perhaps inquire about why that is. Boredom, avoidance, distraction, frustration and so many other factors can play a role. This is where I often encourage offering a smaller sized paper. Blank canvas can be intimidating and standard sized paper is bigger than the little hands that work with it. Try offering a 4x6 blank index card and observe what happens. On the other end of the spectrum are the page fillers. Paint is piling high and deep. Glue is leaving you in a sticky situation and glitter might be everywhere. Again, I encourage you to assess the situation before saying "it looks like you're all done." I would inform about the likelihood for paper to rip when it is too wet with paint or to work on techniques to control the amount of glue or glitter that leave the bottle and jar in order eliminate unnecessary waste. But I also hesitate to tell an artist that her work is finished if she is genuinely still working. There is art in and of itself to be discovered through thickly layered paint and a whole world of beauty and bliss in the textures of glittery glue. An artist with a very wet painting can be offered a second sheet of paper to make a print and now he has two paintings! In either scenario, asking "does it feel done?" or "what's next?" can go a long way in encouraging young artists at work.
4. Observe and Evaluate: This is a unique step, because although I list observe and evaluate together, I want you to separate them. Take the time to observe and ONLY observe. A child using a material in a way that is not how you intended is not necessarily wrong--give it the time and space it deserves (unless, of course, it is a dangerous situation, and then intervene!) and see where it goes. Evaluate after the fact. What worked? What didn't? What would you do next time? What could encourage this particular child and what inhibits him? What was your role in the experience? What would you like your role to be? Are you too involved? Not involved enough? 
I think, perhaps, the most important factor to consider is what the child's experience was. Children are not as driven by product as we are. In fact, they are hugely process oriented. Whether the art experience was child led or adult-directed, did the child seem engaged? Content? Frustrated? Encouraged? Rushed? Hesitant? Thoughtful? Distracted? And ask about their experience! How was it for you to make this___? Was it hard? Was it fun? Was it frustrating? Exciting? These are all great clues into what gets a child's creative gears spinning and how you can get your own working in conjunction to create an incredible opportunity in art for ALL!

I hope this post was helpful in getting your own thoughts going about engaging in art with young children. It certainly is not a post with as many answers as questions--but those questions are so vital in our experience as adults working with young children (the real experts). I would love to hear some of your own thoughts on the subject and tools of the trade! I'd also love to hear your ideas for future troubleshooting posts and would be happy to dive into any concerns or topics of interest. Feel free to respond in the Comments section or contact me personally. 

Happy Playing!

Monday, August 13, 2018

We're Getting Ready to Rock!

The Sprout Scouts Playcamp is READY TO ROCK this week with our Rocks & Stones theme. Rocks are one of our favorite play themes here, and it certainly is a theme worth repeating. We will likely revisit some of our favorite rock themed activities and we'll be exploring some new ones as well. While Sprout Scouts Playcamp is nearing the end of its summer run, the nice thing about a rock theme (and just about any of our Summer themes for that matter) is that there is still much to explore well into the Fall and even year round.

I spent some time yesterday adding in some themed materials and activities into our play area. A few updates were made to our Ever-changing Book, a couple of our drawers stocked with a Rocks & Stones Observation Station and sensory play trays with kinetic sand and stones.

We have an amazing rock and mineral collection from my mom. Rather than setting out the whole collection at once, I stock the small baskets nightly with some interesting ones and the drawer also contains magnifying glasses, magnifying containers, a couple of rulers (S is very into measuring these days) and a prism scope. You could add in a scale if you have one, options for drawing and documentation or whatever else might be useful for observation.

The boys both loved singing and acting out this Stone Soup song. Don't forget to check out the short story stretcher activities we did last summer with the story of Stone Soup!

We happened to take a little day trip yesterday and stopped by a little gift shop on the road. Outside the shop as we had our picnic lunch, S noticed a beautifully painted rock left in front of some flower planters. What a find! While we have not actually painted and left our own Rocks for Kindness, we have been on the receiving end of a few and we happened to have one of our finds in the car still! We swapped out the rocks and made our way. S already has in mind that he'd like to paint some rocks of our own this week...

We will also be engaging in some great sensory play activities, both indoors and outside, a rock & mineral scavenger hunt, making our own rock n' roll band, smashing geodes, performing some rock science experiments and more!

We got out some of our favorite rock themed books from our own collection and some from the library. We explored rocks on the light table (such an incredible experience!) and had loads of fun in the first of our rock themed sensory bins, I-Spy Letter Rocks in Rainbow Rice. S took it upon himself to find everyone's special letter (the letter that begins our name) and Y got a kick out of holding his Y rock.

 There are so many great rock themed activities out there:

Rocks are a fabulous theme on their own, but you can also integrate it with our Digging in the Dirt Theme or explore the vast history of fossils and rocks with our dinosaur themed activities.

We will be back with more rockin' play ideas later this week. Until then...

Rock on & happy playing!

Friday, August 10, 2018

Sprout Scouts Playcamp: Grow Your Own Green Thumb, From Farm[ers Market] to Table

Here at the Sprout Scouts Playcamp, the garden is in its next phase of harvest. Many things are blooming and growing in spite of me and we're enjoying a small but bountiful harvest of fresh herbs, tomatoes, green beans, flowers, and even still some hot peppers. We have faced and organically fought squash bugs and have one mini pumpkin and one mini gourd to show for it. We have done a fair amount of taste testing, cooking, baking and preserving in our kitchen, but when it came to the next part of our Grow Your Own Green Thumb play-theme, taking it from the garden to the table, I decided to leave our home altogether and head to the local Farmers Market. We've made occasional visits to farmers markets here this summer and when we had an unexpected day freed up to visit one of my favorites, we brought our bags, our appetites and a great free printable scavenger hunt from Natural Beach Living. You can print off your own and other great farmers market themed printables here! S and Y both got to pick a fruit or vegetable to taste and bring home. S wanted nectarines and Y wanted cucumbers (probably to make pickles, his new favorite food).

Getting out in the garden is a great way to get kids involved in growing, tasting and cooking with their own fresh produce. Whether you have an adventurous eater or a more tentative taster (I've got one of each now), experiencing the full process of seasonal eating is a valuable experience. If you live near a farmers market, I highly encourage you to take your family on an adventure. Try something new. Talk to the farmers. Get excited about fruits, veggies and flowers! If you do not live near a farmers market, consider a trip to a U-pick farm (we went strawberry picking earlier this summer) or even a trip to your local grocery store. 

Scavenger hunts are a great way to explore the colors and flavors of the season. Consider researching recipes for a new to you fruit or vegetable. We even made an adventure (and a bracha) out of trying a new fruit from a produce stand in Brooklyn, NY while on vacation! Another option if your location and budget permit is to join a CSA and have locally grown produce delivered right to your door (or another nearby location) year round. We subscribe to one on a bi-weekly basis and adjust our grocery budget accordingly. This helps us to eat in season and be a bit more creative about recipe planning and using what we have.

Summer is a great season to grow and harvest a plethora of produce. As it comes to a close, we will enjoy the flavors of Autumn and get creative about savoring and preserving the remaining summer abundance. We will also get creative about continuing to garden both outdoors in our longer southern summer season and then indoors once the cool weather arrives. It feels important to still be surrounded by growth, life and fresh flavors! Until the next time...

Happy Playing!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Little House & The Farm, Part 7: Handcrafted and Homemade

It is always a little sad when good things come to an end. Stores smell of fresh school supplies this time of year and even though the summer is in full heat and harvest, its end is just around the corner. This summer, moving with the rhythm of my boys' interests felt like such a freedom. And as such, we did not get to everything we originally planned in the Sprout Scouts Playcamp--which is totally OK! With that in mind, we have a few more themes we do want to squeeze into these last long days of summertime and it's time to wrap up our time in the past with our Little House & the Farm theme. We will surely be continuing to read aloud from the series, especially during long summer Shabbats and many of the activities we did over these past couple of weeks will return for repeat visits and time goes on.

We had one of those "If You Give a Mouse a Cookie Days" here earlier this week when I set out a simple button and pipe cleaner craft at our Morning Work table. Both boys loved it! S mastered the fine motor skill of stringing buttons onto his pipe cleaner and Y mastered the fine motor skill of using his pincer grasp to select one button at a time for me to string on his pipe cleaner.

Well, using these buttons reminded S of sewing and he wanted to sew from there! So when Y was taking his morning nap, I put together a small plastic canvas and sewing kit for S. He worked with the plastic canvas and embroidery thread for a bit and then wanted to sew some buttons on. That reminded him of his needlepoint that we started over the winter. He decided to use that to sew on some buttons with regular thread and a needle (and his Mommy's help) and from there, he decided to use his ruler to measure how big it was. This is when he decided it was all finished and that he wanted to turn it into a pillow!

His Mommy helped finish the last bit of sewing after he chose a fabric for the back and now his dolls have a brand new pillow to sleep on!
Well, after we finished working on that, he admired the buttons on his finished needlepoint and that reminded him he wanted more buttons! So it was off to the craft supply store with a gift card I had for stored up rewards points and both boys started their own button collections. It is so much fun to watch them appreciate the small notions that brought such joy to Laura and Mary in Little House in the Big Woods and quite nostalgic to remember my own bead and button collections as a little girl. My older sister taught me all about "bartering" and "negotiating" through collected beads and buttons and now I can share these same hands on lessons with the boys.

Watching them observe, trade and design with their collected buttons and beads gave me the inspiration for this Morning Work activity to design with loose parts on mirrors using their special collections. S enjoyed arranging designs around his mirror and Y got a real kick out of placing fruit shaped buttons upside down and looking at their reflections!

As our weeks draw to a close, the boys get increasingly excited for Shabbos here. Shabbos, among other things, means tasty home-baked treats and challah! S loves to help me bake and even takes great pride in deciding what we will make for Shabbos dessert. Y loves to help shape challah just as much as his older brother and both boys enjoy the eating part.

I remember as a young girl in Hebrew school we once made "challah babies" out of stuffed stockings braided like challahs and decorated to look like babies. An amazing teacher in S's school actually used this method to teach her students to braid challah and I combined the ideas this morning with a laminated visual aid for each boy to explore at his own level. Y is years away from braiding and had a lot of fun playing with the "dough" nonetheless, but S actually got the hang of it with my help!

S asked me to sew the challahs together as a permanent braid. I gave him the option to leave them as "play challahs" for our Shabbos toy set that we take out each week or to turn them into challah baby dolls. He wanted to keep them as toy challahs! Tomorrow morning the boys will get to shape their own loaves of challah to bake fresh for Shabbos. Baking was such an integral part of the Ingalls home and I am so glad it is an integral part of ours as well. With Rosh Chodesh Elul just upon us, it's time to start stocking up on baked goods and challah for the yom tovim! There are so many valuable lessons to take from the Little House books. The Ingalls family must always use what they have and to its greatest possible potential. There's no running to Walmart every time the whim strikes and more and more, I try to live this way and convey it to the boys as well. This morning we used that washboard again to make music while we sang songs from our Ever-changing Book!
The second great lesson I take from reading the Little House books is to slow down. Summer days are long lasting but short lived. But for now, there is nothing urgently calling upon me (even if it often feels that there is). We can slow down, smell the challah baking and taste the sweetness of each day as it comes. Next week we will be back to explore a favorite theme of ours--rocks! And I'll even throw in a bonus post on our Grow Your Own Green Thumb theme that will take you from Garden to Table (and even the Farmers' Market). Until then...
Happy Playing!

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Little House & The Farm, Part 6: Washing Day!

Farming and homesteading in the times of the Pioneers was a lot of work! It can be difficult to convey, let alone personally grasp the amount of time, effort and preparation that went into the most mundane tasks we now take for granted. In Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods, Ma has a weekly routine of chores set up. Now we may spend parts of a day (sometimes every day) doing laundry, cooking, cleaning, shopping for groceries and household items. For Laura and her family, a task like making butter for the household could take much of a day. Grocery stores the way we know them were still years away and General Stores were miles away without the convenience of modern transportation. As much as I complain about laundry (and I complain about it a lot), we have it pretty easy here with a washer and dryer right in our kitchen. Nonetheless, I splurged (with a credit I had) on Amazon and bought an old fashioned washboard. I wanted to set up a play scene outside for the boys to try out their own washing day and it just so happened that Monday of this past week was [finally] the perfect weather after a week of rainy days. Gosh, I can't imagine how a week like that would have affected Ma's chore routine!

I have to admit that many times when I set up an activity, I have an inkling of whether it will be enjoyed for a long while, quickly tried or not appreciated at all. And sometimes I have no clue! This time, I was pleasantly surprised with just how much both boys loved our washing day! I set up a simple three step station to

  1. Scrub: I set up the bin of our sensory table right on the grass with soapy water, our washboard and a handful of square washcloths/dishrags. I used peppermint castile soap as it is gentle on little hands and also a wonderful laundry detergent in a pinch! 
  2. Rinse: I set a second, smaller plastic basin with just plain water for rinsing.
  3. Dry: We don't have a drying rack but our sensory table base was the perfect height and setup for a makeshift clothes line. I tied on three rows of twine and added in a collection of wooden clothes pins.
When it was time to go outside, I gave a brief demo of the three steps to the boys. I showed how to use the washboard to scrub the washcloths, how to ring out the wet, soapy rags, how to rinse and ring again and two ways to hang them to dry (this step would likely be more geared toward S). One way was to use a couple of clothespins and the other was to drape the towel folded over the twine. Then it was up to them to have at it and get to work!

They had so much fun! As we worked, we sang a little song to the tune of Row Row Row Your Boat:

Wash, wash, washing day,
Washing day is here!
Wash, wash, wash away,
We do our work with cheer!

Y particularly loved the song! He may or may not have climbed into the soapy water a couple of times as well. S spent a good long while mastering the technique of using clothespins on the clothesline. He was so proud to have mastered it! This is a great activity to incorporate both gross and fine motor skills as children at different ages and stages maneuver their way around all three stations, scrubbing against the washboard, ringing out cloths, and hanging them to dry. And while I cannot guarantee that practicing laundry as a child will yield an adult love of the chore (I used to love pretending to iron and I have ironed once ever in my entire adult life), it is a likely your little ones will enjoy this activity now!

And when it comes to chores and household tasks, Ma had the right idea in creating a predictable routine and engaging the help of her children each at their own level and abilities. And after Ma came Maria Montessori who was a huge advocate of teaching children practical life skills both in the classroom and at home. Creating ways in which certain chores are able to be done with or by the younger members of our family is a way we incorporate a bit of Montessori style in our own home. Even very young members of the family benefit from contributing to household tasks and feel quite eager and important when doing so. Sure, folding the actual laundry takes a bit longer when S wants to do all the washcloths, rags and dish towels himself, but when we can afford to include the boys in these seemingly mundane tasks, we do a great deal to foster their own independence, confidence and competence. Think of it kind of like an investment plan!

Happy Household Helping and Playing!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Little House & the Farm, Part 5: 3 Themed Play Activities with Cinnamon Spice Playdough

Playdough is currency here. Both my boys would be totally content to play with it every day and maybe even all day! We use plenty of store-bought playdoughs and I even allow mixing colors (gasp!) but I love making our own. It's cheap, it's fast, it's fun and it is also quite nostalgic for me as I recall my own mother making playdough for us at home (and in her classrooms).

I especially love the option with homemade playdough to add in unique colors, scents and textures. On a whim before heading out to host our most recent Park n'Play Group, I whipped up a batch of sparkly blue lavender scented playdough for the children to use when they were done painting clouds on mirrors. We packed along some rolling pins, plastic knives and cookie cutters and this was as popular an activity with our group as the mirror painting!

At home, I often have a little helper or two when making playdough. With any cooking activity that involves the stove top, support and supervision are a must. Additionally, you'll want to be prepared that the dough will be too hot to handle right away, especially for little hands. For our Little House & The Farm play theme, I really wanted a dough with a theme related feel. Nothing to me says homestead more than the scent of cinnamon spice. This playdough smells good enough to eat and is technically edible, but not at all tasty, so you'll want to inform your little ones that it is to play with and not to taste.

To make Cinnamon Spice Playdough
You will need:

  • 1 cup white flour
  • 1/4 cup salt
  • 2 TBSP cream of tartar
  • 2-3 teaspoons cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice, all-spice, cloves, nutmeg (in any combination)
  • 1 TBSP oil
  • 1 cup water
Instructions: In a medium sized saucepan, combine all of your ingredients and mix well. In this dough, your spices give both a scent and a lovely color. Add as much as you like in whatever combination you prefer to achieve your desired shade and scent. Turn the heat on your burner to medium/medium-low. You'll need to keep stirring as the dough cooks and thickens. It may be a bit lumpy at first, but rest assured your stirring and kneading and subsequent playing will get those lumps out in no time. This is a very forgiving recipe and while it will be quite sticky as it thickens, your pan will come clean with a good scrape from a spatula and the dough itself. Anything left behind does best to be soaked in soapy water and easily washed away. Once your dough is thickened to a large ball in the center of the pot, you're ready to remove it from the heat. Wait a bit until it is cool enough to handle (please carefully test it before giving it to children) and knead it well on a cutting mat or art mat. Once it is cool enough to handle, you're ready to play! Store in an airtight container or ziplock bag between use. Dough generally keeps for at least a couple of weeks this way.

  1.  Cinnamon Spice Bakery: Our first themed activity with our playdough was to play about baking with it! All throughout the Little House books, Ma is baking breads, cookies, cakes, pancakes and more! Add in some plastic knives, rolling pins, cookie cutters and kitchen utensils and you're ready to bake just like Laura and her family!
  2. Invitation to Build a Farm: Wooden craft sticks in two widths and a collection of small plastic farm animals (these are from Walmart) were set out on our sectioned tray for the boys to build their own farms. This is a great way to incorporate STEM and building activities into sensory play! I did not give specific instructions, but rather allowed each of the boys to explore the materials as they wished. 
    Y enjoyed gathering and collecting (aka: hoarding) materials and squishing them into the dough. He also acted out little scenes with the animals walking along the table.

    S had a whole story line going with the animals in his craft stick fence. The cat was quite sad because her mother was gone. The other animals helped to look after her while she waited for Mother Cat to return.

3. Invitation to Build Your Own Little House: One of the most fascinating parts of the second of the Little House books, Little House on the Prairie is when Pa builds the family's new home out of logs and wood! My First Little House Books: A Little Prairie House adapted from the Little House books is a great version of this to share with the younger crowd and has beautiful illustrations by Renee Graef to go along. We scored a set of Lincoln Logs from a local thrift shop a while back and added those in along with the wooden craft sticks in this invitation to play. You could easily do without the Lincoln Logs and you could also add in wood blocks of another kind or even twigs and natural loose parts for building. The boys had so much fun building their own unique log cabins.

 Building with Lincoln Logs can often be a little challenging for young children as they learn to master the art of balancing the groves properly so their structures don't topple over. The addition of playdough to this mix allowed a whole new dimension of building--even working vertically for S and he took his building to all new heights (literally).

I hope this simple recipe and the ideas to accompany it inspire some fun sensory and STEM play in your own home. We have more themed fun coming up and until then...

Happy Playing!

Monday, August 6, 2018

Little House & The Farm, Part 4: Hand-Dyeing Fabric with a Modern Twist

One of the most fascinating aspects of learning about young Laura Ingalls Wilder's life has been comparing the many similarities of her interests and activities to S's own. He and young Laura (who in the first of the Little House books is 4 just like he is) both love to play with dolls and help bake and clean the house and work in the garden. However, unlike S, when Laura would want a toy doll to play with, she could not go to Walmart and buy one; her mother had to make one! And she did not have the choice of home-baked bread or store-bought-- nearly everything she ate was grown, harvested and prepared at home without the modern luxury of ovens, stove tops or even refrigerators and freezers. S has particularly enjoyed working with sewing and fabrics over the course of our Little House & the Farm playtheme (and Y has benefited from the fruits of our labor as well!) and he was very eager to try his hand at dyeing fabric with me one morning.

There are many ways to hand-dye fabric at home and certainly many that would be historically more accurate that the way we went with! Natural dyes can be made from so many plants, produce and spices you have on hand or in the garden. We took a modern twist on this and I bought some Kool-aid packets! I wanted a dye option that was safe for little hands to handle and not too time/labor intensive as I wanted to be able to squeeze this activity in while the smaller set of the small hands in this family were having a morning nap.

We used:

  • Kool-aid packets in red, orange yellow, blue, and purple (we mixed our own green)
  • white vinegar
  • water and an electric kettle (you can boil water on stove-top as well)
  • one large pot, six smaller bowls, a colander, a teaspoon
  • small rubber bands
  • white bandannas and white tea towels--SPOILER ALERT and little kitchen science in action, the tea towels came out of the wash white again so if you want a permanent dye job, be sure to opt for natural fiber (cotton) or a more permanent dyeing process)
*rubber gloves (optional)--our hands did come out quite colorfully, which now makes me question was Kool-aid does on the inside if you drink it!
You may also wish to protect your clothing and work space.

I prepped our fabric by soaking in boiling water and a couple of teaspoons of white vinegar. Because this activity involves very hot water, you will need adult support and supervision. I imagine working with water that is actually boiling or using the microwave (as many online tutorials suggest) might provide a more vibrant color and perhaps more permanent results in some fabrics, but I wanted S to be able to participate, so I boiled water in advance and we waited for it to cool a bit before he was able to touch it. I was more process than product focused with this activity.

As the fabric soaked, we prepared six colors of dye: red, orange, yellow, green (yellow and blue), blue and purple Kool-aid powder each mixed with hot water and about equal amounts of white vinegar. I squeezed out the fabric before we tied them off in sections with small rubber bands. Please be sure an adult does the ringing out here as the water in the pot (and fabric) may still be hot. We dipped our fabric into one color, one section at a time. We were not particularly exact in how long we let them soak but we sure had fun watching the colors soak into the fabric and mix!

When each piece of fabric was fully dyed, we removed the rubber bands and gave them a good squeeze and rinse through the colander.
It was so much fun to reveal the surprise designs made by the dye and the rubber banded sections!

I ran all of the pieces through the dryer first, even before washing, in the hopes of setting our stain in! As mentioned above, the tea towels did revert to white again (amazing!) after being run through a cold wash afterward, but they will surely still be useful and perhaps we will try our hands at dyeing another way in the future. The bandannas retained their color and are lovely cloth napkins now! We use cloth napkins (mostly purchased from secondhand stores) daily for meals which saves us a lot on the cost of paper products and waste. S is always eager to choose one of the hand-dyed napkins and thank goodness we made two, because Y wants the very same thing!

It is so incredible to learn about the handcrafts and household tasks of yesteryear. It is also such a luxury that we can travel by car to the store and buy the food and materials we need and quickly bring them home and easily use, preserve, wash and use them again. These are truly things that we take for granted! I love exploring handcrafts with young children because I believe it fosters creativity, feelings of confidence and competence, a sense of slowing down and being connected with our resources as well as with each other.

We will be back with some fun ways to use playdough for sensory play and a STEM activity related to our theme and until then...

Happy Playing!

Friday, August 3, 2018

Little House & The Farm, Part 3: Doll Making with Young Children

I've written before on Handcrafting for Little Hands and I knew I wanted to incorporate some handcrafting into our Little House & The Farm play theme. One of the most whimsical aspects of the Little House books is how the girls play with their dolls. S especially loves baby dolls and really enjoyed hearing the parts in Little House in the Big Woods about Mary's rag doll and Laura's wish for a rag doll that finally gets fulfilled in the winter holiday season. I decided we would surely try our hands at some ways of making our own dolls here. Sewing is a bit beyond S's capability at 4 years old, though he loves to practice stitching with a blunt needle on burlap or plastic canvas. He loved a laminated/velcro version of these Pioneeer paper dolls I prepared in our Ever-changing Book and both boys had fun using glue, ribbon, fabric scraps and buttons to create their own paper dolls.

1. Paper Dolls Collage
I gave each boy a small basket with yarn for hair and a couple of googly eyes. S decided to use buttons for eyes instead; what a creative idea! They shared the center materials between each other and I set out some colored pencils for added details as well. Once they were dry, they could use them in play or to hang on display!

Doll making need not be a very advanced activity, and in this second version, even young hands can help!

2. Yarn Dolls
I came across this great tutorial on making yarn dolls from Little House Living and decided to give it a whirl! We used some acrylic yarn we had on hand and you can use any yarn at all. You don't even need a whole skein--we made four dolls with plenty of yarn left to spare. Choose your favorite solid color or variegated yarn and begin by wrapping 20-30 times around the width of your fingers. I have a small hand, so I spread my fingers a bit. This will be the arms and hands of your doll.

Cut your yarn and tie a small length of yarn about half an inch in on either side. These will be the doll's hands. Cut the loops to create the fingers.

For the body, wrap yarn around a book or piece of cardboard 20-30 times. Not so ironically, the book closest to me was Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House in the Big Woods! For the girl doll, I wrapped around the width of the book. For the boy doll, I wrapped around the length of the book.

Cut your yarn and tie off a piece of yarn about a half an inch from the top. This will be the top of the head and hair. You can leave it in loops like a bun or cut the loops for spiky hair! Tie another piece of yarn about an inch down to create the head. Cut through the loops on the other end of the body. Next, you'll separate the yarn into two sections. Slip your arms up below the head and pull the yarn of the body over top. Tie a piece of yarn below that to secure the arms in place. 

For a "boy" doll, you can separate the remaining strands of yarn into two sections and braid each section into legs or simply tie each section about an inch from the bottom. I opted to braid the legs.

For the "girl" doll, simply trim any uneven ends to create her skirt and you're done!

S and Y love these little dolls so much. S especially liked helping to wind the yarn around the book and Y carried his doll with him all the way to the library story time and kept showing it off the librarian! 

The final doll in our post is more of an adult project (in case you were looking for one) or a great first sewing project for an older child! I adapted the tutorial for Pioneer Handkerchief Dolls at Homemaker's Journal and used some of the Paw Patrol fabric and ribbons the boys bought at our General Store to surprise them each with their own Little House with a Modern Twist rag doll!

I have to admit, this took me back to my own days at day camp taking a summer sewing class and making dozens of different types of dolls. There is something so special about handmade toys and even at just 4 and 1, S and Y already seem to appreciate that. 

No doll is complete without a blanket to help put her to sleep! Quilting was surely a popular and necessary handcraft in the days of the pioneers, but also one that is yet a bit beyond my little guys. Using tacky glue and fabric squares and scraps on a sheet of felt was the perfect way to introduce the concept to them and a way they could each make a warm and cozy quilt for their new rag dolls. I also set out some buttons, which both boys seem to love! Once the glue was good and dry, they were ready to be used with our dolls or hung on display. 

While modern day conveniences (and Paw Patrol) are lovely aspects of the age we live in, it is fun and fascinating to dabble in the ways of the past and to play and imagine about how Laura and her siblings must have lived. Handcrafts need not become lost arts and indeed, there is a great deal of joy and meaning that comes from creating something with love and intention. We will be back with a colorful spin on hand dyeing fabric in our next post. Until then...

Happy Playing!