Finding Nature with Kids

outdoor abacus

Outdoor Abacus. Tot Spot, Children’s Discovery Museum, Sausalito

Although I grew up in the culturally-rich and naturally-poor concrete jungle of Los Angeles, I had the good fortune of having a wild backyard at my imaginative disposal. On the hillside of our rough-and-tumble yard, my parents thoughtfully installed a playhouse filled with nooks and crannies for storing treasures and a magical trap door, hidden beneath a rug, where we could escape into a dirt patch next to an apple tree. We built forts in the overgrown bushes, picked apricots, pears, and plums from our trees, and generally invented our own little universe in the world behind our house.

In contrast, 100 yards beyond our front door lay a busy intersection, replete with a fire station, liquor store, abandoned hospital, and a bar that opened at 6 am and advertised “live girls and pool.” Until I was about eight, I actually thought they had a swimming pool in there, and imagined girls floating around on rafts just beyond the saloon doors. Sigh. Despite our less than pastoral location, having access to a backyard wonderland filled me with a love of nature that one wouldn’t expect in a city child.

Similarly, you may live in a less-than-ideal spot with few options to take your kids on nature walks or let them roam the neighboring creek, and it could be helpful to peek at an idealized utopia of nature-play to seek some inspiration for fostering creativity in the great outdoors.

Playing with Mud and Water

To get us started, in their article, Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environment: Returning to Nature (1), playground designer and early childhood experts Randy White and Vicki Stoecklin, found that when given the option of imagining their ideal outdoor play space, children would choose things like water, sand, and vegetation over jungle gyms and slides…a surprising observation in light of what most of our neighborhood parks actually look like. The reason? “Traditional playgrounds with fixed equipment do not offer children opportunities to play creatively (2) and promote competition rather than co­operation (3).” (Play Outside. Public Schools of North Carolina.). Slides and swings are no doubt fun, but children will bore more quickly of these closed-ended activities than they will of open-ended play spaces like sandboxes, forts, ponds, and climbing trees that allow for plentiful interpretations.

Playground designer, Randy White shares a comprehensive and workable list of things that children prefer in outdoor environments. I’ve found that some of these ideas can be implemented on a small-scale, and that inspiration can be found for even the most lacking of outdoor spaces.  These are also great things to look for when searching for playgrounds or preschools that foster creative growth through outdoor play.

Basic Components of Naturalized Play Environments (4):

  • Water
  • Plentiful indigenous vegetation, including trees, bushes, flowers and long grasses that children can explore and interact with
  • Animals, creatures in ponds, butterflies, bugs
  • Sand, and best if it can be mixed with water
  • Diversity of color, textures and materials
  • Ways to experience the changing seasons, wind, light, sounds and weather
  • Natural places to sit in, on, under, lean against, climb and provide shelter and shade
  • Different levels and nooks and crannies, places that offer socialization, privacy and views
  • Structures, equipment and materials that can be changed, actually, or in their imaginations, including plentiful loose parts

References:

(1) White, Randy and Vicki Stoecklin, Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environment: Returning to Nature. Early Childhood News magazine, March/April 1998.

(2) Walsh, P. (1993). Fixed equipment – a time for change. Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 18(2), 23­29.

(3) Barbour, A. (1999). The impact of playground design on the play behaviors of children with differing levels of physical competence. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 14(1), 75­98.

(4) White, Randy. Young Children’s Relationship with Nature: Its Importance to Children’s Development & the Earth’s Future. Taproot, Fall/Winter 2006, Vol. 16, No. 2. The Coalition for Education in the Outdoors, Cortland, NY.

Resources

Play Outside: Recommended Resources for Outdoor Learning Environments. Inspiring quotes, articles, and research for parents and early childhood educators.

Outdoor Learning Environments. National Clearninghouse for Educational Facilities. A long, detailed list of articles, videos and research on outdoor learning spaces.

Wonderful Whiteboarding

n at stanford 2 erasing

If you’ve been following me, you probably know that I love introducing my daughter to a variety of media.  When I went on maternity leave a couple years ago, this little dry erase board came home from the office with me, and it’s now a spot where N can freely draw while we brew our morning coffee and heat up oatmeal. We also have the Ikea easel, which has a dry erase board on one side, and this moves freely between N’s bedroom and the living room.

Creative Connection

Dry erase drawing is great because it’s temporary, easily wipes up when a drawing is complete, and the pen moves across the smooth whiteboard surface in a fashion so different from markers.  Watching my daughter draw in this medium, I see that her ideas flow freely, one idea emerges into another, and when she’s done, a simple swipe of the eraser allows her to begin all over again.  It’s like brainstorming at the toddler level!  Plus, on a large scale, drawing on a white board is a lot like drawing on a wall — without the cleaning nightmare associated with all of that.

(Photo: Fast Company)

Related to this, my husband, Scott, happens to co-direct the Environments Collaborative (i.e. he designs the interior spaces) in the incredibly creative Stanford Institute of Design, where dry-erase boards hang freely in place of walls (see photo above). They even have an entire room (called the White Room – surprise, surprise!) dedicated to whiteboard-style brainstorming.  My daughter BEGS me to visit her dad at work, and while I know it’s because she has a huge heart for her dad’s affection, I assume that part of this longing must also have something to do with the endless supply of post-its and sea of whiteboards that stretch from one end of the building to the other.

Drawing at the d. School

Cleaning up our mess. so we’ll get invited back!

Making it happen

Drawing with dry-erase markers was introduced in our house when my daughter was about 18 months, but it didn’t really become a favorite activity until she was almost two and could easily open and close the markers and erase her markings without assistance.  While whiteboarding on a big canvas can be tons of fun, you don’t need wall-to-wall dry erase boards to make this happen.  In fact, just the other day I picked up a $2 board that’s about 12″ x 16″ in the school supply section of Target that will be perfect for dry-erasing on-the-go.  For the more ambitious-minded, there’s a company called IdeaPaint that sells a paint product that can turn virtually any surface into a whiteboard. Here’s a little inspiration from their website:

And finally, it will take a bit of hunting, but you can also find nontoxic dry-erase markers, such as these from Expo. Have fun drawing on this glassy surface, and please share your whiteboard drawing/brainstorming/creating/exploring tales!

Fairy Doors

pa fairy door

Have you ever spotted a fairy door?

Once you see one, your radar will be attuned to them like it might be for ice cream on a hot summer day or your favorite jeans at a basement sale.

We’re blessed to live near the a fantastic children’s library,and my daughter and I made a trip there just before heading off on vacation.  She has a thing for scanning books, and I like that we can be boisterous without ticking anyone off.  After dropping off some books, we wandered back into the toddler area, which is when I happened to spot the fairy door.


Huh? It was this cute little door, stuck to the wall, with no fan-fare or explanation…simply a little door.  And then I remembered seeing these little doors in other places…which prompted me to dig around and discover that there is a whole world of fairy door people out there, building little getaways for fairies in the most unexpected places.  There’s even a shop that just sells fairy doors. Brilliant!

It turns out that Ann Arbor, MI is so rich with fairies that you can take a self-guided tour of all the fairy sites, a very popular activity according to folks who’ve reviewed it on Yelp.

As an example, in the Folk and Fairytale section of the Ann Arbor Library there’s a little fairy home that’s truly inspiring (see photo above).

Okay, fairies may be cool, but fairies = creativity?

After posting last week about fairy gardens, this seemed like a nice follow-up on where the fairy garden idea could go.  This is all about building and supporting imagination and encouraging children the think creatively. I have some friends who build elaborate leprechaun traps with their school-age children every St. Patrick’s Day, an activity that involves a lot of planning, building, imagination, and invention. And then there’s the added benefits of spending quality time with their children and bolstering fun family traditions. If you choose to plant a garden for gnomes, install a fairy home, build a leprechaun trap, or leave lettuce for Santa’s reindeer (our newest family tradition), you’ve instilled your child with the idea that anything imaginable can be invented and created. And they will also experience a sense of playfulness that has the capacity to stick with them for life.

Itty-Bitty Airplane Art Kit

airplane art 2

We’re on the road!  Well, truly, we were on the road, in the sky, on the ground, in the sky, on the road again, on a boat, and finally, finally, finally grounded on a rustic island in Mexico. Sweet summer!  I didn’t think I’d have internet access, but low-and-behold, we live in a w-ifi world and I’m somewhat connected!  So, my posts may be a bit spotty, but I’ll try my best to add some fresh material while we’re away.

To expedite our trip through customs (and save my pregnant back while someone demands that I carry her – I’m not disclosing any names), we whittled our bags down to just carry-on luggage.  Can you believe this?  This has never happened to me in my life as a parent, and now that I’ve figured out the formula it will be hard to go back.  The trick, I believe, lies in the minuscule summer wardrobe (no bulky sweaters and jeans!) and having one child who doesn’t require a gazillion gadgets to keep her happy and healthy. On our last trip I packed an enormous bag FULL of entertaining toys, art materials, games, and videos, which was great – believe me – but this time around we didn’t have someone waiting for us on the other side with open arms and an oversized car.  So, armed with a goal of being judicious, the Itty-Bitty Airplane Art Kit was born.  I’m not claiming uber-novelty here, but it was highly functional for the flight, and has been entertaining my daughter since we’ve arrived.

Here’s what you need

  • Gallon-sized ziplock bag
  • Assorted Pens, Pencils, Crayons
  • A Variety of Paper
  • Glue Stick/s
  • Stickers, organized in a snack-sized ziplock
  • Any other must-haves that your child adores

Make a Paper Book

I wanted to bring a bunch of paper, but because I didn’t have the space I folded about 8 sheets of 8 1/2 x 11 paper of various colors in half, and then stapled the “spine” to create a few sketch books.  Very easy for on-the-go drawing.

The Creativity Crisis

crayon image

Newsweek just published a must-read article, The Creativity Crisis, co-written by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman (both well-known for their best seller, Nurture Shock). In the article, the authors make a great argument for infusing childhood experiences and school curricula with creative-thinking methodologies, stating that children who are stronger creative thinkers will fare better when faced with life’s problems and that “the correlation to lifetime creative accomplishment was more than three times stronger for childhood creativity than childhood IQ.”

They go on to state that creative thinking skills have been on the decline in school age kids since 1990, and that the numbers are making no real signs of popping back up. Despite the seemingly dire news, the authors share that a solution could lie in enriching children’s educations with creative-thinking activities, and that infusing current educational practices with project-based learning and creative problem-solving pedagogies will also help.

Related to this, they wrote a companion piece called Forget Brainstorming, with seven great tips on how to foster creativity.  It’s a useful list for both kids and adults.

Highlights from the Article

  • “A recent IBM poll of 1,500 CEOs identified creativity as the No. 1 ‘leadership competency’ of the future.”
  • “Claremont Graduate University’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and University of Northern Iowa’s Gary G. Gute found highly creative adults tended to grow up in families embodying opposites. Parents encouraged uniqueness, yet provided stability. They were highly responsive to kids’ needs, yet challenged kids to develop skills. In the space between anxiety and boredom was where creativity flourished.”
  • “Preschoolers who spend more time in role-play (acting out characters) have higher measures of creativity.”

Fairy Garden

garden side view full

After a loooooong day of visiting the doctor, driving 90 miles to San Francisco for an expedited passport, a trip to the garden store, and an active playdate with friends, we treated ourselves to a relaxing evening of Fairy Garden Planting. Because, ya know, that’s what some people do after a marathon day. We just got it started and our Fairy Garden will no doubt go through multiple iterations, but I think we’re off to a pretty good start and I wanted to share the results.

At the garden store, my daughter and I spent a lot of time discussing the need to choose small-scale plants, and we worked together to select moss and mini cacti to fill in our tub.  And when we finally got home last night, the enthusiasm for setting the garden up had mounted to such a level that bedtime was delayed by almost an hour!

The Moss — sooooo pretty.  I love this stuff.

Getting Ready to Plant — It’s all about the knee pads.

A Magical View

Completed Fairy Garden

But why?

Imaginative play holds an enormous place in the lives of toddlers and preschoolers, and it seemed like a great idea to bring dollhouse-style play outdoors. For today, we had fun designing and building the garden (a worthy goal in and of itself), and my long-term hope is that my daughter and her friends will find themselves immersed in the magical miniature garden for countless hours of play.  After we set the little garden up, it occurred to me that we could easily extend the garden into other areas of our yard, giving our fairies loads of places to hide and play.

The scale of this garden naturally lends itself to planters and tiny containers, and the Fairy Garden is also a fabulous route to go if you want to set up a gardening experience for your child and you’re short on outdoor space.

Fairy Garden Resources

I’m not sure where I first got the idea to make a fairy garden, but I’ve since found a TON of creative people who’ve made and documented their magical wonderlands for all to enjoy.  Here are some of my favorites:

The Magic Onions: How to make a Fairy Garden:  Fabulous photos of an inspiring oak barrel garden.

Martha Stewart and Julie Andrews make an Indoor Fairyland (Text and 19 minute Video):  This is not a hands-on garden, but seeing Martha and Julie work side-by-side is a pretty rare treat.

Flickr Group: Miniature Backyard Fairy Gardens: Holy cow, there’s a Flickr group dedicated to this very concept.  Loads of ideas here.

Cerebral Dishwashing

sponge close up

At face value, dishwashing probably doesn’t scream out as a  creative thinking or problem solving activity, but for young children, washing dishes can be full of opportunities to play act, test new ideas, experiment, explore, and think creatively. Personally, I’m not too fond of washing dishes, a problem further compounded by the fact that we don’t have a dishwasher. However, in every problem lies an opportunity, and while I’m obliged to spend and hour a day at the sink (I actually timed this one day — it was a full hour!), I saw that I could bring my daughter into the experience to make the time fly by more quickly.  Also, at the ripe ol’ age of two, she’s fully invested in the world of play acting, and is enthusiastic about driving cars, putting her dolls to bed, baking cookies, and grocery shopping. In essence, kids begin learning by imitating their parents and caregivers, and this is one activity that not only appeals to her, but also helps her learn how the world around her operates.

While my two year old may not be the most efficient dish washer around, she enjoys playing with water, squeezing soap from the sponge, pouring water from one container into another, and fitting all of the pieces into our drying rack. She started out as my rinser, and quickly demanded her own sponge and apron. We have a few rules that she caught onto pretty quickly (instigated by a couple of broken glasses, of course), which are:

  1. She can only wash plastic and metal.  No glass or ceramic.
  2. No knives.
  3. Before something goes in the drying rack we check it for soap.

Some of the learning outcomes that I’ve noticed (and I’m sure there are more) follow:

  • Pouring liquid from one container to another teaches a child some of the characteristics of fluids. For example, what a fluid can do in its natural state, how it can fill and then flow over the edges of a container, and how gravity effects the fluid as it pours…all entry points into the world of physics.
  • Manipulating all of the pieces (i.e. sponge, dishes, utensils) with two hands encourages fine motor skills and problem-solving.  For example, my daughter recently figured out that she had to put the soapy sponge down somewhere so that she could properly rinse bubbles off of a cup.
  • As the drying rack fills up, the child is challenged to figure out how to fit all of the dishes in a place.
  • Playing with water can be soothing and joyful. When it’s not warm enough to jump in a sprinkler (or you just don’t feel like dealing with a fully wet child), kids can get their water fix indoors.

Materials

  • Apron (not necessary, but be prepared to a lot of water to spill all over the place. Naked works, too.)
  • Sponges. One for you and one for your child.  I like to cut my daughter’s sponge in half to make it more manageable for her tiny hands.
  • Step Stool. We have this one, and it seems to be the perfect height for our kitchen.  It comes unfinished, and to keep it from getting moldy with all of the water that would inevitably soak it, I painted the sides and covered the top with some lacquered Japanese paper. If you’re inclined to go this route, there’s a great tutorial here from Prudent Baby.

More Ideas

  • Fill the sink with a pool of water, and give your child a few dishes and spoons to wash with a little sponge.
  • Add some soap to the water for a different sensory experience.  It’s fun to find dishes that are hiding under soapy bubbles.
  • Let the water run so your child can learn about rinsing.
  • Offer your child a variety of containers such as bowls, spoons, cups, funnels, and measuring cups.
  • If you have a dishwasher, have your child help you fill it (and empty it, of course!).
  • Move this activity outdoors by filling up a big tub with water and soap.
  • Rather than wash dishes, wash plastic baby dolls.

Looking for more ideas related to this topic?  Check out Twenty tips for engaging young children in the kitchen.

Drawing on Doilies

DSC_0411

Do you have any doilies in the back of a cabinet that could use a little marker and sticker beautification?

Why limit yourself to plain ol’ 8.5 x 11 paper when there are so many paper options out there?

We’ve been experimenting with drawing on teeny-tiny paper, gigantic rolls of paper, coffee filters, post-its, tape, and now doilies.

I love browsing dollar stores for fun odds and ends that can take on new lives in our art studio (it’s my achilles heel, if you were to ask my husband), and I spotted three different sizes of paper doilies that sang to me from across the aisles.

Did you know that doilies are known for their singing? Anyhoo, I picked them up, along with a gold sequin tiara for dress-up and kitchen tools that will make great sand toys.

Materials

  • Paper Doilies
  • Markers
  • Glue
  • Sequins, pom-poms, stickers, etc.
  • Any other mark-making tools you can dream up

The invitation: I laid out markers and sequins during my daughter’s nap, and when she woke up we made some energetic doily drawings.

The fun thing about doilies is that they pose all kinds of neat challenges to the artist:

  • The round shape offers a suggestion to create circular marks
  • Doilies are full of little bumps and holes that challenge the artist to go around them, over them, or simply deal with them!

What else could we do with our doilies?

Think!

cards and paperclips

A Program Designed to Encourage Kids to Think Outside the Box

I discovered a really great website that’s full of innovation-generating ideas for kids (but they would be SO much fun for adults, too):  Think!

As I read the mind-stretching “assignments,” I was reminded of Learning to Love You More and creative design challenges such as this one at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA.  The ideas are generally fun and simple, and encourage experimentation, problem-solving, curiosity, and exploration…all good skills for helping children develop their abilities to generate new ideas and think independently.

My daughter is mostly too young to be my test-subject, but having taught children ages 5-18, I can see the potential in these activities and look forward to trying these out in our future. Here are a couple examples from the site…

Cards and Straws

Build the largest structure you can and send its measurements in with your pictures. You may use — one box of paperclips, one bag of straws, and one deck of cards.

Good luck!

Paper and Pencil

The only things that you need for this challenge are a stop watch, paper, and pencil. In 60 seconds, write down all of the things that you can do with a brick and a blanket. If your list is less than 10 items long, give yourself another 60 seconds and add some more. Good luck! Share your lists — we’ll make one big list.

New Project from the Getty Museum

artist mark bradford

Open Studio: A Collection of Art Making Ideas from Artists

In conjunction with Los Angeles-based artist and MacArthur Fellow Mark Bradford, the Getty Museum just released a new project that’s full of unique artist-designed activities. Through these activities, the internationally known artists (Catherine Opie and Kara Walker, to name two!), offer glimpses into their own art-making approaches and processes.

Although the projects are designed for K-12 teachers, some of these creativity-boosting ideas could be fun to try out at home with the 5 and older crowd.  Or, if you’re planning a trip to the Getty this summer, consider preceding or following up your visit with one of these lessons.

Interested?  Check out the Open Studio website here!

Celebration Flags

Celebration 4th Banner

The town next to us boasts a fabulous kids parade every Fourth of July, where kids of all sizes decorate a vehicle of their choice and then parade down the main street, ending at the park for a big festival of music, hotdogs, and bouncy houses. This is our second year in the parade:  Last year I did all the decorating, but this year N and I collaborated on a triangle banner to adorn her wagon.  We talked about the parade all morning, and she was enthusiastic about the process of drawing circles, dashes and dots all over her triangles.

This really simple project could be spun in a hundred different directions (see links below for other ideas), and it’s a great way to add some bling to your yard, wagon, bedroom, patio, birthday party, etc.

What’s the hook?

  • Your child will reflect on a holiday, idea, or celebration (i.e. Fourth of July, Nature, Birthday)
  • Your child will have an opportunity to collaborate
  • Your child will be part of a process of contributing to an important celebration.

Time

20+ minutes

Materials

  • Paper
  • Scissors (for the adult)
  • Drawing materials; crayons, markers, paint, etc. (we used markers)
  • Yarn, ribbon, or twine
  • Masking or Clear Tape

Directions

  • Cut paper into shape of choice. We made triangles. I cut 8.5 x 11 paper in half, and then cut free-hand triangles from the paper (we were in a hurry!).
  • Give your child a stack of triangle papers, and keep some for yourself.
  • Draw on your papers, and encourage your child to draw on his or hers’. Since it was the 4th of July, I drew red and blue stars. My daughter has been into circles and dots lately, so that’s what she drew.
  • Cut a piece of string to the desired length.  Leave a little extra on either end to tie it off.
  • Tape the top/back of each triangle, side-by-side, to the string.
  • Voila — you have a banner!
  • Extra fancy, extra credit: If you plan to see both sides of the banner, glue another set of triangles to the back of each piece.  And, if you have time and a sewing machine, you could sew these together with some pretty, wide ribbon for a more lasting creation.  See “Sew a Simple Fourth of July Banner” below.

Related Projects

Sew a Simple Fourth of July Banner

Tutorial: No sew triangle pennant banner with kids

Garden Wish Flags

Newspaper Bunting: A Tutorial

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