Finding Nature with Kids

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

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 for Kids

Have you ever spotted fairy doors?

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.

Keep your eyes open and you may spot a secret, hidden fairy door.

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).

Fairies and 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.

Buy a Fairy Door

Click on the images to get any of these fairy doors (affiliate links)

Miniature Fairy Garden Double Door

Fairy Door

 

 

 

Fairy Garden Door that swings open

Fairy door that swings open

 

 

Fairy Garden Gnome Door

Fairy Garden Gnome Door

Fairy Bench

 

Fairy Twig Bench

The Creativity Crisis

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.”

Think!

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.

Big, Bad, Porcelain Canvas

In preparation for a recent trip to Boston, friends suggested that I stock up on new toys to entertain my child on the airplane.  So, along with purchasing a Mrs. Potato Head and an Elmo DVD (a moment of weakness for our almost-TV-free home that thankfully paid off), I found these great washable bathtub crayons in a local beauty supply store.

I knew these would be a hit after seeing our almost-2 year old “washing” the sides of the bathtub with bars of soap and sponges.  Drawing on the bath seemed to be a natural extension of that!

Obviously, this wasn’t a plane toy, but what better place to test out bathtub crayons (that are supposed to wash off, but do we know for sure?) than in a hotel bathtub?  You’re with me, right?  I wish I was able to capture the visuals a little better, but I was busy getting a little wet as my daughter drew and erased the drawings at least four times.  I usually refrain from drawing on my child’s pictures, but she asked me to make some stars, which she promptly filled with expressive marks.  And the good news is that in the end, it all cleaned up perfectly!

The best part of this activity, in my opinion, is extending the process of mark-making beyond the piece of paper or easel. This is one of those “thinking outside the box” activities that can help kids understand that there can be more than one way to do something.  Not to mention, a lot of joy can come from freely moving greasy crayons all over a huge porcelain canvas.

Playdough Tools

If you have a batch of playdough and could use some ideas for how to play with it, we’re going to dig into that today! If you don’t have any playdough, and want to know how to make playdough, click here. 

Playdough tools

I collect tools from everywhere: online shops, toy stores, play kitchen tools, my kitchen, second hand shops.

Playdough Tool Ideas

note: this list contains affiliate links

The possibilities are truly endless. At 16 months, it was enough for my daughter to just squish it and move balls of dough from one bowl to another. At 20 months, she wanted to cut it, so we introduced a safe wooden “knife” that we got for free from our local cupcake shop.  Lately, at almost 2 years, she likes to “cook” muffins and cookies and tacos, and I’m grateful to whoever makes play dishes, rolling pins, and cookie cutters!

What can you do with Playdough?

  • Roll the dough into worms and balls
  • Smoosh it into pancakes
  • Stamp it
  • Poke it with forks and straws
  • Make play baked goods
  • Make “dinner” for the family

Teach children to use scissors with Playdough

This is one of my very favorite ways to teach children how to use scissors, and it’s far easier than cutting paper!

If you want to help your child learn how to use scissors, roll out some worms and show them how to cut them with safety scissors (affiliate). Cutting dough can be incredibly rewarding to kids who are frustrated by cutting paper, which is really not the easiest thing to do!

Playdough tools | TinkerLab.com

Prepare your Playdough Area

One last thing — try to avoid playdough in a carpeted area. If it gets in a rug, it can be torture to get it out.

We work on a very forgiving table, but if your workspace is an unfinished table, you can pick up inexpensive plastic sheeting or oil cloth (affiliate), at your local hardware store.

Just Play!

My best advice is to just put it out with a bunch of tools, play, and see what happens. Also, pay attention to your child’s cues for more ideas. If they’re using the dough to create an imaginary world, you could introduce small toy animals to the play. If they’re interested in backing, add a spatula and cookie sheet. The bottom line — have fun!

More Playdough Ideas

If you want to make your own playdough, this is the best recipe. 

Would you like more playdough tool ideas? This post shares 3 playdough tools that you may already have.

Add a new scent to your playdough such as pumpkin pie

If you want to make glow in the dark playdough, you’ll love this recipe.

Want to get creative? Click here and learn how to make masa playdough!

 

Eight Ways to Follow a Child’s Curiosities

“I think, at a child’s birth, if a mother could ask a fairy godmother to endow it with the most useful gift, that gift should be curiosity.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

I really wanted a birdhouse.  I’m not sure why exactly, but I impulsively and enthusiastically bought an unfinished birdhouse, and for whatever other reason, I then tucked it away in the back of closet. The mind works in odd ways.

In any case, about a week ago, my daughter became especially fascinated by some birds she saw on one of our walks.  The observation led to further curiosities about birds in our books, birdhouses, naming birds in various toys, and spotting birds in the sky.  Following one of our bird chats, I offered  up that we could make our very own birdhouse.  What I didn’t completely anticipate was the unbounded enthusiasm you often see when someone has earned an Olympic gold medal!  And what I experienced in that short, beautiful moment is that my child was thrilled that I had not only listened to her, but that I also intended to help her pursue her interests and follow her curiosities.

Seeing the enthusiasm, I quickly pulled out the birdhouse, paint, and brushes.  I’ve been unprepared for these impulsive moments in the past, and was relieved that the table was already covered in vinyl and the brushes and paints were ready to go.  With toddlers, the whole mood can shift with the wind, so within minutes Project Birdhouse was underway.  Any preconceived ideas I had for my darling birdhouse flew out the window and I opened myself up to my toddler’s ideas.  Thankfully, she allowed me painting rights, and the two of us painted the whole house (under her direction!) in about 15 minutes.

I somehow convinced her toddler impatience that we had to let it dry before filling it with seeds, and the next day it was outside attracting birds.

Eight ways to support a child’s curiosities

  1. Listen closely and carefully to what your child is saying.
  2. Don’t interrupt the child with your own interpretations.  Rather, reiterate what they are seeing and experiencing.
  3. Follow the child’s lead.
  4. Explore the child’s curiosity in multiple ways.
  5. Ask questions about the process of discovery.
  6. Encourage risk-taking and experimentation.
  7. Be flexible and ready to change your agenda to accommodate growing interests.
  8. When possible, have a stockpile of self-serve materials (i.e. books, craft supplies, toys, videos) ready that will support your child’s interests.

If your child is interested in…:

  • Doctors, newborn babies, hospitals: Visit a large nearby hospital.  Many hospitals are open to the public and allow visitors.  You might be able to see newborn babies in the nursery, and it’s educational to look for scrubs, wheelchairs, gurneys, stethoscopes, etc.  Also, consider purchasing an inexpensive doctor kit.
  • Airplanes: Take a trip to the airport.  If you’re in a car, look for a road that loops around the back of the airport that will allow you to  watch planes taking off.  And if you happen to have an aviation museum near your home like this one your child will love the hands-on experience of climbing into a cockpit and “flying” helicopters.
  • Cooking: Cook together, and set up a mini-kitchen for your little chef.  Have your child climb up on a step stool so that he or she can see all of the action.  Depending on your child’s ability and age, he or she can pour flour into a batter, mix scrambled eggs, spread jam on toast, pull husks off of corn, etc.  A mini-kitchen can be as simple as fashioning a stove out of a low cabinet that’s repainted and covered with little kitchen accessories.  Here’s a smart and simple DIY kitchen idea.