Documenting Passion Roundup

baby n

If you’ve been following me the past week, you know that I’ve been observing my daughter’s interests and activities in an attempt to document her passions by asking the question “What does she gravitate toward?” And the point of all that is to unpack some truths about her core interests (as opposed to forming my own assumptions about her interests). It’s been tough, at times, to separate myself completely into the role of observer, but given that I charted this path for a full week, I think I’ve taken a good stab at picking up on some of the qualities that currently define my child’s interests. And I also recognize that as she further develops and is exposed to new ideas, she’ll change and grow over time.

An interesting development this past week are the observations of Aleksandra and Danielle (see their comments on the past few posts), who both spotted behavioral patterns in their children. Aleksandra saw that her son, Max, needs to find quiet moments in his day to give him a little bit of respite from high levels of activity. And Danielle observed an inherent need to spread materials, objects, and toys in her daughter, Simone.  Related to this, I observed that my child is a sorter: she likes to clean, organize, separate, and place objects in small containers; which has led me to give her plenty of like materials (fake apples, water bottles, ice cubes, etc.) to sort  and organize.

This project has also alerted me to activity interests, the most obvious being her desire to play-act. And she seems most interested in play-acting moments and events from her recent experience. For example, after making pancakes with her G-Ma last week, she spontaneously made sand pancakes in the park yesterday. We’ve also spent a lot of time prepping her for the arrival of her baby sister. In reaction to this, just this morning she crawled all over the house, refused to talk (because, you know, babies don’t talk), and then broke character to ask me to mash up her bananas so she could eat them like a baby. To see how she’s handling the influx of baby gear, check out the picture at the top of this post.  If I didn’t already see a pattern of imaginative play as a means of grappling with her daily reality, I may have been concerned about what could otherwise be interpreted as receding behavior. This is rather obvious stuff, I know, but it alerts me to help her capture defining moments from her experience and support them through imaginative play.

And perhaps one of the biggest eye-openers is that I’ve noticed that art-making activities, which are near and dear to me, have been virtually nonexistent over the past week.  While there have been moments of involuntary drawing and mark-making (tire rubbings at the DeCordova was a big hit), my child has been more invested in other activities. At no point did I jot down any notes like “wants to paint” or “excited about drawing with chalk on the sidewalk.” And there could be many reasons for this: the novelty factor may be low because we make art so often or she may be at the developmental stage where art is too passive and she’d rather keep moving. This doesn’t mean that I’ll stop the art activities all together…my child is young and as she develops, her skills will catch up with her mind…but I am aware that I shouldn’t expect my child to love every activity I set before her.  All in all, following what N gravitates toward has been a worthwhile pursuit that has raised my awareness of her desires.  And for those of you who were playing along — please share how this all sorted out for you too!

On that note, more art and creative activities coming soon. :)

Day 4: Documenting Passion

suitcaseride

Today was a heavy travel day, and my attention was pulled in million directions with my husband being under the weather, a lost phone in the airport (I’d like to attribute this to preggo brain, but it’s probably just me – sigh), and saying goodbye to family after a long visit. However, I was able to capture a few moments of observation.

And I’d love to know…What have your kids been drawn to this week?

  • Tossing bottles at the town dump. My in-laws live in a town with an incredible recycling program, and everyone in the town finds themselves, at some point, at the dump. All the local politicians, including Ted Kennedy, have been spotted campaigning there — a far cry from our curbside pick-up. Anyhow, I picked up on my daughter’s ongoing interest in throwing balls, bottles, apples, etc. and thought she’d enjoy throwing all of our empty water bottles into a huge wire bin of them. 40 bottles later…
  • Baking with grandma. Play-baking, that is. They made everything from pancakes to apple-vanilla pie to maple syrup cookies. She really loves play-acting, and cooking has been a huge interest.  There’s also an element of organizing and sorting involved (filling bowls and cupcake holders, measuring, etc.), which is an ongoing theme this week.

  • Riding the suitcase. Grabbing on to my suitcase as I pulled it through the airport…just for fun. She’s an adventure-seeker, and will try just about anything.

  • Making up lyrics to familiar songs. For example, “Down by the station, early in the morning…” becomes “Down by the airport, late in the evening….” and the iterations move into “Down by the park…” “Down by the swimming pool…” etc.  I think she has fun inventing songs and pulling her own reality into music. She likes singing, and is otherwise disinterested in music…a future rapper, maybe?
  • Pretending to be a baby. We’re expecting “baby sister” in about six weeks, and for the past couple months N has been saying things to us like, “Mommy, pick up the baby. Feed me milk.”  She also likes to crawl, cry like a baby (in a funny fake “eh, eh” kind of way), and ask us to feed her.  Today she asked me to feed her all of her lunch, and specified that her avocado should be “mashed up” (and this is coming from a kid who can also drink from a regular cup and otherwise wants to do everything by herself!). We picked up a play mat for her baby sister, and she negotiated that she would get to use it until baby sister is born.  Makes me think I should pull out all of the baby stuff ASAP to let her get a good run in before it all becomes someone else’s.

Day 3: Documenting Passion

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Our vacation was supposed to end two days ago, thrown off-track when my husband had to pay a surprise visit to the ER. Thankfully, all turned out okay, but our week moved in an unexpected direction. We’re staying with the grandparents near Boston, and the opportunity in disguise was that N got to attend the Barbie-Mermaid birthday party of two of her favorite 4-year old friends yesterday. Yes, you read that right…Barbies AND Mermaids. Woah! And while cupcakes were not involved, a giant Barbie dress-cake (the dress was green with mermaid scales) played center role, captivating the kids more than any cupcakes I’ve ever seen.  In the afternoon we visited the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, a really unique spot to check out if you’re ever in the Boston area.  I worked there a few years back, and wanted to experience it through my daughter’s eyes.  Sooo, day 3’s observations are somewhat based on a sugar-high birthday party and contemporary art, kid-style.

Day 3: Observations

  • Playing with fake apples: Filling baskets with fake apples, selling them to me and her uncle Chris (and then buying them back), shooting the apples into the basket. (Me: “Mmmm….I’m going to have a bite of this apple.” N: “No, that’s not a real apple. It’s pretend.”  Sheesh, she must think I’m losing my brain!). Note: More sorting, selling, and throwing.

  • Throwing water bottles. Hmmm…she knows we only throw balls, but her shot is soooo good, I had to let this one go for a little while. Note: Throwing AGAIN.
  • Setting up a hospital in her friends’ play room. She set up three strollers with dolls in each of them, found a doctor kit, and proceeded to take everyone’s temperature, blood pressure, and listen to their hearts with the stethoscope. Although she occasionally plays doctor at home, could this be connected to dad’s trip to the hospital yesterday?

  • Tire Rubbings. In the DeCordova’s Process Gallery, I showed her how to make a rubbing of tire tread (a thoughtful hands-on project that connected to the work of Chakaia Booker), and once she figured it out, she made seven rubbings. Seven! We tried doing rubbings at home about a month ago, with little success. Maybe the age and the fun materials played a role in today’s high level of interest.

  • Climbing on “logs” (made of recycled magazines and scraps of wood) in a DeCordova installation by Nadya Volicer. Jumping from one log to another, jumping off logs, building a circuit of log-hopping and repeating it least 10 times. Probably not the artist’s intent, but I doubt two-year olds were the audience she was designing the space for. N also loves taking off her shoes — anywhere — and was thrilled that we were required to take our shoes off to enter the space. Note: She’s been testing her body’s capabilities lately, and has been pushing herself to walk on balance beams, climb just about anything, and jump. Loads of fearless climbing, balancing and jumping.


Day 2 – Documenting Passion

sink icecubes

It’s only Day 2 of the observation project, and I’m surprised that I’m already beginning to see a few patterns in my daughter’s current interests.  When given a large quantity of similar objects such as sea shells or coins, my child loves sorting them into other containers, dropping them back into their original bowl/basket/container, and then sorting them out again.  I first noticed this interest last week when she was filling glasses with ice cubes for over half an hour — an activity that we iterated on by first filling a sink with ice, and then a couple days later asking for cups of ice to pour and play with on a long flight.

The other thing that’s been illuminating about this project is a realization that I can’t completely remove myself from the picture…especially at my child’s very young age. However, I can introduce my daughter to an activity, and then do my best to step back and see what aspects of it she’s most excited about.

Observations from Day 2

  • Filling bowls with rocks: Moving a pile of rocks from a large bowl, and dividing them into smaller containers
  • Filling cups with coins: She found a stack of 10 plastic cups, separated them, laid them out, and then dropped a coin in each one.
  • Floating in the Kayak: Enjoyed getting splashed, loved the bumpy waves. No complaints about getting cold, wet, etc. This follows a long-observed love of water in all forms: swimming pools, jumping in the ocean, etc.
  • Walking on a balance beam. This has been a long favorite, and when she spots any elevated curb, it suddenly becomes a balance beam.
  • Playing with the dollhouse with G-Ma: Play acting bedtime, cooking, climbing up ladders, etc.
  • Throwing things into a basket (diapers, balls, etc.), followed by the exclamation, “I am the best shooter!”

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.

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.

Big, Bad, Porcelain Canvas

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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.

Exploring with Play Dough

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Got dough? Here are some ideas to get you started…

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!  I collect tools from everywhere: Melissa and Doug Shape Model and Mold comes with rolling pins and is fabulous, the Play Doh Fun Factory comes with cookie cutters and a spaghetti maker (much like a garlic press), and I source my own kitchen for straws, potato mashers, toothpicks, and popsicle sticks.

You can roll the dough into worms and balls, smoosh it and stamp it, and poke it with forks and straws.  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. This is incredibly rewarding to kids who are frustrated by cutting paper, which is really not the easiest thing to do!

Sometimes we’ll roll it out on the counter, but  there’s always a little art table covered in Mexican oil cloth that’s ready to go at a moment’s notice.  You can pick up inexpensive plastic sheeting or oil cloth at your local hardware store.  My best advice, if you rarely play with play dough, is to just put it out with a bunch of tools, and see what happens.

Sticky, Gooey Play Dough

play dough close up

I’m addicted to play dough. Playing with it, cutting it, rolling it, but especially making it.  Play dough is an excellent material for exploring a pliable 3-D media, and it has the potential to help a child exercise fine motor skills and develop their creative mind through play acting (i.e. making “cookies”).

When my daughter was 16 months we bought our first batch of play dough at Whole Foods.  It was awesome.  And expensive. And when the whole family came down with what felt like the swine flu just days after playing with the stuff, I knew I had to throw out the whole sad lot with the tissues and hand wipes.  It was painful to fork out more money for another round of dough, and then a friend asked why I wasn’t just making my own.  Right.  Excellent question. I was an art teacher, and why had I never made play dough?  Slightly embarrassed, I knew I had to set off and find a great recipe.

If you look around for play dough recipes you’ll find recipes that include everything from cornstarch to Kool Aid to peanut butter, but the one I’m sharing here is for the really good, traditional stuff.  The recipe comes from First Art: Art Experiences for Toddlers and Twos by MaryAnn F. Kohl, and it’s the only one I’ve used.  So, do let me know if you have one that trumps it, but I’ll stand by the quality of this dough.  The book, by the way, is fabulous, and I recommend it highly to anyone searching for excellent art activity ideas for little ones.

The Recipe

This will make enough dough for an entire preschool class.  I usually make 1/2 the recipe and it’s still plenty!  For two colors, divide the recipe in half.

  • 5 cups Water
  • 2 1/2 cups Salt — an entire container of Morton’s-style
  • 3 Tbsp Cream of tartar — this can be bought in bulk at Whole Foods, or found in the spice section of big grocery stores
  • Food Coloring: 1 tsp for pastel, 3 tbsp for vivid
  • 10 Tbsp Oil — I use Canola, but any veggie oil should work
  • 5 cups Flour

Combine the water, salt, cream of tartar and food coloring in a large saucepan on a low heat, and stir with a wooden spoon. As the mixture heats up, stir in the oil and then the flour.

Mix, until the dough comes away from the edges of the pan, starts looking dry, and it becomes difficult to move the spoon. Pinch a piece between two fingers…if it’s not sticky it’s done. Remove from heat. Cool until it can be handled.

Place on counter and knead 3-4 times. Store in an air tight container or large Ziplock bag.


Be the "Guide on the Side"

Aleksandra and Max

In the world of education, sage on the stage is a phrase that’s sometimes used to describe the all-too-familiar scene of the knowledgable teacher delivering lectures to passive students who memorize information for the sake of spitting it back out again on testing day.  This method of teaching assumes that the child is an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with information, and doesn’t give the child much opportunity to think for themselves.  As you can probably imagine, the problem with this type of instruction is that while the learner may appear to “know” information, he or she doesn’t really learn all that much.

In order to really understand something, humans need the motivation to generate knowledge and meaning through their own experiences, rather than regurgitate information that’s been fed to them.  Back to the world of education, this active form of learning is often referred to as constructivism, a learning theory supported by instructors (or parents) who act as facilitators rather than teachers.  You’ll know a constructivist environment when you see discussion, analysis, prediction, problem solving and posing, active learners, and facilitators who ask open-ended questions.

Huh?  But I’m a parent, not a teacher!

Right!  But there’s a world of research on how constructivist learning environments can foster creative thinking skills, skills that are critical for children to embody in order to thrive in this ever-changing world, and we have the perfect opportunity to steal some good ideas from the world of education and put them to work in our own homes.

Putting it into action

  • Take a step back. If you find yourself on the “teaching soapbox,” find opportunities to be the guide on the side, rather than the sage on the stage.
  • Be an active listener. Listen to your child, and respond to what they’re interested in.  If they aren’t yet talking, follow their gaze and respond with descriptive dialogue about the object/s they’re looking at.  For example, “I see you’re looking at the big, red ball.  Would you like me to bring it to you?  What do you think about it?  Oh, you’re feeling it.  It’s soft, isn’t it?”
  • Ask open-ended questions such as “tell me about this picture,” “what do you think will happen now?” or “I wonder what we could make with this play dough?”  This will empower your child to think independently, come up with novel conclusions, and express his or her ideas.
  • Follow their lead. If your child takes an interest in the birds outside the window, paint a birdhouse together, watch videos of different kinds of birds singing on YouTube, buy a bag of birdseed to feed some birds, make bird noises together, find books about birds at the library, etc.

References:

Wikipedia: Constructivism

Jacqueline G. Brooks and Martin G. Brooks, In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1999)

Alison King, From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side. 1993. College Teaching. v41 no1 p30-35.