Observation and Answers

In the early years, our children ask questions regarding  . . . well, just about everything.  We answer their questions – sometimes only as best we can – and are happy to help them get those answers they seek. However, when children only look to adults for the answers, they continue to be dependent on us.


How else can we help children develop skills to find their own answers?


On this morning, Greysen told me that she needed a stop light for her block road and small cars. I suggested she make one. On any other day, she would have scribbled something and anointed it “stop light” but not that day. This time, she replied that she did not know what one looked like. I told her that I knew where she could see the one for herself so she could then make one. I decided to act as her guide rather than the expert.




Research.  Whenever possible, we use references such as photos or books to look for the answers to her questions. I answer her questions, but I also offer her the means by which she can look for the answer herself. On this day, a short walk took us to our reference point.


toddler drawing


Drawing by Reference. I invited her to draw something to remember the lights by.  She repeatedly looked to over to the light as she drew.


Emergent literacy


As we walked home, she noticed another type of traffic sign and drew this as well.  I had no expectations nor did I give her directions on how to draw it. The drawing was incidental to what she was beginning to understand about herself – she could replicate in drawing things she sees. She was creating a reference.


emergent literacy2


Once home, she cut out her image and together we taped it to a block to be used in her play.


I thought she may be as excited as I that she was able to create something she could use in her play, but instead of pride or excitement, she only showed focus.  She continued her play and used the light as she had originally intended.


In Reggio Emilia, Art Materials Does Not Equate An Art Experience.  Even though she was using colored pencils for her drawing, this was not an art experience – at least not as we think of them at home.  Her efforts were purposeful. Her drawings? An extension of her building play rather than a form of  creative expression.


Access to materials (e.g., art or building) and time to play are the means by which children learn skills such as researching, referencing, and self-reliance.  I’d like to include other ways for the girls to find their own answers aside from video, which I think they are still young for. If you use other resources, I’d love to hear about them. 







Hello Building Area, Good-bye Toy Basket



When the Christmas tree came out, I realized that we had a nice little corner full of potential. Instead of returning our dining table to this corner, I changed this to a play space.


I experimented a bit and moved the girls’ kitchen area here, as well as a small table and chairs for a writing space. It felt crowded. I was finally inspired by some new-to-us plastic spools. I then settled on dedicating this area to be a building space rather having several types of toys here. The girls will use the kitchen things wherever it is moved to, but blocks have been hit or miss. Perhaps a dedicated space would change that!



I added some loose parts on this shelf. I have since replaced the small blocks with a tin full of rocks. All of the things on this shelf, except the people, are re-purposed materials.

Greysen and Moon have been building far more than they did with the blocks tucked away in a clear container. Go figure?


Greysen and Moon both use the spools most often.



As I was setting this up, I also decided to clear out our toy basket. Not just clear out, but get rid of, many things – something I have wanted to do since I read that Kylie from How We Montessori has no toy baskets. I couldn’t imagine not having a catch-all basket for the numerous toys that fit nowhere. Interestingly, the toys I felt guilty about putting away because the girls use them have not been missed.


The girls have been so engaged in building throughout the day! I plan on switching out their other shelf to create a similarly dedicated space. I’m watching their play closely to see what makes the most sense for them.  Do you have any spaces like this? I’d love to see them.




Playing with the Alphabet



When Greysen spends 45 minutes or so playing with cornmeal, cups, and spoons, I revel in her play. Without suggestion, interruption, or lesson, I know she’s learning.


Open-ended play and materials allow for the creativity and engagement that I know provide children with an ideal context for learning. As children age, it’s common for them to become interested in specific ideas and concepts. Greysen has become interested in just such ideas, namely symbols and the cycle of life. How can I encourage this type of open-ended play with more factual information, such as the alphabet?


Setting up the environment to draw her into play is key to her self-engagement. If the room is littered and it is difficult to locate her things, ideas are prematurely cut short by distractions as she looks for just the right tool/toy to make her idea really come alive.


Useful Availability of the Alphabet

So, I debated for a bit how to include literacy materials into our environment without the specific agenda of learning the alphabet in a sequence. My purpose in introducing visible words and letters into her environment is for accessibility based on questions she has asked and interest she has shown.


Setting aside learning the uppercase or lowercase debate for now, my first concern was, how can Greysen have access to letters that can be held in-hand and therefore used in play? I’ve included the alphabet in our block play, and you can see how we started with just two letters here.


Rockin’ Alphabet Set
I like the idea of this alphabet set because Greysen is familiar with rocks and has developed ideas for how they can be used. In this way, the alphabet just comes along for the ride. I painted ours with acrylic paint, and I prefer the black rocks with a light color as the other letters disappear when the rocks are wet. I’d still like to paint a few more letters so she can spell things out when the time comes.


Felt Alphabet Set
This felt set made by MiChiMa is quite beautiful. I cannot, however, project how Greysen would involve them in her play. Then again, when I do think I have an idea of how she may use something, she often surprises me by doing something completely differently.




Wooden Alphabet Blocks


These wooden blocks are available through a seller on Etsy. I think their simplicity is beautiful and their dual purpose as actual blocks make them inviting to play with in more than one way. We also have letters in our block play as I talked about here.



Foam Alphabet Set
These are advertised as bathtub toys.  The varied colors throw me off a bit, but I could see these potentially being of use outdoors in a mud pie kitchen or near a water table/pretend play area.  I’m still undecided on these.


Peg Doll Alphabet Set
This idea from No Time For Flashcards is so exemplary of materials that promote learning through play. Acutely aware of every difference and detail, I can imagine that Greysen will immediately spot the letters on these dolls. Greysen predominately spends her time engaged in pretend play, so adding some simple symbols to play that she already does may be another useful emergent step to connecting her interest to facts.


In what ways do your children have access to the alphabet? Is it something that was in your environment when they were very young, or was it something that was added with purpose or at their interest?

Block Play, Writing, and Letters

emergent writing toddler


One thing I often think about is how regular play peers would influence Greysen and Moon’s play. While we do meet up regularly with friends, we often do so in parks and others’ homes, so many of the girl’s playthings are only used by them. Greysen’s interest in block play is often short-lived. I find myself bringing novel materials into our block space to create an irresistible play area. Irresistible, that is, by connecting it to things she is already showed an interested in.


I had some chalkboard contact paper left over from the holidays, so I added some to the blocks after Greysen had identified the park as the place her animals were headed. I then asked if she would like to write or label the other parts of the park. She was happy to.



When I started working in a classroom of two year-old children several years back, the children frequently came up to me, asking me to write their names for them. After getting to know the children a bit better, my teaching team and I focused on trying to build the children’s confidence in their ability to communicate ideas through writing without having adults do it for them.


Since then, children having confidence in their ability to write has been more important to me than the toddler’s ability to accurately recreate a letter or other symbol. As their interests change and their physical capabilities develop, writing itself will be more important. But for now, the audience (Greysen and I) know that this sign says “swing.” Mission accomplished.


Greysen has erased and marked this paper a couple of times so far and its still looks great.


I also spotted some painted wooden letters in the bargain bins at Michaels. I bought these two (the first letters of  my daughters’ first names) as a way to have letters in their play space. Exposure.


It turns out that these blocks are helping Greysen generate some play ideas.  The “s” has been used as a place to put small animals, and the “m” was used in stacking. I also expect the chalkboard contact paper to be useful in play in several more ways.




I think some letters will lend themselves better to building with than others, but they brought so much interest to the block play that I am heading back to Michaels to add some more letters to our collection.


What are your favorite ways to incorporate writing into block play?

Connections to Our Community through Block Play


As we were driving out of town last week, Greysen shouted “Town!” from the backseat. She has also named a few other places we visit, most often with equal zeal when we arrive at or drive past them. I was excited to know that she recognizes and is excited about these places. It seems that her sense of home and community is indeed expanding.


I thought about her block play. Greysen is at the age where her play is representational. She pretends to go places and see people, but they are all places she has recently been to and people she has recently seen as opposed to imaginary ones.  When we play with the blocks, she most often indicates that the blocks are to represent roads. So, to add to this play, I thought that I would introduce some blocks that represented familiar locales from her life.


I photographed her local haunts: the library, the grocery store, the post office, our house, Dad’s office, and her Abuelito’s office (ASIDE: I printed the pics on glossy paper because I wanted to be sure that they were vibrant representations, but I think this type of paper made the wraparound pics more difficult to adhere to the boxes).


Photographing the buildings was a bit harder than I had anticipated. I originally snapped pics as we went about our regular routines, because after all these are the places we go throughout the week. But, Mike had to go back and re-shoot a couple of them because the angles I shot were not great.


Mostly, I figured that if Greysen recognized the buildings, that would do well enough.


I used boxes that I had saved from Christmas deliveries. The photographs could also be fixed to blocks if boxes aren’t available, but I especially wanted to use boxes to create a tall-ish skyline.



I had planned on using clear contact paper to stick the photographs to the boxes, but I found that taping the photos at the edges was easier. I also covered some of the boxes with plain paper so that the print would not distract from the buildings.


I set it up while she napped.



She was eager to get to it!


She pushed her cars from building to building, telling the stories of her days, “Abuela, go bye-bye. Go get cow’s milk.”



Greysen is familiar with and recognizes each of these places when we arrive at them. I hope that by having these little bits of the town at her fingertips, it helps her to feel more familiar and thus more connected to her community.