Starting a Natural Collection


Starting a collection of natural materials sounds easy enough. Take a walk, pick up a few things . . .  I figured I’d have a buckets of things in no time. I didn’t realize that 95% of the time the treasures the girls gathered were rocks. Rocks are great, they just did not make for a varied collection.


In time, our collection has grown. Spring has been full of walks and hikes, so we have now have a modest tray of things we have found as well as things we have collected from our yard.


I wasn’t sure how to offer the materials at first. Since everything makes its way to the floor eventually, I decided  that’s where we should start.



Greysen took the tray to the building area immediately.


Since then, the girls have also used the natural materials exclusive of other toys, like this “den”.



In addition to the things the girls pick up, I now gather and save a few things for home. Our collection is small but growing. It may not be enviable but has inspired play around here and that’s all I can ask for.


Do you collect natural materials for your children to play with?  How did you grow your collection?


A Recipe for Sensory Play

We’ve had some warm days here in California. All other plans have been put on hold so that we can spend some time by the river.  Our only agenda was to have an adventure. Okay, and maybe enjoy some sensory play.


Natural things like water, mud, sand, and flowers in limitless amounts. Only hands, feet, and curiosity to drive the play.





Play is Enough

A teacher friend that I just told about the blog shared with me that she knew what to do with preschool aged children, but was wondering if she was doing enough with her infant son.


It was such a touching moment in an otherwise rushed conversation. Z’s mama was essentially telling me that she didn’t know if she was doing all that she could for the son whom she loves so dearly.


Then I wondered, do other parents wonder if they they offer enough play stuff for their children?


I share the thought processes behind many types of our parenting decisions. I write about the play that my daughters are doing, the toys/materials they use to share what works for us, and why.  There are no templates for following your child’s lead, because all our children are different.


Play is about giving children chances. Knowing that children, even very young children, are capable of many more things than we give them the opportunity to do. Chances to pour their own water or to use a paint brush. Chances to be something else, or at least look like something else.


I recently shared these thoughts about sensory play, but all of these materials are really unnecessary if your child has a safe interesting play space. If I hadn’t offered the girls extra materials and instead took them outside to play (as I often do), their sensory experiences would be just as rich. Everything from the prickly feel of grass blades to the grit of coarse sand, children who experience life experience learning.



I’ve written before about how I hold off on lots of experiences because I think that while I want my daughters experience all the wonderful things in this world, I don’t think they need to experience them all right now.


As much as I love art, I’ve looked to my daughters to clue me into when they are ready for more. My eldest daughter has been using paint for about two years now, but it was just this last month that I offered her more than three colors (pre-mixed) at a time.


Toys, art, books – all of these material things are conduits of play. They are props designed to help the children’s ideas come to life and keep them playing their ideas in their own way. This is why I believe that they are just as occupied with pine cones as they are with fabricated toys.


The most important learning they do really has nothing to do with the kind of paint they use or the books we read together, but rather with the values conveyed to them by just letting them play. Learning to trust themselves, speak their minds, show generosity, and problem-solve may happen through activities, but it is the opportunity to play that makes this possible.



Offering our children activities is a joyous part of parenting, but I don’t think of it as being an essential part of what she’ll need to love life.


The next time you wonder if you are offering enough art, science, or whatever else, remember that play is enough.


How Sensory Play is Different Than Art

When I think of sensory play and art, I don’t think of them interchangeably because each is so uniquely valuable. I guess that this distinction is not really an important one to make in most circumstances. I do think it is useful for adults to consider the two separately because the expectations of the two can be very different, especially when they are set out for infants.


Aside from the benefits of experiencing different textures, smells, sounds, sights, and yes – even tastes – sensory play is great for babies because of the way we adults think about it.


Children will outgrow finger painting but not outgrow playing with sand.  I think its fair to say that adults believe that children will eventually use art materials to express ideas (draw something, paint something, make something).  While adults may accept and even encourage some exploration with art in the early years, such as letting children paint themselves or squish play dough between their toes, the expectation is that this type of exploration will evolve as children age.


The same is not true of sensory play. The expectations are different.  Sensory experiences encourage children to sift through sand or wade through water and to ultimately use their hands to play.  This expectation stays the same throughout childhood and in some cases across a lifetime (I’m thinking sand castles).

In sensory play there are no final product expectations. Even in simple open-ended art experiences such as watercolor and paper, the result is some record of a child’s play, something most of us – including myself – want to share, frame, save, or somehow keep as a token of this time and experience.  I keep all of the daughters’ art and file it or save it for them to use another time but preserving their efforts in this way doesn’t even cross my mind with sensory play.


When we offer children sensory experiences, like a tub of water, there is really nothing to save. There is less of an expectation for a “finished” product with sensory materials. While a cornstarch/water mixture and paint may both spread by fingers or brushes across paper, adults less often influence the final look of something that is not likely going to hang on the refrigerator.



If a baby eats this . . . well, at least it is natural.  I prefer not to offer infants art materials that may eat because I’d rather wait until they no longer taste things instead of interrupting their play to keep them from eating art materials. From natural clays to beeswax crayons there are many natural and non-toxic art materials available for children. With infants though, who may try to eat paint by the fistful, I feel far better knowing they ate a natural material like rice, even if if is something they should not eat.  For toddlers (or children that are no longer tasting everything) dried beans, rice, peas, corn, birdseed, sand, cornmeal, dry corn, sand, water – to name just a few – can be fascinating to play with and not made with unpronounceable ingredients.


Sensory materials can be used again and again.  Caring for the materials in the sensory bin offers my children one more experience with learning to care for something that they value. Sensory materials are a limited resource that will run out or need to be thrown out if they are not used with care and stored responsibly.  As I just mentioned, I offer natural materials whenever possible and don’t really bother with one time use materials (shaving cream) for that reason.


When I first read about water beads here, I was on the fence about trying them out. They looked so great that I was eager  to give them to my daughters, but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to buy something synthetic.  Even though water beads aren’t natural they can be used multiple times.  This batch lasted more than a few months.



For a natural alternative try this.


Sensory play is the one exception to my “no food in art” rule.” Since this isn’t art, I guess it all falls into place. I don’t worry about using food when it gets used multiple times, because then at least it doesn’t seem as wasteful as a one time activity (e.g., fruit prints).



Sensory set-ups are a conduit for play.   Sensory materials are intended to be used but not in a prescribed way. As much as I  like to provide open-ended play experiences for children, few materials lend themselves to allowing a child to determine their worth and purpose. Will it be poured or fill different types of containers?  Can you bury your hands in it or let it run through your fingers? Can it be dripped, sifted or piled? Does it become incorporated into other aspects of the child’s existing play? For this reason sensory materials are uniquely beneficial to play.


All this being said, I have not set out sensory play experiences as often as I have art. I find it harder to think of things to set-up and simply do not stock up on these types of materials like I do with art. How about you? How do you balance sensory play and art with your children?

The Nature of Great Toys

It’s finally starting to feel like autumn around here.  The triple-digit heat has gone, and in its place rain has showered our desperately dry yard.  Recently on an afternoon walk, we gathered up leaves along the way.  We passed over apples left to rot on the sidewalk, dry browned leaves, and stopped to inspect bark peeling off of trees. We were just playing.
The products of nature are some of our favorite toys. We’ve used them outside and in, but it was their current, obviously evolving state that reminded me of why they are so valuable to children’s play.
Nature ages.  Natural artifacts show their wear.  One look at a fallen leaf after a rain, and the passage of time is evident.  With so many safe, durable, indestructible, made-for-children plastic toys that hardly show any wear, it is so enriching to play with natural materials that degrade over time.
Nature is irreparable.  Many natural materials are delicate, and few of the ones we find are indestructible. Flowers, leaves, and twigs can wilt, crumble, and snap, never to return to their original state.  Unlike most of our purchased toys, our natural ones cannot be glued or sewn back together.  Once changed, they will never be the same.
Nature reflects the climate.  Rain, heat, and humidity all leave their impression on our outdoor playground.  As nature responds to our climate, we change our routines and behaviors right alongside it. As our natural toys change, our play does as well. This change and response pattern keeps us engaged with our natural toys, and ultimately forges deeper connections to the earth.  This summer, our pine cones were open in the heat, but the recent rain has closed them and made them look like different objects all together.
Nature is unique.  I’ve mentioned before that one of the best things about nature is its irregularity. Even simple play with stones becomes far more intricate and complicated then Greysen’s play with uniform blocks.
Nature is colorful.  We have had some tremendous sunrises and sunsets as of late.  The girls and I notice a wide range of colors, from peach to periwinkle, all in the same sky. Unlike many of the toys marketed to today’s children in primary colors, nature offers a far more complicated spectrum of color.  Even beautiful Waldorf or Montessori toys in alternate ranges are not as commonly complex or varied in their color as nature can be.
Nature is something many adults find easier to love when it is fresh and contained (like in a vase), myself included.  All too often, we as adults are ready to throw flowers out as they start to wilt, or rake the leaves off of our lawns and toss them out.  Nature does not come inside as often as it could. What are your best solutions for your children to play freely with nature?

Natural Materials Table


I recently attended an educators workshop. The first lecture, titled “Creating Mathematics and Scientific Environments,” was outstanding and inspiring. After a brief lecture the teachers/presenters, Michele and Christina, invited us adults to play with a trove of materials that they had lugged up from their school in southern California.


They invited us to play with the types of materials that they would offer to the children in the classroom (pictured above). There were many more materials set up here than they would offer the children all at once, but for the purposes of encouraging adults to play with the materials, this was great.


Of the 15 people in this lecture, only 3 chose to play here as opposed to the magnet and light table space.  I wonder if, at first glance, the natural materials seem more dull than light boxes or magnets? Since I can only speculate, I began to think about how I could encourage my children’s current fascination with the natural world at home. How can I validate their current interests so that they will be just as likely to choose to play with rocks as they will other things one day.


Excited by this material presentation, I was eager to add a natural materials table to our own play space.  Mike carried home a second-hand yard sale-purchased table one afternoon and placed in our back yard.


To keep our natural materials table simple, I wanted to introduce it to the girls by setting it up with one material to begin with.  I brought the familiar to a new place and to a new plane, and saw new ideas quickly emerge.



The spectacular thing about materials, whether they are familiar or new, is that the possibilities are always endless.  The “family” of pine cones below are huddled together, with the little pine cones “nursing” from the tallest one.



Stepping on the “gas” and “brake” pine cones she set up.




We have been collecting natural materials while on walks or while visiting parks, but they have never had a permanent place in our home.


The richness of these irregular, asymmetrical, complex, varied, and colored “toys” are unlike any manufactured material we have.  Natural materials are as deserving of a table as art, light, writing, or blocks.


While I can imagine some may be tempted to add a microscope, magnifying glass, or other valuable tools to this table, I suggest holding off until the child has had an opportunity to truly imagine the possibilities of the material. By keeping things incredibly simple, Greysen was able to determine the most meaningful use to her and play around ideas that related to her and our family (me and nursing, and her father and cars). Had I added tools, such as magnifying glasses, I would have suggested their purpose – to be inspected.


I plan on rotating other materials through the table before keeping a collective of natural materials on there. How do you keep natural materials in rotation?






Preserving Time for Children to Observe Their World


Last week, we went on a hike with a few friends. While we were getting ready to start our walk, a couple of children played nearby, greeting each other and chatting. A friend offhandedly mentioned that her son ” . . .  is an observer”  after he declined an invitation to play with a stick my daughter offered him.


In infancy, being observant is considered a desirable trait. Children are lauded for taking notice of the world around them. As they grow and become capable of taking more action, our expectations of them change. Being observant and watching becomes less praised and, even less often, fostered.


As as teacher/student, I have had entire assignments dedicated to teaching us adults how to observe. Books, articles, tips, and handouts have been written to assist me in learning to do something that once came naturally to me – observation.


Observation is a state of quiet and focused attention that cannot occur when the mind is in motion. The less you do, the more you observe. Start with a calm peaceful atmosphere and let your mind tune into the present. Clear your head. Let all your senses awaken. rid yourself of preconceived notions. To observe means to be open and detached so you can see the situations more clearly. An observer must quiet down and let go of prejudices.” – Your Self-Confident Baby (Gerber & Johnson)


I was thinking about this as I watched Greysen and a group of her friends go on a walk that day. My mission: look for natural materials that we can collect and use as play things at home. Greysen’s mission? It turns out that she had many. Only one (the food related one) I could have predicted.


Noticed a butterfly


If I had articulated my plan of looking for rocks, to her maybe she would have found more rocks. I also could have probably thrown in some comments about weight, size, texture, or any number of interesting attributes that would have made great emergent lessons in math.


Instead, I walked. I listened.  I watched. Sometimes I responded to the observations she was making. In addition to learning more about rocks (a current interest of hers), she also experienced some lessons in trails, negotiation of scarce resources (AKA snacks), and balance.  Fantastic and interesting lessons in math were lost, but time to revel in observation was preserved.



I’m grateful for the freedom to support Greysen and Moon’s learning in the manner of my choosing. If, however, I needed to organize their learning to achieve specific outcomes, as may schools who have state curriculums to follow do, I would have likely chosen a top-down approach to our learning experience.


Teaching Greysen about rocks would not have given her the same information that she has learned by picking them up, walking over them, tossing, and touching them. Observations and experiences have taught her lessons that I would have overlooked. For instance, Greysen said that the rock was hot from the sun. By catching that one observation, I now know that Greysen has some understanding of the sun’s ability to radiate heat.  The heat warms the earth, and thus the rock in her hand.


Sometimes the most important lesson is the one you refrain from teaching. What started as a walk full of potential lessons for my daughter also became a lesson for me. The time to observe and the space to experience life in the way that comes naturally to children is as valuable as all the information we hope to share.


 Do you think there are other valuable skills besides observation that young children are strong in but that we need to work at maintaining as we age?

A Park Journal


At the beginning of summer, our county produced a pamphlet designed to get the public to visit all the parks, or at least some, in the area. Children are encouraged to photograph or draw something at each park and share it with the parks’ office.  I decided to use this invitation to more deeply explore the parks already somewhat familiar to us.


Greysen loves to play at parks and has been requesting specific ones, only at 2.4 years of age her references to the park are based on her perspective and not something as convenient as the park’s name. She has, for example, asked to go to the “horsey” park, and then had to cope with incredible disappointment of arriving at the incorrect horsey park with Mike. Oh, Dad.


To document our visits, I wanted to incorporate some long term record keeping. Journals are commonly used in early childhood classrooms as a means for developing language and literacy skills. I liked the customized style of this journal featured at Playful Learning and decided that it could have meaning to us as a record of our park visits.



I chose a mixed media journal so that we can vary our choice of art mediums over time (I bought this on sale for $5 from Michael’s). I labeled it using these clear labels.



I printed all the park names and potential discussion labels that might pertain to our experiences.



After we played at the playground for a bit, we took a walk to other parts of the park and collected things.




After we had found a few things, we sat and I used the following questions as the starting points for discussion:

  • The trees at this park are . . .
  • I see, hear, smell, feel . . .
  • My favorite thing is . . .


I hear . . .


I brought along a few earth-toned colored pencils.



I’m not sure Greysen knows the name of this park after this visit. I did learn, however, that she knows this park even if she can’t recall the name. She mentioned the jackrabbits we see, the banjo player we once heard about (but never saw),  and the tractor she climbs.


I think this journal served more as a prompt for me to see the park through her eyes.


Parks are important places to her.  They are places that allow for independent exploration, physical challenges, and natural discoveries. I hope that spending time talking about what aspects of these wondrous places are important to her will lead to feelings of being heard and of her interests being respected.


What are your children’s favorite places to play and how do you honor that? I’d  be interested in learning other ways to support Greysen’s interests. 




Autumn Toys

It seems to me that we all look at Nature too much, and live with her too little.
   – Oscar Wilde

Children are drawn to nature. Whether its running through a pile of rakes leaves or splashing in a rain puddle, nature is undeniably irresistible. Despite this widely agreed upon phenomenon, many children’s spaces that I have visited do not reflect agreement in this matter, including my daughters’ room. While they have some natural toys, such as sea shells, by and large our toys are person-made.

The educators of Reggio Emilia encourage adults to consider how to bring the outside in, so to speak. Arguably, stocking natural materials in children’s play spaces for little ones to access at a whim is supportive of an attraction to nature.

How do I create play-spaces for the girls that reflect a respect and even their fascination with nature? I’m not sure, but for starters I’m going to place a plant into the girls’ room.

Access to Real and Natural Materials
Fall provides an abundance of natural materials that are ideal for little hands and mouths. With so many things to consider when offering infants toys, it’s nice to have some playthings that I feel good about offering to the girls.

Gourds and pumpkins have interesting textures and are colorful, making them great toys.

Nature provides toys that can be:

  1. Fascinating – What is more complex than the veins of a single leaf or more varied than grains of sand?
  2. Safe – I purchased several gourds that are too heavy for Moon to pick up but that she can push around a bit. Since they are essentially consumable, I feel confident that it is okay for her to touch, look at, and taste them.
  3. Affordable – We tried to grow pumpkins this year, so I brought all three that we grew inside for G & M to play with. For some variety, I bought a few other gourds for just a few dollars.

Last year, we kept the gourds for months before they started to rot. Now that Greysen is a bit older, I’m curious to see how she uses the pumpkins and gourds differently than she did last year. So far, the largest pumpkin is now Greysen’s favorite chair, which she sits on it while she plays her drums.