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.


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?

Balancing the Curriculum

Yesterday, I sat looking at the girls’ toy shelves and was noting a lack of balance in our materials. I was looking for science materials in particular, an area I tend to overlook. That’s the thought that started the spiral of self-doubt. How can I provide them with a more balanced experience? A provocation perhaps? Should we cook more? Summer’s here – sink or float activities? Or maybe open-ended materials. Sensory bottles? Is that science? Finally, I spent a few minutes flipping through a favorite materials catalog for inspiration.


By the end of the afternoon, well . . . I was feeling a little like this:


Parents often have a sense of inadequacy when confronted on the one hand with the eager, sensitive mind of a child, and on the other with a world of complex physical nature, inhabited by a life so various and unfamiliar that it seems hopeless to reduce it to order and knowledge. In a mood of self-defeat, they exclaim, “How can I possibly teach my child about nature – why, I don’t even know one bird from another!”  – Rachel Carson


Then came today.



A hike with friends.




Some of nature’s most exquisite handiwork is on a miniature scale, as anyone knows who has applied a magnifying glass to a snowflake.   – Rachel Carson




Taking the time to make small discoveries, to wonder alongside my daughter, to hold her hand as she stopped to pick up stones and a stick. To stand by her side as she fell on the trail and got up again when she walked too eagerly down a slope. Geology. Physics. Biology. She was learning them all without the necessity of adding labels to them. As for Moon, she slept and nursed through the majority of the hike.


Learning materials and toys have their place but so does experience and discovery. Thanks for the reminder Greysen.





Emergent Curriculum At Home

If I watch closely, I am seeing little embers of interests that have the potential to transform into threads of curriculum experiences for Greysen. Emergent curriculum is the idea that children learn best when their learning is self-directed. That is, their learning opportunities are based on their interests and ideas. This idea, coupled with my understanding that children also learn best through play and hands-on experiences, is how I plan play provocations for the girls.


Adults may simply need to ask a verbal child what they are interested in or listen to their peer conversations to get a sense of their passions. The process is the same for infants and toddlers, even though they may appear to generally be less articulate than older children. However, watching their play closely will most likely reveal their questions about the world that surrounds them.


Offering Greysen play experiences based on her interests is sometimes challenging because there are so many irresistible ideas out there. I try to balance other great ideas with ideas that are directly responsive to the interests and questions Greysen has, and when I take a close look, she has many.


1. Noting an Interest


Children have any number of ideas and interests from moment to moment and day to day. I try to focus on the ideas that she repeatedly tests out or tries.


In this instance, painting over things – her hands, or marks on the paper.




2. Seek the Child’s Ideas and Input


As a toddler, Greysen is primarily in the exploratory stage.  Her art experiences are largely sensory, and she prefers them to be kept simple. She has not yet generated ideas outside of her previous experiences, so I sought her input by offering her some choices.


3. Offer an Extension of the Child’s Interest


Given Greysen’s consistent interest in transformation (i.e., face-painting) and increasing sense of self-awareness, there were a couple of directions I thought I could take this.


Greysen paints and paints, focusing on the tiniest details. She seeks out little marks, previously painted spots, or bits of tape and completely covers them with paint. My idea to extend on this was to give her a chance to paint over something – images. I set out dark paint so that she could really cover or black out as much of the images as she wanted to without having to apply too many coats. For these images, I tore out a couple of black and white portraits from a magazine and taped them to a board.


This was the first time I have set up something to paint on that wasn’t blank or previously marked up by her own doing.


4. Allow Time to Explore the Materials


Children typically need time to explore and play with the materials, often in unintended ways, before they engage in the opportunity presented to them.


This was definitely the case this time, as Greysen took right to painting her trademark cat nose,  and on her forehead  a single stroke. Without prompting, she moved on to paint over the portraits.



She spent most of her time painting over the people’s features. She narrated her actions as she painted, saying, “eyes, nose.” etc.




5. Reflect on the Experience


Taking time to review video or photographs at some later point helps me see what were the most interesting aspects about the project to Greysen.


The purpose of this experience was to give Greysen a chance to see what happens to an images when she paints over it. Her comments lead me to think that she is still interested in facial features and how she looks with paint on her face.


6. Plan the Next Experience Based on the Child’s Interest/Question/Theory

And so the cycle continues.  My next steps? Plan an art experience that is connected to her interest in faces, possibly expressions. Any ideas?