Saturday, July 30, 2016

A.R.C.H. - Sparking Imagination in Play

This week has focused on imaginative, creative play.  We looked at two early childhood development programs that advocate for play and ways that our homes can encourage this type of play.   This is final post about Advocating for Play, which is the first area of the A.R.C.H. series about providing support for your 4 to 8 year old as they enter into the world of school.

Where do kids get stories? 

A key part of imaginative play is storytelling.  We are created for stories (as Andrew Kern says, there are 66 chapters of story and then the law).  Helping your child develop a sense of story has two parts:

-  Family story telling
-  Reading Aloud

Story telling and reading aloud should be integrated into our lives.  Today I want us to remember that we all have stories to share and that they are worth remembering, celebrating and re-telling.  Today we will focus on our own stories. Over the course of the following week we will look more closely at reading aloud.  

What about family story telling?  

Do you take time at the end of the day to recall what happened that day (on the way home from school, at dinner, before bed)?  This has lots of positive benefits for emotional reasons (see Whole Brain Child for more) but also helps children to see the ark of stories in their lives. If kids are struggling with something that day, you can help them re-tell the story with a different ending by problem solving and re- imagining the events.  They can't control ALL the factors - but this type of thinking can help them better understand themselves in the world.  Of course, sometimes it is easier for kids to use props (like stuffed animals and puppets) to talk about these things and it might be easier to observe them at play to see what they are thinking about than asking them directly.  

Sally Clarkson takes this idea of family story telling to a whole different level (she can capture it much better than I can explain it).  Her family has one day a year that they celebrate their personal family history. They have recorded through the years the ways that God has been faithful to their family and each year they remember that as a family and add to the list of blessing and remembering. Talk about knowing your story!

Grounding our children in their own stories, finding value and remembering their every day, can bring wholeness to them.  Providing them with emotional support, vocabulary for feelings, a listening ear and laughing at the fun and failures can build a strong foundation for our children.  This is not about prying or meddling - it's about weaving the story of our lives together in ways that bring wholeness and connection.

Help your children discover and delight in the wonder of their everyday.  May it be the basis of many creative stories and memories for your children.  Next week we will focus on the value of other people's stories in shaping our lives.  

Here are a few ideas:

Story Cubes  - The store bought cubes are a good start - they provide different characters, actions and ideas for children to start their play with.  It encourages creative storytelling and it is harder than you would think!  You can also easily make your own.  For younger children you might include things that you know they are familiar with (park, store, favorite people).  For older children you can introduce more imaginative objects or characters from books they are reading and subjects they enjoy learning about.   If you use photos on the wooden cubes you can make them a very personal way to remember stories and integrate them into your life.

Puppets - All size and shape of puppets can make re-telling stories more fun.  From finger puppets, to hand puppets to homemade puppets (spoons, paper bags, egg cartons - whatever you have on hand). Add in a stage for an extra layer of play.  Table top theaters, under the table theaters (hang two of those sheets you got and let them part in the middle for the stage and they hide under the table and put on the show outside), door way puppet stages (this is just one - there are MANY).  

Chalkboard blocks - This simple idea can add lots of imagination to a train set, lego set or block set that you already own.  By creating blocks the children can customize for their story you are encouraging language skills and creativity.   You can also easily make blocks that include pictures of the key people in your child's life so that they can include these characters in their play.

Show Me a Story is the best resource I have found for a variety of ways to bring storytelling to life.  The ideas range from simple projects kids can do on their own to good gift ideas to projects that can be bonding experiences while you are making them.

Obviously, being exposed to a variety of other stories is crucial for children.  There are so many benefits of reading aloud that we are going to spend an entire week talking about integrating other people's stories into our lives.  I just didn't want us to miss the rich stories in our own lives.  They are worth remembering and celebrating; especially as your young child enters into the new world of school.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A.R.C.H. - Imaginative Play at Home

It is the rare mom who would limit imaginative play at home.  However, there might be some play resources to add to your home.  Please add your favorites in the comments if I missed them!

Pillows - This is my "go to" gift for the boys.  I recommend getting all sizes - body length, couch (that they can play with), throw, regular size, etc.  We have had pillow pits, forts, dog houses, etc appear in our living room.

Sheets and Blankets - These help extend the pillow play and can be used to make a variety of dress up outfits. Different colors can encourage play as well  - blue for water, brown for desert, etc.  Yes, please get the play sheets from a thrift store.  In a pinch they can be used like a parachute and keep balloons in the air.

Beanbags and balls - These can become a variety of items in play from bombs to food to currency.

Play Silks - These are the fancy, smaller version of sheets.  I actually don't have them but they come highly recommended - they can also help with active play with music.  Typically they are smaller sizes so easier to use for clothing.

Cardboard boxes - We have all witnessed kids play with the box more than the toy.  Try to keep a variety of sizes on hand (larger encourages more creative play) on hand.

Crazy Forts - This helps those sheets and other items stay in place better.  I have seen friends create boats, forts, stages, and a variety of other things out of these things.  Tons of play here.

Dress up clothes - I would recommend things that are more generic - not a specific character.  My boys actually LOVE their body suit - it's red and they streak around our house in them pretending to be all types of characters.

Tents and tunnels - We currently have a small tent in our house.  Inside or outside, it adds fun and creative possibilities.

Playstands and child sized tables - These are large wooden structures that kids can use to make a variety of things: play house, grocery store, really anything.  They are a little pricey but I imagine you could make sometime similar for much less.  Here is Ana White's version.  You might be able to make something similar out of PVC pipe as well.

As children get older I would encourage some skill based, open ended play.  By providing them with some basic instruction and time to tinker, develop and play they can grow in confidence and skill.

Tinker and Loose Parts - Providing your children with a variety of tools that they can explore.
Sewing supplies - needle, thread, thimble, crochet hook, yarn
wood play - hammer, nails, screws, screwdriver
art activities - paint, paper, colored pencils, brushes, crayons, etc.
pvc pipe also has lots of possiblities

Tinkerlab has a long list of supplies you can use.

I would also count wood blocks, legos, snap circuits, playmobile, Little Bits and similar items as toys that encourage creative storytelling, play and building.

I am sure there are many more resources.  Check out your local thrift store and get some clothes (fancy and plain), old kitchen supplies, sheets (I am not sure I would get pillows - depends on the location), balls, craft and tinker supplies and find a way to organize it and make it accessible.

Remember that if kids are used to playing with something electronic or based on a character it might take a bit of time and practice to enjoy the more free form play.

I will admit that this is easier to do if there are other kids around to encourage the story making and extend the tinkering ideas.  You might want to check out the previous post about creating space for outdoor play and consider how some of these ideas might work for imaginative play as well.

Food for Thought: 

What is your child's favorite toy or game?  Why does he/she like it so much?

How many of the toys in your house are open ended?  How many are character driven and single use?

Wednesday with Words: Clearing by Wendell Berry

This weekend I was spoiled.  One of my best friends and I went to a spa for our birthdays. This is the first time I've ever done something like that.  We also went to Half Price Books.  I picked up a Wendell Berry poem (thanks to Alyssa who brought one of his books to the park).  My friend thought I was crazy to get this little volume of poetry.  I read it twice in a rocking chair on a porch overlooking the lake.  It was FABULOUS.  Lots of thoughts swirling from this short reflection.  Here are some of my favorite quotes.

I love this imagery.  I need to allow this to be true in my life. 

This is how he ends the book. I too need to spend time in the present. 

Why is this so hard to remember?  Why do I act so discontented? 

This is why too much vacation can overwhelm you.  We are made to work.  I need to remember this for my children too.  Resting from work well done is very satisfying. 

I also am reading a collection of authors reflecting on writing their memoirs in Inventing the Truth. This line by Russel Baker is my favorite line so far.  He is reflecting on his very large family and a difficulty smaller families might encounter. 
When you're the only pea in the pod, your parents are likely to get you confused with the Hope Diamond. 

See what others are reading at Ladydusk today. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Other ways to play - Imaginative Play in the Classroom

Welcome to a new week!

This week we will discuss imaginative play.  This post is part of the series about parents supporting their children, like an A.R.C.H., as they enter into school.

A - Advocate for Play
R - Read Aloud
C - Coach academic skills
H - Habit formation

Our focus last week was on outdoor play for children.  This week we move towards imaginative play. If you've played with young children it can be hard to follow their "logic" as they tell a story.  They are a baby, now a superhero, now a dog.  Are you ever told that you aren't playing right?  How do they even know?

Today we'll look at two ways that teachers have incorporated play into their classroom.

Paley, A Child's Work 

Earlier this year, I read Vivian Paley's book A Child's Work.  I love her heart, passion and long experience with young children. Most of her books focus on one class year and illustrate how books, stories, social learning and play weave together in the life of a young child.  These short books paint vivid pictures of what we all wish our children experience in a classroom.  A Child's Work is a bit different, it explains the philosophy of this approach and why it is dying out in classrooms around the nation.

Paley makes the case for allowing kindergartners, at least,  time for imaginative play.  When three and four year olds tell stories they often change characters and are generally more scattered as they jump from topic to topic.  But as children internalize the flow of stories, get a better idea of characters and tell more complete stories these are actually the basis of composition and good writing.  At times the story will closely resemble something they have heard and other times it is a combination of elements - characters, plot twists and the like. Although not written, this is creative storytelling and an important step towards composition. In the rush to get children reading we are hampering their storytelling abilities.  Children are learning to organize their ideas and doing it in community when they participate in dramatic play.

Imaginative play is powerful for young children because it allow them to take on roles and try out different lives. This is one reason superhero play is so prevalent.  So often we stop it (especially in school) because it involves violence and rough and tumble play. However, children act out their fears, hopes and what they have seen. Their play is a window into their world as they deal with power, force and physicality.  If you were little wouldn't you want to pretend to be strong and powerful?  They need a chance to win, to overcome - even if it is just in play.  Have you ever wondered why no one wants to be the baby?

Vygotsky, Play as a "leading idea" 

Vygotsky is a key theorists for early childhood educators.  The most current incarnation of his philosophy is the Tools of the Mind curriculum.  A key aspect, as explained by its developers Bodrova and Leong, is the unique role that dramatic play holds in these classrooms (the following ideas are taken from this long overview).  The key parts of good play are:

 imaginary situation

Most of us understand the first two but the third might seem a bit odd.  Rules for free play - where? Vygotsky believes that there are implicit rules embedded in the way children take on their roles. For example, when the baby cries in imaginative play there are certain ways a mom should and should not respond.  These implicit rules help children learn more and construct the social world around them in a way that they understand.  This is also how you can "play wrong" according to the rules the child has created.
Vygotsky and his colleagues argue that play is not the most unrestricted, ‘free’ activity, but rather that it presents the context in which children face more constraints than in any other context. Although it is constraining, play is also one of the most desirable activities of childhood because children are extremely motivated to abide by these limits
It is through this role playing that they learn more about self regulation, emotions and appropriate social interaction.  Not because they were reminded to be kind to friends; rather, if you are mean during play, people won't invite you to the party.

Tools of the Mind intentionally supports this imaginative play in a few ways:

-  Providing themes for pretend play.   This is done though stories, field trips, movies and visitors.
-  Props.  Teachers in these classrooms try to introduce more general props (blocks, clothes, clipboards and paper, etc.) and encourage children to use them creatively.
-  Extending play.  Often when children begin playing they may only think of the doctor and patient - but what about the assistant, nurse, mother, and other roles.  Teachers try to expand the characters involved in play.
-  Play planning.  Before children begin their dramatic play they are asked to share what role they will play and how they will do it.  They write down their plan with pictures and words to the best of their ability.  This helps them to think about what they are doing.  Students do not have to stick only with this plan but it gives them more "tools" to work with.  If disagreements occur often teachers will ask children if that was part of their play plan.

Bodrova and Leong explain the many advantages of play planning:
In creating, discussing and revising their plans, children learn to control their behaviors in play and beyond, thus acquiring self-regulatory skills. Finally, teachers use play planning to influence dramatic play without intervening in and disrupting the play as it is occurring. The teacher suggests to children ahead of time how they can try out new roles, add new twists to the play scenario, or think of a way to substitute for missing props. 
This blog post provides a concise overview of what Vygotsky says about imaginative play.

Imaginative play can take many forms in the classroom.  Paley prefers to introduce stories and characters and watch what the children enjoy.  She then follows their lead in discussion and exploration.  Tools of the Mind is more directed, in part because they are trying to lead children toward certain demonstrable results.  Much of the dramatic play in Tools of the Mind closely resembles adult roles they may some day play. I am not sure that there is much room for Superman in their approach. They also have a clear strategy for how they are developing language skills that can be quantified.  It is an effort to justify play in the classroom and trace the ways that it supports child development - social emotional and language acquisition.

Although both of these theorists seem to think that by 6 or 7 children should be moving on from such play I think children can benefit from continuing with imaginative play.  Now, whether it should take place in an academic setting is a fair question.  Interestingly, Tools of the Mind is adapted from a Russian model and as they tried to bring it into the American context they discovered
Many of the Russian activities were designed for children who were developmentally much older than their American counterparts, although the learning tasks were similar. Thus, even the level of directions required to complete the task had to be changed to meet the developmental level of American children since younger children’s memory skills are not as advanced. 
Basically, as Americans we are trying to push skills much earlier than other cultures do - even when play is the basis of that system!  Is earlier better?

I remember our 4th grade teacher giving into our love of Dr. Seuss books and creating an assignment where we worked in teams to create plays for his picture books (I was assigned to the "Butter Battle Book" Team).  All of us were able to read on grade level and above but she realized our love of a good story and play and used it to extend our learning in other ways.

I am not sure if I would qualify Tools of the Mind as "free play" - adult intervention is involved. However, it is dramatic play.  There are ways that play can and should legitimately be allowed in at least the kindergarten and possibly the first grade classroom.

Tomorrow we will discuss encouraging imaginative play at home.

Food for Thought: 

Do you think that imaginative play should have a role in the kindergarten and maybe even 1st grade classroom?  What should that looks like?

Does the school your child attend create space for this type of play?

Have you watched your kids re-tell a story?  What have you noticed about the way they tell a story? What characters do they like?  How do they interact with others?

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Advocate for Play: Outdoor Spaces

Whew!   We have covered a lot of ground this week when it comes to active play: 

What is play? 
The role of team sports, movement and play 
Rough housing and outside free play

Remember, this is just the FIRST half of play!  Next week we will move into the role of imaginative play.  Also, this is the first of 4 points to help us provide support as our kids move into the world of school.  Here are the pinterest links; eventually, I will have all the post links connected as well.

A - Advocate for Play
R - Read Aloud
C - Coach academic skills (language and math)
H - Habits for learning

Okay, on to today!

I just need to check in with you quickly.  I am still reeling from the revelation that we should have outdoor free play for 2 to 3 hours a day.  This is not meant to be guilt inducing. My goal is to help us see some of what we might be losing in the search for "the best" for our kids.  Playing is one of the best things we can allow in the life of 4 to 8 year olds.  So, many moms I know have a gut feeling that their kids need time, space and freedom.  I hope that this gives you courage to go with your gut.  Your 4 to 8 year old will not miss out if you let them "just play" - that's what they are supposed to be doing. 

What can we do to make outdoor spaces that invite children to play, risk and imagine? Below are just a few ideas and key phrases to start you on your search for a better outside experience.  

The Outdoor Space 

It's not just a matter of walking to the local playground.  As Hanscom explains in Barefoot and Balanced, many parts of the playground that encouraged risk taking, turning upside down, swinging and spinning, have been removed.  What's a mom to do?  Not only that, actually getting to an outdoor space requires planning - often a car drive, supplies - and then if it is after school there is traffic, dinner and homework.   The idea is simple but execution turns out to be more complicated.  

Really, most things you do inside can be done outside - homework, eating, reading, etc.  If you've ever been to a "backyard VBS" you know what I'm talking about - just bring out some tables and chairs and stay with kids and they will play outside.  That's the other hard part for me - especially at home - I want them to play outside while I get things done inside.  Often we have to go with them and try some masterly inactivity or "wise letting alone". 

Here are some things to look for and add to your own backyard.  

This article hits the high points of the history of the playground and what loose parts means. This is a term to describe providing more natural and man made items that encourage kids to play and experiment.  This includes stumps, logs, water, sand, mud, leaves, acorns, nuts and bolts.  The idea here is that the kids use the "parts" to create whatever they want. It encourages creativity and allows them some of the risk and problem solving we hope they get in the outdoors.  Here are some ideas of what you can include in your backyard.  Here is an innovative program that brings some of these concepts to an after school program and the blog has lots of other pictures and ideas about play.  


Hanscom explains that playgrounds have significantly changed in the last 100 years.  Ideally, your child will have a natural space with rocks, trees, hills and the like as well as open space to run and play.  We may like the bright colors and fancy "play systems" but I thought this was an interesting point 

So the bright shiny playground may not encourage the type of play we are hoping to achieve. Here are some things that you should look for in a playground.  Here is a bit more unusual playground - the junk playground.  

Natural Space

I highly encourage you to evaluate the parks near your home.  Do some of them have a grove of trees, running water, or something else that would encourage real outdoor play?  Near our house we have a few options.  One is a library that has some trees around the playground.  Our kids stay on the playground for about 5 minutes and then end up in the trees (except for chigger season - that was bad).  Another option we have is a regular playground connected to walking paths which have trees all around it.  The third is a nature preserve that has a place where you can go into the river.  I live in an URBAN area (we live close to one of the fastest growing zip codes in the US) but we find a way to make it work.  

Gardening/ Outdoor Work

I have a brown thumb and we don't try to fight the weeds around our house - but we probably should. Gardening and other outdoor work is great for kids.  I do try to dig in the dirt more, let water and dirt mix to make mud and allow my kids to do the same (without freaking out about it).  There are so many types of gardens - square foot, hydroponic, potted, etc.  Andrew Kern, founder of the CIRCE Institute says, 
"As for the natural sciences, I'd begin with gardening (biology, chemistry, and physics combined and alive) and pet care. Have them observe closely and learn everything they can about something they love. That will necessarily grow into something more technical at the right time and in the right way. "

Nature Study 

Honestly, this is a whole different aspect of why kids should be outdoors - but I want to mention it here.  Kids learn to wonder when they watch and question the natural world. A few simple tools can help encourage nature study: notebooks, colored pencils, bug view finders, magnifying glasses, loupes  and the like.  Looking at schedules from public schools 100 years ago - nature study was the sum total of science in elementary school.  It taught kids to observe, wonder, question, record, sketch, enjoy and respect what was around them.  Many advances have been made in science - but these are still the primary tools a scientist uses. As with physical play, there is room for adult encouragement and discussion - but give kids the tools, teach them some basic safety and see what happens.


One of the primary challenges is finding people to play with.  This is especially true if your child is an only or they are spaced farther apart (or if they bicker like mine do).  I am very fortunate to have found a group of moms who also value outdoor play.  We were part of a homeschool coop and afterwards let our children play upwards of 2 hours at the playground at the church.  Then another day of the week we head to a local park with natural areas - kids play while we do a "book" study (we often talk about the book for 15 minutes at the end of a 2 1/2 hour time period).  We try to make it to the nature preserve (mentioned above) as often as we can.  

It seems weird to have to schedule and plan these types of things but we find time for other things we think are important.  Some neighborhoods still have the roam and play feel - but our area does not! 

  • Gather a few friends who would be willing to go to a park a day or two a week after school - instead of a team sport let them free play?  One local school has a group of 3rd to 5th grade boys that are at the park for about an hour after school most days - they have a BLAST!  
  • What about Saturday mornings?  Gather at a bigger park or preserve and have fun.  
  • Does someone you know have access to a neighborhood park, stream or river access near them?  
  • Could you collaborate and equip one person's backyard with "loose parts"?  Maybe rotate who "supervises" while other moms get things done at home or run errands.
  • Maybe your local elementary school could offer an "afterschool program" based on loose parts and play.  Could you help spearhead that effort? 
  • What about your church?  Do they have a playground?  Could it incorporate some of these ideas and allow moms to use it during the week as an outreach?  
  • What if you split duties?  A few moms stay at the park with the kids while the others run errands and then switch.  Then no one has to clean their house - BONUS!
  • If dinner is getting you down, try a crock pot meal, frozen dinner, eat leftovers, make it your night to eat out, pack a picnic dinner and eat at the park, see if someone else in your house can cook that night or have one mom cook and the other "loosely" supervise the kids and then share a the meal together. 
  • Carry play clothes in the car so if inspiration strikes you can get out of uniforms (most schools around here have them) and get down and dirty. 
  • Why not allow your kids to do some of their homework at the park?  Hopefully your 5 and 6 year olds don't have much of it - why not read aloud while lying on a blanket beneath some trees? 
Ideally, you would have a small group (even just a few families) with children of various ages who would be able to play together fairly regularly in a space that encourages creative and "risky" play.  Finding a group or "team" that encourages this type of play regularly can make a huge difference in making this a reality for your kids.  

Food for Thought:

List a few parks or natural spaces near your home.  What are the pros and cons of these areas?  How frequently do you actually get to them? 

Think about your backyard (if you are blessed to have one).  Are there things that you could do to encourage play?  What about just relaxing rules about mud, water and sand?  Do your kids have play clothes, swimsuits, towels and play shoes that are close to the back door? I am thinking about adding an outdoor shower using a  hose around here to make it easier to get clean.  

List three or four friends that might be interested in getting together for free play. What would help make a regular play time a reality for that group?  

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

A.R.C.H. - True Play

Yesterday we established that team sports, movement and body management are not play. With limited time in a day after school, what should we prioritize with our children?  What type of play is most age appropriate and where should it be done?  Today we will look at 2 types of active play (next week we will talk more imaginative play): 

Rough and Tumble Play 
Outside Free Play

Rough and Tumble Play  

As a mom I am often frustrated by the amount of wrestling around our house. I had one brother and my husband was an only - so there wasn't much rough and tumble play growing up. But with 3 boys it can border on ridiculous! Kids need roughhousing.  The Art of Roughhousing is dedicated to bringing back this old way of play (here are some of the key points). It is through roughhousing that boys learn limits, their own strength and bond. Stuart also has more to say about the role of rough and tumble play.  

Roughhousing at school will get you in BIG trouble these days - so where can they do it? HOME! Who can they do it with? Dad, uncles, brothers (some sisters), cousins and hopefully good friends. Sometimes we enroll children in karate, tae kwon do, etc. to help fill this need. But is that play or an adult led activity? See, it doesn't quite scratch the actual itch. This kind of play is about bonding - not just about learning to defend and attack.
I have one cousin who intentionally wrestles with his boys every morning. If he doesn’t, it is harder for them to calm down and focus that day.  My 4 yo needs touch as well - so he asks to cuddle every morning. The days when I meet this need he has a better day.  Realize that some kids need this kind of play so badly that they will try to provoke it in others.  They aren't pushing and touching to be mean - they have a need and are trying to get it met.  Often we end the day with the rough and tumble (we all know dads who play tickle games right before bed), kids might benefit from starting the day this way.

Outside Free Play 

P.E., team sports and similar adult led activity are okay for part of our child's outdoor time but what else is there?   Angela Hanscom is a pediatric occupational therapist who was stunned by the trouble students were having with basic tasks and decided to investigate. Her book Balanced and Barefoot is the result of that research. Honestly, I want to quote the whole book, but I will limit myself to some highlights. 

How much time outdoors? 

When we read older educational theorists (like Charlotte Mason) she recommends about 6 hours outdoors a day.  I scoffed at that - how is that possible? - maybe that's just old fashioned.  Well, research in 2016 recommends 

Excuse me!  Come again.  Shockingly, she recommends MORE time (5 to 8 hours) for preschoolers. Obviously, you have to account for weather and such, but that is a LOT of time in active play and in the great outdoors.  In prior generations kids normally had outdoor chores, places to walk to, basically reasons to be outside.  Hanscom recommends "two to three hours of uninterrupted play outside everyday." It makes the 60 minutes a day that the government promotes look dreadfully small.  You see, kids needs haven't changed, but our ability to meet those needs has.

Now, think about how much time your child spends outdoors?  How much of that is free play?  Now do you see why kids struggle inside a classroom all day?  It is crucial to realize that being in a classroom all day is truly difficult for many children (this story just makes we want to scream).  We know what kids need and as parents we need to do our best to help them navigate a workable solution for our lives and their energy, physical growth and emotional well being. 

Why outdoors? 

Hanscom asserts
The outdoors, however, has fewer rules and guidelines.  And objects in nature, because they don't seem to have any inherent function or usefulness, actually inspire kids to use their imaginations, challenge their thinking and test their physical limits - far more so than almost anything made in a factory.  True joy, a sense of play and confidence overcome children who play outdoors. 
Isn't that what we hope for our children - joy, creativity, confidence?  Much of the book provides research and support for this claim.   Indoors they may be getting activity but often it is very directed (you can only crawl through the tunnel, jump on the bouncy house) and doesn't encourage true creative play.

A note, Hanscom cautions that kids who aren't used to this type of play take about 45 minutes to really settle into playing (who to play with, what to play, how to play).  So, if you are only allotting an hour to play kids will just be starting to get into "deep play" and you'll have to go.  With "just an hour" they might not get to creative play.  Kids who are more familiar with free play or with each other will get to "deep play" much more quickly. Hanscom's organization, Timbernook, has crazy stories about kids trying to figure out what to do on their own in nature. 


This list (from Hanscom) is a quick overview of some of the benefits of playing outside. 
Playing outdoors improves the immune system, develops the senses, strengthens motor skills, inspires creativity and imagination, fosters social emotional skills, and cultivates the foundational skills needed for later academic work. 
However, lets focus on one aspect of the benefit of outdoor play - Risk. Both Brown (of the Foundation for Play) and Hanscom discuss this as a major benefit of play.   Risky play for Hanscom includes:
1. handling dangerous tools
2. being near dangerous elements (fire)
3. exploring heights by climbing
4. speed
5. rough and tumble play
6. playing on one's own 
Most of these things just don't happen indoors (without being told to stop).  However, children need to experiment and learn their limits.

In order for kids to learn their limits, build confidence and grow, they must take risks. Teachers can't allow kids to take too many risks and most of the school day is spent indoors. This is something that parents must create a space for in children's lives.  Germany has taken this concept to a whole new level with the Forest School.  In these schools, children play freely outside (regardless of weather conditions) with minimum adult intervention.  A fascinating idea. 

Right now, the 102 heat index is discouraging our outdoor play - but really we just need to run around in the water more.  Tomorrow we will talk about the different things you can do outdoors to help encourage play and just get outside!  

Food for Thought  

Do your kids do rough and tumble play?  Do you value it or try to stop it? 

Think about risk in your child's day.  Are your children given opportunities to take risks that they choose regularly?  Where and how do you accomplish this?  

Honestly assess how much outside free play your child has.   If this became a priority how much time could you spend outdoors?  When?  

What are the primary barriers to outside play (supervision, time, lack of space, no playmates, the mess)?  Can these be overcome?   

I am also linking this up with Wednesday with Words over at Ladydusk.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A.R.C.H. - Athletics, Movement and Play?

In the last post we discussed that play is "pleasurable and pointless" but essential for children. For the next two posts we will be discussing active, physical play.

If asked about your child's activity level you would probably talk to me about a team sport he has joined. However, team sports might be the least important form of physical play for the 4 to 8 yo age group!  Today we'll look at the difference between sports and movement and how both can be integrated into our child's life. Tomorrow we will finally talk about real physical play and just how crucial it is.

Team Sports

I am putting this first because there are key misunderstandings about kids in early childhood and team sports. In her book, A Running Start, Rae Pica (my review of her book is here) draws from over 20 years of experience with kids and movement. She insists that team sports are NOT play for a young child.  They are trying to follow the rules, master their bodies and do it in front of an audience (often a very vocal one).  This is actually a stress inducing experience for many children. Honestly, young children are just not physically and mentally able to do many of the things required for a team at this age.  The APA recommends children don't start team sports until age 6, Pica says that 8 is probably more appropriate. Angela Hanscom in Balanced and Barefoot shares that "60% of boys and 47% of girls in the United States are on a sports team by the age of 6."

Why would you delay something that seems to be such a part of being a kid and teaches great values and gets them active? In large part because young children simply are not physical mature enough to do many of the fundamental moves involved in team sports. Pica includes this outline of some of the moves children might need to master and when most children can do them:
eye- hand or eye- foot coordination - 9 or 10 years old
distinguish an object from its surroundings - 8 to 12 years old
depth perception - around 12
understand rules, strategies and tactics - 10 years old 
Many children under 8 simply don't have the coordination and focus to be successful in these pursuits, especially in the middle of a game.  They will do their best to please the adults around them, but at what expense?  

Pica also emphasizes that many coaches don’t focus on the fundamentals. At this age, kids need clear, step by step, skill building instruction and time to learn.  Often, in the rush to “play the game” fundamentals are not the focus.  Of course, there are exceptions (I would say my brother’s teams are that) to all of these statements. However, many of the things we think are cute (or frustrating) on the ball field are really kids showing us they aren't prepared for this type of activity. If you choose to put your kids in sports at a younger age (we start soccer at 5) make sure that they are having fun with it and that they are learning the fundamentals of the game.  

I grew up in a family of athletes.  I believe in the value of team sports. In fact, most children should play a team sport at some point in their life.  However, earlier is not better in this situation. The better experience is to wait until they have the maturity - physically and emotionally - to handle the situation. 

A physically active child who has well rounded movement development and none of the baggage associated with failure in sports will pick up a sport, learn it quickly and move forward. Pica highlights numerous professional athletes who started "late" (meaning in middle school and beyond).  Tiger Woods is not a poster child for normal athletic development!  

So, what else qualifies as physical activity and play?  


Pica does a great job distinguishing between athletics and movement.  Both are important, but at this early age she emphasizes movement.  Most children do not ever perfect basic movements like walking, running, galloping, jumping rope, throwing, bike riding, spinning, skipping and other physical tasks.  They need instruction, practice and time to develop these skills.  If there is still P.E. in your local school than kids are getting some instruction in these areas. A quick anecdote illustrates the point about athletics versus movement.  One blogger tells of a 12 year old neighborhood basketball champ who attempted their "jedi training camp" which required balance and coordination.  He couldn't do it.   This was her take away 
This wonderful athlete lacks total physical development. He is so driven on the basketball court and so focused on developing those sport-specific skills that he has neglected the development of other general elements such as balance and core strength. 
In the second half of early childhood is the perfect time to help develop this overall body awareness and strength. There are some things that you can do (inside) at home to encourage movement, although outside provides many more opportunities (more on that later).

  1. Agility Ladders - A physical therapist friend of mine encourages using agility ladders.  When kids are young just let them jump, walk and tiptoe.  As they get older you can create more difficult combinations.
  2. Dance - Regardless of how you feel on the dance floor, grooving with your kids is a great way to get your whole body moving.  There are lots of silly songs for kids out there to encourage all types of movement.  Jim Gill is one of our current favorites.
  3. Yoga - This can help your kids learn more about breathing, stretching and the amazing ways a body can move.  There are some “yoga stories” on you tube that include different moves.  We have the Yoga Pretzel cards and try different positions. As always, preview the materials to make sure you are comfortable sharing them with your children.
  4. Fundamentals - Take time to teach your child how to throw, stand on one foot and balance, jump rope, ride a bike.  As they get older they can start doing sit ups, planks, push ups and similar core strengthening movements.
  5. Rebounder - This “mini trampoline” can provide lots of ways to get your extra wiggles out.

Movement at School

Unfortunately, in an attempt to find more time to do academic work - play, recess and physical education are being removed from schools (according to Hanscom about 40% have reduced or eliminated recess and that was in the late 1990's, changes have increased that number).  Michael Gurian's Boys and Girls Learn Differently explains how physical activity leads to BETTER THINKING for boys. Here is a quick overview of his suggestions for teachers and schools and some of the basic physical differences between boys and girls that impact learning (including room temperature, noise level and obviously - movement).  Girls benefit from movement in the classroom, but boys NEED it.  

What happens when boys have too much pent up energy?  Sax explains why his practice has seen a sharp rise in requests to medicate young children in Boys Adrift.  I've had friends debate whether they should medicate a 6 year old child. I don't want to enter this debate but I do want show how the two are tied together. Granted, some children truly need assistance; however, many are just acting their age and trying to get their need for physical stimulation and play met in the best way they know how.

Rae Pica has numerous books that teachers can use to integrate movement with content area subjects (like science and reading). For younger children, A Moving Child is a Learning Child is a great resource. It describes the normal progression of movement for children from holding her head up to crossing the midline (a HUGE deal for so many academic skills) with excellent pictures. I plan to trace my own kids and make sure they have mastered all of the steps. Connell and McCarthy also developed the "kinetic scale" which connects different types of movement activities with your child's overall development. It is color coded and easy to understand with plenty of ideas about how to encourage these key milestones in a child's development- a great resource.

Helping at School

If you have an active kiddo try to see if your child can use a fidget buster at their desk.  For larger body movement the stability wobble cushion or bouncy bands for their chair might help.  You might also try to see if the teacher is familiar with brain breaks (a book) or search for brain breaks on pinterest or elsewhere.

Children who move are trying to problem solve. Often when kids seem distracted they truly are listening (this happens when we read aloud around here all the time); they need movement to help them focus. Teachers are tasked with managing up to 25 or 30 students at a time. Be pro-active with your child; introduce breathing techniques, the magic moustache (and others), doodling paper  or less obvious movements that the child can do in their own seat or as they are allowed to move around the classroom.  

When kids get home they have been holding in their wiggles ALL DAY.  Try your best to allow them time to choose their own active play (shoot baskets, toss beanbags, wrestle). Very young children often just need to sleep! Also do your best to make studying active and game like - if possible.

Unfortunately, recess and the games allowed while at recess (no more balls or tag at some schools!) are severely limited. However, schools with more recess also have more focused students.  If your child isn't getting recess, consider fighting for it. P.E. is adult led while recess should be child led play. Teaching students about their physical development and helping them gain control of their bodies is important, but it isn't play. A well rounded physical education should include both P.E. and recess.

Any type of activity that primarily follows adult instruction DOES NOT COUNT AS PLAY. Therefore, none of the discussion in this post counts as play! However, many of us think of it as play in our own lives. Kids needs are different - especially at this young age.

Tomorrow we will discuss just how crucial OUTSIDE, PHYSICAL PLAY is for young children.

Food for thought:
After school is a tough time to allow for play. What are ways your children can safely get out energy in your house or backyard? Can you adjust your schedule so that they can get to a place to play (and people to play with) more regularly?

Did you find strategies to teach your child so that they can release some energy even if they aren't supposed to wiggle?

Which is more important for 4 to 8 yo children - free time active play or a team sport? Think about your week. How much of each does your child get?

If you are involved in sports, what are the benefits you hoped they would gain from the experience? Is that happening in the league, team, and with the coach that you have?