Arts, Crafts and Nurturing Creative Development in the Early Years – Part 1: Mark-making

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As a parent, I’ve found that one of the most challenging things is being patient as your child’s skills and interests emerge. It’s tempting to overwhelm them with all of the things they could be doing instead of meeting them where they are at.

I wouldn’t describe myself as an artist, but expressing myself through the arts is something that I enjoy. Early on, I recognized H’s beautiful imagination and her knack for patterning and dramatic play but I noticed she never seemed very interested in drawing or colouring.

Over the years, I gave her opportunities to draw and mark make (mostly with paint) but I never really pushed it. I knew that the environment was a big factor in how she approached art, and while ideally, I’d love to have a studio space in our home, that is far from coming into fruition.

A few months before she turned 3, she spent 6 weeks in a Reggio inspired preschool setting and she absolutely loved it. She still wasn’t as “into” art experiences as some of the other children, but I did realize there was a seed there, and it just needed time and the right type of care to foster it.

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I knew that the chances were very high that any preschool/future schooling she attended would not have a good art program. In fact, traditional daycares and preschools are notorious for pushing traditional crafts on children. While there is nothing wrong with crafts in and of themselves, they do not replace art. Here is a very simplified explanation:

Art is a process. It focuses on expression and what is beautiful to the artist. Only the artist can determine if it “turns out”. It’s deeply personal and has meaning. It can only be explained by the artist. There is no right or wrong or good or bad. The same materials manifest multiple different ways. For example, a group of eight children given the same materials will probably process that material differently and an outsider will see eight distinct works. Conversations about art might include dialogue like “Can you tell me about what you are doing?” “I notice you are using…”

Crafting is often about the product. It usually does not come from the child but instead from someone in an authority position or sometimes a book who subtly or overtly dictates what is important. Children have a standard that they are trying to meet, and anything that differs from the standard is somehow deemed “bad” “imperfect” or “incomplete”. Even if an adult doesn’t explicitly comment on the craft, children may feel discouraged because their crafts don’t look like the prototype. The unspoken value of craft often become perfection, uniformity, and just following directions. Conversations focus on “what did you make?”

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H picked out an animal crafting book from the library and chose to make a family of penguins to reflect her own reality (instead of a single penguin like in the book). She made minor changes, like giving some of the penguins two different-sized eyes because she liked it better that way.

As an educator, one of the first things I do when I walk into any childhood setting is scan the walls for children’s artwork. If it all looks the same, a part of me dies. I don’t want to send the wrong message: H attends such a preschool – children often engage in crafting and making “gifts” for their parents where everything looks the same. It lets me know that at home, I need to make sure I give her the opportunity to engage in more open-ended art experiences.

Here is a look at H’s journey with drawing. Most of the past photos are inaccessible to me at the moment as they are stored in my laptop which is not working. The collection of inaccessible photos also includes process-based work from when she was younger.

EDIT: The photos below were up in our house so I took photos of photos to share with you. They were taken between 10-28 months. One of her earliest mark makings was outdoors with sidewalk chalk. The fat chalks were easy to hold and there was no mess indoors. I also wanted to highlight that mark-making can happen outdoors (here it was in the sand and snow) and often turns into a sensory experience, especially with younger children.

In October 2016, H was almost 3 years old. This is one of the first pictures I remember her drawing that was understandable. I had been drawing her attention to human features around this point of time. She drew a picture of me. I believe that circle around my head is “curly hair” (which I do not have but she did). She quite amused at drawing herself with curly hair that swirled around her face.

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These are her drawings from a few months later (you can read more about them here).

 

 

She was never one to enjoy colouring in colouring books (I never bought her any but she did have a collection she received as gifts from various people). And to be honest, she wasn’t “good” at it. I never wanted to be one of those parents that told her to colour in the lines because I didn’t want to limit her and undo her natural creativity from the onset.

Her lack of interest in mark-making may have stemmed from it not being satisfying for her. I noticed that she didn’t enjoy crayons but did enjoy paint and markers (probably because they actually left marks when she used them). *Sidenote: Using crayons is encouraged because you have to push harder and children develop muscles and control they may not with something that is “easier” like markers.

She also didn’t have the pincer grip (the correct way to hold a pen) down. I wasn’t sure if it was something I should teach her or just let her come to it on her own. So for the most part, I backed off. I’ll be honest though…I was nervous. I saw one of her same-aged peers who attended a montessori program colour exceptionally well within the lines. She had perfected the pincer grip at an early age. But I’ll never forget one day when she shared her work with me. It was a small colouring book- 8 pages of the EXACT SAME PICTURE of a bear. I was so confsued at first, and then I realized that in each page, she had coloured an isolated body part. I quickly realized that this is how the children were taught to colour in this particular program…”on page one, colour the ear; on page two, colour the arm…”  I was mortified. (EDIT: this activity was not used to teach colouring but to review previously taught/learned knowledge. I still believe that it required precise colour skills) Side note: if any of you have experience with the acquisition of colouring skills in the Montessori method, please comment with your insight!

Please understand that I’m in no way implying that traditional art doesn’t require specialized knowledge, technique or skill- it definitely does. But at three years old, I believe that our thinking around children and “art” should centre around creative development and expression.

Around the time that she was 3.5 years old, I decided to buy some oil pastels for her because they would leave marks easier than crayons, but I was hoping the new medium would be engaging. I remember that the first time I presented her with them, she resisted. So I did what we, as parents do when faced with such circumstances. I started drawing with the pastels. This peaked my daughter’s interest. I rememeber the first thing she draw. On a piece of black construction paper, she carefully selected seven different colours and drew horizontal lines then wrote her name. “This is my rainbow.” We were both proud and excited. I knew this was going to be the beginning of something.

As the year went on, I saw her more and more interested in drawing and colouring (in colouring books). Perhaps as her fine motor control improved and things started looking more the way she was intending, she became less frustrated. Perhaps it was because she befriended a girl at school who also enjoyed drawing. Perhaps it’s because she now had more of a narrative to share. Perhaps it was because now, she was developmentally ready.

Here is a family photo she drew in September or October.

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Here is one she drew in January. It’s surreal to me how much detail she has started reflecting in a span of 3-4 months.

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“Papa has buttons on his shirt. Mama is wearing a hairband. I have long hair. Y is wearing a bowtie.”

In mid-December, we went to go see a “Wizard of Oz” play.

 

 

A few weeks later, she started drawing characters from the play.

 

 

In early January, she wanted to draw together. I quickly drew a “yellow” brick road, which she soon turned into a “rainbow brick road”. She drew Dorthy and used stamps to create the field of deadly poppies.

 

 

A week later, we decided to stay home from preschool one day and H wanted to draw together. We used the packing materials from a recent furniture delivery. She wanted to draw together so we decided to draw trees.

imageShe asked me to draw some animals in our “forest”. Then, I asked her what animal she would draw. She started drawing a family of monkeys. “This is Mama Monkey and she’s carrying sister monkey and brother monkey.” I asked about their tails and she drew curly tailsfor them and their food (lots of bananas).

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A few weeks later, she drew this abstract picture of a cat. This was the first time I had seen her draw a non-human form. She was working meticulously on this “cat for mama”. This also happened to be the first incident I saw her get emotional over her art. Her same-aged cousin decided to take the picture (without permission) and engage in her own creative process (use a pencil to poke holes and make shapes like circles). There was a serious emotional meltdown that followed. In the four years I’ve parented this child, I’ve never seen her so angry. She had nightmares and held a grudge for a few weeks. There was so much more going on for her than art- this was an extremely socioemotional experience for her. The two eventually made up and I know her cousin was not being malicious- she was just a child experimenting with her own creative processes and testing her limits.

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At the beginning of February, H had a “bring a toy from home” day. She brought in a stuffed Elsa doll a friend had passed on to her a few weeks before that. She came home with this drawing of Elsa.

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Earlier this month during free play, she drew a family of sunflowers and explained the details to me. “This is the Papa Sunflower, Mama Sunflower, H Sunflower and Y Sunflower. These are the stems and here are the seeds in the soil.” It wasn’t until a few days later when I learned they were growing sunflowers in their classroom (which is where this sudden interest and detailed understanding stemmed from).

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It was evident that her technical skill was definitely improving. Here are some of the things I did to help postively influence her relationship with art and drawing:

  1. When she said she couldn’t draw something and asked me to draw it, I rarely did. I didn’t want to reinforce the message that she couldn’t draw. Instead I’d ask her to think about what she wanted to draw and think about what shapes it had. If she couldn’t remember what it looked like, we looked for the object in real life, or looked up a photo.
  2. I told her I would not draw for her, but I do accept her invitations to draw together. There is something beautiful to be said about collaboration.
  3. I encourage her to think about possibility (see the post on “Beautiful Oops” here). Similarly, here is a box we were using as a tunnel for Y. To help pass time, I suggested we try to transform the original text on the box into something else. I turned the barcode into a truck. She turned another barcode into a submarine. I turned the P into a snowman’s hat and the 2 into a goldfish.

 

 

In a future post, I will share some specific exercises/games/activity ideas that can be done with young children to foster their creative development.

Allowing for more art/creative experiences is definitely something I would like to incorporate more into the kids’ lives. I think it will be my next  challenge as an educator to give some more thought to how I can do this.

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Snow Day Indoor Play

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Living in Canada, you quickly have to accept that winters are long and days are short. As great as it sounds to get outdoors with the kids everyday (it is possible!) it can be quite challenging.

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This winter, independently caring for two children who were on different nap schedules (as my partner worked long hours and took evening classes) while simultaneously trying to keep house and get dinner on the table was making us all a little crazy. We needed to find a way to get our move on while being trapped indoors.

The most challenging times were the early evening hours so here were some of the things we did at home the past few months to use up energy and share some giggles. My main focus was engaging in gross motor play (play that uses up large body muscles such as legs) since that’s what H was missing out on the most.

  1. Dancing – This is a staple in our house. When all else fails, I just put on music and we start dancing. In the early days of Y being a baby, this was a daily occurrence. He would be sleeping in the baby carrier and we would dance to songs like “Follow the Leader.”  Other times, we sing songs that have actions. Our favourites are “Penguin Song” and “Go Bananas” both of which my daughter started singing this summer  at camp. We love disney songs as well as various fast world music genres. Y loves watching and has started “dancing” along too.
  2. Races – It started as crawling races when Y started crawling, but other races we’ve had are crab walk, bear walk, slithering like a snake, potato sack (we used pillow cases) and scooting.imageAs adults, it may feel silly to be doing these things but it’s actually quite refreshing to not have to walk on your legs. Not only does it give you a new perspective and help you see things from your child’s point of view (literally and figuratively) but you have new realizations like “wow, it’s so dusty under the couch” or “that’s where all the baby toys are hiding!”
  3. Props– Add any prop and suddenly, every day movements become more exciting. One of my favourite things to do with children I work with is to tie a ribbon to a stick/twig and watch as they start to dance, and move their arms in new ways as they try to make the ribbon dance. Bonus: If you have an older child and an infant, the infant will be transfixed watching the older child and their colourful ribbon swirl about.
  4. Tape up the floor – Whether you use masking tape to tape different types of lines to the ground (straight, zig zag, giant spiral) or create a traditional hopscotch, sometimes creating a defined path for children helps invite movement.
  5. Pop! – Whether you reuse furniture packaging or buy a roll at the dollar store, bubble wrap taped to the floor can add novelty. I distinctly remember taping a roll of bubble wrap to the hallway between the kitchen and living room last month as I cooked dinner and my 4 year old and infant played happily for almost an hour.  What will start as just walking across will soon turn into running. image If your children start losing steam, ask questions like:
    1. What happens when you walk on your tip toes?
    2. How can you make a really loud popping sound?
    3. How can you make a quiet popping sound?
    4. What happens when you crawl across?
    5. What if you hop, skip, jump?
    6. Can you find ten bubbles that aren’t popped and use your finger?
    7. What if your wear your rainboots and walk across? How about your party shoes?
  6. Colours and Shapes – I cut different shapes out of different colours of construction paper and taped them to the floor. Then, we played a game where I said the name of a colour in French and my daughter jumped to it. We did the same in reverse. Then we did it with shapes. My daughter decided they should have numbers so she practiced writing numbers on the shapes and then practiced writing her name and “Mama” on the shapes. Not only was this a great gross motor activity, but it also had a cognitive component and helped with second language acquisition.imageI’m not sure how worthwhile or sustainable this would be in a home with mobile infants (it only lasted a few days in our house before Y tore them all off) but I just viewed it as an opportunity for him to practice his fine motor skills as he strengthened his finger and hand muscles by ripping up the paper. image
  7. Building – We used boxes, cushions, a play yard, dupattas/scarves, and a building toy to build a variety of tunnels and unique spaces such as forts and trains.
  8. Balloons and Bubbles – These were super easy items we had on hand that were equally fun for H and Y. As the months passed, Y went from just watching the bubbles in confusion to actively popping them. image

As Y is gaining more control with standing, I predict that he will be taking his first steps sometime this spring. I am excited to see how gross motor play between the children will change both indoors and outdoors, once that happens. I cannot wait for spring!

Infants, Grasping and Emergent Curriculum

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For many new parents, it’s one of the sweetest, earliest memories when their baby holds their finger. Thanks to the grasp reflex, babies are primed to wrap their palms and fingers around whatever is placed in their palms. As they grow, they lose this reflex and grasping becomes more intentional.

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I remember noticing Y’s fondness for grasping things that provided some kind of holes. Infants often start by grabbing into gasping rings but it became very noticeable to me when he was repeatedly drawn to items with multiple holes.

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I decided to intentionally provide materials he could weave his fingers in to promote his interest in a safe way.

One of the first things I did was hanging up a belly dance scarf within arms reach for him to explore during a diaper change.

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Then again with H as I looked on.

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Because of the small coins on the scarf, I didn’t feel comfortable leaving him alone to play with it for long periods so I started thinking of what else I could create.

I remembered an idea from the book Loose Parts 2: Inspiring Play with Infants and Toddlers where embroidery hoops were used with different textured materials. So I decided to use a mesh bag that previously housed babybel cheese as my fabric of choice. I left the tag on because infants are drawn to tags.

In addition to creating this toy for him, I also became more mindful about our environment and started thinking about things we had at home that he was drawn to grasping that perhaps weren’t independently accessible (artwork, towel holder ring etc).

I’ve been ruminating over how I can make his bedroom and the children’s play space more inviting and engaging. I will share the process and results of this in a future post.

Observing Y the past few months has been especially satisfying for me because while I have quite a bit of experience using emergent curriculum (planning play environments and learning opportunities for children based on demonstrated interests, needs and abilities), it’s mostly been with preschool-aged children. To witness the amazing progression of skill in infants is really something special and these days, I find myself more drawn to creating meaningful play opportunities and environments for Y.

In the 3.5 years that have elapsed since H was this age, my knowledge and understanding of play and development has not only deepened, but I’ve been able to connect to likeminded parents and educators which continues to serve as inspiration. This along with getting to live out my learning firsthand is a reason to get excited!

Rings and Things

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I remember seeing a photo on the internet somewhere of parents and educators using a paper towel holder as a stand for stacking rings, similar to the plastic or wooden rainbow coloured stacker toys commonly sold for babies. I did have a 5-ring plastic stacker toy that I bought for H in BC when she was a baby, although the middle ring has been living at my parents house in Toronto for the past 3.5 years. I thought I would give it a try for Y because we already owned a paper towel holder, and I’m all about repurposing things.

Most of the photos I had seen online used beautiful wooden rings or wonderfully beaded bracelets. Because I don’t vigilantly supervise my children when they play, I decided to pass on the beaded bracelets for now and I didn’t have any wooden rings. Coincidentally, all the rings I had were metal: curtain rings, mason jar lids and a few steel bracelets.

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Y doesn’t have the skills yet to stack the rings or pull them off of the paper towel holder independently yet (it’s quite tall compared to the commercial stacker toys) but he really enjoyed moving the rings up
and down.

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He knocked the paper towel holder over and started spinning the rings. I held it horizontally for him to give him more access, and not only did he spin them, but he discovered he could make a beautiful sound when they hit one another.

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He picked up the rings that had fallen off
the holder and proceeded to bang them together, amusing at the sound. To extend this idea, I gave him a metal spoon.

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The sound the metal parts made when they interacted is not too different than the sound Y makes when he uses a spoon or his hand over the metal grills in our house. This is all adding to his concept of
metal among others.

Another fascinating thing we discovered together that built upon the previous post was what happened to the paper towel holder when we rolled it. Cylinders typically roll straight but since this was more of a cone shape (one end was much smaller than the other) it actually rolled in big circles. Y and I were both intrigued, especially because it still rolled (albeit not as well) with the rings on. I think it would be neat to intriduce paint one day and see where the children take it.

Update: Y played with this again today and I noticed that when its lying on its side, he has figured out how to remove the rings.

He also continues to take great joy in holding a ring in either hand and hitting them together.

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By now he has figured out how to maneuver the holder with one hand.

As Y continues to master this, I will add other rings and experiment with size, colour and material. I intend on adding some chooriyan (traditional south Asian bangles) to the mix.

Round and Roll

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One of the earliest interests I noticed with my son when he became mobile, was his fascination for things that rolled and spun. He was constantly army crawling over to his stroller and spinning the wheels. He did the same with a trolley bag we had in our living room for a while. He loved balls and anything else that rolled including empty bottles and rolls of tape. I took this interest and thought about what else I could provide that would further allow him to experiment.

One afternoon, I gave him some plastic hair rollers. I had a new box of them that I bought forever ago and decided they would be much more useful as playthings for the children than they ever were for me. I liked that they could nest and gave him 3 sets to see what he would do. This was upstairs in my bedroom on a carpeted floor. Needless to say, they didn’t roll much, but that gave him the chance to explore other properties.

I laced them onto a scarf and swished them from side to side, as they disappeared, one inside the other.

Some point later, they ended up on our main level, which has laminate flooring. Here they could roll freely. I filled them in a clear container thinking Y might enjoy dumping them out, but he wasn’t yet there.

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Instead, when he threw one on the floor and it rolled away, he chased it, often pushing it forward when he went to pick it up, and then chasing it more. I saw him doing the same thing with plastic balls. I think it may have started off accidentally because he was learning how to grasp these objects but now he does it intentionally.

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A few days ago, I just added a muffin tray to the mix. Adding something with lots of compartments is a great way to enhance loose parts play. With my daughter, I often added ice cube trays and more
recently, the plastic inside part of chocolate boxes.

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But this was the first time I used a muffin tray- it had good size pockets for an
infant. I added a few curlers into the spaces and went to the kitchen. I was surprised when I came back and found he had started populating the spaces himself.

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My 4 year old daughter had done the same a few weeks ago (hair curlers with an empty egg carton) and I had actually introduced the muffin tray to Y with blocks the day before so it was interesting to see how their skills and approaches are evolving.

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I have a lot more hair curlers and have been debating adding some adhesive velcro to some of them so that the children can choose to stick them together and build with them. It would be great to find a large base with some kid me of pegs sticking out to see if Y can fit the curlers on top of the pegs (this requires more precision than placing them in pockets).

 

Super Easy Infant Sensory Baskets

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Setting up play opportunities for infants can seem daunting: they don’t talk, they may not have clear interests and may not even be mobile. Besides, they put EVERYTHING in their mouth (an excellent way for them to collect information since they have more nerves in their mouths than in their hands, and in the early stages, more control in this part as well). Then what are you supposed to “do with them?”

There’s a host of toys designed for infants. Most of them have some combination of lights, music and lots of plastic. If you are looking for something novel and spontaneous, this may help.

It’s important to realize that even though infants may not be able to verbally communicate their learning to us, do not be fooled. Their brains are working faster than yours and mine! Simply speaking out loud to them throughout the day, narrating your activities, making eye contact and having lots of physical touch is GREAT! Taking them along and including them in the sights, sounds and smells of your daily life is FANTASTIC. Giving them the gift of early literacy by singing, reading and doing finger rhymes is AWESOME. But what about those moments when you are at home and need a few minutes to yourself?

Making up a few bins of items grouped by themes is an easy start. Ideas of baby appropriate themes may include a specific colour, various texture/fabrics, things that make sounds, a particular material like steel or wood, a particular shape like spheres or rings. Depending on the age of your infant and their physical ability, you may decide to adjust your theme. For example, my eight month old is perfectly capable of maneuvering wood and steel items because he sits independently, but I probably would not have left him alone with those items when he was four months old and still lying on his back.

These photos are of a very last minute effort that served to not only stimulate my baby, but also involve big sister, making it an engaging play experience for all parties involved. I asked my daughter to pick a colour. She picked green and I picked yellow. Then I told her to go around the house and find green things her baby brother might like to play with and collect them in her basket. When she was done, I checked the items with her. We decided to remove a small green domino because it was not safe for him to play with on his own.

 

Later, I left him with one of the baskets while I cooked dinner and he happily tasted every item. He was most engaged by the thick yellow rope. Not only was it a new object for him, but the texture, weight, material, and shape played into his interests (this will be revisited in an upcoming post).

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Many of the items in the basket were traditional toys so the next time We do this and give ourselves more time to prepare, I’d like to challenge us to find
a greater variety of items as we think about texture, natural materials and other physical properties.

Light and Shadow

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A lot of the play that goes on in our house stems from what the children are interested in. Sometimes, one moment leads to just minutes, hours, days or weeks of play. Other times, an interest that keeps resurfacing is deepened, developed and transformed into something that takes on a life of its own. My favourite play moments are spontaneous and are often happened upon by accident. This is one such “big idea”.

I can’t remember when exactly it happened, but sometime during stealthy middle of the night diaper changes, coutesy of my cellphone flashlight, I noticed Y noticing shadows on the ceiling. By the time he could make controlled movements with his limbs, I noticed him trying the cause and effect with his shadows. If I was holding him, he would often try to reach out and touch his shadow.

As fall approached, the days were getting shorter, and darkness quickly descended upon our house. We spent many evenings cozy indoors on nights my husband had an evening class. We started playing with shadows regularly.

We lay in our king-sized bed and wiggled our hands and feet towards the ceiling. Y was entranced: so many wiggly fingers and toes!

Being attracted to shadow seems natural for infants and toddlers. It’s exciting and stimulating to see interesting shapes appear on spaces- often distorted or in a different size. I still remember when H was 2 years old, I was pushing her along in her stroller outside. The moon was following us as we walked and H was revelling in the novelty of a night landscape since we usually went for walks during the day. We passed by a wooden fence, and with genuine concern she said ” My shadow is broken.” Because of the way the wooden slats were arranged, her shadow, did indeed, appear broken. She was relieved when her shadow returned to normal when we passed by a solid wall.

As the months passed and the children sustained an interest in light and shadow play, I realized that this would be an accessible play opportunity for both kids, despite their age gap and vast difference in abilities. It was super fun for me too! I felt like my inner scientist was coming out to play.

I gathered objects I thought would create cool shadows (thinking about texture, size, colour, and shape).

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H was intrigued at first but wanted to get back to her play so Y and I went to his room to continue the experimentation. I was blown away at how focused he was. I didn’t have to do much. I just set up objects at different heights and distances from the light sourced and he marvelled. We were able to experiment with things built into his room, like mirrors.

Now that he’s mobile, I’m curious to see how he would engage with this idea.

We tried again a few weeks later and H was much more intrigued. She incorporated her figures and other objects from her room. It was great! Stories started forming around riding bikes and friends on a boat stuck at sea. It was so cool to see tiny things appear as big as my children!

My favourite was the effect created by a pink and silver sequinned pillow.

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We introduced other light-based play by including a globe toy that lit up (thanks for the awesome birthday present Auntie G!), her humidifier, as well as a “night sky” projector I had picked up for her as she became interested in outer space.

More recently, Y has been playing shadows created by the sun- trying to engage with his reflection and catch the light I reflect off of mirrors.

I’ve been toying with the idea of creating some sort of light table or purchasing a light pad for the children. Perhaps that will be the next extension of our play.

Note: if you enjoyed this post, I will be posting more baby play ideas. Subscribe to the blog or like the Facebook page for updates!