Mobile Adventure Playground

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Since coming into the world of early childhood education and play, two of the concepts I’ve found most intriguing are loose parts and outdoor play. Calgary’s super cool Mobile Adventure Playground initiative marries these two ideas with some awesome implications.

As parents living in the modern world, when we think of parks and playgrounds, we (sadly) often think of permanent well-groomed areas covered in sprawling plastic structures meant to be played on (and not with!)

This mobile adventure playground challenges that concept. Instead of permanent fixed play structures, children (and adults) have access to a variety of parts (that would otherwise be lying in a landfill somewhere) and can use their imaginations, gross motor muscles, and cognitive skills (much of which can draw on science, engineering and math) to do with them whatever they’d like.

In my talk with one of the play facilatators, I discovered that thirty years ago, adventure parks and playgrounds could be found in Calgary and currently thrive in the UK, Denmark and other areas of Europe. Thanks to a grant from the Lawson Foundation, Calgary’s mobile adventure playground is one of three in Canada and grew out of a 2015 study on outdoor and play engagement and 2016 pilot period, when 2000+ people came out to play.

The mobile adventure playground is relatively easy to set up. Some of the items featured in this one were: tires, plastic crates, pieces of wood and cardboard, pipes, pieces of old play structures, kitchen items like bowls and colanders, scraps of fabric, logs, buckets, paper tubes, cable spindles and a wheelbarrow.

Like many great things, it’s not so much about product as it is about process. Initially, the children stood around not really knowing what to do but once they started exploring and imagining, their play really got going.

In my time there, I observed children create slides and fishing boats, obstacle courses and clubhouses, bunkers and moving vehicles.

There are so many great aspects of this playground:

  • it is mobile and will be set up in different locations throughout the summer (for a schedule, click here)
  • it is free to access
  • it reuses everyday materials in novel ways
  • there’s no one way or right way to set up the materials
  • the same materials result in different types of play depending on who is using them
  • the (big) size of many of the objects required children to work together to move them, fostering cooperative play
  • children that don’t know each other will probably interact, either by playing together or asking permission to use/share materials, helping to develop negotiating skills
  • socioemotional development: not only will children take pride in their play and creations, but they will also learn how to navigate more challenging emotions like loss (when someone might repurpose items they are no longer actively playing with as experienced by H and her friends); struggle and frustration (physically, cognitively and even emotionally) as children try to bring their visions to life;  and conflict when children may want to use the same materials or have different visions for what/how things should be done
  • the playground is set up outdoors allowing families to benefit from exposure to nature
  • the playground utilizes green spaces, temporarily transforming existing (neighbourhood) sites

This park is a break from the norm and would be a welcome change to summer play, especially in the case of children who:

  1. are very active and appreciate gross motor play
  2. love imaginative play
  3. enjoy using stem (science, technology, engineering, math) principles to bring their play into reality
  4. are bored of traditional park experiences

For more information on Calgary’s mobile adventure playground or to view the schedule/locations for the rest of the season, click here. If you’ve ever been exposed to an adventure park/playground, please comment with your experiences and location.

Happy Playing!

 

 

 

Hands on Patterning and Loose Parts Play

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For the past few months, I’ve noticed H has been showing an increased interest in patterns (which she so endearingly pronounces “pattrins”). She points them out in clothing, when we walk outside, in food and in her play.

While she still has a simple understanding of patterns, not having quite realized the full definition or complexity of what constitutes a pattern, she shows pride in being able to recognize them.

To deepen her knowledge and understanding, we’ve read these books which are part of my personal collection.

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I’ve been wanting to give her a hands-on way to create her own patterns and further investigate the concept. This morning, I finally set out a very simple activity for her on the still-crumb-covered kitchen table. By sharing how our experience unfolded, I hope to show you all the potential of loose parts (basically collections of items that can be used in many different ways).

I provided a tray that had two elements: dried kidney beans and yellow crystals. Originally I was not planning on prompting her and just wanted to see what she would do, but I thought some guidance might help, so all I did was ask her, “Can you make a pattern?”

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I was pleasantly surprised by her attention to detail as she carefully ensured the kidney beans and the gems all faced the same direction (she turned the kidney beans so that they would all be vertical and placed the gems on the widest side).

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When I saw that she was able to successfully create a pattern with two elements, I introduced a third: pink milk jug lids. She adjusted her pattern to incorporate these.

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When she could no longer reach one end of her pattern, she started working at the starting end. It was interesting because she did not know how to reverse the pattern since she was working in the opposite direction. I had to prompt her with saying the pattern out loud in the opposite direction – by drawing her attention to this fact, she was able to extend her pattern in the opposite direction correctly.

I was further impressed when she created a little game. She removed the milk jug lids and asked me, “What’s missing?” I said, “the lids!” and she said, “You’re correct!” She proceeded to removed the beans and then repeated her question.

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She then undid her pattern and started arranging the parts in shapes saying things like “I made a square! I made a circle!”

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After making shapes she decided to sort the pieces on the table and said “My bean collection is all done!” Even though I haven’t used the term “collection” in my dialogue with her, I marveled with what an intuitive term it was for a three year old to be able to refer to her loose parts as “collections”. After separating the three elements, she proudly exclaimed that she had three collections.

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H really enjoyed playing with the loose parts. She looked at the tray and noticed there were empty spaces so asked me for more. I went on a hunt around the house trying to find a jar of pennies I knew we had somewhere but was unsuccessful. I returned after ten minutes half-hoping she had lost interest, but she hadn’t. She was still sitting there. I checked the pantry and gave her some raw pasta and a pouch of blue beads. She happily announced that she had five collections and then said, “I’m mixing them up. They are having a big party. Tada!”

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After this, she loaded the tray back up, sorting the loose parts and said something about the parts going for a train ride. She noticed that one space was still empty so again asked for something to fill the space with.

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At this point it became clear that her play was transforming from being a mathematically inclined activity to open-ended dramatic play. She said the parts were soup for her friends that were sick. I offered her a pot and wooden spoon which she gladly accepted. She added blue beads to the pot commenting that they looked like rice.

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She asked me for some bowls for her soup and went on to pour some “soup” and feed her stuffed toys. She declared that they felt better after eating the soup but still needed to rest.

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When she was done playing, she resorted the pieces and left the tray on the floor. Seven hours later when she woke up from her afternoon nap, she approached the tray again and this time, mixed various elements in the pot. She poured the soup into the bowls and let her friend Lammie have a taste. She also fed me with the wooden spoon and then pointed it at my stomach so that Baby could get a taste too.

Loose part play is promoted by play advocates all around the world. It’s something my daughter really enjoyed in her toddler years. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to provide as many opportunities for it as I would have liked this past year (however it’s always in the back of my mind). By looking at how her play evolved over the day, I hope that you too, can see the value, depth and potential of this type of experience. She started with something more structured (but it was still based on her interests and initiative) and explored patterning, sequencing, geometry, counting, sorting, fine motor development, language and dramatic play. I’m curious to see what she will do next and how a broadening understanding of various patterning sequences will translate into her play.

 

Tools are Cool- Post #4: Cardboard Construction

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Anyone with a young child has probably learned a few things about children and play. One of these revelations is that you don’t need to spend a lot of money to entertain or engage children. This moment is probably most acutely realized after you hand an infant a new toy and they spend more time playing with the box the toy came in, than the toy itself.

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Boxes hold beautiful potential and offer a world of possibility for children. Similarly, other materials like paper, cardboard and paint can often help support children’s ideas of what the box should be.

This packaging from Ikea provided weeks of play for H in the months of January and February. It was almost like a five-sided box that had natural creases on two of the sides. H instantly declared that this was her boat and began fishing. Some time later, by simply undoing the sides, it became her rocket ship.

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Her rocket ship play lead to a discussion about direction and soon she was heading east to Montreal. She transferred this knowledge to our car rides and started asking/suggesting what direction we should drive in.

Sometimes she went on solo trips and sometimes she went with friends. Sometimes only her friends went and she bid them farewell.

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I extended her play by providing paint and stickers so she could decorate her rocket ship the way she wanted. There’s nothing exciting or captivating about this. This is my way of engaging her with everyday things on short notice. That being said, I know it’s empowering for her to make things her own.

The next day, while I napped, she quietly decided to take matters into her own hands…and legs. It was another one of those magical moments where I stood frozen wondering why this always happens to me! After our last few food colouring disasters in the fall, I stored the paints and food colour in the basement (out of reach) but thought leaving them in the kitchen for less than the one hour we were home before we had to go to swimming would be no big deal. Lesson learned!

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A trip to Costco gave us another box. This one became her official boat.

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While none of these experiences required special tools, I was really excited to provide H with this cool tool set I came across online. We bought it locally from Lee Valley Tools.

I knew she would still be a little young to really make the most of it, but it was really empowering for her to use the scru-driver and actually watch the
“screws” turn into the cardboard.  She looked at the packaging and said that she wanted to make a dollhouse, so we used yet another Costco box and an old pull-ups box.

As I expected, H wasn’t fully engaged in this process because it was challenging (and she got distracted by playdough). She helped with attaching some of the pieces and provided her input, for example, when I was trying to add in stairs she said, “How about we use a string instead?” So we did. But she does enjoy playing with it. It’s currently on display in our playroom. To further extend this process (and to distract her when I needed a few minutes), I gave her stickers to decorate the house.

 

Then of course, her imagination soared. I happened upon this scene later and could only to try to guess what had happened here…image_2.jpeg

There are a variety of tools designed for various purposes and to carry out various functions. The tools we explored in this series had to do with building and construction because those are the ones H was interested in when we started, but I look forward to introducing other types of tools related to art, cooking and gardening as the year progresses since she has also grown to be quite interested in those areas. Hopefully it can help broaden her perspective and understanding of tools and provide her for more opportunities for fine motor development.

Snow Play

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One of the best parts of winter is getting outside and playing in the snow. I’ve come across quite a few people (cough* adults* cough) who hate winter because it’s cold. I admit, winter is cold. But it can be a lot more enjoyable for you and your family if you find reasons to get outside.

You don’t have to be a “ski family” to take advantage of winter (although, I do aspire to become one at some point). Something as simple as just going for a walk and stopping to observe changes can make winter more pleasant. Not to mention that winter is full of rich opportunities for learning and development across various domains. Here are some photos of us at play in the winter.

1.Take a walk: Sometimes the simple act of walking outside can lead to discoveries and rich exploration.

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Earlier this winter when we were playing in our local playground, my daughter became entranced by the sheer number of geese that kept flying overhead. Soon she started making the association between honking and geese flying above so as soon as she heard the honking, she would stop and say, “Momma! The Geese are coming!” She hypothesized about where they were going (to work and to look for food, specifically waffles). These ideas prompted us to borrow a book from the library called Honk, Honk, Goose!

In the past, one of H’s favourite things to do was to pull at snow-covered Evergreen tree branches and get a face full of snow.

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As temperatures started to drop and rise, H discovered icicles. Here she can be seen breaking off icicles and using them to draw in the snow.

In the past, she has also drawn with twigs and marveled at how big her shadow becomes on the beautiful white canvas that freshly fallen snow leaves behind.

One of H’s favourite discoveries from this winter was to see how as ice forms and melts, it creates routes for water to travel. She became fascinated by this “river” that was flowing outside of our house and checks regularly to see if has come back.

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She made similar discoveries when she went under the slide at our local park and watched ice dripping.

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She was also captivated by the water flowing out of the eavestrough/gutter. She insisted it was water for Dora (her snowman) to drink.

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Another fun thing children are usually drawn to while outside is making and looking for footprints. It’s fun to retrace our own steps as we walk in a circle or try to determine what animal created the footprints we see while on our walk.

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There is a lot of opportunity for rich discussion while going on walks. Children will point out things that you may have never noticed and share their theories with you. The following exchange happened with us as we passed by some bare trees:

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“Plants grow. There are very different plants. Big ones and small ones. Momma ones and bushy ones. Don’t you love how they grow?”

2. Visit the Park: The reality that it is covered with snow will add an extra layer of novelty and challenge.

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H loves going to the park, no matter the weather. While this year she discovered it’s quite difficult to swing in the winter with the snow being so high and the swing being so low, she thoroughly enjoyed the experience last year.

She did, however, find other reasons to love the park this year: she loves the gross motor challenge that climbing over snow banks provides. She spent quite a bit of time figuring out how to climb over and slide down walls of snow.

She also enjoyed cleaning off the slide and didn’t mind landing on her bum. What ordinarily might cause tears resulted in hysterical laughter as she tried to get up off the snow.

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I also introduced some basic physics to this experience – I made a snowball and let it slide down the hot slide on a sunny day. H had fun racing against the snowball while she pondered about how smoothly it slid and how it became smaller by the time it reached the bottom. We raced different sizes of snowballs.

3. Create: There is something so beautiful and inviting about a blanket of white snow- like a canvas beckoning.

Snow is one of those versatile mediums that can be completely empowering or very discouraging depending on other weather conditions and what you are trying to achieve. H wanted to build a snowman for so many days but the conditions just didn’t work for us. Finally as temperatures started warming up, the snow started packing together and we were able to finally build a snowman this year. Mind you, it melted by the end of the day and she was a little sad.

Other classics include snow angels and forts. This winter we brought sand toys to the park and used them as molds.

We also found this cool structure at a different park although we didn’t hang out too long since the floor was all iced over and H slipped as she tried to run across.

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Other fun ideas could include using coloured water in spray bottles to paint pictures on the snow. I remember going on a field trip as a child in Ontario (which is full of maple trees). We tapped sap and added it to fresh snow to make (and eat) taffy. It was a great experience!

4. Travel through the snow and ice: Many modern winter sports seem to have originated from people simply trying to travel over snow and ice. Even though we have found more efficient ways of doing so, these activities have become great hobbies.

Our family is not particularly athletic so here are some ideas in case your family isn’t either!

Pull your child through the snow on a sled. While sledding downhill is fun, with younger children, a pull sled may be easier. Last winter before my daughter was comfortable (and fast enough) to walk long distances in the snow, I would strap her in the sled to take her to playdates in our neighbourhood. This worked out well for me since I was usually carrying food.

Snowshoeing is an easy winter activity. Last year, we rented snowshoes from the University of Calgary and headed over to Confederation park. We brought extra rope and attached my daughter’s sled to a caribiner on our backpack to pull her along hand’s free. This year, I hope to get H to try out snowshoes for herself!

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Dog sledding was another easy winter activity we tried last year. H really enjoyed this activity. She got to sit cozily in the sled and quickly learned the commands. It was quite cute to hear her yelling “mush!” She also got to interact with the dogs which is something she enjoys doing (but doesn’t have much opportunity to in her daily life).

Next winter (post-pregnancy), I hope to be able to go skating and cross country skiing with H. By then, I can push baby along in the stroller (and lean on the stroller for support as I brush up on my skating skills) or use a covered ski pull during cross country skiing.

5. Bring in the snow: If all else fails, bring some snow indoors!

Depending on how much snow you use, how particular you are about mess and whether you have a water table at your house, you can structure this experience to meet your needs.

When H was about 14 months, I would bring snow inside the house for her to play with. You can use a shallow container, but I just used a table cloth near the entrance of our door. You can add tools (I just added things from around the house) and other loose parts depending on if your child will mouth them. H was pretty good about fine-motor play and didn’t try to eat everything. On this day, she played with dried kidney beans and stayed engaged for a long time.

In Calgary, we are also blessed with chinooks. This means that the temperature can get ridiculously warm while we still have snow on the ground. On those kinds of days, we would bring H out to the porch and play with the snow there. Here she is exploring and making snow muffins with her dad.

Here are some photos of children I worked with exploring snow in an indoor setting (at a water table).

Along with bringing in snow, you can freeze ice all year long to use for sensory play. Here are some photos of ice blocks I froze over the summer with my students. I froze small items in big blocks of ice so multiple children could play at once.

This was just an overview of the easy winter/snow play we did over the past few years. I hope it has given you some ideas to make your winter more enjoyable!

Sugar, Spice and Everything Nice

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The holidays were a really nice time for our family this year. The break from work, preschool and other day-to-day activities afforded us the opportunity to host and entertain. Our house saw its fair share of pint-sized visitors as H’s social circle continues to grow. While each playdate was special in it’s own way, this one was particularly meaningful because it felt just like the “good old days” when these friends used to live just next door.

I can’t quite remember how H become acquainted with the Gingerbread Man. I know she’s heard of him indirectly through some of the media she has consumed, but perhaps it was the purchase of a Gingerbread Man cookie cutter that really set things in motion for us. Since then, we have read the book and continue to find other ways to bring the story to life.

I’ve never made gingerbread cookies before but followed this simple recipe that can be found here. I adapted it by cutting out the spices and just using a club house pumpkin spice blend. I made the dough just before the girls arrived because I knew time would be tight considering the energy levels of the 6, 4 and 3 year old I’d be spending the day with.

Basically, after a family-style breakfast of homemade pancakes and fruit, I called the girls, one-by-one to wash their hands and roll out the dough. My reason for doing in one-on-one was simple: my extra rolling pins were being used for playdough at Grandma’s house so we only had one. I also thought it might get chaotic trying to help all 3 of them at once so instead we took turns. While I worked independently with one child, my husband played soccer with the others. I remember how patiently and eagerly the girls waited for their turns, peeking at what was going on. They each picked cookie cutters that appealed to them and cut out some shapes. I had made sugar cookies using cookie cutters with H earlier that month and knew how much she loved using them. Fortunately, this dough was definitely easier to work with.

I was surprised by how all of the girls jumped right in – they did not wait for instruction and just started rolling and cutting. It was a bit of a learning process and I was okay with this guided learning since I knew the decorating portion would be free.

As the cookies baked and cooled, the girls engaged in dress up play. Once again, my husband’s playful nature made the experience so much fun! When the cookies were finally ready, I tried to present the various elements in a beautiful way, as to invite the children to interact with them.

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The invitation worked! I was so intrigued as they worked so quietly and carefully decorating their cookies. I looked at how they had a vision of what they wanted, which candy they prefered to use, how they held the icing tubes and their intentional design choices like patterning. Given the variation of age and developmental levels, it was valuable for me as an educator to see the different approaches and think about all of the different skills this process was helping to develop and reinforce. Also, given the open-ended nature of this part of the process, I was able to just sit back and observe- something I love to do!

Along with the differences, there were commonalities: all of the girls were so excited to make, decorate, eat and share their cookies. They were all so proud of their creations –  they were literally beaming and that moment of self-validation was so rewarding for me to see.

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The cookies were yummy. The girls had them for snack with milk and took home the leftovers. Now a little secret to share with you about children and eating (especially for picky eaters): INVOLVE THEM IN THE PROCESS! Children have an affinity towards eating something they have helped cook. For some reason, it just tastes better to them if they’ve stuck their ooey-gooey fingers in it (lol okay so that’s not the scientific reason; their desire to eat is more of a socioeomtional one because they feel ownership over the outcome). As for our the rest of our work with the Gingerbread Man, I will post updates as things shape up.

 

I Like Pumpkins – Post #2: Washing and Drawing and Reflections on Failure

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When I was planning for what we would be doing with our pumpkins, I thought about what H enjoys doing, what she can do and what she needs to learn to do. I also thought about ways to stretch out what we were going to do as a means of deepening learning and covering more learning domains, not to mention, make the most out of our pumpkin purchase and generate content for this blog.

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Even though I planned, this experience was far from successful. I was reminded that other factors at play like time of day, mood and what else is going on affect a child’s ability to learn, play and engage with their learning environments. Not to mention that children’s interests shift and change and succesful planning follows the child’s leads. So while this whole series is not in line with emergent curriculum and following the child’s lead and more closely resembles traditional preschool planning, I am sharing it because it gives me an opportunity to reflect and better my own practice.

The pumpkins we had picked from the farm were quite dirty.  I thought H might enjoy washing the pumpkin, drawing on it and washing it again. This is an activity that is often done in preschool with small pumpkins at the water table. We don’t have a water table at home and I didn’t want to deal with the mess of an impromptu water table at home. I thought about doing it in the bathtub but given how heavy the pumpkin was (and how lazy I was) I decided to just put a mat down on the floor and encourage her to give the pumpkin a sponge bath. Here she is rolling the pumpkin and starting to clean it.

We later brought the pumpkin over to her table and I gave her markers to draw on the pumpkin. While children who enjoy drawing might really enjoy this experience, it only captivated H’s attention for a few minutes. I am almost sure that had I just given her the pumpkin in the bathtub with paint earlier in the day, she would have sat for an hour playing considering how much she enjoys sensory experiences. By this late in the evening she was tired and distracted and my lack of enthusiasm didn’t help.

One interesting thing that did arise from this experience will be covered later in this series. We could not have predicted the unpleasant consequences of this activity.

 

 

 

 

Treasured Moments

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Much of the content featured in this blog might seem intimidating to some. A lot of what I’ve posted about necessitates some kind of planning or forethought, but I also wanted to share the other side. Most of life is not made up of pre-planned curriculum. Instead, many of the most beautiful learning moments happen naturally while children play.

What dictates how much value your children receive in these moments and how much they will be able to thrive as curious and independent learners has to do with your attitude. If you dismiss and limit these moments (example: “Don’t touch that, it’s dirty!” “Don’t be silly, there’s not really a pink three-headed monster hiding behind that bush,” “It’s too __________ to go outside”) you pass on your biases and limitations to your children. You are creating the very box that you will demand they learn to think outside of as they grow.

Alternatively, cherish those small moments. While they may seem insignificant at the time, they are not only setting the course of your relationship with your child (possibly the single biggest predictor of later success), but they are going to act as a trove for future inspiration.

Here are some photos from a walk we took in September, just as summer was getting ready to melt into Autumn bliss. We didn’t know where we were going or what lay ahead. We had a lunch bag full of snacks, and an adventurous spirit one afternoon while visiting H’s grandparents and decided we needed to get outside.

One of the reasons that this was such a memorable excursion for us was that it was spontaneous. This removed a lot of the stress and work from it. We had no expectations other than to go outside. Another big reason that this was one of my favourite outings was that the natural environment provides so many deep and valuable opportunities for learning. Here are some of the concepts/play that emerged that day:

  • Bridges – we crossed a bridge and while we didn’t spend time making explicit observations, things that can be extracted (either right then or in the future when photos and memories are revisited) are that bridges usually join two things, in this case, two different types of terrain. This bridge signaled that we were leaving behind the pavement and traffic of the city and about to slip into a natural escape.
  • Shadows – not only are shadows fun, but if a child spends enough time playing with shadows, he learns that the size and position of shadows are linked to something greater, in this case, the sun. My daughter’s most frequent observation about shadows, is “Look! I’m big!” as she excitedly imagines herself much taller than she actually is.  There’s a lot of cool stuff that can be done with shadows, some of which I hope to explore in a future post.
  • Bugs – My guess is that most children are not inherently afraid of bugs. It is a learned behaviour, so try to control your squirms. My daughter marveled at discovering multiple ladybugs on the slide and we talked about how many spots they had and how they had wings hidden under their shells (she was elated to see them fly away). My summers were filled with trying to catch grasshoppers in my backyard and enumerating the variety of bugs my brother and I could find.
  • Pebbles/Sand – Some of the newer playgrounds now have this rubber type of floor but as an educator, I love the pebble/sand-filled playgrounds. The volume of loose parts this provides and the potential for open-ended play makes them significant.  Through the pictures, you can see my daughter using an empty Starbucks bottle she found on the playground to fill and pour pebbles and then later using these pebbles as “money” to for the ice cream she ordered.
  • Natural found items – At one point, I asked my daughter to find anything she thought was beautiful and place it on the platform where I was sitting. I joined her in this task and at the end we admired our collection. The park is filled with so many varying and rich materials – drawing children’s attention to their properties can help create an eye for detail.
  • Dandelion Puffs– On our walk back home, we stopped to rest in a field where dandelion puffs blossomed in abundance. H was intrigued by these and I showed her how we can make a wish/duah and blow them away. It’s truly a magical moment for children to witness the dandelion seeds blowing into the wind.

We didn’t bring any toys or special equipment on this trip. All we had was time and a sense of peace that filled the space. So if you’re at a loss about what to do with your child, take a deep breath and head outside. Let go of your expectations and follow your child’s lead.