Toys! Toys! Toys!

One of the most common questions one hears in the Waldorf World is about toys –  those beautiful, expensive, wooden, natural fiber toys.  How does one transition into those, what does one do with the plastic toys, how does one handle inappropriate gifts?

Uh, pour yourself a cup of tea and come back, because this is a big subject.

I really respect all the natural toymakers out there and Waldorf sellers of natural toys.  They are wonderful.   (Also, I am not against plastic toys at all, some of them – legos come to mind, some families love Playmobile or matchbox cars).   However, there are a few things to keep in mind regarding toys, before you start adding to your child’s toy collection with natural toys.

The first thing to keep in mind is that you do not need many toys at all.  I wrote a post about this awhile back, why not click over and see if it resonates with you?  Here it is:  https://theparentingpassageway.com/2008/11/23/holiday-gifts-for-children-how-much-is-too-much/

Kim John Payne also gets to the heart of this in his book “Simplicity Parenting” (for a review see here:  https://theparentingpassageway.com/2009/12/26/favorite-waldorf-resource-2-simplicity-parenting-using-the-extraordinary-power-of-less-to-raise-calmer-happier-and-more-secure-kids-by-kim-john-payne-and-lisa-ross/)  I believe Marsha Johnson also has a wonderful article in her FILES section of her Yahoo!Group (www.waldorfhomeeducators@yahoogroups.com to join) addressing this very topic.  Both of these resources talk about the positive effects of LESS. 

Under this topic, I  have to mention that a beautiful wooden kitchen is still a beautiful wooden kitchen, but a box can be a kitchen, a spaceship, a house, a cave…the possibilities are endless!  So, I guess my point is that whilst I too love the wooden toys and natural toys, do keep in mind that the simplicity of it all should be in toys that can be more than one thing, toys that can transform as a child’s play flows from one thing to another.

Toymaking with children or with your children in mind is also important.  You don’t need a lot of skill to start, and the book “Toymaking With Children” really lays this all out for you:  http://www.amazon.com/Toymaking-Children-Freya-Jaffke/dp/0863153674/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1266602196&sr=8-1   Why not consider making your own toys?

The second thing to keep in mind is the age of your child and the development of play, so you know what toys are appropriate and needed.  This way you do not put out all the toys a child from birth to seven will go through at once, but only the ones specific for that age and only a handful so you can rotate them in and out.

Ages Birth – Two- and –a- half:  Their own hands and feet are the best toys in the first year, and perhaps I would add a beautiful mobile or Nature Table to look at.  Around the toddler years, one could add a VERY SIMPLE knotted or  bunting -style doll.  There are instructions on how to make one of these in “Toymaking With Children”  Meredith has a nice post regarding dolls here over at Waldorf Reviews:   http://www.waldorfreviews.com/?p=66

Wooden spoons, pots, bowls are all welcome as well, along with baskets to fill and dump, and also some playcloths to set up a corner in which the child  can hide or rest.  I would also add blocks, pails for the sandbox, a basin to put water in for play. 

It is important that every toy has a home and is cared for with love and reverence.  A doll should be included in your rhythm as part of the family and cared for with love.  🙂  Here is an article from Gateways regarding the relationship of the child to the doll:  http://www.waldorflibrary.org/Journal_Articles/GW56raichle.pdf

More Notes About Play During This Period:  “Toymaking With Children” has this to say about birth to the third year:  “The adult’s actions are absorbed not consciously but lovingly.  At first, children limit themselves to apparently purposelessly imitative activity.  They go around the room like their mother, picking up things which she has just tided away, only to put them down again somewhere else.  When the mother fills her pot with potatoes, the child fills a basket or cart with building blocks.”

So, being able to show your child some WORK is of utmost importance.

Ages Two-and-a-Half to Age Five:   This is where fantasy and imaginative play really emerge.  The children of this age take the toys and pretend they are whatever they need at the moment – things for a store, things for the farm.  Open-ended toys such as playsilks and clips to make a house is wonderful, playstands are often used at this age, and baskets filled with open-ended objects from nature such as shells, stones, pinecones, etc that can become whatever the child needs in the moment. 

Playing in nature is very important at all ages, but especially at these ages.  Mud, sand, water are all the child’s playground. 

Work hard into picking up WITH your children and making it fun; they will not go and pick up by themselves with just a verbal command.  They are imitating you, and you get to be the leader of a fun game for cleaning up.  Put the time for clean-up into your rhythm.

Ages Five to Seven Years:  A doll with arms and legs to dress and undress is important at this age.  Simple toys and crafts Waldorf sellers that focus a bit more on fine motor skills may be appropriate at this point for those times of inbreath, but time in nature and developing gross motor skills is still so important – can your child ride a bike?  Walk on stilts?  Do the monkey bars?  Swim in the deep end?  Jump rope?  Play hopscotch?

You might be saying, this is wonderful, Carrie but what do I do with all of my plastic toys?

Families I have known have approached this in several  ways.  First, do sort through the toys and discard the ones that are broken.  Your children may  enjoy finding toys to give away to goodwill, but in my experience, many children do not.  Yet, many parents feel badly about going through their children’s toys and donating them.  Sometimes what works is to leave out a few toys and put the other toys in boxes for rotation into the play area.  If you arrange your toy area in a beautiful way, you may be surprised about your children being more content with LESS.  You may even be able to donate a few of those boxes of plastic toys as no one asks for them ever again as some more open-ended toys come in to the space.    I also encourage families going through this to cut back on media and plan some activities outside. Get the children involved in your practical work.  Set up play scenarios to show them how this would work.  Tell them fairy tales, spark their imagination.

Here are a few back posts to help:  https://theparentingpassageway.com/2008/10/29/more-about-fostering-creative-play/

and this one:  https://theparentingpassageway.com/2008/10/05/fostering-creative-play/

Most of all, please be confident!  You are not taking toys away from your children but increasing the quality of their play through the power of less!

Many blessings,

Carrie

Changes at Bella Luna Toys!

Bella Luna Toys has new ownership just in time for the holidays.  Sarah Baldwin is a well-known Waldorf educator and has just taken over Bella Luna. She will be maintaining and developing a further relationship with Christopherus Homeschool as well.

For further details, here is a link:

http://christopherushomeschool.typepad.com/blog/2009/09/changes-come-to-bella-luna-toys.html

Many blessings,

Carrie

Helping Young Children to Play

As promised, here are a few more thoughts regarding how to help young children play.

The number one thing is to know that in order to help your child to play, you need to understand the stages of play development.   Realistic expectations are very important!

From Ages Newborn to Two and  a Half:  Not many toys are needed.  A special doll, (arms and legs are not necessary), wooden spoons, pots and bowls are all lovely, along with baskets to fill and dump.

Barbara Patterson and Pamela Bradley write in “Beyond the Rainbow Bridge:  Nurturing Our Children from Birth to Seven”:  “We may not be able to complete our tasks with a child around, but HOW we do our work is more important than what we accomplish.  If we are only able to do fifteen minutes of concentrated work when a child is present, it will be fifteen minutes well spent.”

Notice there is NOT talk of sacrificing time with your child to do work, but that the work enlivens the life and energy of the child and the household. 

Two and a Half to Five Years:  The first bit of fantasy play emerges around the age of three – so if you are expecting your  two-year-old child to just take off and play a game they make up, this may be unrealistic.  Likewise, if you have a four and a half year old who cannot create any kind of games with toys, then you may need to help them catch up where they should be with play. 

So, around three years of age comes “let’s pretend”.  Reality and fantasy are the same and are not separated.  This is the stage where open ended toys are so important, because the play can shift dramatically from minute to minute and the toys need to keep up!  Baskets of silks, crystals, pinecones and such are all great things for this age group to create with. 

Children of this age generally do NOT share toys well.

Five to Seven Years:  Children are very involved in the creation of the game (which really is the whole game, not so much the end product).  For example, if children of this age are playing restaurant, the play may be all about deciding a menu, “writing” a menu, gathering things, setting up tables, and the “real” restaurant part where people sit down and order and someone plays the waiter may not happen. 

Children of this age enjoy dolls with arms and legs and clothes to dress and undress.  Simple arts and crafts are wonderful as well.  The six-year-old who is going through the six-year-old transformation and is restless and “bored” may  not need more play, but instead practical work until they are ready to  play again.

The notion of practical work brings up an important point.  As always,  start with yourself and what you are modeling for your child to imitate in their play.  This is one reason Waldorf in the Early Years has a great focus on practical work with the hands so your child can see that!  Gardening, knitting, baking, cooking, canning, music, cleaning things by hand, hanging laundry out to dry are all good places to start.

As mentioned, children need less toys than you think, but open ended toys are good.  People get very caught up in buying the silks and expensive wooden toys, but really homemade toys are the best.  There are a number of books regarding toymaking with children, one of my favorites is “Toymaking with Children” by Fraye Jaffke as seen here:  http://www.amazon.com/Toymaking-Children-Freya-Jaffke/dp/0863153674/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1251158698&sr=1-1.  This would be a great book to get to make your children some gifts for the holidays!  You can start now and make some fabulous things!  There are also examples throughout this book showing playspaces that are set up with silks and open-ended toys so you can see how to do this yourself at home!

Create your playspaces close to where you spend your time – if you are in the kitchen, have a playroom near the kitchen or take a corner of your kitchen and have a play corner there. 

Involve your children in your work – your real work where they can contribute and feel as if they played a vital role.  Use singing, warmth, stories to draw your child in rather than commands to “help” which usually causes the child to run the other way!

If you are working and child has “nothing to do” or needs your assistance to start playing again, you can provide  them an opportunity to help you, you can essentially become “the old woman who stirs the soup while the train is coming to town” and provide a framework for play without being completely enmeshed and immersed in the play, or you can stop your own work for a few minutes and help solve the play problem by doing whatever the child is requesting you to do.

In these ways we are close to our children, we exude warmth and love for our children and welcome them with open arms for help with play.  We don’t push them away because we have our own work, but strive to include the child as we can and help the child in their important work, the development of play!

Peace,

Carrie

Connecting Your Children to Nature

Our children are in grave danger of losing connection with nature and the four elements.  The emphasis in American schools is on computer skills and literacy.  Some programs say they bring children outside for a good while, but when pressed the reality is the children are going outside for perhaps 20 to 30 minutes a day and only if the weather is good. 

In fact, a whole best selling book has been written about this topic.  It is called “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder” by Richard Louv.  I highly encourage you to read this book for the sake of your children.

.Our European friends are attempting to do something about this.  In Scandinavia and Germany, there has been a recent  explosion of Kindergarten programs that take place in the woods all day – not just that the children go outside for part of the day, but that the children literally have their program outside. I have a friend who experimented with this at home and you can read about her experience on her blog at this link: http://naturesrhythm.blogspot.com/2008/11/wood-kindergarten.html

Mothering Magazine (www.mothering.com)  recently covered the topic of forest kindergarten programs in the article, “Forest For A Classroom” by Andrea Mills in the November-December 2009 issue.  In this article, Ms. Mills writes:  “American parents and educators can learn a lot from the Waldkindergarten.  The media ensure that American families are plagued by fears of strangers, bug, sharp items, and other threats, both real and imagined.  Technology makes it more likely that our children will be spending their free time plugged into TV’s, computers, or other media.”

The only forest preschool program I am aware of in the United States is the one Marsha Johnson runs in Portland, Oregon. If anyone knows of any others, please leave it in the comment section for me.

We recently spent several hours outside at a Nature Center.  Typically attendance slows down in the winter months because not every family feels the way we do – that there is no bad weather, only bad clothes. Despite the chill in the air, we got outside every day for 2 to 4 hours.  It is that important to the life of a small child (and to the grown-ups as well!).

Here are a few excellent reasons to get your children out more:

“The four elements, earth, water, air and fire, are the basic elements which children are nourished by and from which they grow. No shaped toys-be they wood or plastic-can compete with these materials. The seriousness with which the children play, the deep concentration speaks for itself, and shows how important this “playing” is. Nobody needs to fight about anything –there is plenty of mud for everybody.” —You Are Your Child’s First Teacher, page 184

“Young children are close to the realm of nature because they are natural beings. Because their consciousness is not yet parted from the environment, because they still live in the consciousness of oneness, of unity, they still belong to the natural world…..The process of separating from the parents and from the environment buds only around age seven..” –Heaven On Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children, Sharifa Oppenheimer, page 99.

Rudolf Steiner wanted the children to be able to connect to and feel at home on the land, to feel at one with the cycles of the year and the cycles of night and day, to really care for the land and he wanted the children to be able to work together socially and value the work that was done before them so that the children understood we all depend on the work of others  (Adapted from -Gardening With Children Audio CD, informedfamilylife.org).

So, if you are trying to think about creating your own playspace, perhaps in your backyard or somewhere wild you have access to ,  here are some thoughts of things to include:

-flat grassy areas

-a hill of some sort

-natural screens (bushes, hedges, places to hide)

-building materials

-play structures – tipis, igloos, houses. Sharifa Oppenheimer talks about letting your child add things to the igloo or tipi structure – give hints for adding things to the structure – “When I was a small girl, we used to put pine needles on the floor as a carpet.” Or “I wonder what it would be like to put a few seashells around the outside, as decoration.” – page 102, Heaven On Earth

.-classic structures such as swings, slides, seesaws, hammocks

-sand play

-water play

-mud play – digging is important

-sensory play area inside or outside…….Some children need these sensory areas and inputs more than others. Waldorf kindergartens rarely have a “sensory table” available, but this may be something to work with at home, and it could be a way to bring the outside in if you have no yard. I have a dear friend who taught in a traditional three year old classroom for over ten years before having children of her own, and she volunteerd some of her wonderful sensory table ideas as follows –For example, a sensory table could be filled with:

sand-add water, shells, sticks, (sand will mold if it left very wet and covered), animals

beans-start with one kind and over time add different varieties-

water-add color, bubbles, funnels, waterwheel, clear plastic containers of all sizes, animals

soil-add rocks, sticks, acorns, etc.  It is fun to add in lima beans or corn kernels as they will start to sprout in the moist soil when left for a few days

For autumn-Indian corn, acorns, seed pods, colorful leaves, pine cones, cranberries

Winter-build dens from bark, there are directions for making snow in the Earthways book, wooden snowflakes, ice cubes (freeze a dish of water for pond)

Spring-soil, seeds, small gardening tools, new leaves, flowers from trees, buds to explore

Summer-water, sand, green plants, wild flowers,

Thank you to my dear friend!

Think about equipment:

-small shovels, rakes, wagon, basket of tools (including hammers, wrenches, paintbrushes, pliers, nails), nails half driven into a log or stump for the children to hammer. There are also more ideas in that little book Toymaking With Children.

how about using your GARDEN as a playspace?

-“Care of plant life is a fundamental lesson in outdoor play.” –from Heaven On Earth

-Make a child-sized scarecrow in the fall or even early spring as you are planting

-Choose seeds that have a short time until maturity – lettuce, radishes, berries, snow peas

-try potatoes, pumpkins, corn

-make a bean tipi

-think about gardening with bees and butterflies in mind, with night blooming flowers for the moths

-encourage backyard wildlife – bird feeders, bird baths, bird houses, squirrel feeders, bat house, hummingbird feeders, owl houses, toad hotels

-Think of exploring the garden with all 12 senses!

Steiner discussed the importance of agriculture within the Waldorf curriculum, and “Being a teacher, we should avoid botanizing, taking the botany drum into class and showing the plants to the students. We should rather take the children outside to really emphasize the understanding of the context between the plant kingdom, the earth and the radiant sun.” – Steiner, Dornach, 1921-22. (Gardening usually occurs between the 6th and 10th grades as a yearly subject, but more and more Waldorf teachers are bringing beekeeping, composting, gardening etc into their classrooms as early as Kindergarten and First Grade).

Bring the Outdoors Inside!

-Try raising tadpoles, butterflies, praying mantis, ant farms, ladybug houses

-Try bringing play equipment inside – swings and small trampolines

-Try container gardening inside

-Try sprouting sunflower seeds and other seeds and beans

Other Major Ways to Connect Your Child to Nature:

Spend time outside every day, no matter what the weather – there is no bad weather, only bad clothes!

If you take a daily walk, focus on exploration, not distance, and have a basket to collect small treasures

Assign parts in fairy tales to dramatize which include the natural elements of the story – ie, children can be the trees, streams, etc. in different tales.

Celebrate FESTIVALS (see blog post regarding Changing Your Rhythm with the Seasons).

Celebrate the moon and phases of the moon – some Waldorf teachers have made hats with the moon phases on it for different fairy tales where a moon phase is mentioned

Have a color of the month that connects it to nature – ie, March is the color green and grow wheat grass on your nature table

Which of course, leads to the inevitable :Have a nature table!

Celebrate the elemental beings – gnomes who take care of the earth, fairies, etc. in circle time or fairy tales

Think about joining a CSA or going to farmer’s markets so children can meet farmers, beekeepers and other folks who work with nature and love it!

Crafts should involve natural items, playthings as well!

Experiences with Nature connect us with the Mysteries of Life and help the young child learn wonder, awe, reverence and respect!

For More Ideas See the Following Books, CD’s and DVD’s:

-Roots, Shoots, Buckets and Boots – Sharon Lovejoy

-Sunflower Houses – Sharon Lovejoy

-Gardening Classes At The Waldorf Schools – Krause

-Gardening With Children: The Waldorf Curriculum – Carolyn Brown, Audio CD from the Children, Nature and Us Conference  -Available from www.informedfamilylife.org

-“Creating a “Kindergarden” for Young Children by Betty Peck, DVD from the Children, Nature and Us Conference – Available from www.informedfamilylife.org

Just a few thoughts from my little corner of the world.

More About Fostering Creative Play

“I could go out in the yard and entertain myself for hours when I was a child!  With one stick!  With half a stick!”  you exclaim. “Yet, my child can’t entertain themselves for five minutes!”

Many parents feel this way and wonder what they are doing wrong, or what they can do to foster more imaginative, independent play.  There are several things to think about regarding the child under 7 and play.  To me, the child under age 7 is an imitative creature:  therefore,  it makes perfect sense  that a child under 7 is not developmentally ready to go off and initiate play for hours on end. 

However, there are several things you can do to help the process.

The first step is to consider that a child needs a play environment as discussed in the previous post, “Fostering Creative Play.”  Most of all, think about seriously streamlining the amount of toys available to your child at one time, make sure there are places and spaces for the toys to be placed neatly, and do make sure there are small places where like items can be grouped together for play.

The second step is to provide your child with something worthy to imitate.  Your child under the age of 5 is probably not going to follow you around the house peacefully while you “get your work done”, at least at first.   Being child-inclusive but not child-centered does not mean that you never play with your child, nor does it mean you never help your child get started with play.

With small children, you may only get fifteen minutes of work done at a time.  You  may, without any words, then be able to take down something for your child  to play with and start the play off and  then wander back to your work.  I say without any words because the moment you say, “Let’s play with the wooden kitchen now..” they will screech, “Nooooo!  I don’t want to play that!”  However, if you get engrossed in playing or setting something up  without words, they will watch you and start to do what you do.  Imitation at its finest.

One thing to consider is that in the decades before families had two cars, most mothers were home all day with their children – they had no car to go anywhere else!  There were tasks to be completed around the home and the children were there to see this.  Some families carry this tradition on today, and work hard at staying home and providing their children with real work.  For example, you could wash on Mondays and let your child help wash toys in the playroom or the linens from his room.  He could help fold napkins or washcloths from the laundry or hang things out on a small line to dry.  On Tuesdays, if you bake bread , your small child could help you put the ingredients in the bowl, assist with the mixing and the kneading and later with the shaping of the bread (and the eating, of course).  Cleaning up the kitchen could also be a part of this day while the bread is rising.  If you do handwork on Wednesdays, your child could also have a small basket with scraps of felt or yarn.  An older kindergartner could learn to finger knit.  Some families garden every day or at least once a week; small children can help plant or pick produce or pull weeds in between their investigations for bugs.  Fridays in many families is housekeeping day.  On this day, your small child could help polish wooden toys or help you clean.  Every family has a rhythm to the week that is unique to them and to their children; the above are just random examples for you to think about.  These everyday, mundane kinds of tasks come out in their play. Baking day can turn into the play of  cutting out homemade dough shapes to “cook” on a red play silk, for example.

The third step is to carefully and mindfully consider the amount of screen time your small child is viewing.  Many parents find that the problem with TV is that there are things that their children are not doing by watching TV.  In the book “Alternatives to TV Handbook” by Marie McClendon, she states, “Children now play about 2 hours less a day on average than they did 10 years ago.  Yet those who play more have richer vocabularies, better problem-solving skills, more curiosity, higher intelligence, longer attention spans and better abilities to see the perspectives of others.”  Regardless of what the content of the TV show is, the images are re-drawn or scanned about 60 times a second.  TV-induced alpha brain waves are considered by researchers as a non-learning mode of brain behavior.  If your child is showing such behaviors as poor school performance, poor attention span, lack of imaginative play and spontaneous play, aggressively talking back to adults, hitting or pushing other children or frequent nightmares, please consider the amount of media your child is watching.  

The fourth step is to consider the amount of time you spend outside every day; this is vitally important in your child’s creative play.  If you are outside, nature will provide the backdrop for the child’s indoor play.  Whether this is in the simple worms and pillbugs your child delights in, providing food for the birds, picking flowers or produce out of the garden, it will all show up in your child’s play and the songs they make up to sing.  I know families with three and four year olds who spend the vast majority of their day outside.

The fifth point to consider the overall rhythm to your day – it should not be just “play all day” for your child.  We have discussed involving your child in your work.  However, the rhythm to all of this is quite important as there should be times for in-breath and out-breath, times of expansive physical movement and play grounded with time for quietly listening to a story that mother is telling or for rest.  An example rhythm for small children under the age of 7  may be a period of playing outside, snack,  work focus for the day, lunch, quiet time/down time, storytelling , perhaps something involving art either inspired by the story or some sort of seasonally– based art, snack again, free play or outside play again, dinner preparation and dinner and then a bedtime routine.  Every family’s daily rhythm looks different, but if you take the time to meditate on it and think and yes, even plan, you may come up with a wonderful, peaceful day that enhances the quality of life for every member of the family.

Many blessings,

Carrie

Fostering Creative Play

“If you constantly entertain your child, you will be giving her the false impression that the world exists for her own pleasure and that she is without resources of her own. This is bound to cause difficulties later. Furthermore, boredom is a wonderful impetus to creativity and resourcefulness. If a child is always provided with activities and play ideas she will not have a chance to be attuned to her own fantasy life, to play out her own inner world. This is a great loss, which will have later implications for her ability to think creatively and independently.”
-From the book In A Nutshell: Dialogues With Parents At Acorn Hill, page 63.

Play is the work of a small child.

Ways to Foster Creative Play

  • less toys!
  • think about how to arrange the toys you do have to make them inviting for play – scenarios, grouping similar toys in a basket, making sure every toy has a home
  • arrange little scenes for your child to play with
  • have areas of play in your home – a kitchen area, a workbench, a doll corner, an area for painting, coloring and crafts
  • have dress up clothes available
  • have baskets of natural objects available – rocks, shells, pinecones, walnuts, chestnuts
  • try making several stand up dolls (no arms or legs). You can find instructions in Toymaking With Children and The Children’s Year.  Have dolls and doll accessories – a soft cloth doll with limited facial features is lovely.  
  • Have knitted or felt animals available, preferably ones you make yourself
  • Think about outside play – sandbox, swing, slide, climbing dome, balancing board, hills, secret spots in the yard
  • Most of all, engage in meaningful activity the child can imitate.  If you are busy with things around your house in a purposeful way – baking, gardening, cleaning carefully, washing and ironing these are the things your child will demonstrate in play.