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The Benefits of Allowing Kids to Interact with Nature (Without Being Hovered Over) Embracing Motherhood

The Benefits of Allowing Kids to Interact with Nature (Without Being Hovered Over)

Research shows that when kids are allowed to play in nature without someone hovering over them yelling, “Be careful!” and “Get down from there!” every five seconds, they flourish and grow in so many ways.

Ruby and Elliot Climbing on Rocks at Blandford Nature Center

Ruby and Elliot Climbing on Rocks (There Due to Construction) at Blandford Nature Center

When you think back to the fondest memories of your childhood, do you remember the times you were closely supervised while playing on a plastic or metallic structure for an allotted amount of fresh air time, or do you remember the times when you were wading in a creek catching tadpoles and crayfish, digging in the dirt looking for treasures, building forts, playing imagination games with neighbors and siblings, and exploring the world with fresh eyes without being hovered over (as I was lucky enough to be able to do)?

My Brother Jarrod (1) and I (2) Exploring Together

My Brother Jarrod (1) and I (2) Exploring Together

We live in an era of fear which has led to a dangerous amount of helicopter parenting where kids are constantly hovered over and controlled. Kids need elements of risk and danger. It helps them to be better problem solvers. by overcoming small obstacles where the risks are real, they will be able to overcome larger obstacles later when the stakes are higher.

Yes, getting exercise, sunshine, and fresh air are important, but even more important is that kids need time to be free, to get dirty, to fall down and get back up again, to explore nature, to be in the woods, the dirt, the sand, to gather sticks, to build forts that don’t follow any directions, and to do so without us supervising their every move.

Below is a picture of my children playing on the stepping stumps at Blandford Nature Center in Grand Rapids, MI. They have an amazing natural playground, a little log cabin, trails that meander through the woods into wigwams and other structures, boardwalks that take you through the woods and showcase rescued animals, and much, much more. This is a great example of a place dedicated to providing children with opportunities for children to learn, explore, and play in nature.

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Stepping Stumps at Blandford Nature Center

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Stepping Stumps at Blandford Nature Center

Benefits of Kids in Nature

The Children and Nature Network, an organization dedicated to reconnecting children with nature, has an impressive collection of research showing the benefits of allowing children to interact with nature which is nicely summarized here. A part of me is like, do I really need to reference research to show how kids being in nature is beneficial? But since the research is right in line with what I have observed with my own children, I used it as a framework for my ideas. The following is a summary of the meta-analysis of research about the benefits of allowing children to interact with nature coupled with my observations as a parent of four children who love interacting with nature.

  1. Increases Observation and Creativity: Studies prove that being in nature increases both observation and creativity. I like giving my children magnifying glasses, a microscope, an insect viewer, and collection baskets to further their observation skills. I really enjoy sitting or lying with them in the grass and helping them to notice what is going on around them. I might ask, “Do you see that little ant walking in the grass? Where do you think he’s going? What sounds do you hear right now? Do you hear birds chirping? What color is the sky? Do you see any clouds? Do you see any shapes in the clouds? And so on…” I also like doing art projects that bring in the elements of nature that helps my children to see the beauty of nature.
  2. Encourages Imagination and Sense of Wonder: Research shows that when children have early experiences with nature, there is a positive correlation with their development of imagination and it gives them a sense of wonder. I love encouraging creative and imaginative play with my children, and never do I see their imaginations stretch further than when they are outdoors in nature. I remember during my 7 years as an elementary school teacher, I was always amazed when children didn’t know what to do with themselves at recess. I would love to see us do away with standard sets of playground equipment and instead erect elements that encourage creative and imaginative play like some little log cabins, stepping stones or stumps, meandering paths of natural foliage, or even something more wild like this revolutionary new playground!
  3. Builds Language Development and Collaboration Skills: Studies show that the increased imaginative and creative components that occur when children are in nature foster language development and collaborative skills, and that they also have more positive feelings about each other in doing so. What better way to learn than being outdoors in the fresh air and sunshine, running and playing with your friends and/or siblings in nature! I love watching my kids interact with each other in nature. The world is such a big place and by exploring many different elements of nature firsthand, they are learning about the world. When I was a classroom teacher, I loved using an “outdoor classroom”.
  4. Increases Skills in Multiple Domains: Research shows that when children engage in authentic play in nature-based outdoor spaces, they develop skills in a variety of domains simultaneously. There is really no limit to what children can learn when they are out in nature. It gives any learning a sense of purpose, authenticity, and wonder. While I was teaching a unit on ecosystems during my classroom years, we took a weekly field trip to a local pond to observe, collect samples, and take notes about what we saw. This first hand learning experience was so powerful for the children. They loved the hike there, the open ended nature of the project, being in the elements, wading in the water, walking through the brambles, and really paying attention to their surroundings.
  5. Improves Physical Health: Studies show that children who regularly have positive personal experiences with the natural world show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility. I mean, it goes without saying that kids will have improved physical health from playing outdoors, but we have to think one step beyond structured and monitored play on predefined playground structures to allow our children to explore the elements of nature, to get dirty, to have danger and risk, to stretch themselves, to be free, and to discover things we never could really plan for or create for them.
  6. Improves Mental Health: Research shows that being in nature helps children to deal with adversity and minimize stress. What’s amazing is that the more time they spend in nature, the greater the benefits. Researchers at the University of Illinois (Andrea Faber Taylor, Frances Kuo, and William Sullivan) discovered that children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) performed better on schoolwork after having contact with nature.
  7. Appropriate Risk Minimizes Accidents:  Studies show that playgrounds where there are genuine risks actually have fewer accidents than traditional playgrounds. When children are given real risks and learn how to handle them, true life-long learning takes place. On the other hand, children who are given sanitized play places are less conscious of risks and actually have more accidents. It’s understandable that we don’t want our children to get hurt, but letting them get a few scrapes and bruises when they are little can actually prevent them from breaking bones…or worse as they get older.

Detriments of Kids Not Being in Nature

I feel like we all know that being outside is good. Getting fresh air and sunshine, being involved in physical activity, participating in the elements of nature…these are all things that promote good health. But beyond the positives, there are some negative things that happen when children are deprived of nature. By not being in nature, children are missing out on so much. Research shows that beyond just the negative health concerns from spending too much time indoors, children can also develop an unhealthy fear of nature.

  1. Fears of Nature: When children are exposed to frightening environmental issues when they are young without fully understanding and appreciating the elements of nature or understanding how these issues can be solved, it causes them to be anxious about nature and want to avoid it. Children fear things they don’t understand (Don’t we all?), and if they first learn about pollution, endangered animals, and overpopulation before getting a chance to freely explore nature and create positive memories in it, is it any wonder that they would just prefer to stay inside with their ipads?
  2. Fears of Injury: When parents are constantly hovering over their children and yelling, “Be careful! Watch out! Get down from there! Get away from that!” they may think that they sound like they’re being good protective parents, but they are not helping their children learn how to assess and deal with risk on their own at all. We were at Blandford Nature Center the other day, it had just rained, and my kids were enjoying splashing in the water, getting dirty, climbing on everything, and having a BLAST. Another family came along while we were there and the mom was constantly yelling, “Don’t get wet! Stay out of the water! Be careful! Get down from those stumps!” She quickly left with her brood in a huff…everyone was still perfectly clean. My kids on the other hand, were soaked, dirty, and sooooo happy. Personally, I would rather keep a spare bag of clothes in the car for each child and let them get dirty and have fun rather than thinking that staying clean is the ultimate reward of childhood.

    Ophelia Having Fun in the Water

    Ophelia Having Fun in the Water

  3. Negative Health Issues: When children do not get adequate exposure outdoors, it puts them at risk for vitamin D deficiency which is a risk factor for rickets, cardiovascular disease, cancer, or autoimmune conditions. A U.S. environmental health report showed that most people spend 90% of their time indoors. Dr. Dennis Ownby states that,

“Maybe part of the reason we have so many children with allergies and asthma is that we live too clean a life.”

 In Conclusion

There are a few key pillars to my parenting philosophy such as feeding my children nutrient dense food, being a stay at home mom and completely devoted to their needs, teaching them about language, reading, and math from a young age, sustaining creative and imaginative play…and this, being in nature. I want my children to be completely comfortable being in nature. I want them to enjoy it, to crave it, to know what to do in it, to not be afraid of it, and to let it shape their brains during these early stages of development.

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Our Stepping Stumps

Ruby and Elliot Playing on Our Stepping Stumps

Check out my blog: How to Create a Backyard Haven for Children (coming soon) for ideas on how to add more natural elements to your backyard such as growing a garden (coming soon), making a natural teepee, creating stepping stumps (coming soon), designing an obstacle course (coming soon), building a sandbox, converting a stock tank pool, and more!

Here’s a video of our backyard as we get ready for summer. Ideally, we’d be living on 40 acres of wilderness, but we are doing the best we can with our one acre tucked within city limits. )

Embracing Motherhood Tools of the Mind: A Play Centered Approach to Learning

Tools of the Mind: A Play Centered Approach to Learning

Although hardly new (created in 1993), there is a revolutionary way of teaching preschool and kindergarten that is more successful that just about any other curriculum out there. It is called Tools of the Mind, and it centers on one of the most basic and fundamental aspects of childhood: play.

Created by Dr. Elena Bodrova and Dr. Deborah Leong in conjunction with the Metropolitan State College (now Metropolitan State University of Denver), Tools of the Mind centers on Vygotskian-based teaching methods in preschool and kindergarten classrooms. The essential belief is a cultural-historical theory of psychology where children are active participants in their own learning and construct meaning from interacting with their environment and the people in it.

In the chapter, “Can Self-Control be Taught?” from their book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how one of the most important components of the Tools curriculum is the element of play, but not just any play. The Tools curriculum teaches mature, multidimensional, and sustained play that helps children to develop self-regulation and other executive functions of the brain.

Proof That Tools of the Mind Works

During the pilot testing for Tools of the Mind, ten kindergarten teachers were randomly assigned to teach the Tools curriculum. The student population was largely of a lower socioeconomic status, had limited English proficiency, and was basically starting kindergarten a full year behind.

The following spring, when the children took national standardized tests, the students in the Tools classrooms were almost a full grade level ahead of where they should be. In a district where only half of the kindergartners scored proficient, 97% of the children in the Tools program scored did so.

The pilot program was supposed to go for two years, with half of the teachers using the standard district curriculum as a control, but the principal didn’t want to deprive the other classes of the curriculum providing superior results, so they implemented it school-wide.

In another study conducted in New Jersey where 70% of the students were English language learners, they saw similar success. But it wasn’t just the students’ scores that were impressive, it was their behaviors as well. The students in the control group being taught the standard curriculum had extremely disruptive behaviors (such as kicking a teacher, biting another student, throwing a chair, and cursing) on a daily basis. But these kind of reports never came from the Tools classes.

So what is the Tools curriculum and how is it superior? There are many different components of the program, but the most distinguishing feature is the element of play.

Tools of the Mind in Action

When you walk into a Tools classroom, you will know right away what the make believe theme is (pet store, fire fighters, hospital, space, etc.).  You will see props such as signs, banners, and pictures created by both the students and the teacher around the room, and there will be a buzz in the room as children are deeply engrossed in what they are doing while using language to describe their roles and actions. The teacher can be found interacting with the children by helping them to stay in their role, modeling language, and explaining concepts. One of the major components of the Tools classroom is mature make-believe play.

Components of Mature Make-Believe Play

  1. Scenario: If the theme was “fire station”, the students would first learn all about fire stations by reading books, watching videos, and maybe even taking a field trip. Then, the teacher would organize the room into different areas such as the fire station, a house that needs saving, the 911 operator station, and a fire training camp.
  2. Roles: Before children begin playing, they tell the teacher their chosen role (pump driver, 911 operator, fireman, family that needs to be rescued, etc.).
  3. Play Plans: Then, the children draw or write about what they are going to be and what they are going to do in that role. If kids can’t write they draw a picture or use the sound maps around the room to try their best.
  4. Extended Time Frame: As they play, children stick to their plans and stay in character for a full 45 minutes. If they get distracted, the teacher will gently remind them, “Was that in your play plan?” On different days of the week, children choose different roles in the scenario.
  5. Language: Children use language extensively as they discuss who they are each going to be and what will happen during the play. During play, they adjust their speech depending on their role.

Other Components of the Tools Curriculum

All of the components of the Tools curriculum work together to create children who are not merely behaved but self-organized and self-directed. Here are a few additional components of the curriculum that help to foster the executive functions of the brain.

  1. Calendar: Instead of a typical calendar, there is a straight line of days on a long ribbon of paper. This gives children a linear sense of time.
  2. Sound Map: Instead of the alphabet being organized A to Z, it is sorted into clusters of consonants with similar sounds (c, k, q) and vowels called a sound map that children use to help them sound out the words they are trying to spell which fosters independence in writing.
  3. Buddy Reading: The children face each other and one holds up a sign with a pair of lips and the other holds up a sign with a pair of ears. The child with the lips flips through the book telling the story he sees in the pictures while the other child listens, and then they switch. This is an excellent pre-reading strategy that teaches kids about listening, retelling, and self-control.
  4. Simon Says: This game requires restraint and teaches self-control.
  5. Graphic Practice: The teacher puts on music and the children practice drawing spirals and shapes. When the music stops, the children have to stop their pens. This is another example of teaching self-control.
  6. Talking Out Loud: When children learn how to write, say the letter c, they’ll say in unison, “Start at the top and go around” as they start to print. No one ever stops the kids from saying this mantra out loud, but after a few minutes, the chorus lulls to a murmur and children simply mouth the words to themselves. This private speech is a form of self-reflection.
  7. Letter Checking: When a teacher writes the letter D on the board, she’ll write four versions of it and ask the children to help her decide which is the best D. Then children do the same thing with their own writing and with each other’s writing. This teaches self-analysis.
  8. Clean Up Song: Children know to start cleaning up when they hear the song. They start to realize how long they have to clean up based on the where the song is and this is another example of teaching self-regulating behavior.

Why Tools of the Mind Works

During mature, multidimensional, sustained play, children are developing the pre-frontal cortex of their brains, which is the region that governs executive functions such as planning, predicting, controlling impulses, persisting through trouble, and orchestrating thoughts to fulfill a goal.

  • Abstract Thinking: Almost everything in a classroom requires that children understand the connection between reality and a symbol. The letters of the alphabet are symbols for sound and speech, the map on the wall is a symbol of the world, the calendar is a symbol to measure the passage of time, words on a piece of paper represent actual things, and so on. During play, when children are using some desks and chairs as a fire engine and when their play has interacting components using different symbols, they are holding multiple abstract thoughts in their head and stacking them together. This is very challenging and stimulating for the brain.
  • Self-Reflection: Having an internal dialogue that engages a thought conversation within the mind is the exact opposite of an impulsive reaction and something that students in the Tools curriculum do on a regular basis through play and other activities. After playing, children reflect on how well they followed their play plans. During writing, they circle the letter that they made the best. While making their letters, they say little chants together. They also check their own work or a buddy’s work. All of these things support metacognition (thinking about how we think).
  • Planning: By making a plan for what they are going to do during their play time, children are creating a situation that doesn’t rely upon impulsive responses. This is the very beginning stages of goal setting and sets them up to persist through difficulties.
  • Engagement: Trying to get young children to sit still and listen to the teacher during lecture times is very challenging for the students who just can’t seem to stop moving, but in the Tools program, children are so thoroughly engrossed in what they are doing, that they stay focused and do not get distracted. Being able to attend to one thing for an extended period of time is training their brains for longer and longer engagements which is one of the key hallmarks of learning.
  • Intrinsic Motivation: Children aren’t distracted because they are in control of what they are doing. They are empowered by their ideas, and they are motivated by their own desires. In their book NurtureShock, Bronson and Merryman discuss Dr. Silvia Bunge, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Berkley, who explains that, “Motivation is experienced in the brain as the release of dopamine. The motivated brain, literally, operates better, signals faster.” So In the long run, this type of motivation is something that will strongly outweigh the motivation of a child just trying to please the teacher.
  • Self-Control: As children are engaged during sustained imaginative play and given the opportunity for self-reflection, they are learning how to practice self-control in a way that makes sense for them, not to please someone else. This constant feedback and self-analysis leads to children being able to govern their own thoughts and actions in ways that best fit any given situation.
  • Confidence: If you ask a child to copy something from the board, he might feel intimidated thinking that he won’t be able to make his handwriting as good as the teacher’s, but if you hand him a pad of paper during imaginative play and tell him he needs to write down the order for the pizza shop, he’ll just start writing, even if he’s not making any real words. Because the action is important to him, he sees beyond it to the function rather than just the action itself.

In Conclusion

Tools of the Mind is a very successful preschool and kindergarten curriculum that is taught nationwide. (To see if there is a Tools school near you, click here.) But even though I am a huge advocate of it, I still don’t think it is as good as what I can provide at home. (Click here to read my blog about how I use the Tools model to encourage creative and imaginative play at home.)

Basically, I love using the Tools curriculum as a guideline for how I structure my time at home with my little ones and to justify the tremendous amount of time I dedicate to encouraging their development in creative and imaginative play, but I only get to have them with me for a little while before they venture off into the world, and I guess I’d just like to prolong it as long as possible. 🙂 I hope that when they are older and they think back to their childhoods, they will have the fondest memories of fantasies, far away lands, adventures, discoveries, and most of all…fun!

Embracing Motherhood The Importance of Creative and Imaginative Play

The Importance of Creative and Imaginative Play

We often think of play as a break from learning and something that kids desperately need to give their brains a rest, but for young children, playtime is not just a break, it is a critical component of development that prepares their brains for more complex learning.

I love spending a part of each day teaching my children the fundamentals such as the ABCs, the joys of reading, basic math functions and concepts, and vocabulary, but the majority of each day my little ones are engaged in the most important aspect of childhood: play.

Research is showing that play is so important in fact, that it has become the foundation for a wildly successful preschool curriculum called Tools of the Mind. In the chapter, “Can Self-Control be Taught?” from their book, NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman explain how when children are engaged in this mature, multidimensional, sustained play, they develop self regulation and other executive functions that lead to impressively high levels of academic success.

Tools of the Mind: Taking Play to the Next Level

The way that children play in a Tools classroom occurs in a way that takes play seriously…because that is the way it is structured. In preschools around the country, children have played firehouse. But after about ten minutes of holding a pretend fire hose and putting out a fire, children often get bored and distracted and move on to the next thing. In a Tools classroom, however, children are engaged for sustained periods of time.

Bronson and Merryman explain how,

“Play has a joyful randomness, but it’s not sustained. In Tools classrooms, by staging different areas of the room as the variety of settings, and by asking kids to commit to their roles for the hour, the play is far more complicated and interactive. The children in the house call 911; the operator rings a bell; the firefighters leap from their bunks; the trucks arrive to rescue the family. This is considered mature, multidimensional, sustained play.”

Tools of the Mind is based on the Vygotskian Approach where the belief is that the most important things children can learn aren’t facts and skills, but are instead a set of mental tools…tools of the mind. 🙂 Vygotsky believed that the most effective learning happens when the new skills and concepts being taught are just on the edge of emergence, or in the zone of proximal development. He also believed that children need scaffolding, or gentle guidance, during this time to help them reach the next level of understanding.

For a young preschool aged children, the most important thing in their world is play (and it continues to be very important as children get older as well), and with a little gentle guidance, we adults can help our children take their play to the next level. (If you want to learn more about the Tools of the Mind curriculum, including how, why, and proof that it works, read my blog here, and if you want to see if there’s a Tools school near you, click here.)

Play Time at Home

As much as I love the Tools curriculum and as much as I know my kids would thrive in it, I still don’t think it’s as effective as the preschool experience I can provide at home.  While I don’t facilitate a certain theme, I do have little areas set up all over the house that are designed to encourage creative and imaginative play.

I also don’t have an entire class of students, but I do have three children at home and one in kindergarten. We all follow a pretty basic daily routine, regardless of what day it is and who is here, where the children have to do their morning routine (eat breakfast, get dressed, etc.) and then do three activities before having any screen time. Sometimes we plan out our activities and sometimes we just let one lead to the other, but almost every single day consists of building with legos, reading huge stacks of books, playing with flashcards, doing some sort of coloring or art activity, playing imagination games, and playing outside.

Tips and Tricks for Encouraging Creative and Imaginative Play

Nothing makes me happier than seeing my children involved in elaborate games of imagination with each other. My older ones, who are now four and six, love creating intricate worlds of imagination that entertain them for hours. My two year old loves watching them and getting lost in her own little world of learning, and our ten month old, who is just starting to crawl, is always a part of everything!

When I was a 3rd and 4th grade teacher, it always baffled me when I would see kids on the playground who had no idea what to do with themselves. I remember how much I enjoyed playing imagination games with my younger brother when we were both little, and I always thought it was something that just happened naturally, but now I’m seeing that it works best when it’s gently scaffolded. Here are the things that I enjoy doing with my kids that have fostered creative and imaginative play.

1. Involve Kids In Your Day to Day

I’ve noticed that a lot of the elements of my children’s play is about reenacting our normal daily routines and activities. I just love overhearing them role playing or playing with their little figures as they go through the steps of doing chores, cooking food, shopping, going to the bank, being naughty, getting a punishment, going to bed, and so on. By involving my kids and talking to them about what I’m doing, how I’m doing it, and why I’m doing it, they are gathering information to use during their imaginative play time.

2. Provide Scenarios

I love channeling my inner child and just playing with my kids. Sometimes we play dress up and sometimes we use little figures, but together we create these creative and imaginative worlds that can transform a mundane day into something extradonary. Children will sometimes spontaneously create these scenarios on their own, but with all of my kids, I feel like I have had to really help them get the ball rolling in this area.

As I see it, there are two types of scenarios. The first one is just playing something like playing fire house, or pet shop, or grocery store, or house. In this type of scenario, kids are acting out the different roles and performing the duties that coincide with each role.  The next type of scenario involves a problem and a solution, and is a more sophisticated form of imaginative play usually (but not always) involving toy figures.

When my kids were old enough and started to seem a little bored with their standard imaginative play, I introduced a few problem and solution scenarios, and the kids really took off with them. The scenarios are typically set in the whole good versus evil theme, and they are pretty basic. There’s usually a bad guy of sorts, like an evil wizard, a hungry dinosaur, a super villain, or a thief, and they want to something evil like kidnap someone, steal something, destroy some place, or put a spell on someone. My kids are then the good guys (or one is good and the other is evil) and they have to evade the bad guy(s) or gal(s) and save the day. To help drag this out, I might say that they bad guy left a string of clues throughout the house or they are under some terrible magic spell and must collect some specific ingredients to make an anti-potion.

3. Give Prompts

If I notice that the imaginative play is starting to fizzle, I like to casually listen for a few minutes to see where I can provide some prompts to extend the action for a little while. Just like the teacher in the Tools classroom, I am there to gently scaffold them to the next level. Many times, my prompts are just questions, “Why did so and so do that? What is he going to do next? What about this one?” and that is usually enough to encourage another round of play.

4. Role Playing

Role playing gives kids a chance to step outside of themselves, and it gives them the courage to say and do things that they normally wouldn’t. As they’re testing out these different personality traits, they can even find resolutions to things they may be struggling with in their daily lives. I like encouraging my children to really become their imaginative characters, and so I’ll model a variety of different voices and character traits. Once my children are “in character”, I like to ask them questions that helps to define their character’s motivations and plans for action. “How does he/she feel about that? Why is so-and-so sad, mad, happy? What are you going to do about it? ”

5. Props

Playing with props is one way to really help kids become deeply involved in their imaginative play. Whenever it’s Halloween season, I love to go to thrift stores and stock up on costumes to fill our costume closet. I’m always especially on the lookout for different types of hats. Putting on a full costume can take a bit of time, but kids can quickly put on a hat that immediately transforms them into someone else. I also have an assortment of magic wands, swords, pom-poms, hooks, claws, boxing gloves, and a horse on a stick that are within easy reach. The hats and costumes are hung on sturdy hooks that the kids can easily reach in a location that’s accessible to everyone.

6. Favorite Characters

We don’t watch a lot of TV in our house, but when we do, we encourage our kids to watch the same movies or shows over and over (based on their interests) so that they can bring their favorite characters into their imaginative play. For example, our youngest daughter, who is 2,  is really into Dora. She loves playing imaginative games with her Dora toys, reading Dora books, and learning Spanish. Our four year old son, Elliot, loves anything that has to do with superheroes, dragons, Godzilla, and monsters. And our six year old daughter, Ruby, loves Digimon, My Little Pony, princesses, and anything that has to do with Miazaki. (You can read here why we don’t believe in banning screen time for children here.)

When she’s home from school, Ruby is usually the one leading the imagination games, and she is REALLY into Digimon these days, so her and Elliot will play Digimon outside for hours and groan when it’s time to go inside and get ready for bed. The other day, I printed out all of the Digimon characters on card stock with their names printed below, and after Ruby cut them all out and arranged them in the order of their transformations, her and Elliot used the printouts like little figures and played with them for hours. We followed another one of Ruby’s ideas and made sugar cookies and some butter cream/cream cheese frosting sorted into bowls and dyed every color imaginable so that she could make a Digimon cookie for each character. I just love the way her mind works!

7. Little Figures

When children are involved in role playing, it can get loud, messy, and really take over the house, but when they make their little dolls and figures come to life, it can be a very calm and contained activity. My kids have not really seemed motivated to play imaginatively with their little figures much until they have been three and older, but I’ve noticed our two year old daughter Ophelia playing with My Little Pony figures imaginatively in our Batman house from time to time.

I am always on the look out at garage sales and thrift stores for any type of dollhouse or other similarly compartmentalized structure. We currently have three really big doll houses, a Batman cave, a few Little People farm structures, a tree house, and a castle. Next to each play house, I have a little basket of figures that I keep sorted separately from the other toys. Instead of having all of our toys in one playroom, I like having them tucked around the house so that they have something to play with in every room.

8. Puppets

You can make any little stuffed animal come to life and talk to your child, but puppets are really great for teaching children about imaginative play. My ten month old, Julian, loves chewing on the eyeballs of our Kermit the Frog puppet while I make him talk in a funny voice, and he laughs every time I make Kermit try to bite his finger, and Ophelia, two,  loves it when the puppets tickle her and talk to her. As kids get older, they can engage more and more with the puppets and have conversations with them. Sometimes talking to a puppet about a problem they are having is a way to elicit more information than if you would just talk to them directly.

9. Imaginative Toys

We certainly don’t ban toys with batteries or anything, but I have found that the less a toy does on it’s own, the more a child can do with it. We have little baskets or boxes throughout our house with toys like big brown blocks, small colored blocks, alphabet blocks, wooden train track pieces, Lincoln Logs, K’nex, big Legos, small Legos, puzzles, stacking cups, sorting bins, and more that encourage sustained imaginative play. To encourage children to play with these toys, I like cutting the flaps off from my large flat Amazon boxes and use them for storage bins. I have found that children really only like playing with the toys that they can see, and so I try to spread them out as much as I can.

10. Arts and Crafts

Nothing sparks the imagination quite like a little arts and crafts session. I have a place in our house called our “home school table” that has markers, crayons, pencils, coloring books, activity books, blank paper, colored paper, scissors, fancy scissors, tape, glue, stickers, and more all within easy reach. I organize the materials on the table or in the nearby bookshelf with boxes and bins all neatly labeled. I also have some really nice cupboards full of supplies that I can have easy access to and one whole cupboard with board games and puzzles.

11. Environment

I spend a lot of time organizing my home to appeal to children and to be practical for adults. As a busy mother of four, I have a lot to do around the house to keep things up and running, and so I like having my home set up so that the kids can be engaged in creative and imaginative play and/or learn something (ABC videos, etc.) while I fold laundry, prepare food, or clean. To read more about how I set up my home in a way that encourages independent, creative, and imaginative play and learning, click here.

12. Routines

Having routines in place really helps me to be able to meet the basic needs of my kids (sleep, food, love), and when their basic needs are met, they are in a great place to play independently, use their creativity, stretch their imaginations, and learn something new. Check out my blog about creating a summer routine that helped all of us to be productive here.

13. Sustained Attention

Anything that helps children to stay actively engaged for long periods of time is extremely beneficial. When you think about an adult who is able to focus for extended periods of time on a difficult task while problem solving, that is pretty much the epitome of success. Training kids to be engaged and motivated on an activity of their choosing for increasing amounts of time is something that doesn’t just happen overnight. It starts in small amounts when they are very young, and it gradually increases over the years to result in a well rounded and balanced individual who is capable of being self-directed, intrinsically motivated, goal oriented, organized, and a problem solver. As I work with each of my children who are all at different levels, I always try to keep the goal of sustained attention in mind.

In Conclusion

In my experiences as a classroom teacher and now as a parent, there are a few things that stand out to me as being some of the most important aspects in the development of a child, and play is one of those things. My husband and I have learned that it is more important to slow down in life so that we can really listen to each of our children and provide them with the necessary scaffolding to grow than it is to run around going from one activity, one group, and one destination to the next.

Children need an extended amount of time in a warm, safe, and nurturing environment and that is why we are both so fortunate that I can stay home (finally) with our little ones. (Read more about my journey to become a stay at home mom here and how I’ve found happiness as a stay at home mom here.) By giving value to play and by treating it as the important developmental step that it is, I am confident that not only are we giving our children the tools that they will need to be developmentally and academically successful, but we are filling their childhoods with what being a kid is (should be) all about: play.

*Click here to read my blog that goes into more detail about Tools of the Mind.

Embracing Motherhood How to Make Popsicle Puppets for Oral Language Development, Reading Readiness, and Creative Play

How to Make Popsicle Puppets for Imaginative Play

I love making simple popsicle stick puppets for my young children because it is a great way to encourage imaginative play while also teaching basic reading skills. I love following their interests to make popsicle puppets of their favorite characters or genres and watch as their imaginations take off into a world of wonderment.

Pretend play is more than just fun for kids, it actually helps their cognitive development on several levels. Studies show that pretend play during early development allows for the enhancement of the child’s capacity for cognitive flexibility and creativity. Taking on different roles during pretend play also allows children to represent problems and scenarios from a variety or perspectives and this precipitates empathy and self regulation. Studies also show that it positively influences  language usage including subjunctives, future tenses, and adjectives. I love it because it get kids talking and any kind of talking is good for oral language development.

Materials

  • Jumbo Popsicle Sticks (Or you can just cut some strips of cardboard.)
  • Glue Stick (I like to buy my glue sticks in bulk here.)
  • Card Stock (You could also use regular computer paper.)
  • Scissors (I like these.)
  • Color Printer (Having a good economical printer is an absolute must! These ink cartridges, that go with the printer previously linked, are expensive, but they last a long time, like 1,200 color sheets.)
  • *Optional: laminatorlaminating sheets, and large cardboard boxes

Directions

  1. Print out some small characters. Elliot really wanted germs this time around, and we found tons of great images on our google image search. He has also liked superheroes, spiders, monsters, and Star Wars characters. When I’ve made these for Ruby, she wanted all of the My Little Pony characters. To get the images, I first do a google image search, then I click on the image I want, right click and copy it, open a Word or Publisher document, right click and paste it in, and then resize it to fit my paper. Sometimes I add boxes with the characters’ names and other times I just write the name on the popsicle stick. This kids love sitting on my lap as we do this part together.
    Embracing Motherhood Germ Printouts on Popsicle Sticks

    Germ Printouts on Popsicle Sticks

    my little ponies

    My Little Pony Sticks

    superhero popsicle sticks

    Superhero Sticks

  2. *Optional: Laminate your sheets before cutting them out. Here’s the laminator and laminating sheets that I use.
  3. Cut them out. Sometimes Ruby helps me with the cutting, but I usually just do this by myself.
  4. Use the glue stick to affix the cutouts to the top of the popsicle stick. *If you’ve laminated your characters, you might want to put some masking tape over the back of the stick to make sure it really holds.
  5. Give them names. Elliot LOVES coming up with funny names for his germs. He’ll make up names like “Mook” and “Funkoo” and it’s a great opportunity to teach him how to sound out and spell words. It then becomes a great reading activity as he reads his sticks. I like writing the names vertically on the stick. On the back of the stick, we write their nicknames.

    elliot with popsicle stick project

    Elliot (4) Naming his Germs

  6. *Optional: Make backgrounds. When I made Ruby’s My Little Pony sticks, I also did google image searches for the homes of each of the characters. I printed out one picture of the outside of their home and one picture of the inside and glued them onto a large unfolded cardboard box. Elliot wanted random backgrounds of haunted houses and cities. This is a great way for children to learn about setting (where a story takes place).
    Ruby's My Little Pony Boards

    Ruby’s My Little Pony Boards

    Elliot's Boards

    Elliot’s Background Boards

  7. Imagination Games: Now the children can use their popsicle characters in some imagination games. I love to play with them too and use funny voices for the different characters. Sometimes I like to introduce a problem scenario like one character is evil and trying to capture the others or one is sad and the others want to cheer him up, but they are usually pretty creative and independent with this part.
    ruby playing with her boards

    Ruby (5) Playing with her My Little Ponies

    ophelia playing with popsicle sticks

    Ophelia (2) Loves Playing with Them Too

  8. Storage: I like to keep these out and accessible as the children are interested and want to use them, but if they lose interest after awhile, I tuck them away in a more disclosed location. That way, they’re excited when they “find” them again. 🙂

Embracing Motherhood How to Build a Sandbox

How to Build a Sandbox

It’s that time of year when the kids are out of school and all of the possibilities that they ever dreamed of are at their fingertips, and yet what do you hear when you unleash them into the wilderness of your yard, “I’M BORED!” Well, thankfully, we haven’t really ever heard our kids say that over the summer, and having this sandbox is part of the reason why. Between this and our stock tank pool, we are all set.

Neither my husband or I are really very “handy” people and this was really one of the first building projects we ever took on together. But overall, it was a fairly simple and straightforward process that has yielded a tremendous amount of fun for the children. If you have even a bit of land, I would highly recommend building a sandbox for your little ones. Not only will it provide endless hours of fun, but it will also provide them an opportunity to play barefoot in the earth which is an excellent source of antioxidants.

Materials

  • Four 4″ x 4″ posts for the corners (Posts should be 12 inches long because you want them to overhang the boards a bit.)
  • Four 2″ x 8″ boards for the edges (We used 10 foot boards.)
  • Wood Screws
  • Power Drill
  • Weed Blocker
  • River Sand (100 cubic feet for a 10′ x 10′ sandbox)

Material Notes

  • Pressure Treated Wood: By 2013 all CCA (chromated copper arsenate) was phased out of use in pressure treated wood and replaced with AC (alkaline copper) and ACQ (quaternary ammonium compounds). These pesticides (which are meant to prevent rotting from insects and fungus) still pose some health risks, but are not the cancer causing hazard of CCA. The 4′ x 4’s we purchased were pressure treated, but the rest of the wood we got was not. If you purchased some wood and you’re concerned about the risks, you can always just paint over it with a sealer, which I recommend doing anyways.
  • Safe Sand: Look out for sand made with crystalline silica because it is a carcinogen that can cause damage to the lungs when breathed in (something your little ones will be doing a lot of in the sandbox). Much of the playsand found in stores today is not natural sand, but derived from quarried quartz rocks. The state of CA actually requires a warning label to be put on this sand to warn of the dangers. Some people have opted for using pea gravel or other substances instead of sand, but we just contacted a local gravel company and purchased some river bed sand. It cost $100 for (a very generous) 100 cubic feet.

Directions

  1. Location: Find a place that has shade (something we didn’t do that I wish we had), good drainage (not at the bottom of a hill), and is in a good location for you to see while you putz around.
  2. Measure and Mark: Measure out how big you want your sandbox and mark your corners. We made ours 10′ x 10′, and I feel like it is the perfect size. You’ll want to dig a few inches outside of where you want the sandbox. Better to dig too much than not enough!
  3. Dig the Corners: Take your time to make sure the corners line up and everything makes a nice looking square. You’ll want your  corners to be a few inches deeper than the rest of the sandbox for your posts to go in.

    Digging the Corners for Our Sandbox

    Digging the Corners

  4. Dig the Sod: The toughest part of all of this was digging up the sod. We have a lot of rocks in our yard, and that made it extra tough. Plus, it was barely spring and the ground was still frozen when we started. (Yes, we were itchin’ for warmer weather!)

    digging sod for sandbox

    Digging Out the Sod

  5. Use That Sod: We actually used all of the sod and dirt we dug up to make a little hill in our yard. Over time, the sod pieces all came together, and now we have a nice little grassy hill that our kids (our toddler especially) love climbing on.
  6. Dig Down (if you want): Our ground was too rocky and still slightly frozen, so we did not. But if you could, I think it would be good to dig down another 6 to 12 inches to allow more room for the sand.
  7. Level the Ground: Try to get the ground as level as you can. You can just eyeball it or use a rake to really even it out.
  8. Weed Blocker: We went to our local lumber store and got something like this. I like it because it prevents the weeds from growing through the sand, but it also allows for drainage (which you will need if your kids want to make castles with moats and flood the sandbox as ours frequently do). I know that some people lay down plastic and poke holes in it, but I’m not sure that would provide enough drainage.

    laying the weed blocker for the sandbox

    Laying Out the Weed Blocker

  9. Stain the Wood: We stained our wood with an exterior stain like this. These saw horses came in really handy for laying out the wood. We were worried about the rain, so we wanted to keep the wood under our overhang, but to this day (one year later) we still have drips of stain on our concrete. For this reason, I wish we would have done it in the grass.

    staining wood for sandbox

    Scott Staining the Wood

  10. Make the Sandbox Frame: We are not really handy people and this was the first thing we ever really built together. We made a few mistakes, but overall, it was still a pretty simple procedure that turned out rather well. First, we cut the four posts to be 12′ long using a circular saw. Next, we used our power drill and some wood screws to attach the 10″ planks to the posts. We made the mistake of not attaching the planks to the posts in an even pattern all the way around. Scott drew a quick little sketch to show the wrong way and the right way. 🙂
    Wrong Way

    Wrong Way

    Right Way

    Right Way

    sandbox frame

    Sandbox Frame

  11. Put the Frame in Place: When you lay the frame down, you want it to lay over the weed blocker. There should be a small gap inbetween the frame and the dirt that you will fill in later with loose dirt. Step on all of the posts to push them into the ground as much as you can. Then, fill in all around the frame with dirt until it is secure.

    Laying Down the Sandbox Frame

    Laying Down the Sandbox Frame

  12. Fill with Sand: When we moved into this house, we knew that we wanted a sandbox and a fence to be put in. We were smart to put the sandbox in before the fence because I’m not sure that this truck would have fit through our gate! Anyways, we just contacted a local gravel company and had our sandbox filled for $100. He said he was fine giving us as much as we wanted for that $100, so I told him “when” when I thought we had quite enough sand!
    truck with sand for sandbox

    Getting Ready to Dump the Sand

    sand delivery

    Sand Delivery

  13. Extra Sand: We loaded up the wheelbarrow and put one load of extra sand where we wanted to put our stock tank pool and another extra load where we wanted to create a mini sandbox.
    extra sand for stock tank pool

    Extra Sand for Our Stock Tank Pool

    extra sand by tree for small sandbox

    Extra Sand for a Mini Sandbox Under the Tree

    grandpa helps with the sandbox chairs

    Grandpa Helped Us Build Some Sandbox Chairs

  14. Make a Cover (Optional): Every blog that I read about building a sandbox included directions for making a cover. We researched many different options and decided to attach a cover that folded out. We had every intention of actually attaching our cover in order to keep out our cats and any other critters, but it just never worked out and we never did attach the darn thing. I just didn’t like how we would have had to take out all of our sandbox toys in order to close the cover. Plus, I didn’t want to kill the grass on either side if the cover were to be left open. We just kept an eye on our cats to keep them from using it as a litter box, and even though, yes, we find a turd in there from time to time, I’m glad we didn’t go with the cover.

    playing in the sandbox with a cover

    Optional Cover

Time to Play: We have had our sandbox for over a year now, and our kids have played in it every single time we have gone outside. It provides endless hours of imaginative play, and the kids absolutely love it!

playing in the sandbox

Our First Week Playing in Our New Sandbox

Playing in our Sandbox One Year Later

Playing in our Sandbox One Year Later

Building a Volcano with a Moat in a sandbox

Building a Volcano with a Moat

Tips and Tricks: Here are a few things that have helped us to enjoy our sandbox even more.

  • No Throwing Sand: Right away, we made a rule about not throwing the sand out of the sandbox, and that is why one year later we still have plenty of sand. We have never been super strict about this rule and encourage the children to dump globs of sand into our little pools if they so desire, but we also encourage them to not go overboard with it.
  • Play with Them: At first, we played with them in the sandbox a lot to help give them ideas for how to use it. We showed them how to make sandcastles, how to bury treasures and find them, how to play imagination games, how to dig moats and make rivers, and how to play with the sandbox toys. We still get in there and play with them from time to time because, hey, it’s fun!
  • Sand and Water: If you want to take your sandbox fun to the next level, just introduce a hose into the mix. You can show kids how to carve out moats and rivers or just let them bury the nozzle of the hose and watch the water bubble out. We also like putting our mini pools near the sandbox so the kids always have access to some sort of water.
Embracing Motherhood How to Create an Environment that Encourages Independence, Creativity, and Learning

How to Create an Environment that Encourages Independence, Creativity, and Learning

When I was an elementary school teacher and now as a parent of four young children, I have always believed that creating an environment conducive to learning was one of the most important things I could do (after making my students and children feel loved that is.)

quote-i-never-teach-my-pupils-i-only-attempt-to-provide-the-conditions-in-which-they-can-learn-albert-einstein-282667

Before I became a stay at home mom, I taught at an I.B. school that focused on backwards design and the inquiry model of instruction. These are two things that I believe in strongly and have carried over into my parenting philosophy. In my classroom, I worked very hard to create an environment and a system that could almost run itself. We would spend the beginning of the year going over rules and expectations, and then I would gradually release responsibility and encourage them to become independent learners as I guided them to find their individual intrinsic motivators. In the pictures below, notice the cooperative learning modules, the comfortable little nooks and learning areas, the use of the wall space, the vibrant colors, the plants, and the clean, organized, and warm environment.

third grade classroom

Front of the Room Teacher Station

third grade classroom

Looking Out the Windows in My Classroom

third grade classroom

Looking Towards the Back of My Classroom

third grade classroom

The Back Corner of My Classroom

third grade classroom

Chalkboard Area in My Classroom

third grade classroom

Learning Wall

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Vocabulary Wall and Plants

third grade classroom

My Students Learning with Laptops

third grade classroom

Kids Working with Pattern Blocks

third grade classroom

My Mom Dissecting Hearts with My Students

third grade classroom

Dressing Up for a Reader’s Theater Play

In my home, I have tried to create the same warm, nurturing, organized, creative, and stimulating environment that will promote independent learning at every turn. Don’t get me wrong, I love cuddling with my kids and finding teachable moments to help guide them towards new understandings, it’s just that I don’t see them as empty vessels that need to be filled with whatever wisdom I can pour into them. I believe that they are embarking on a journey of self discovery and I see myself as their guide; the one who will shepherd them along and help them to find the right path. Listed below are the things I like to do in my home that help to create and facilitate an environment that promotes and encourages independent learning.

1. Organization Behind the Scenes

As the facilitator of my children’s learning, I need to have everything ready to go at a moment’s notice. Whenever one of them is inspired to paint, I want to be able to pull out all of the painting supplies lickety split. Or whenever I see the need to improvise a new learning station, I want to be able to quickly pull out materials and create something. I don’t have the luxury of lunch breaks and planning time anymore, I need to be able to guide, create, build, facilitate, and enjoy at a moment’s notice.

kids playing with creative manipulatives at a moments notice

Creative Play at a Moment’s Notice

That is why I love, love, love my cupboards that came with this house. I have my flashcards, construction paper, extra crayons and markers, board games, teaching tubs, craft supplies, and more neatly boxed, labeled, and organized so that I can get to what I need at a moment’s notice. (See my Amazon Store for my recommended Best Teaching Items.) The other day my parents spent the night so that my husband and I could have a Valentine’s date, and the next day my Mom and I spent the entire day reorganizing my cupboards. In doing so, it gave me the ability to continue creating at a moment’s notice in the future. I need times like that to completely reorganize everything. It feels so good!

Organized Cupboards Filled with Learning Supplies

Organized Cupboards Filled with Learning Supplies

2. Decide Which Supplies to Make Accessible

Depending on the age and “mess propensity” of my children, I keep different materials accessible at different levels. Our toddler has just discovered markers and loves coloring on the walls, refrigerator, tables, etc., so I’ve decided to keep those materials out of her reach. My oldest daughter and son, on the other hand, love being able to have the freedom to color and create on their own, so I have set up a table in my “homeschool room” that has coloring books, blank books, blank paper, colored paper, markers, colored pencils, crayons, scissors, tape and other odds and ends to allow them to have the freedom to create and design on their own.

organized table with craft supplies

Organized Homeschool Table

In my cupboards I keep the things that I want my older children to be able to access I keep on the lower shelves. That way, when inspiration strikes, they can take out what they need. I also have a bookshelf with book making supplies, reusable stickers, stamps, and more coloring books for them to use.

computer table and shelves organized with learning supplies for kids

Shelves Organized with Learning Supplies

Everything within reach of my toddler are things specifically designed for her. She can do the things that the older kids can do with guidance, but the things at her level are things that she can do independently.

3. Create Learning Stations at Tables

My “homeschool” table is the most versatile station that I have. It can be used for just about any project that we have in mind. We used to only have one table in our home, but I LOVE having this table set up just for arts and crafts. We have another table in our kitchen (it only seats three) that we use for eating and activities. On this table, I have a few coloring books, some crayons, markers, books, and some dry erase boards, books, and markers that the kids can do while I’m cooking or cleaning in the kitchen. In the kitchen we also have a little table with three little chairs. Sometimes my kids eat here, sometimes they do projects here, and sometimes I use it to set out some food for them to graze on. We do have a family dining table in the dining room that we keep cleared off and use just for family meal time.

kitchen table with learning placements and activity bins

Our Kitchen Table

kids using dry erase boards at the kitchen table

Kids Working at Our Kitchen Table

little kid table in the kitchen with learning strips and a cardboard bin of books

Little Kid Table in the Kitchen

I have a few others shorter coffee tables set up around the house as well. In our multipurpose room I have a coffee table set up that I rotate with different books and activities. Right now it has ABC blocks, a box with Basher books, a box with homemade books and cards, and a place for sheets that I’m working on with our toddler. I also made a short table by our homeschool table to house different activities. Right now it is winter, and our water pouring station has been an absolute favorite for our toddler. I have another table in our quiet room that has puzzles and ABC game boards. Even the coffee tables in our living room are learning stations. With posters on top, books underneath, and little chairs or a little couch to sit in, they are great for eating or doing projects.

kids using ABC learning tablets at a coffee table sitting on little stools

Coffee Table Learning Station

using little cutout figures for learning activities at a coffee table learning station

Coffee Table Learning Station

homemade table magnet learning station

Magnet Station at the Little Homemade Table

Play-Doh Station at a Little Homemade Table

Play-Doh Station at the Little Homemade Table

Write On Wipe Off Station at the Little Table

Write On Wipe Off Station at the Little Table

toddler pouring water using little fancy cups

Indoor Water Pouring Station

toddler stacking at a coffee table learning station

Ophelia Stacking Letters at a Coffee Table Learning Station

4. Tips for Creating Learning Stations

When I create learning stations around the house, I want them to be interactive, fun, engaging, and have some element of learning. The simplest learning station might be some ABC games on a coffee table, and a more complex learning station might be a box with dry beans, cups, and shovels for some fine motor skill work. I like to place small chairs or stools next to the table so that the children can sit if they’d like. I find that my older children like to sit and the younger one likes to stand. When she stands, it’s just the right height!

toddler standing and Coloring at a Little Coffee Table Learning Station

Ophelia is Standing and Coloring at this Little Coffee Table Learning Station

child Sitting and Writing at a Little Coffee Table Learning Station

Ruby is Sitting and Writing at this Little Coffee Table Learning Station

Some other things the kids have enjoyed as a learning station are puzzles, stacking cups, markers and coloring books, dry erase boards and markers, board games, themed books, and more. To help me organize materials for these stations, I save our Amazon boxes and label them with white stickers. Basically, anything I have a lot of can become a station. For example, we collect all birthday, Christmas, and any other type of cards we get in the mail and save them in a little box called “Cards”. The kids love reading through them all.

5. Create Stations on the Floor That Facilitate Imaginative Play

Right now, all of our children are five and under, so they all pretty much can enjoy the same toys. One of their favorite things to do is to play with little houses and figurines. These are things I have picked up at garage sales and thrift stores over the years. They love using their imaginations to bring their characters to life and have them interact in these different scenarios. At times, I play with them to give them some ideas for what their characters could do, but this is something where their imaginations take over and they could play alone or with each other for hours. I like to organize the different baskets of characters that we have a lot of and keep them in different rooms. So for example, you’ll find baskets of dinosaurs, My Little Ponies, and big robots separate from the rest.

Little Bins of Toys Neatly Organized in Every Room

Little Bins of Toys Neatly Organized in Every Room

child playing with little figures and a batman house

Imaginative Play with a Housing Type Structure

Play Area with a Dollhouse and Little Figures

Play Area with a Dollhouse and Little Figures

road rug defines play space with bin of cars, train tracks, and little reading chair and books

A Road Rug Defines this Play Space

Our Living Room has a Little Toy Area in Front of the Fireplace

Our Living Room has a Little Toy Area in Front of the Fireplace

treehouse used for imaginative play

This Type of Housing Structure is Perfect for Imaginative Play

little toy figures used in imaginative play

A Bin of Little Figure Toys Perfect for Imaginative Play

6. Create a Dress Up Station for Role Playing

I also like to use closet spaces for stations as well. The kids LOVE our dress up station. I am always hitting up thrift stores around Halloween to get the best costumes for our collection. I’ve also found some pretty good garage sales that were getting rid of a lot of costumes for $1 each. The kids especially love this little nook in this closest where I’ve hung all of our hats. Being able to display things attractively makes them that much more fun to play with!

hats hanging on a wall in the corner of a closet for dress up

Little Hat Station Tucked in the Corner of a Closet

dress up costumes for a boy

Superhero Dress Up Clothes

7. Tips for Organizing Toys

Rather than having one big room for all of the toys, I like to spread them around the house. In doing so, part of each room is designated for both adults and children, and we can all enjoy ourselves no matter where we are! This also really helps with cleaning because I can get the kids distracted by a project in another room while I clean up the mess from the room they were just in! I very rarely buy anything new. I’m always looking for good baskets at thrift stores and garage sales to organize things and many things simply get housed in old Amazon boxes! When getting baskets for toys, make sure they are low. Kids only like to play with the toys they can see.

If things are buried, they will not get played with. Every toy has a home. I arrange all of the little houses and figurines in sets and keep them together. This requires a little sorting from time to time as things tend to migrate from room to room, but it is worth it.

little bin to organize little figure toys

Little Figures Organized in a Bin

baby toys organized in a box

Baby Toys Organized in a Box

8. Create Comfortable Reading Stations

Yes, we have a bookshelf, but it’s basically a storehouse for books. The baskets of books that I strategically place around the house are what actually gets used on a regular basis. I like to set up little chairs and baskets of books around the house to encourage reading at any given moment. I also like to put books by any beds in the house and near any couches. Whenever you sit down and get comfortable, it would just be the worst if you didn’t have something to read! I like to go through all of our books on a semi regular basis. This is a time when I can repair damaged books, re-shelf books that aren’t being read, arrange the books so they all neatly fit in the baskets with the covers facing out, and organize the books based on where the baskets are and who is reading them. (Check out my blogs How to Raise Children Who WANT to Read and How Children Really Learn to Read for more information about teaching children how to read. Also, check out my blog Oral Language Development…More Important Than You Think for some ideas about helping your child with one of the biggest precursors to reading.)

books being sorted into different baskets for kids to read

Reorganizing Kid Books into Various Baskets

little couch and table with map placemats in the living room with basket of books nearby

This Little Couch Gets a Lot of Use

toddler sitting in a chair and independently reading from a basket of books

Accessible Books get Read Independently

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Reading Before Bed is a Special Nightly Routine

These little chairs and basket of books make an instant reading station anywhere.

Little Chairs and a Basket of Books

9. Use Your Walls

It’s more than just slapping a poster on the wall, it’s about creating a space on the wall where kids can interact and learn. I am constantly rearranging my wall space based on what they kids are interested in and what they interact with. If I have an ABC poster on the wall, and I never see anyone using it to say the ABCs, I will move it to a better location or change it out with something else. Sometimes, kids need to see what it looks like to interact with the walls and so I’ll sit down with them from time to time and we’ll look at things together.

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Letter Magnets on the Fridge get Used all the Time

Flashcards Taped on the Dresser and the Wall

Flashcards Taped on the Dresser and the Wall

hand made alphabet poster on the refrigerator

Using Chart Paper to Make My Own Posters

10. Rearrange As Needed

It’s not about getting the perfect set up and leaving it that way indefinitely, it’s about keeping things fresh, new, and engaging. When I see that an area or a station isn’t getting used anymore, I’ll rearrange it with something new. Sometimes just seeing things in a new configuration can be exciting. Especially during these long winter months, I know that I need to keep this indoor environment as exciting as possible. Every few weeks or so I like to find something to rearrange. It could be something simple like changing a learning station or moving some toys around, or it could be something drastic like moving the furniture from one room to another.

11. Why I Don’t Believe in “Playrooms”

I know that it can seem tempting to designate one room in the house as a “play room”, a place to keep all of the children’s things, a place where the door can be shut on the mess and hidden out of sight from company, and a place where the kids can go to create a mess. But there are several reasons why I disagree with this concept. First of all, part of creating an environment that stimulates learning is that I don’t need to be right there by my children’s sides as they play, learn, discover, and grow. But even though I don’t need to interact with them every single second, I like to be close by so that I can be there to give a gentle nudge when needed. I may need to solve a disagreement between siblings, help a child who is frustrated with a certain activity, be there at an opportune teachable moment to provide guidance, or assess what they are capable of doing independently as I think of new learning stations.

All Together in One Room

All Together in One Room

Having a playroom that is segregated from the other areas of the house may encourage you to be separated from your children more than you’d think. As much as it would be nice to just stay in the playroom and be with your children giving them your complete and undivided attention, I’m sure you’ve got stuff to do! As a busy momma with clothes to fold, dishes to do, a blog to write, and more stations to organize and create, I like to be near my children as they play, learn and discover while also tending to the things that I need to do. I love it when I can multitask by folding clothes while checking in on my toddler at her water station, putting the dishes away while helping my four year old with his Starfall game, and spelling words for my five year old as she writes a mini book while I prepare dinner. In addition, it’s not good for kids to hover over them constantly while they play. In order to learn how to be independent, they need to have independence in a guided situation.

In Conclusion

By creating an environment that stimulates learning and creative play, you will always have things to do at the drop of a hat. The other day, my oldest daughter’s school was suddenly canceled due to the weather. She had a blast staying at home going from one learning station to the next. It was so easy for me to keep her, my four year old, and my toddler all busy and engaged with different activities while I tended to the baby, prepared food, cleaned up, and guided each child along with their activities. To be honest, I was surprised at how much I got done and how engaged they were throughout the day. Putting in the time to create all of these learning and play stations really makes everything very manageable. With a little planning, a keen eye at garage sales and thrift stores, and some time set aside for organization, you’ll have your own independent learning and play stations ready to go, and you’ll be so glad you did!

Click here to read my blog about the importance of creative and imaginative play, and here to read my blog about Tools of the Mind, which is a preschool and kindergarten program that centers on play.

*Click here to see a video tour of our house. I’m always rearranging and changing things around, but you’ll notice all of the little play areas set up throughout the house.