Tuesday, February 23, 2010

How to be a total drag

Let me just start by admitting this: I have been a total grump all day for no good reason at all. Just woke up on the wrong side of the bed, I guess, and we have run out of decent coffee. Despite our best efforts, we all have cabin fever, I'm stressed about some work stuff, and the kids are a little, shall we say, tired of each other. So it's been a rough day over here. Perfect day to be outside, running off the extra energy, breathing some fresh air, right?

After spending the entire day putting off the kids' constant requests to go outside (I was busy trying to get work and projects done around the house, and stay on top of some work-related email)-I finally relented just before dinnertime.

The kids gleefully pulled on their snowpants, boots, hats, mittens, scarves, etc, while I got the dog hooked up with her leash and "gentle leader" and pulled on my own boots.

Bringing along a huge dog who has been cooped up and is also tired of staring at the inside of the house. Not a brilliant choice, given my mood.

We trudged outside and I tried-I really did-to bump up my own mood a bit. The kids were pushing their strollers around on the sidewalk and laughing as the dog pushed her face into snowpile after snowpile. I managed a half-hearted smile, despite being totally annoyed at the dog, who is way too big and lively for my liking these days. The kids trotted along, singing, while Nina yanked me around on the icy sidewalks. I didn't fall but merely had my leg and shoulder ripped from their respective sockets when some guy with a Wheaten Terrier walked by and Nina went completely nuts.

After that graceful incident, we approached a huge snowbank. I mean huge. This is the pile of snow that's been plowed out of our neighboring parking lot all winter long. It's probably a story and a half high.

L set her stroller aside and started to size it up.

Me: "No, don't go up there right now. This isn't a snowbank climbing expedition. This is a walk. Now let's walk." (Feel free to insert your own impression of my crabby, irritated, whining voice.)

After hemming and hawing a little bit she finally gave in. We walked a little bit further.

"I know!" She yelled. "Let's just run around this parking lot for a while! That would be fun!" and so the children proceeded to ditch the strollers and run in circles in a parking lot.

I don't know what I did at this point, I probably let out an enormous sigh and rolled my eyes. (I know! What's wrong with me?!)

I grumbled and grouched for a while and then finally hit the wall when they found a shin-deep puddle of near-frozen water and started jumping into it, then sat down in it.

Most days, I would be fine with this. Might even encourage it. But today? Oh, Lordy, not today.

So where did I go wrong? I was thinking about this while making our dinner tonight (which by the way was also uninspired and underwhelming.) I talk with folks all the time about barriers to enjoying the outdoors with kids, and I think hit a pretty good number of them today. (Barriers, not people.)

I wasn't in the mood, first and foremost. But this one can go either way. Sometimes you have to get outside and start breathing the fresh air before you get in the mood. On rare occasions, even that has no effect. I did try to "suck it up" for the kids' sake, who were so hungry for the outdoors today. But I just couldn't seem to do it.

Next: waiting until the end of the day? Come on. Anyone with kids out there knows that the dinner hour is a tough one for everyone concerned. Meanwhile I was stressed about housework, and work work and what I was going to make for dinner and trying not to get pulled over by the dog. Sometimes it's just hard to let go of that stuff. None of these things felt so large or important this morning, when I was fresh, well-fed, and ready for a day of fun. Wish I had seized the moment earlier, when we were all in good moods.

Finally, I was cold. I had neglected to put on a hat, or mittens, or snowpants. I was wearing thin cotton pants and a coat. It wasn't brutal outside today, but the weather still warrants a fair bit of gear if you're going to be comfortable outside.

And here's the worst part: personally dragging my childrens' mood from elated to grumpy, in about ten minutes flat. Really, I had no idea how bossy and un-fun I can be! Sheesh.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Loose Parts

Rocks. Sticks. Leaves.

Who would have thought these items would one day acheive near-celebrity status in the toy world?

There is a growing appreciation among early childhood educators that so-called "open-ended" toys, or "loose parts" (that is, things with no designated role or purpose, objects that can easily be adapted to be any sort of plaything your child imagines) are good for the brain and good for children's play. They are said to help foster creativity, collaboration with others, and sensory awareness. They allow children opportunities to discover and master their environment (by naming things and then assigning them roles)


Child development geeks would call this "naming and mastering their environment;" L and J would call it "making a choo-choo train"

Any toy with no pre-assigned "job" is considered a "loose part"--blocks, stuff from nature, buttons, you get the idea. Things like rubber bugs, cars, and games would not be considered "open-ended" or "loose parts" because these toys were developed to have one specific role in child's play, therefore they tend to be used by children in only one way. (i.e as a bug, a car, or a game) Make sense?

I completely agree: my own children tend to assign a huge variety of roles to their rocks, pinecones, or blocks. The cars tend to always have the role of cars. The trains have never been anything but trains.

I have yet to see a bag of pinecones for sale at the huge toy store (though they are available online) but many child care settings and preschools are beginning to embrace this notion about loose parts. Teachers are replacing the molded plastic toys in their sensory tables with items from nature. Open-ended toys are brought out during free play time instead of toys with pre-determined roles.

Parents can encourage play with open-ended toys by simply making them more accessible in the home. Put the blocks and the nature objects in a prominent place, and make the "programmed" toys a bit harder to get at. When you're outside, think about what's available to you now. Snow is the ultimate "loose part" --what about icicles, snowballs, or branches?

What are your child's favorite open-ended toys? Tell me about a special way they have been used...

Monday, February 8, 2010

We interrupt your daily schedule to bring you....

This afternoon, in the midst of another days-long snowstorm, as the snow was just pouring out of the sky, we set out on our afternoon's destinations: a few errands, then dance class. As soon as we stepped outside, though, we all stopped in our tracks.

"Ooooh!" they both roared, in unison. The kids stood in the snow and leaned their heads waaay back to feel those huge snowflakes falling on their faces. I overheard L tell a tentative J "It's OK to get some on your tongue, try it." Silently, they marveled as the flakes fell. Just then, I knew the day was too good to miss. Dance class? It'll happen again next week. Groceries? I was sure we could scrounge something up for dinner. The library? Well, the books are already overdue, what's one more day?

Then we spent a lovely two hours digging snow caves, sliding on snowdrifts, rolling in the snow, eating the snow, and even shoveling a little bit of snow. It was utterly enchanting.

Are you ever able to supersede your "regularly scheduled routine" in favor of outdoor play? It can be difficult, and so many of us are frankly tired of the winter by now, it's not always easy to muster up the enthusiasm to go sledding again. But when you have some extra-special weather to deal with, like today, this monster snowstorm with huge, fat flakes? Can you let yourself -and your kids-just drop the routine and play? When you get a huge rainstorm, sheets and sheets of rain, can you just skip the chores or the usual stuff and go outside and savor it? Or on that first, exploding, gorgeous day when it finally feels like spring, can you forget about your errands and your housework and your appointments and just let the day take over?

If not now, when?

Saturday, February 6, 2010


This weekend I'm attending a conference for Lutheran Early Childhood Educators--so many of whom are interested in, committed to, and inspired by nature education. I attended a presentation all about Play--the value of it, and how we as educators and parents have a responsibility to preserve kids outdoor play.

The folks at this conference are sharing ideas and resources about how to increase kids' exposure to the outdoors-doing everything from Butterfly Rearing Projects to landscaping and everything in between.

This is so exciting to me, to see this momentum and enthusiasm in the field of early childhood education. Most of these teachers are open-minded and willing to try new things, and this is different than the climate I experienced, say, 5 years ago.

Used to be that there was a lot of convincing necessary to get educators "on board" with the need for nature and outdoor play. No more. People are starting to "get it." They are willing to try to make nature a part of their setting, their surroundings, and their schedules.

I applaud educators who believe in the benefits of nature for children. Parents too-those who continue to ensure that children (your own, others) have access to and time in the outdoors. It really does make a difference! Thank you, thank you, thank you.