A Frog and a Snail; Playing at Lauko Darželis

There had been a torrential downpour earlier in the morning. Unnur and Martin had spent the morning at Vingio Parkas while Zilvinas and Kierna waited for my late flight from Frankfurt. Their rain gear was thoroughly saturated, draped in still dripping stacks in the back of the car. The trees, the tents, the ropes, the clothes draped along a line — everything — were thrown into bright and contrasting shades as the sun’s light broke through the branches and along the brick wall that bordered the back of the camp.

Rain, once passed, softens the earth’s sights and sounds. It weeds out the extra and unnecessary. You can get right to the essentials. The first thing you notice as you walk down the path to Lauko Darželis’ summer camp’s location at the park are these rain-slicked, tiny frogs. So tiny, I thought they were crickets or perhaps even spiders skittering across the ground. And then I saw the snails, sidling along with great shells on their backs! Both were everywhere!

Walking past the rough hewn sign marking the entrance of the forest camp, you begin hearing voices, and the familiar cadence of play, and then you see the children, wandering, quickly ducking down to then cradle one or more of these tiny frogs in their hands.

  A tiny frog is cradled just so.

A tiny frog is cradled just so.

The first photo I took was of one of these frogs held in a child’s hands. I paused and showed him the photo I took, and then I set out to find other stuff, not wanting to invade his space too much with our grand all-adult entrance to the quiet of the camp. So I turned, and as all early childhood educators will (tell me that you don’t!) I looked for evidence of play. This is how we talk with children, not through words, but through the quiet and even loud volleys of the universal language of play. And so I found my second photo of an arrangement of empty and painted snail shells.

  Unnur’s play with snail shells.

Unnur’s play with snail shells.

Now the funny part about that is that later I learned that it was Unnur who had made this snail shell collection earlier in the day. It was funny, but also simply proves the point. We talk, we listen, we share, and we connect through this universal language of play.

We walk alongside children with our play. It is like dropping breadcrumbs and sometimes making the decision to change out breadcrumbs for pebbles, shells, sticks, or in this case, Unnur set out snail shells. “Look,” this invitation tells us, “Follow this trail to where it will lead!” The magic happens once the adult walks away and the child sets him or herself alone or with other children on the journey.

And so it was that I found myself amongst like minds as we each dropped breadcrumbs along the way for children. In the photos above, I began a fairy house at the edge of a path, turning it over to the children to finish. They used moss covered bark found earlier along the trail to provide both roof and floor. Surely the loveliest of fairy houses ever! Or at least until the next one is built.

And again to prove the point, we all knew the syllables and cadence of the language shared and so another instance happened when I spied this plastic box with holes.. I found it interesting (as in I wanted it) and took a photo. But then Unnur, saw it later and immediately began a conversation with it using sticks. She collected twigs and larger sticks and began experimenting with placing them porcupine-quill-like from the holes. Aha, she signaled in the language of play and quick as a wink, children gathered to help her solve the problem of twigs in holes. A game of seek and find, test and experiment that naturally evolved using only the language of play.

  This plastic thing says a lot in the language of play. Just look!

This plastic thing says a lot in the language of play. Just look!

While this expression of play can be shaped simply by movement and signals, sometimes a carefully placed spoken word is all that is needed. A question that sparks an idea. It becomes the diamond in the trail of breadcrumbs.  The team worked together to build a den using a metal stand at the Kaunus site. We wove branches and plants around the wrought iron, creating walls and roof. The children watched at first, but soon realized that they knew this story and knew it well. One of the children began arranging the furniture of stumps and boards and dragging in soup pots and cooking ingredients to make that house a home. Another imitated our weaving technique to add plant stalks to a wall.

Meanwhile, one of the children held fast to a set of keys as he padded around us and through the pathways in the trees. As many of you know, keys are always and forever a magical word in the language of play. What is a wardrobe without the key to unlock it? Unnur, through Irena, asked one of the children if he thought his key would unlock the (non-existant, but still very real) door to the den we had been working on. Well then, now an actual door was obviously in order with a lock that only he had the key for! He began dragging sticks over to make a door and announced loudly that he held the key! Everywhere you go, children will find ways to add and adhere to the idea of entry. “Enter here!” they will tell you, “This is the way to the play! But you must have a key or a word or none shall pass!”

  The team (Martin, Unnur, Kierna, Irena, and myself) worked to build a den using a metal frame that was onsite at the Kaunus location. We knew we could walk away when one of the children constructed a door that only his key would unlock.

The team (Martin, Unnur, Kierna, Irena, and myself) worked to build a den using a metal frame that was onsite at the Kaunus location. We knew we could walk away when one of the children constructed a door that only his key would unlock.

The same kind of thing happened again as Martin wrangled the sleeping shelter into place at the Kaunus site. The children trailed behind us tying ropes in a perfect imitation of what they observed us doing and of course one needed to learn how to saw away the branches and Irena, their teacher, obliged and taught him how. And in this way, we were all talking with the same words and sharing the same message. No barriers using the language of play.

Note: Interestingly, as this post was brewing in my head, Kierna wrote and published a post herself <click here> about this very thing! Please visit her take on how humans find connections through the language of play.