Here are some bits and pieces to catch up new readers. We offer half day nursery school programs for three age groups. We are a parent cooperative. The school has been around for a long time! Over 75 years! There are a lot of strong threads woven through our practice and one of them is going outside. The other is that parent cooperative piece. We are creating a community and this community will, hopefully/purposefully, extend beyond our walls, beyond our garden.
We schedule in regular forest days in the older classes. The “forest” include public spaces-pockets of green around our neighborhood. The children walk to these spaces along busy streets. The walk can take at least 20 minutes, sometimes less and sometimes more.
The destinations, as so much of what childhood play is, are like whispered messages passed from one group of children to the next, from the adults to the children and the whispers say -loud and clear- you play here. We have the Blue House site — this is the first one that we have really cultivated and is located along Sligo Creek with landmarks the children named along the way. We have the Climbing Hill and that is a stretch of lawn and a hill at an office building’s parking lot. And a new location called Eagle Forest because the children found an abandoned flagstaff with an eagle on top.
p.s. that is a bonus of public space exploration. We find things. Sometimes these are things you don’t want to find so we spend some time at the beginning of each visit cleaning up the sites. Other times they are totally things you want to find. The children become finders. They discover. They claim. What a gift! The interesting thing is that the more time children spend in a space, the space becomes marked for children. It is as if everyone can read this evidence. The whispered messages say, “Play Here.” And this is what this post is about!
There are constant adjustments and systems checks to every endeavor . Nothing stays the same. Trees fall, plants grow, construction projects and humans invade, animals change their habitats and paths, children are always different. At the beginning of this year, we quickly assessed that the w-a-l-k-i-n-g was a terrible idea for our younger class. I learned very early on that if the getting “there” was a problem, the being “there” would not get lift off.
We had to make some adjustments. The first one was to start traveling light — we got rid of all the comforts and frills that the wagon gave us including shelter, bathroom/handwashing stations, hammocks, shovels, etc. We needed all the adults, we simply couldn’t get anywhere, anytime soon dragging all that and setting it up. I knew we didn’t need all that stuff. We only wanted it. But still, it was a shift.
As with so many accommodation-adjustments that are made for the sake of children, it was a shift for the better. It brings us back to the essentials. Time to take a moment and reflect . . .
Here is a tip — so easy to forget, but once remembered, keep it at the top of the list — play messages. These are whisper/shouts from children to children and adults to children that say, “Play!”
I remember how my mother taught me to make fairy houses at my grandparents’ house in Kentucky. Their yard had these perfect patches of moss under certain trees. Once you found the sticks you needed for the uprights, the moss would hold them in place. There were tiny stones to be found near the garden for pathways. Depending on the season, there were different flowers and leaves for roofing. While many play messages are communicated by children for other children, we cannot dismiss or discount the value of the adult in children’s play.
Once we began “traveling light",” the parents and I were able to fine tune our own practice and roles to help the children find and refine their ability to create play using whatever they could find on offer. This was so evident as the younger children found their special place at the Climbing Hill. Since this is a very public place, not a wild space at all, you would think that it would be hard to find the loose parts necessary to make play sing, but it isn’t and yet it did require the whispers of adult to child play messages to see them for these children.
Adults pass on knowledge — clover flower stalks make the best strings. The plantain leaves make perfect wrapping. On this day, the children learned to pick the clover at the base of the stalk in order to get the longest bit of “string.” They learned how to pick the plantain leaves also at the base in order to get the most from its ability to wrap. They learned that only the smallest and smoothest bits of gravel could be included in the package without tearing the plantain leaf.
This knowledge, once communicated, is now owned by the child. It will change how they interact with the outside and in a space where on the surface you could see nothing to play with, nothing to do.
We cannot dismiss the role of the adult in how children inherit, adopt, and adapt play. An adult can stop or hinder play, of course, but mostly they cultivate and communicate play. We can see this so clearly at the Climbing Hill. The first thing this space tells the children is CLIMB. Then it says, RUN. These messages are good and true. No worries. This message doesn’t appeal to all children equally. We teach children to look for the more hidden messages and to learn increase their vocabulary for play.
Later that day, the older children can walk farther and with more ease. We go to the Blue House Site with them. We held to the traveling light idea though for the whole year for both the classes. No shovels and only rope. The older children don’t even pull out the rope at the Blue House. We don’t even travel with the Blue House tarp anymore. This group of children don’t really know why this space is called “Blue House” but we do it anyway.
That site doesn’t have a stretch of lawn. It has other things, the play message sketched out earlier in the day continues though. Why? Because we find some of the same loose parts available here because of the season, including clover and wild strawberries. There aren’t any plantain though. We found tulip poplar and maple leaves instead adapting easily to fairy packages and letters.
Looking for a needle in a haystack!
Once we “discovered” these tulip poplar needles, we had to find more! Looking across the forest floor for these dagger-needles and then looking for the tiniest of twigs to serve as the thread that would hold all the letter pieces in place was the next thing to look for — this is not about keeping children busy and engaged, it is about teaching them and guiding them in becoming part of their environment and to give them new ideas for play.
We travel light to city and forest, but we aren’t really traveling light, are we? We bring our own play histories with us and we share these with the children. We help them find ingredients for potions, sticks for fairy houses, leaves for letters and packages. We gift them with story and imagination.
Our stories become woven in together with their stories and these are added to by the children they will share with and meet along their own journeys. In this way, our story will extend beyond our walls, beyond our garden. And it is made possible by whittling everything down to the essentials — what we do and how we share.