Trying New Things

You are worried about seeing him spend his early years in doing nothing.  What!  Is it nothing to be happy?  Nothing to skip, play, and run around all day long?  Never in his life will he be so busy again.  ~Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile, 1762

Creative play is like a spring that bubbles up from deep within a child.  ~Joan Almon

I am big on art. I love looking at it, love seeing children do it, and love giving them the opportunity to experiment with different kinds of art-like utensils and sensory materials. This week I decided to introduce Ellie to a few different childhood “art and sensory” staples: markers, chalk, and play dough. I think that it is important to expose young children to new things; it gives them the opportunity to explore and create and work through the process of how things work and what can be done with them. Without showing them, they can figure out so many ways to use things. It is truly quite fascinating to watch.

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First we experimented with markers. I let her use them on her cardboard box she has been trying to fit herself into for days (she is definitely trying to figure out how she fits into her environment). She thought that was pretty cool and spent nearly twenty minutes carefully making her scribbles and swirls all over the box. When she was finished with one color she would hand it to me and seemingly thoughtfully select her next color. Markers are a lot different than crayons. They are smoother, faster to mark the coloring surface, and make such bright colors. Ellie seemed to really enjoy this new art utensil. Before dinner she pointed to the basked containing her art materials, so I got them down and she sat with her Daddy coloring while dinner finished cooking. She even put the caps back on some of her markers!

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Even though she got it all over her clothes, face, and counter (washable markers are amazing by the way) and cleaning it all up was not exactly what I wanted to be doing right before dinner I would let her use markers again and again if she wanted. They are so much fun! Even though they may seem to ordinary, such a simple part of life to me…to her they are an exciting new adventure! A new thing to explore and experiment with! Scribbling on paper and cardboard boxes may seem like nothing to some, but to children it is their work. Learning through playing is essential in the lives of children.

Next I introduced Ellie to chalk. I personally cannot stand the feel of chalk and tend to avoid it, but I thought it would be the perfect thing for Ellie to use outside, since she adores playing outdoors. So, once the rain let up and the driveway dried off we grabbed our new box of chalk and went outside. First I have to say that chalk has evolved since I was a child. It is no longer a simple cylindrical colored shape, now it is fancifully shaped like a crayon. I do like the new improvement though; it makes very nice lines. In a short time I had a lovely array of  bright patches of color all over my driveway. It didn’t take her long to figure out what to do, that’s for sure!

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Will some consider this nothing too? Probably, but to Ellie it is everything. New things, new experiences, busyness and learning, getting to know the world around you and how you can influence and interact with the things in the world…this is being a child. When she was satisfied with her creativity on the driveway she tried the chalk out on her shopping cart. Now I know that chalk doesn’t work so well on plastic shopping carts and that it usually is not a good idea to allow children to chalk up whatever they want, but I am a big believer in natural consequences, so I decided to let Ellie figure this one out on her own. She tried to use the chalk on the shopping cart, but when it was’t working well she quickly abandoned the idea and went back to working on the driveway. The beginnings of the understanding of the properties of different materials happened right there in that short interaction between Ellie, the chalk and the shopping cart. Do you see it now? A child’s play is far from being nothing…it is everything. It is how they learn. It is what they do; and never again in their lives will they engage in so much creative interaction and experimentation.

After the successful and fun introduction to markers and chalk I was dying to try out play dough. So many of my childhood memories involve play dough, and I was eager to share this experience with my Ellie. I got my chance one rainy morning this week. It couldn’t have been more fun! After her morning snack I got out all of the ingredients needed along with the measuring utensils, and since modeling language for children is incredibly important you can bet that I was telling Ellie exactly what I was doing as I did it. I thought afterward that perhaps next time I should close the kitchen window so that my neighbor doesn’t hear me talking to myself and begins to think that I’m a raving lunatic. Oh well, anything for the children!

I started telling Ellie about what a recipe is and how we should follow it. Then I explained measuring. I gave her the pot and a spoon and she immediately put the spoon in the pot and began to stir, looking disappointing when she discovered there was nothing in the pot. I had no idea that she would know what do to with a spoon and a pot! I guess she learns more from watching me than I know. Then I placed the measuring cup of flour near the pot and she surprised me again by carefully dumping the flour into the pot. Wow! I mean, I knew that children learn from behavior that is modeled to them, but I always applied it to some complicated psychological perspective of  learning modeled aggression, classical conditioning, or the like. Sometimes those bricks hit me really hard on the head and I wonder  how I failed to see the obvious enormous truth that was right behind the entire theory of learning behavior…you can learn ANY behavior. Even the small mundane ones. It’s moments like these that I wonder how I have managed to maintain the 4.0 I am so devoted to.

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Anyways, it was now quite obvious to me that Ellie basically know the basics of cooking, so I let her get more involved than I had first intended. She measured with teaspoons and measuring cups, carefully dumping each new ingredient into the pan and then stirring it. The whole time her little brow was furrowed intently while her eyes twinkled with excitement and interest. I never would have imagined that my one year old would be so helpful in making play dough. She never ceases to amaze me. But, children know what they are capable of and she didn’t hesitate to show me.

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After I let her choose which color of food coloring that she wanted we transferred the pan from the counter to the stove. She watched me from the step stool as I stirred the mixture on the stove top. Shortly, the play dough thickened and we set it to cool. Once it cooled it was back to the counter and I was scrambling around trying to find play dough toys. Of course, I have none. But thankfully I have my vast preschool-teacher inventiveness and I remembered that usually children are more interested in things that aren’t necessarily meant to be toys and that expensive play dough brand toys are not needed. So I cut up some straws, found a few plastic toys and some cookie cutters and gave them to Ellie.

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It didn’t take her long to dive right in and begin experimenting with this new (and apparently interestingly scented, judging by all of the sniffing Ellie did) and exciting material. She didn’t even eat it! I was quite surprised by that. After about fifteen minutes of playing with the dough she tired of it and helped me pick it all up. Now, what can a one year old learn from fifteen minutes of poking and prodding salty smelling dough? Nothing, right? Though I cannot say for sure just what she learned, sometimes the outcome of the activity is not nearly as important as the process of engaging in the activity. This is just another example of that important truth. And while it may seem like nothing to the adult eye, it is everything in the eye of the child. Encourage adventure. Try new things.