Questions About Real Play

It was a cold afternoon, and after being outside all I could think about was wrapping my hands around a warm cup of tea.  I put the kettle on, and suggested the kids set up their own tea party for afternoon tea too.

They brought their “kids” along (a baby and a bear), then set the table with a tablecloth and our Plan Toys wooden tea set.  The three of us enjoyed the role play as we made tea, fed the “kids” and helped ourselves to seconds. Such fun.

I left the real kids to it while I made myself a much needed real cuppa.  As I wrapped my cold fingers around the steaming cup, my teacher-mama brain wandered.  What would happen if I let the kids have real tea too? Would real tea enhance their play? Would it still be play if the teacups were filled with real tea?  Is it ok for the lines between real life and play to blur? When is play no longer play?  What IS play, anyway?

I whipped up some fairy bread* and poured two luke-warm cups of tea into little espresso cups.  Mr 2 ate the bread but wasn’t at all interested in the real tea.  He much preferred the freedom of the wooden cups – unconstrained by worries about spilling the liquid, exploring a new taste, or testing the temperature.  Pretend tea in pretend cups is very well behaved!  Miss 5, however, responded quite differently.  She sat straighter. Held her cup carefully. Sipped cautiously.  Made small talk.  Re-enacted the behaviour and conversation she has seen and heard while out at coffee shops with me.  Adding real tea took her play to a new level.

Was it still play? Maybe she was playing for real?  Or was she just really playing?

I don’t need answers to any of these questions.  Sometimes asking them is the important part. If as a mother and an educator I stop asking myself questions, then I have fooled myself into thinking I know all there is to know about the way children play, think and learn.

* For my overseas readers: Fairy Bread is a children’s party favourite here in Australia. It is simply a piece of buttered bread with hundreds-and-thousands sprinkled on top, and cut into triangles :-)

Backyard Lifecycles

We {heart} our nature cubby.  Not only does the leafy roof provide shade for the dirt kitchen, but it also provides a home for many garden creatures.  The plant is a Monkey Rope Vine (Parsonsia straminea).  Monkey Rope is common around Brisbane, and it is an interesting (and fast growing) vine thanks to its adventitious roots.  These are roots which come out of the branches and stems of a plant.  Monkey Rope is also one of the host plants of the Common Australian Crow (Euploea core) butterfly. Continue reading

Fantastic Fungus

This summer has been so damp here in Brisbane, and while the resulting mould inside the house is NOT fun, the fungi growing outside has been amazing!

The great thing about having multiple species in one area is that the kids have been able to compare them.  We’ve been able to talk about

  • colour
  • size
  • shape
  • smell

and identify similarities and differences.  We haven’t touched the fungi in our yard.  Many species are harmless, and most are only problematic if eaten, but I cannot guarantee that a 2yr old (or even a nature loving 4yr old) will keep hands away from little eyes and mouths.  I am particularly cautious with red and yellow species as these are often “danger” colours in the Australian bush.

My blogging friend and educator Juliet from Creative Star Learning in the UK has some thoughts on children and fungi, and whether or not kids should be encouraged to touch. Please note that her recommendations are for Scotland though and NOT for Australia.

Without doubt though, the best species we have had in our yard is this one below.  It is definitely from the Stinkhorn family (Phallaceae or Dictyophora of some kind I’m guessing).  Stinkhorns grow from a button just below the surface, and stink like rotting meat when they emerge!  Miss 4 can tell if one is around the second we walk outside.  Flies and other insects are attracted to the stinky slime and swarm around.  They aren’t small, yet seem to pop up over night. Absolutely fascinating.

What do you think about investigating fungi with kids? Does the idea interest you, or disgust you? Would you have called this post Fantastic Fungus, or Freaky Fungi?!!

Patisserie Play

The whole thing came about with a simple conversation.  Miss 4 shouted from the dirt kitchen “Mummy! Come and buy a cake from my bakery.”  I headed up to the nature cubby and placed my order…

Mum: Mmm, those cupcakes look delicious. I’ll have two of those please, and can I have a loaf of bread?

Miss 4:  Sorry, we don’t sell any bread here.

Mum: Oh? I thought this was a bakery?

Miss 4: It’s a bakery that only sells cakes.

Mum: I see. So you are a baker at a patisserie then.

Miss 4: What’s a pa-sister-y?

Mum: Patisserie. A patisserie is shop where they sell lovely cakes and pastries and little treats.

Miss 4: Oooh, this is sure a patisserie. Can we make a real patisserie one day?

Mum: That’s an awesome idea!

So we did.

I wholeheartedly believe that there is no need to force learning at home. Play is the most natural way for a child to learn! Just look at how much we covered during a child-initiated game with NO pre-planning on my part. Literacy, numeracy, life skills and more. Anything we used was already around the house or in the pantry.

Two Year Old

  • Independently select colour of icing
  • Stir food colouring into icing with some assistance
  • Independently decorate cupcakes choosing from 3 options (sprinkles, tiny bears, mini marshmallows)
  • Develop skills in self control (not eating each cupcake when it was finished was very challenging for him!)
  • Role play as a shop keeper, copying actions and language of big sister
  • Exchange a cupcake for coins
  • Count to three

Four Year Old:

  • Independently ice cupcakes using a piping bag (!!) and decorate
  • Independently write signs necessary for the shop (Patisserie, Open, Shut)
  • Set up the shop using our playstand
  • Decide on the price of cupcakes
  • Count coins
  • Perform simple addition with support (one pink cupcake plus one green cupcake)
  • Role play incorporating appropriate language (serve, order, change, customer), new vocabulary (patisserie) and social conventions (welcome, smile, polite questioning, good-bye with invitation to come again)
  • Wash the dishes after the game

PLEASE don’t think, “Ooh – we must play patisserie at home this week!”  I didn’t choose this play. My children did. I encourage you to instead look for an opportunity to extend your children’s play further, based on whatever they are naturally doing.

Children's Drawings

Children’s drawings are

sometimes predictable

sometimes remarkable

sometimes lovable

sometimes laughable.

Drawings can reveal

what they think

what they feel

what they imagine

what they fear.

Drawings can reflect understanding of

little things

big things


and nothings.

For me, this drawing on a scrap of paper encompasses much of the above.

Can you guess what it is??

I’ll update the post tomorrow to give you the answer…

*   *   *   *   *

Update: 21/1/11

This drawing has been an excellent reminder to me that children often understand more than we give them credit for, and see things from a more advanced perspective than we expect.  The sophistication of this picture by my 4 year old took me by surprise.  The drawing is a radar map showing the current rainfall and approaching storm conditions according to the Bureau of Meteorology.  If you look closely you can see two flowery stickers.  The smaller blue flower on the left is the marker for our home, and the larger flower sticker on the right marks the city.  The yellow colouring indicates light rain (and flooding), the pale blue indicates heavier rain (and flooding), and the orange and black section is the area of severe flooding around the CBD.  The dark blue on the right is a storm cell approaching.  The black circles are showing that there is hail in the storm.  (There were no storms at the time, but approaching storms are the most common reason we check the radar).

On top of all that, this drawing is competely purposeful.  Why did my daughter draw it?  Because my Dad was staying with us.  He couldn’t get home due to landslides on the road, and he had to drive from our place into the city during the flood crisis.  Miss 4 gave the map to her Pa to make sure he would be safe on his drive into the CBD.

As a teacher I often found that purpose driven, child initiated communications were by far the most impressive pieces my students produced.  As a mother I am finding exactly the same thing.

Outdoor Multi-Age Play

Thanks to a recent pupil-free day, my children had the opportunity to have a play date in our backyard with a group of kids of varying ages (from 2 – 12).  I encouraged them to make cubby houses, and gave them them access to the following materials:

  • one sheet
  • string
  • scissors
  • anything already in the backyard (rocks, sticks, bamboo, etc)

It was amazing to watch the kids interact.  The boys and girls naturally split into two “teams” and worked to make two separate cubbies.

The Girls

This cubby was built mainly by a 4 year old and 12 year old who worked together, sharing ideas and workload.  They identified “areas” in their cubby such as the storage area, entrance way, living area and even a toilet area!  They decorated their cubby with strips of palm leaves lashed to fabric which hung down over the entrance.  There was even a doorbell!  All over the cubby were labels either written on pieces of cardboard or directly onto rocks.  I especially loved the rocks at the front door (pictured above) welcoming visitors to the Girls’ Cubby House – with one rock scrawled in the emergent writing of a 4yr old and the other by a 12yr old’s hand.  Precious.

The Boys

The boys were brilliant at sourcing materials from their environment.  It was their idea to cut down some bamboo to use, so I showed them how to work the large secateurs safely and then let them chop down what they needed.  It was fantastic to see their careful and intelligent use of the tools.  They stripped the leaves from the bamboo, leaving sturdy sticks which they then used for structures in and around their cubby.  They lashed together a fence to identify the boundaries of their space, and built an impressive teepee shaped entrance way.  The entrance was marked by a bamboo arrow on the ground, and a circle of rocks sourced from the creek bed.

*  *  *  *  *

I was both challenged and encouraged by the differences between the girls’ and boys’ cubby houses.  Sometimes in my desire to give equal opportunities to both boys and girls, I neglect to celebrate the unique differences between them.  Watching these kids served as an excellent reminder.  But best of all, I just loved that for TWO WHOLE HOURS, seven children between the ages of 2 and 12 worked cooperatively, creatively, intelligently, safely, and with minimal adult interference – without a “toy” in sight.

Do your kids have the opportunity to play with children of varying ages?  And have you noticed differences in the ways boys and girls play outdoors?