What Will They Play With If There Are No Toys?

By Erin Kenny ©2017

At Cedarsong’s Forest Kindergarten there are no store-bought toys or fancy playground equipment to entertain the children during their four-hour nature immersion time. Instead, these children use their imagination to create toys from any number of forest found objects. The Cedarsong children’s creativity is enhanced as they use their imagination to make a fir cone doll, a tree branch broom, a stick lock and key and a rock hammer. Besides the natural objects available to the forest kindergarten kids, we supply a very few store-bought items to enhance the learning opportunities.

There is nothing in our forest that can carry large loads of water so we provide buckets and shovels to support kids engaging in water and dirt/mud play. There are rich experiential lessons in natural science contained in this type of activity as well as lots of opportunity to improve physical balance and coordination. One of the many fun science experiments we see children engage in is throwing various textures of mud at the closest tree to see which texture sticks to the bark best. We also provide baking pans, mixing bowls and other utensils to support the mud kitchen where elaborate concoctions of pies, cupcakes and soups emerge from.

To support extending the learning in science discoveries, we set out binoculars and magnifying glasses that the kids are welcome to use when they want. We ask that they be responsible for returning the items to the table when they are done. When children excitedly call out a nature find, Cedarsong teachers will reflect back that excitement and hurry over to join in while offering to share a magnifying glass. At this point, our teachers may start asking some open-ended questions about the discovery in our inquiry-based teaching style while encouraging children to also experience with all their senses, not just their eyes.

At our fire circle we set out chunky colored chalk and paintbrushes in a bowl. We originally provided chalk so children who might be sensitive to touch could explore texture. We have also found it helpful to provide familiar items for children who are still uncomfortable in the forest or being away from their parents. The children often use the chalk to make their own facepaint, to explore the varying textures of the native trees, to decorate the forest and to highlight the exposed roots. The kids enjoy dipping the paintbrushes in water and experimenting with cross strokes.

We set out a bucket of instruments so the kids can choose to make music if they want, although many times we make music without those props by banging sticks on logs or by striking rocks together. We quite often break out in song during the day, singing one of our many original Cedarsong songs without any instruments at all. It’s kind of like how we engage in story telling without books or pre-set ideas or teacher direction. Our songs are the Cedarsong stories too.

Once in a while we offer the Cedarsong forest kindergarten children small containers of bubble liquid and, in the spirit of creation rather than destruction, we encourage children to try to catch the bubbles rather than run around breaking them. Through experimentation the kids have learned that bubbles stick to wet surfaces much more readily. This simple activity contains lessons in the viscosity of water as well as wind and gravity. It also improves focus and hand-eye coordination.

One of the ways children enjoy engaging in nature is by creating nature art. These are usually spontaneous expressions with a specific purpose like a fairy house, or a prop to support imagination play or simply a design made out of forest-found objects. In order to bring children’s awareness to the plants as living beings Cedarsong teachers encourage them to collect only objects that are already on the ground. We make sure children understand that many aspects of nature are alive and we have a responsibility to consider our impact on them.

The only time we collect live parts of a plant is when we are eating them or making forest tea. In those cases, we coach the children to first look underneath each leaf before picking to make sure no insect or spider is making its home there. As we pick those leaves, Cedarsong teachers make sure to model thanking the plant for the gift.

Providing rich learning experiences for children is possible without store-bought toys, expensive science equipment and rigid lesson plans. The less pre-made props available to young children, the more their imagination and creativity is enhanced. These are two of the qualities of forward thinkers, inventors and tinkerers, and in fact, creativity is one of the top three job skills predicted to be needed most in 2020 according to a recent World Economic Forum report. So start taking away some of those toys and head outdoors with a bucket and shovel and no agenda to see what magic ensues.

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