Monday, September 6, 2010

The Hansel and Gretel method! (Part 1)

 In an earlier post from this week I mentioned the idea of strewing as a way I use to expose my children to new and interesting things, and I thought it well worth another mention, since it is such an effective way of broadening your little ones' horisons, and for getting them interested in things they would otherwise have shown no interest in!

   Point in case: a client of mine stopped by last week to pick up some educational toys she had ordered for one of her children. We stood chatting a bit about educational toys and how to get children interested, and I shared with her my ideas about strewing, i.e. leaving things out for the child to discover on his own. I advised her to not make a big deal about the 'brand new educational toy that mommy has just bought for you to practice your pen grip'...but instead to not even tell the child about it at all. Instead, I suggested that she took the peg board set out the following day, and place just the peg board and some pegs out on a tray  where the child would easily see it. If he was curious enough, he would explore it on his own - the best way to learn!! Then, I said, it would be a good idea to put it away for a few days. Next time she takes it down, she should once again put it out on a tray, but this time, add two or three of the pattern cards that came with the set, again just leaving it out there for the child to explore when he is ready. I received an e-mail for her today to tell me how well it has worked!

  A lady by the name of Sandra Dodd is the author of the first article I ever read about strewing. I loved the idea of unforced, child-lead learning that it presented. Someone asked her to define strewing, and I share this snippet from her website, on "Strewing their paths":

What I was referring to was leaving things around and changing them out.

Some of our most successful items have been toys or objects for playing with (sometimes not purely a toy) like
pattern blocks
castle blocks
magnets (or some new magnet toy where something swings or moves)
a prism
odd little crafts things with some tactile element people will just HAVE to pick up and mess with (fuzzy, furry, slippery, gummy...)
printouts of good cartoons or little articles or humor lists (generally taped inside the bathroom or left on the counter there, or on the dining table)
new foods, snacky stuff, in a bowl, out
interesting rocks, rinsed, in a bowl, on the table

     It is important, though, to interject here and emphasise that this does not imply one has to cram every imaginable surface chock-a-block with activities or things for your child to 'discover'. In fact, a more minimalistic, but dynamic, approach seems much more effective. For example, many children have heaps of toys that are kept in a large bin or toybox in either their bedroom or the living room. And when the child is bored and disinterested, her parents cannot understand why: she has all these hordes of wonderful toys!! Ah, but how absolutely devoid of any opportunity for discovery and imagination is such a set-up. It does not appeal at all to a child's natural curiosity; it does not invite him to discover, to investigate; it leaves no room for wonder or amazement. It is just a heap of toys - the same, day in and day out. Remember the old saying, familiarity breeds contempt? Well...if it applies to people, most of whom are at least somewhat different from one moment to the next, how much more would that be true of inanimate objects?

   I think the true value of strewing is dependent on three factors: keeping in touch, keeping it 'fresh', and minimising distraction. Here are some suggestions to attain this:

1. Keeping in touch: know your child's current interests
Jelly fish are a big hit around here these days, as are anything relating to penguins and birthday parties, and Sweetpea LOVES cutting things with her small scissors! ArrowBoy is big into containers with lids and throwing small objects into larger containers, as well as opening and closing drawers. I try to flow with their interests, drawing them in deeper with well-chosen books and activities. (I love being 'available' to my family in this way - isn't it just such a priviledge to observe so closely the passions and pleasures as your child discovers the world? And then to be right there to 'open the door' a little bit more, showing them some new and breathtaking wonders!)

I try to keep a balance between fuelling current interests and introducing new ideas. Today was a particulaly blustery day, for example, and the perfect opportunity to start wondering out loud about the wind and where it comes from!

2. Keeping it 'fresh' : Rotate your child's toys and other interesting materials 

   - I use labelled plastic bins (5 liter ice cream containers I bought from the plastics shop for about R8 apiece). I used inexpensive labels to label them according to the days of the week. Sweetpea's Monday bin has a set of natural wooden blocks, small wooden dolls and two cars, while on a Monday ArrowBoy gets to play with his hammer and ball set, his Sort and Play bucket, and a simple knob puzzle.

   -  I also have a printed sheet on the inside of their closets where I have listed, according to the days of the week, which other toys and games to bring out that are too big to fit in the ice cream containers.

   - Now, again, I don't just dump all of this on the living room carpet first thing in the morning. Some of the activities are placed out on trays for Sweetpea to 'discover' during the day. I may put a peg board and some pegs in a tray on the kitchen counter, and leave out two or three books on sea life on the little table in her bedroom, maybe together with a few small platic fish and other sea creatures she is bound to find on the pages of those books.

   - When they tire of whatever it is they are plaing with, I can always quietly pack that toy away and go to my list inside the closet to check what else they haven't played with for a while, and set that out.

   - Remember that the fact that they haven't seen a cetain toy for a while, does not automatically guarantee they'll be interested in it today. Our children are individulas, just like you and I, who may just not be in the mood for the pegboard today. That's OK. If you have chosen well, there will be more than enough alternatives for them to choose from elsewhere in their playing  and learning environment.

3. Minimising distractions: Less is more

I am by no means the world's most organised person. On the contrary. But I also know that I function much better, feel much calmer and more contented, and are able to focus more joyfully on things I am busy with, if my environment is uncluttered and 'quiet'. The same applies to my children.

We live in a small house, and if the living room floor becomes too cluttered with toys, my children's playtime becomes marked with irritation. If the house is tidy, though,  and there is one kind of toy on the carpet (this can be a single toy, or a collection like a playmat and cars, a few small wooden dolls to ride on them, and even an empty box or two that serves as a house!), a skill toy on the kitchen counter, a few books on a night stand and a 'changing station' for baby dolls set up in the bedroom, my daughter can freely move about the house and find something to pique her interest in almost every room!

I am aware that as you are reading this, you may feel that what I am talking about involves a lot of work. On the contrary: It took me about two mornings to organise our toys into daily containers and  draw up the closet door list, and since then I seldom struggle with bored children and having to rack my brain to come up with something to keep them busy with. It also does not take away spontaneity - in fact, 'strewing their paths' with good quality toys, books, and things to explore, opens up many, many doors for spontaneous learning - for all of us!

In closing, may I encourage you with a quote from Rose Kennedy:

"I looked on Child-rearing not only as a work of love and duty, but as a profession that demanded the best I could bring to it"

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