THE VALUE OF FREE PLAY IN WILD PLACES.

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Reading this wonderful brief article by Dr Kumara Ward (a lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of Western Sydney) is a delight and explains the research surrounding the need for children to develop a connection with the natural environment.

I cannot add more to her thorough understanding in this area (but highly recommend you read her post). I will simply add my own personal experience to her wisdom, and a small solution that we use to ensure our own city dwelling kids do not miss these opportunities to connect with nature.

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EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: FIRE AND MARSHMALLOWS

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I grew up in a rather remote area of Tasmania. So did my husband. We could each make and maintain a pretty good fire by about the age that we could tie our laces. Living remotely meant that all our heating, hot water and cooking were reliant on a good fire – fires were simply a daily and essential part of life.

Respect for fire safety is not something that comes naturally to my own children. We live in a city, we don’t have a wood fire at home and we don’t light a campfire as often as we could… But this is going to change!

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EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: BECOME A BUTTERFLY!

In the honor of letter M we’ll be mulling over the Magnificent Monarch Butterfly who migrates to Mexico each year.

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Monarch butterflies go through four stages during one life cycle, and through four generations in one year. Not all the generations migrate, but every year the generation that migrates will fly around 20,000km to find their warmer climate for the winter! (That’s a long way, as our butterflies discovered after they traveled part of it!)

There are lots of cool things to learn about butterflies in general, and the 4 stages of their life cycle is captivating for all ages:

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EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: FREE PRINTABLE FOR A DIY EGG STORY!

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We were lucky enough to find a fresh chicken egg in our friends new chicken coup, but chickens aren’t the only ones who lay eggs.

First lets talk a little about the magic of finding an egg: Even as an adult, I am swept with joy if I find a little eggshell left behind by a wren. The whole prep class was mesmerised when a girl bought in a sharks egg that she had found. And, there is nothing quite like collecting chicken eggs. The other day we were introduced to our friends new pets: 3 stunning young chickens who (to our collective delight) had produced an egg! The girls took turns nursing the treasured egg all the way home, and tomorrow morning it will be used to make a small batch of our traditional celebration food: pancakes.

Birds eggs in themselves are a structural marvel. Calcium formed so perfectly that it is strong from the outside (particularly to vertical pressure) and weak from the inside (so that the small and weak new creature can break free with relative ease). Not only this, but all eggs contain everything the little creature needs to develop (regardless of what species – platypus, lizard, frog, shark or chicken!) they are amazing, and a marvel well worth sharing with your young ones.

This is a great free printable for you to create your own ‘Brown Bear’ inspired story. (And if your young literary nuts are anything like mine, you can probably recite ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear’ backwards, while sleeping – yes, that book it well worn!)

Each page is designed by Mrs Wills Kindergarten so your tot can depict their own creature that starts life as an egg. Obviously the template isn’t necessarily the exact shape of a frogs egg, or a turtle egg etc. but the joy of making a little book  with the freedom to decide what will be included (rather than proscribed by the egg shape) makes up for this in my opinion.

If you are up for a full afternoon of craft you may like to layer tissue paper to create your works (Eric Carl style) or alternatively simply hand over a biro and your little artist can complete the book at the kitchen table while dinner is on!

AFTER SCHOOL ACTIVITIES (how are you programming your child?)

Programming is strong language to use when referring to a child, (and as the parent of 2 independent thinkers, I have no illusion that children are robots who will blindly do as you instruct!) but with the ever expanding research into how our brains develop, there is a good deal of ‘programming’ that we do of our children every day, weather we are thinking about it or not. From the moment they are born, what we say, what we do, and what we encourage is shaping our children’s physical brain, and thus determining (in many ways) the way our children respond in adult life.

Of course I fully support the notion that the brain is plastic into adulthood, so I’m not saying childhood experiences fully shape the mind and are irreversible (indeed quite the contrary!) but how our children develop is largely shaped by the experiences that we choose for them.

At 4 and 5 my children are somewhat late starters in the sea of classes. With classes in everything from engineering to dance, lego to piano, chess to soccer, languages to horses riding – the choice is immense, and most of their peers attend at least 2 formal classes each week. To date my own children have had no ongoing formal lessons.

My children have always attended Launch into Learning, or Rock and Rhyme, or Playgroup – and these things have been truly beneficial for my children as they developed. (I might touch on this in another upcoming post). However outside of these ‘parent and child’ preschool activities (most of which encourage free play) we have never partaken in the formal ‘out of school classes’.

This year however my children are ready. They are not too tired at the end of the day, they have plenty of time for free play (something that I believe is essential for childhood development) and they are looking to learn more; they are seeking a degree of formality.

That leaves me with the question of many parents: What should my own children be taught? With so much evidence that experience actively shapes the physical structure (and function) of these young developing minds, the decision has far more impact on their adult lives than just weather they can kick a ball or play a tune.

Of course a common solution is to let the child choose (though parents are often highly involved in selecting what choices their child is offered). Or to partly let the child choose (ie ‘you can choose what ever you like, but you must do swimming as its a matter of safety’.) Another is to go with what the child shows skills for (ie a natural climber might enrol in rock climbing or gymnastics) or in contrast what the child could improve on (ie enrolling a shy child in dance or drama to improve their ability to present.)

Ideally I would like to have my children experiences a range of activities that awaken a variety of different parts of their brain, and indeed to encourage the values I believe to to important. This seems ambitious (especially while keeping in mind that I don’t want to overload my children as I fully support the notion that a child needs free time to develop fully!)

Making concise choices about what to suggest to my own children presents a set of problems that every parent faces… What do we REALY want for our children?

In this presentation by Jennifer Senior she talks of how most parents would agree (regardless of beliefs or parenting style) that the primary thing they want for their children is ‘to be happy’. Senior suggests that the idea of ‘happiness’ is somewhat of an unreasonable expectation of any child (or parent for that matter!) – this may seem like a rather pessimistic statement, but in contrast I actually found it to be quite optimistic in tone and well supported by various studies – the presentation is well worth a watch, I can’t say it better than she does!

After having wished for happiness for so long I found this left me in a difficult position of needing to actively re-define my ambitions for my children as the values that I thought could be taught (indeed with the hope that these may in turn result in happiness as a byproduct of their endeavours, but not happiness as a primary goal.)

What do you value? What abilities or traits do you want to give to the next generation?

For me I would like for my children to have the confidence and self worth that comes from a sense of accomplishment. I would like them to extend their physical skills, as well as their analytical and creative thinking. I would like to encourage compassion for (and a genuine love and appreciation for) other people, animals and the environment they are a part of (man made and natural.)

In order to gain these skills they need to work as part of a team, understand their place in history, spend time with animals, in the environment… The list goes on.

There are many out of school activities that support these things, however the difficulty comes when you need to narrow down a selection to something your children will adore, and will also support the values you believe to be important… all while not overloading the child or sacrificing free play!

My own solution is to address some of the goals through less formal activities (ie camping can be largely child directed, and can address goals of environment and physicality as well as engaging a good deal of creative and analytical thinking – map reading, building, investigating etc).

For more formal lessons we have chosen to space these out over a month rather than have every lesson every week. (Ie music every second week, horse riding once a month and so on). This gives our kids more opportunity to experience a variety of activities without overloading each week to accommodate all the classes. This system gives my children the chance to experience a diverse range of skills (to see where their heart lies) and also ensures that their learning is still largely dictated by them (ie in the extended time between lessons it is their own initiative that drives their learning in each area.)

As my children grow I am sure they will self select the areas that they want to continue on a more regular basis, and the other aspects will fall away to a memory of something they once did. This is our solution to out of school activities. In a generations time we will see if it worked!

EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: KIDS FOLD AN ORIGAMI PENGUIN COLONY

Now, I’m no origami buff (I’ve never even made the classic bird!) but this little penguin was easy enough for all of us to make (the 5yo was rather capable of making her own, the 4yo needed some assistance!)

To make the photo instructions easier for you to read I made a penguin myself with 2 colours (so you can see the folds easier, and also see where the folds are intended to fall – my kids folds may were a little less accurate, but work just fine if they are close to the intended position!)

All you will need to make this little guy is a square of paper. Fold it into a triangle as below (to make a centre line) then open it out again.

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Fold the two top corners of your diamond into the centre, as below.

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Now turn the diamond over and fold in half (as below).

Fold the top point on an angle as shown. Then fold it to the other side, and back again, and again. (basically we just want the paper to fold at this point in the next step so you are reminding it where it should fold!)

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Open your diamond back up (with the point you were just folding pointing up) and then fold it in half again, this time ensuring that the point you had been folding bends over to form our beak. This sound a little complicated, but is easy to do once you have the paper in your hand. it should look like this:

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Now fold back your wings (on both sides)

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And fold up that long pointy tummy. Do the fold back and forth thing again (to remind it where to bend for the next step)

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Now open your penguin a little so you can tuck under that tummy you have just been folding backwards and forwards, this is even easier to do than the beak, and should look a little like this:

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Now those little points at the bottom of your penguin are not very good for balancing on, so fold then out for some little waddling feet.

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Add an eye, and any extra decoration you desire.

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Now you can add your little penguin to his colony for a play. Anica (5yo) loved following the instructions to make these, and only needed a little assistance (you can see her pink ones here turned out rather well, and fortunately with this design even if the folds are not accurate the penguin still functions very well!) Elka was less interested in the making, and more interested in the playing afterwards. These penguins were a lovely way to add a little Antarctica to our play, without having to expand our permanent toy collection!

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PADDOCK TO PLATE WITH KIDS.

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We are lucky enough to know a lovely couple who invited us to their small home farm for a day of fruit picking and pie making. If you don’t happen to know such a lovely couple with a farm, then there is apple and pear picking at Sorrel Fruit Farm (as we did earlier this year for strawberries) or another PYO farm will do just fine!

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We pilled in the car and headed 40min South. It has been a year since we last visited and but during our drive the girls recalled so much of our last visit (explaining it to us as though we hadn’t been there!) and looked forward to re-living each moment of it this year.
When we arrived we were greeted by smiles and fury friends who’s happy tail wags could brighten any day. My young ladies instantly wanted to start the harvest so we headed first for the blackberries, then the pears and apples, then the tomatoes.

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It is wonderful for the kids to see how much this productive garden progresses each year, and indeed how much food it yields. (With our own vegetable garden still being constructed, it is the perfect opportunity to see how much we can grow and eat ourselves – indeed it wasn’t that long ago in our big history that home grown was the norm!)
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With old varieties of apples, and tomatoes fresh of the vine the taste is so different to the supermarket varieties, and for every spare patch of soil the kids want to know what will be planted there next.
Next it was off to the kitchen to make some pies (and indeed, we even tried our hand at ice-cream making to accompany our pies, though we have not quite mastered this one yet!) Each made (and then ate!) their own special pie (and of course the adults had a good share too!)


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On our way home we stopped by to feed the fallen apples to the calves that the girls had chosen names for last year; Haha, Hoho and Alice are all growing into beautiful bovine. The girls asked after the calf they fed on their first visit (pictured below) and we explained that he had been sold on to make way for the new calves, and that the land could only sustain a certain number of cows healthily. Introducing farming practices in this gentle environment is the ideal way for children to grasp the early concepts needed to understand some of the larger environment issues that face our growing population who loves so much farm intensely so we can have steak for dinner every night!
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After a busy weekend, this was the perfect way for the entire family to re-set for the week ahead. Thank you Jane and David for your wonderful hospitality!

EASY ACTIVITIES TO BUILD YOUNG BRAINS: PAPER PLATE POLAR BEAR.

This simple paper plate polar bear only takes a moment to make (in our case before school one morning) and is a fun way to add a little Arctic into your play space.

Send your little hunters to gather your supplies:

  • Paper plate
  • Pencil
  • Cotton balls
  • Scissors
  • Eyes (optional)

First fold your plate in half and draw on your polar bear – ensuring that the back is along the fold. (Anica drew her own bear but this ‘back along the fold was a tad tricky for Elka to grasp with her current stage of drawing – so while I usually avoid ‘tracing’ type activities, Elka had a template to work form so her bear would stand up at the end!)

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Cut your bear out.

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Dismantle a few cotton balls (this is always a fun thing to do, regardless of your age!)

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Glue your fur to your bear (as you might have read when we were talking about Polar Bears, their skin is actually black, and their fur is acutlay clear, so feel free to substitute or paint for a more accurate representation, in our case we were happy to just use what we happened to have on hand!)

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Add some eyes (or draw them on).

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TA DA! You have polar bear playmate for the rest of the morning… he can even go to tea at the dolls house and terrorise everyone inside… Have fun!

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