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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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!

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!

THINGS TO SEE AND DO: PENGUIN SPOTTING.

Here in Tasmania we are lucky enough to have penguin colonies living literally on our back door step. The most centrally located one that I am aware of is located on Sandy Bay road, a place we walk past every day on our way to school.

Penguin spotting is bast done a particular times of year and it also requires a degree of stillness and silence in the evening. Unfortunately my own children have not yet mastered enough stillness and silence (at least in the evenings!) to make it safe to take them penguin watching at our local colony. (I say ‘safe’ because noisy children disturbing these birds can interfere with their mating and nesting patterns, so we’re talking about ‘penguin safety’ rather than ‘child safety’ in this case!)

IMG_8243Instead we opted to see our penguins at Singapore Zoo, and simply talk about where they live in the wild. One day I hope to share the wild penguin experience with my own kids. However, if your children are better at keeping their excitement quite, then pack a thermos of hot chocolate and head on down for a memorable evening of waddling penguins. Please read this guide from Parks and Wildlife before you head out to help make sure you care for these little creatures while you watch.

As you sit sea side and watch the penguins waddle in from the sea this is the perfect time to explain that these animals (along with many other species of wildlife that live in our towns and cities) were here long before the houses built in the area. That these fragile animals are afraid of dogs and cats (because they eat them!) so it is really important that we keep our pets contained. It is our responsibility as pet owners to make sure that our pets (and yes, that includes cats!) don’t wonder freely because they are skilled hunters who can do far more damage than we see.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO: MEET A PILOT.

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When we were kids we used to look forward to our mid flight visit to the cockpit to say hello to the captain. Then security measures changed and the cockpit was locked… But even now your young tots can still enjoy meeting the Captain next time you fly.
When flying simply ask the flight attendant if your child can visit the captain after you have landed. (This is at the discretion of the individual pilot, but most know how exciting it is for kids).
Once the attendant confirms you can visit (or more likely says ‘maybe’) you will need to wait in your seats until the other passengers have disembarked and then you can go forward and ask to see the captain.
"Me and the Captain together. He told me how the wind keeps the plane up" drawn by Anica just after her visit to the pilot.

“Me and the Captain together. He told me how the wind keeps the plane up” drawn by Anica just after her visit to the pilot.

Use the time waiting on the plane (while the other passengers leave) to talk with your kids about what they might like to ask the pilot (as the adult leading by example; try not to refer to the pilot solely as a male, while it still is a male dominated profession, there is no reason to presume only boys can fly planes!)
Anica wanted to know how the plane stays up (our pilot explained the basics of wind pressure over the curved wings lifting the plane) and Elka wanted to know how rainbows are made (while it wasn’t really a plane question, he was happy to answer).
While I didn’t take and photos in the cockpit (this photo was taken later at a flight simulation that we were lucky enough to visit in Malaysia) I was carrying a large intimidating camera with me when we entered the cockpit so I believe photos are allowed should you wish to get a snap with your pilot. Remember to thank him/her immensely for giving your tot the additional time.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO: MAKE A GIANT SAND OCTOPUS.

IMG_4963 We have built large sand sculptures before, and they are a great hit for the young construction workers. This time however we had a change in focus beyond a simple sculpture, we want to talk a bit about camouflage.

We chose an appropriate spot and drew a large circle in the sand (for the body). Each child took control of one tentacle (mapping it out and digging around their shape to pile it up as a long 3d sand arm).

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We didn’t have 8 children building tentacles at once so this allowed for some great maths questions during construction; how many have we made now? How many do octopuses have? How many more do we need to make?

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As the tentacles shaped up the kids moved on and created the body and eyes in the centre, decorating with shells. The small group used great negotiation techniques throughout the process to organise themselves to finish the octopus, helping each other when they needed it, and collectively deciding on plans.

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Now, that’s a great physical project, but it was not our focus as we built. We wanted to talk as much as we could while building – What do the kids know about octopuses? (They take a long time to have their babies, they live in the water, they shoot ink at predators, they have no bones – these were the things the kids collectively knew about octopuses and it was a delight watching them inform each other and add to the knowledge that the other children were sharing.)

When we came to the idea of camouflage we stayed on the topic for a little longer. We talked about what would be good camouflage for an octopus, and how it can manipulate the shape of it’s skin to form different textures. It can change the shape of it’s body to mimic other creatures, and can even change the colour of it’s skin to form different patterns to blend into it’s surroundings! No other creature has all these camouflage skills.

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In our case we talked about our octopus being ‘camouflaged’ in the sand around it, but over the next couple of days we will revisit the concept as the opportunities present themselves. (See how that bird blends into it’s background? Why do you think that tiger in the book has stripes? What makes good camouflage? Why is it important for each of these animals to be able to hide?) Camouflage is a topic that is of great interest when learning about animals and it will come up time and time again as we work our way through the year, and a physically active project of building a sand sculpture is a fun way to introduce it!