Discovering Practical Life : Ana’s Story

Making Montessori Your Own : Ana's Story

In Part 4 of Making Montessori Your Own, Ana shares how discovering practical life has helped her daughter become capable and independent in her home. She shares simple examples of ways they collaborate together in different daily activities and how she prepared herself and their home to achieve this. 


Our Discovery of Practical Life

I discovered Montessori when my daughter (22 months) was 5 months old . At the time, I was amazed by all these posts on social media – of 5 year olds baking a dish from start to end, of a 2 year old unloading the dishwasher and putting the dishes back in their place, of 18 month old children eating using the same cutlery as their parents. It seemed unrealistic, to say the least.Now that my daughter at 22 months, peels garlic and cuts vegetables, and eats from the same cutlery as us, and puts her laundry into the washing machine, I know that it’s quite possible, and what each intermediate step looks like on the way. Infact, practical life skills have been one of the most eye-opening parts and unexpected delights of following the Montessori approach. The amount of time we spend “doing” practical life has only increased during lockdown. 

Practical life skills come in two big categories – care of self and care of environment. While there are shelf activities that come under this category, for example, threading beads or button frames, the revelation for us has been doing practical life activities organically as part of our daily routine.

 How do we involve our daughter?

She’s part of our routine – less time that I have to “think of activities” to engage her.

The confidence she feels as a contributing member of the household – and we know, toddlers crave this.

Practical life has given a rich context for learning so much more: for building language, as she learns names of things she’s working with, their colour, texture, size, shape, etc;  for observing processes – the steps involved in washing laundry and the order in which they must be done, for example; 

Perhaps, most importantly, being involved in daily practical life activities has helped my daughter orient herself to our daily life and home – we clean the house in the morning, and do the laundry in the evening; we eat at the dining table and brush our teeth at the sink; knowing the place and time for everything feeds her sense of order. 

How did we approach Practical Life? 

We started introducing practical life to our daughter in three ways 

By having a place for everything, and everything in its (accessible) place– the prepared environment is a prerequisite for a child to be able to do things on their own. While this is a topic for its own post, I will say – we didn’t “prepare” all environments at first – rather, started with a “yes” space for play, and then built accessibility in other areas as our daughter was ready for it.

By having a routine – this is a way to extend the first principle with respect to time – have a time to do everything in your day, and do everything at its time. Toddlers are going through lots of changes in their bodies, and having a predictable routine – of knowing what comes next – gives them trust and confidence and a sense of control – they know what’s going on.

By sportscasting our activities – here, we’d explain things in words as we were doing them, talking about what we were doing and where things go (e.g. “Now I’m putting your dirty clothes in the laundry basket.”). This helped her understand our routine and gain vocabulary.

None of the above three may feel like “practical life” activities – and they are not specifically – but that’s the point. Practical life isn’t “an activity you set up” – it’s a natural progression of involving your child in your life and in your home.

Gradual Progressions

Adding more challenges : We gradually started adding more steps of the full process: for example, at 6 months, I’d place the changed clothes in my daughter’s grip, carry her to the laundry basket and sportscast ton her what we were doing, requesting her to release her grip and ‘drop’ dirty clothes into the basket. By 10 months, my daughter was able to crawl to the basket on her own, and pull to stand up next to it. So, I let her lead those steps too, only sportscasting what was happening. At 15 months, she was carrying her clothes to the washing machine too. We just let her take the lead on different steps of the whole process. Now, she understands end-to-end of changing-to-laundry basket-to washing- hanging to dry – to folding dried clothes-and keeping in her cupboard. It all started with releasing the grip over the laundry basket, and scaffolded from there.

What else? : Last week, my daughter was so proud when she learnt how to open the pedal dustbin with her foot, and put garbage in it. I wasn’t comfortable with her using the dustbin when she was younger, but now that she isn’t mouthing things, and understands we don’t touch the dustbin, and we wash our hands when we do, we’ve added this net new activity, she can do on her own. It may seem like a small thing, but the coordination required to use a pedal bin is quite amazing for a toddler, and seeing her feel proud of her accomplishment, is an added bonus. 

Showing, speaking about and involving in activities she’s not ready to independently do yet: Even when she’s not ready for a practical life activity (e.g. using the gas stove), we regularly model to her how we use it, use the language as we explain the steps. This builds her understanding and readiness for new activities.

All in all, practical life has been a revelation to me! If somebody had told me a few years ago, that a toddler can meaningfully participate in activities around the house, I’d never have believed it. And yes, it’s messy sometimes. And it’s slower than doing it on my own. We don’t do every activity fully everyday, and life isn’t an Instagram-worthy-highlights-reel. But there’s a joy and harmony in having your toddler involved in everyday life around the house that cannot be put into words. Let them surprise you!”


“Any child who is self-sufficient, who can tie his shoes, dress or undress himself, reflects in his joy and sense of achievement the image of human dignity, which is derived from a sense of independence.”

Dr. Montessori, The Child in the Family

Why Vocabulary Matters!

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What is Vocabulary?

When a child is born, we surround them with language. We offer words, “Oh, look at that bird, that is a crow.” We move on and name a few other birds – pigeon, myna, sparrow and soon, our repertoire of birds is exhausted. We now look at every other bird and say, “See, that’s a bird!” This happens to almost ALL of us. When we take a walk in our neighbourhood park with our child, how many of us stop and show our child the different trees, shrubs, plants, flowers and birds? Do we ever stop to look around or do we just group all of these into ‘nature’? For most of us, every tree is a ‘tree’ and every flower is a ‘flower.’ But for young children who rely entirely on us to understand what their world has to offer, vocabulary becomes a necessity to connect with it completely.

Vocabulary is a collection of words. It is a list of words that we associate with objects, emotions, people. All of us have a database of words which we use to communicate with one another. For some of us, this vocabulary is rich, while for some others, it is limited. Vocabulary becomes so important when we want to understand something, remember it, explore it further, build abstractions and speak about it. We never stop to think of the limitations of a scarce database of words!

Our Obsession with Letters!

There is a serious concern that haunts each of us when it comes to teaching our children the alphabets. We don’t think as much about words as we do about letters. We start with letters very early. We sing the ABC songs when our babies are barely a few months and we read them a string of alphabet books. The day they identify the letter R or the letter P, we celebrate.

The truth is letters are important. Yes, we want our children to know them because they are the building blocks of words. But, what use are letters for a young child who has no words to build them into? What will the child talk about if she does not have the experience and word association to remind herself of that experience? With young children, we need to worry more about words and less about letters. This is because, without words, letters stand as isolated entities that have no meaning! Letters become important only when our children have a well-stocked repertoire of words that they then want to pen down or read about.

The WHAT child

Children under six are explorers. In their exploration of their home, their garden, their society they come across various objects. This sparks their curiosity and they eagerly ask us, “What is this?” We have all come across that young child, constantly asking us what, what, what! They parrot this as they move from one to another, trying to understand what their world is made up of. If our own repertoire is very limited, what can we feed our children? This unique aspect of human beings – naming everything from objects to emotions is what connects us with others. Without words, without a rich vocabulary, we are limiting the child’s further exploration and understanding. We are taking away from them the joy of communicating their discoveries with others.

Why does Vocabulary Matter?

A Word for Everything 

When we say the word flower, each of us conjure up an image of a flower. The flower in my head is the poisonous oleander. This is probably because in southern India, most of us grew around oleander flowers. Poisonous as they are, oleanders are found in abundance in South India. This is the image that comes to my mind when I hear the word flower. Now, when I say the word flower, each of you reading this has your own image of a flower. The images in our minds may or may not match. This is because we each have different experiences that conjure up an image. When I become more specific and say sunflower, immediately all of us draw up an image of a sunflower. This abstract image of the sunflower in my head may still be different from yours but we are all thinking of sunflowers. We have now narrowed down to the specifics. 

A word for everything is important because every word is a tag on which that whole experience will sit. Without that specific word, a child cannot carry the experience anywhere. If our child comes to us and says, “Amma, today I saw a big flower. It was yellow.” and all we can say is, “Oh you saw a flower. Very nice!” That whole experience stops right there. Instead, we say, “Oh, what colour was it? Was it purple? Was it yellow? Did it have large yellow petals? Did you notice a brown disc in the centre? I think you saw a sunflower. How wonderful.”

Later, we can talk about sunflowers and go back to observe it with more understanding because we have given a word for that particular experience of the child. 

Ability to Notice 

This is a skill that is lacking in most of us as we now spend more time looking at our screens. At the bus stop, we hold our child’s hand and are busily looking at our screens. At the restaurant, each of us is holding a phone and scrolling down. We don’t notice what is happening around us. Let us take the same example of the walk in the park, assuming we know the names of the different trees. When we have named these for the child, we will see ourselves and the child begin to notice more details. It is like getting to know a person. We have taken the effort to learn the name of this tree and the tree then starts to come alive for us. We notice its branches, how they sway differently from the branches of another tree. How the trunk has ridges and how the roots are as thick as the branches and so on. Without that word, we don’t notice further. We just move on with our lives because we know nothing about that object. 

Wonder! 

Oh, the joy of wonder! The ability to wonder should not just be a child’s gift but an adult’s as well. How many of us wonder? Do we ever curiously look at a bird and wonder why it flies so low, why does the hummingbird jump from one flower to another so swiftly? How are big birds able to lift their bodies? Wonder is the birth of all knowledge, without wonder, we are limp! A child can carry the abstraction of the object and the word in her mind and gradually begin to wonder about it. A word is a gate pass into wondering all about an experience. It is the beginning of all the why questions that an older child comes to us with. However, without the what’s the child cannot move onto the why’s.

Fondness & Love  

This is ultimately where we want all these words and experiences to take our children. This love for what they see around them. Let us take the same example of the park. If our child accompanies us every morning and we spot different birds and rest under different trees, these experiences create joyful memories. If someone were to cut that large tree under which you spent every morning with your child, resting, singing and laughing, won’t it be like someone is snatching away a dear friend? Would we not care enough to at least see if that can be stopped? We rarely ever pause and care about these things, not because we don’t have the ability to care but because we don’t know anything about life around us to even notice what is going on. 

A word is so much more than a word. It has the potential to lay the foundation for abstract thinking, imagination and intelligence. This is not to say we invest in a pack of flash cards and just offer ‘names’ to children. With young children, we offer words with experiences so that the word can sit on top the sensory richness of that experience. This way, the child can club all that experience into a single word. So, we need to take the effort to learn the names of words ourselves so that we can pass this on to our children. It is not just about ticking off a list, “bird, tree, car.” We need to invest a little more attention and care into marrying that experience with the word.

Dr. Montessori, in her book To Educate the Human Potential, said “We shall walk together on this path of life, for all things are part of the universe and are connected with each other to form one whole unity.”

Shifting Positively from NO to YES

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Words are a powerful human tool that have the capacity to evoke either a response or a reaction in another person. They can create a mindset that influences our approach to the world. When someone repeatedly uses negative words, we begin to look at the world through these lens and doubt ourselves, the environment and others. On the other hand, hearing positive words inspire us to act, be kind and open to the world. Yet, with such power at our disposal, how often do we truly pay attention to the words we use and wonder how they impact others in our lives? 

Babies spend the greater part of their first year soaking up life in its entirety. Since they are observant little beings, they occupy a lot of their time watching how the adults around them interact with their environment. This creates in them a fascination and an eagerness to get to know the world. So, naturally, when their bodies are finally able to match their intention, they move towards this wonderful environment they have been eyeing for months, only to hear adults say the word NO! 

What is this NO?

Initially, babies do not comprehend the meaning of this word NO. They look at our facial expressions and hand gestures and stop. When they go back to reaching for the same object and hear the same word a second time, they begin to see a pattern. The curious ones usually try and reach for the same object or a different one, yet again, only to see the adult’s reaction remains consistent for a third time. When our tones and hand gestures become stronger and firmer, some babies start crying because this is not their experience of how we usually talk to them. Some other babies find the whole thing rather amusing and do it repeatedly, much to the annoyance of many adults. Soon enough, all babies begin to understand that more things in their world are NO than YES and begin to grapple with this reality. 

Saying NO

Why is NO a Problem?

To understand this, let us look at what this word actually means. The word NO comes with a lot of power. We ideally use it when we do not wish to persist a situation any longer. It literally means Stop! End! NO! Considering that this two letter word carries so much power, it seems that we use it too casually, too loosely in circumstances that do not even require such authority or intensity. Our children hear the word NO countless times each day. By repeatedly using the word NO, not only are we crushing their spirit but also taking away the real value of this word. So, the problem with NO seems to stem from the frequency and context of usage and not the usage itself. 

According to Dan Siegel, Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, “NO leaves you feeling reactive, making it impossible to listen, make good decisions or connect with and care for another person. A focus on survival and self-defence kicks into gear, leaving you feeling guarded and shut down when it comes to interacting with the world and learning new lessons. Your nervous system initiates its reactive fight – flight, freeze or faint response : fight means lashing out, flight means escape, freeze means temporarily immobilizing yourself and faint means feeling utterly helpless.”

What NO does to a Child 

  • Since young children understand their world through exploration, repeatedly using the word NO subtly tells them that the world out there is not for them to explore and understand. Instead of letting them form their own ideas and views of the world, we are essentially passing on our prejudices and preferences.
  • Everytime we unnecessarily stop our children by using the word NO, we are feeding them this notion that the world is a place that holds many threats and dangers. This not only creates too much reliance on another person to navigate through life for them, but also curbs exploration altogether because of fear.
  • The more we throw in the word NO, the more our children begin to feel that they are incapable of handling the world. This leads to low self-confidence, self-doubt and an uncertainty about themselves. 

Dan Siegel, in the book, The Yes Brain : How to Cultivate Courage, Curiosity, and Resilience in Your Child says, “Anything we give attention to, anything we emphasize in our experiences and interactions, creates new linking connections in the brain. Where attention goes, neural firing flows, and neural connection grows. And where neurons fire, they wire or join together. If you’ve been focusing a lot of attention on No! No! No! this is where neural firing flows, a No Brain reactive state.”

Shifting Positively from NO to YES 

  • Fill our children’s vicinity with more YES objects and experiences

Young children are fascinated by the interactions that adults have with their environment. This fascination stimulates action and they gravitate towards these objects. However, we constantly curb such exploration either out of fear or because we cannot manage the mess. Instead, if we rearrange the child’s environment with more objects that they can freely explore, we will make an immediate shift towards a YES environment. Instead of curtailing exploration, we will be aiding exploration and play.

  • Become Mindful of our Words 

When we begin to watch our words and reflect on them, we can take control of the environment we are creating for our children. The next time we are tempted to revert to NO, we can just pause for a moment and ask ourselves why we want to say NO. If a child is moving towards something dangerous, we need to instantly stop them. But, in most other situations, we can divert their attention to something that they can do instead of telling them what they cannot do. A moment of reflection will give us a world of perspective and inspire a more positive response to our children. 

  • Create a YES mindset! 

Our attitude matters! By overusing NO, we not only take away its power but create a NO mindset that holds our children back from the world. By shifting positively from NO to YES, we instil in children’s little minds an attitude of positivity that stimulates openness. What’s better, they begin to trust that they are capable of tackling the uncertain world out there and run towards life with josh, enthusiasm and joy!

In the Kitchen with Young Children

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In a lot of ways, a healthy relationship with food begins not at the table but in the kitchen where the transformation happens. For children to understand food as a whole, we need to show them where and how it is prepared. The kitchen is where the magic happens – raw vegetables are made into delicious stews and sabzis, flour and lentils are kneaded and cooked to create roti and dal. To look at food with knowledge, wonder and joy, we must collaborate with children in the process. This involves understanding the benefits of food preparation and preparing a space that will aid exploration and growth.

Some Factors to Consider before Preparing the Kitchen 

  • An Accessible Space

An important aspect of preparing the kitchen is to make it a welcoming space for the young child. This is a balancing act of having a few areas accessible, giving them responsibilities in those areas and then progressing to more. For children who are just toddling, having a few low shelves that they can independently access gives them the confidence to step into the kitchen and fetch what they need. They can also have a low table and chair to which simple tasks such as peeling oranges, or churning buttermilk can be carried to. As they grow and gain more confidence in the kitchen, a step stool can be carried by them to open the kitchen further for exploration. A step stool makes the sink accessible to do washing or the counter where we can collaborate in a variety of food preparation activities. Often, children end up asking us for simple things such as water or snack which they can independently fetch. A step stool frees such dependency and lets them access these without having to rely on us to provide everything.

Aishu Kitchen 3

  • Real Tools 

So often, children are given pretend tools that are made of cheap material and do not serve any purpose. By using these tools, children cannot accomplish the intended task even though they are eager to. Instead, if we offer them real, age-appropriate tools, we are giving the opportunity to understand where to hold, how much pressure to exert, how to hold and many other concepts which they can never learn by using a toy.

  • Appropriately- Sized 

Normally, everything in the kitchen is to the size of the adult. Just as it is difficult for us to do anything purposeful with ill-sized tools, it is hard for young children to use large and heavy tools to create anything meaningful. Not only is it dangerous, it is also frustrating and may lead to a lack of confidence in their capability. So, it is helpful to look for tools that they can hold in their little hands and manipulate.

  • Caution & Safety 

Safety is a feature that always needs to be taken into consideration when it comes to young children. It is a dynamic aspect that keeps evolving depending on the age and capabilities of the child. What is safe for a four year old may not be safe for a toddler and this comes only with observing the child act in the kitchen while also gradually increasing their scope for exploration. As adults who are responsible for our children, we must be sure to take the necessary precautionary measures to make the kitchen a safe yet challenging space for exploration and growth.

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What do Children get from being in the Kitchen? 

  • Fine & Gross Motor Refinement 

The kitchen challenges both the fine and gross motor skills of the child. Whether they are carrying the step stool or a jug of water from the sink to the table, they are constantly refining their gross motor skills. Kneading, pounding, mashing, whisking, grating and peeling challenge their fine motor skills. They also learn to build judgement and reasoning such as how much pressure to exert, how to carry or how to use their hands through these movements.

  • Plenty of Language

The amount of language children pickup by being in the kitchen is phenomenal. The kitchen is a lively place of action which allows for language to be created alongside experiences. As we involve children, we can use words for the actions we are going to perform, name the various ingredients or describe their features such as crunchy or creamy. Such language is not merely a build-up of vocabulary but one that is accompanied by experiences that add real meaning and value to each word.

  • Willingness to do for others

Michael Pollan, the author of Cooked : A Natural History of Transformation, says, “For is there any practice less selfish, any labor less alienated, any time less wasted, than preparing something delicious and nourishing for people you love?” 

Food is an expression of love and young children are eager to be involved in this expression. Just being in the kitchen and helping out in whatever way they can, allows children to understand that they are a part of their family and recognise that they can also have an impact on it. By collaborating in preparing a simple meal for their family, children derive a sense of purpose and willingness to do for others.

  • Attitude towards Food

When children handle raw vegetables, measure, mix and knead dough or wash and dry fruits, vegetables or rice, their experiences with being a part of the process changes their attitude towards food radically. They know what they are eating and slowly acknowledge the effort that has gone into making it. When they have participated in the preparation, they also have a personal association with the dish which makes it a lot more inviting.

  • Sensory Treat

Lastly, the experiences of being in the kitchen are nothing short of a sensory treat for the child. The aroma of the various ingredients, fruits, herbs and vegetables, the varied tastes, the experience of watching the way the ingredients blend together, the sounds of the mustard crackling, the sambhar bubbling or the tactile exploration of each of the ingredients together offer a wide database for the growing intellect. It paves the way for imagination which is the foundation of creativity!

The overall benefits of being in the kitchen outweigh the fears associated with it. In a well prepared kitchen, the child has abundant opportunities to learn and grow. It is an engaging way to bond with children and create lasting memories that will change their life-long relationship with food and the natural world.

Shelling Peas

Our Little Kitchen

There is something delicious and sweet about fresh, juicy peas that frozen peas can never offer. Shelling peas may seem futile for many adults, but the young child absolutely enjoys the challenge. There is enough stimulation to hold their attention and refine their fine motor skills, not to mention the sheer joy in discovering tiny peas hiding in each pod. 

Who is this for?

I would begin around 22 – 24 months 

Things Required

  • 2 small bowls – one for the pea pods and one for the peas
  • 1 plate – to save the pods for later use
  • Access to more pea pods in case child wants to shell more

Preparation

Sometimes, the pods come along with the stalk. In that case, we need to show the child to pull the stalk along the seam before we shell them open. I have used peas without the stalk in this. I generally prefer to use firm and plump pods because these are easier for the young hands to break open.

As always, you are the best judge of what works well in your kitchen for your child!

Illustrated Guide

I like to begin with an invitation, “Remember, we bought some fresh snap peas in the market? Let’s shell them.” Introduce everything at the table, else tell the child what we need and gather them together.

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Show the child the seam that runs along the pod on both sides.

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Place the pod on the table to give more support (for the child). Using the support of the non-dominant hand near the opening, press thumb of dominant hand into the seam to create an opening. 

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Use both thumbs  in widening the opening.

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Point to the peas in the pod.

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Child and you can pull each pea out and place in the bowl for the peas.

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Show the child to put the used pods in the compost or save them for later. Let the child press and open the pod however they can. Alternatively, you can give support by creating the first opening for very young children. 

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Involve the child in putting the items back in their place or for wash. 

Short Guide

  • I like to begin with an invitation, “Remember, we bought some fresh snap peas in the market? Let’s shell them.”
  • Introduce everything at the table, else tell the child what we need and gather them together.
  • Show the child the seam that runs along the pod on both sides.
  • Place pod on the table to give more support (for the child)
  • Using the support of the non-dominant hand near the opening, press thumb of dominant hand into the seam to create an opening.
  • Use both thumbs  in widening the opening.
  • Point to the peas in the pod.
  • Child and you can pull each pea out and place in the bowl for the peas.
  • Show the child to put the used pods in the compost or save them for later.
  • Let the child press and open the pod however they can. Alternatively, you can give support by creating the first opening for very young children.
  • Involve the child in putting the items back in their place or for wash. 

The Difference between Unstructured Outdoor Play and Outdoor Play Structures

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What is Play?

The word play brings to mind exploring something with an open mind, discovering its properties, understanding what it can or cannot do and forming new ideas. For the child under six, play is a bridge that links them to the world. This play is the work of the child and through it, they form many new ideas about the world while also understanding themselves and their endless capabilities.

Outdoor play is an important aspect of play that introduces to the young child the wonders of the natural world. 

“Play is motivated by means more than ends. Play is constantly evolving and developing into new forms of play and play schemes. Play is also not passive but requires constant assessment and engaged minds.”

Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced & BareFoot

Unstructured Outdoor Play

The word unstructured by itself removes limitations on the child’s exploration of the outdoors. The outdoor environment has so much sensory stimuli that unstructured play allows the child to choose which stimulus they would like to be drawn to.

  • Bonding with Nature

In today’s world which is crowded by tall buildings, endless traffic and busy schedules, outdoor play provides a respite to the young child. It slows down time just a little bit, allowing them to freely play in the natural surroundings. This kind of play in the outdoors without all the layers of human touch is vital for the child to form a lasting relationship with nature.

  • Dynamic Challenges

When we leave the child to freely explore the natural world, they can set their own challenges depending on the stage of development they are in. A baby might simply be on a patch of grass, crawling and watching a butterfly or grasping a flower while a toddler might choose run on the grass, feed birds and pick fallen leaves. Older children with more controlled movements are free to set more complex challenges such as climbing trees, hiking up a steep slope or running and playing with the dog.

This kind of structure-free play frees up the mind to set challenges for oneself and devise strategies to overcome them.

Structure-Free Outdoor Play

  • Sharpening Judgement

Imagine the young child in a natural environment and think of the endless possibilities for building judgement. As adults, we sometimes forget that the child is building judgement through play. Every interaction such as crawling to a leaf, trying to catch a dragonfly, getting pricked by a thorn, feeling the prickly grass, falling down while running or jumping high for the branch with the fruit calls for calculation. These are essential for the child to hone and a structure-free natural environment will do a lot to constantly challenge the young child’s judgement.

  • Vivid Imagination

Because of the range of sensory input the child receives by playing outdoors, the abstractions they form are diverse. These lay a strong foundation for the budding imagination. An older child will begin to show signs of this imagination when they use leaves as medicines in their imaginary play, twigs as huts, straw for water boats and so on. This imagination which is more manifest in the older child has its foundation in that small baby who plays with the outdoor environment and understands it.

Outdoor Play Structures

Outdoor play structures on the other hand are specially designed structures to challenge young children’s gross motor skills, their vestibular sense and overall mind-body coordination. Some commonly found structures are swings and slides, merry-go-round, jungle gyms and climbing domes.

  • Fixed Challenges

Each of the play structures are created for a specific challenge. For example, the slide is designed for the child to climb/crawl up the ladder using calculated movements and then slide down at full speed. While sliding down, the child’s vestibular sense is stimulated.  The same goes for most other commonly found play structures. They are designed for fixed challenges and do not hold the same openness as natural environments with dynamic challenges.

  • Not Exactly Outdoor Play

While swings and slides which are large equipments fit better in an outdoor environment, they are not necessarily outdoor play. There is no element of nature involved in this play apart from some fresh air which comes naturally by being outdoors.

  • No Room for Imagination

A swing or a slide or merry-go-round does not challenge the child’s inner need for exploration. Play is something that must show different dimensions with each exploration. Imagine adults calling a treadmill or an elliptical ‘play’. These are specific gym equipments designed for specific purposes. Likewise, the outdoor park structures are specific equipments designed to serve specific purposes and they do not do anything else to feed the child’s imagination.

Why is it Important to Understand the Difference?

These days, when we use the word outdoor play, it somehow immediately translates to play in park structures. As we have seen, outdoor play is so much more than playing on a swing or climbing a jungle gym. Although play structures help challenge the child’s gross motor skills, they do not necessarily feed other areas of development which a natural, unstructured play environment fosters. While it is necessary for us to take our children to the neighbourhood park to challenge their gross motor skills, it is also equally important to plan and take our children to natural settings with raw nature unfolding. The structured outdoor parks with plastic grass, wood chips and foam mats are not the same as the uneven outdoor trails,the hilly slopes with wild flowers and shrubs, the stones and gravel which make the play a lot more challenging.  

“Playing in nature adds an element of adventure. Nature is unpredictable and exploring nature is always an exciting experience. Since playground equipment only serves a few functions, it often leaves little to the imagination. Having access to movable natural items, such as branches, rocks, sticks, leaves and pinecones adds a new element to play. Natural playgrounds tend to inspire creative play in children because there are endless play opportunities.”

Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced & BareFoot

When we expand our understanding of outdoor play, we will begin to look beyond the park fences and understand that outdoor play is the beginning of a lifetime of friendship, love and oneness with the natural world.

Shyam’s trip to the Zoo

Tales of Little Children

Here is a story of little Shyam who lives in Mysore with his parents Santhosh and Nidhi. Five year old Shyam has loved animals ever since he was a toddler and over the years accumulated many miniature figurines in his home. He recently watched the Jungle Book with his mother and was thoroughly spellbound by Mowgli and his life in the wild. Ever since, little Shyam has played Mowgli in his imaginary world with the miniature figurines as his friends.

Because of his love for animals, Santhosh decided to treat Shyam by taking him to the local zoo where he could see some real life animals. Little Shyam had excitedly planned his trip, interjecting many questions like “Will we see Baloo in the zoo?” and how he will scream and run when he sees “Kaa.” What Shyam did not fully comprehend was the meaning of the word Zoo! 

On the day of the much-anticipated trip, Shyam and Santhosh arrived at the zoo. The entire ride was spent in Shyam asking questions about what animals they will see and if he could play and swing with them. A worried Santhosh had clearly told Shyam that he cannot go near the animals and must hold appa’s hand at all times. At the zoo, Santhosh purchased two tickets and the duo excitedly entered together.

Soon, they reached the enclosure with the grey langurs.

Santhosh : See Shyama! Here are the Langurs. They are monkeys. Let us count how many monkeys are there in this cage.

Shyam : Appa! Look at that monkey’s tail. It is so long Appa.

Santhosh : Yes Shyama, monkeys have long tails.

Without a pause, Shyam immediately asked “Why?”

Santhosh : Monkeys need long tails to jump from one branch to another Shyama. The long tails give them balance so that they don’t fall down .

Santhosh was very pleased with his informative reply. Little did he know what was coming next.

Shyam : Appa, there are no branches here. Where will these monkeys jump?

Santhosh found the question bemusing yet innocent and couldn’t help but acknowledge a tinge of guilt creeping up as he looked at the enclosure packed with monkeys. He brushed the thought aside and proceeded to answer his curious son!

Santhosh : This is a zoo Shyama. The monkeys are here only for us to come and see them.

Thankfully, Shyam hadn’t fully paid attention to his father’s reply and was swiftly shooting out his next observation, “Appa, look at this monkey. It’s holding something and eating.”

Santhosh was relieved at the move on the subject and responded, “Yes yes, monkeys eat nuts and fruits.”

Shyam : Nuts? Like the nuts in my mechanical set?

Santhosh : No no, nuts like palm tree nuts, figs and bananas.

Shyam : But there are no trees here. Where will these monkeys find their nuts?

Santhosh : Look over there! That is the zookeeper, he will buy nuts and fruits for these monkeys from the supermarket.

The educative zoo trip was proving to be more educative for Santhosh than little Shyam. They finally made a move from the monkey enclosure to an enclosure with colourful parrots.

Santhosh : Look, Shyama, at these beautiful parrots and cockatiels. Look at the colour of their feather and their beak.

Shyam was meanwhile distractedly observing a particularly loud and large crow cawing from a big bin.

He immediately giggled and said “Appa, look at this crow and the way its saying kaa kaa.”

Santhosh : What is there in a crow Shyama? Look at these parrots. They are special and beautiful in colour.

Shyam : The crow is also beautiful in colour Appa.  

While Santhosh looked at his son amused and surprised, little Shyama continued to look at the crow, playing a game of caw-caw with very excited squeals and jumps in between.