That Empty Box is ALSO a Toy!

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What is a toy?

To answer this question, we first need to look at how we (adults) define and view toys versus how children view toys. We have a very specific understanding of what a toy is. A toy is something that a child can play with. But, this ‘something’ comes with a disclaimer. We are comfortable when a child plays with a toy that is manufactured by the toy industry that has made sure it is age and developmentally appropriate. That, that piece of object carries the seal of the toy industry.  So, if a baby wants to play with a mesh sieve from the kitchen or a toddler wants to use the broom, we are not wholly comfortable. We don’t consider these as toys. We redirect them almost instantly and instinctively without much thought, “Why don’t you play with your toys?” 

But, what is a toy for a child? 

For a young child, anything and everything is a toy. If a toy is something to explore and play with, then yes, everything is a toy. We forget that babies come afresh into this world. They are free of our societal and cultural conditioning – they do not look at the hair brush and instantly associate it with combing. They will grow to create such associations. But, they are, in a sense, free of the restrictions that we hold. So, if a baby finds a hairbrush, they will mouth it, roll it, chase it, mouth it again and delight in the texture of the bristles and explore it with fervor. A toddler might not just brush their hair but their feet, their frilly frock, the couch pillow. An older child may run towards a heap of leaves, jump into it, climb out of it, stomp on it, jump into it again and giggle in the rustle and chaos of the scatter. This play, this exploration of the object is their way of understanding and engaging with the world. It is their way of asking “why not?”

But, do we look at these as toys? And, more importantly, do we look at this as play?

If the children are engaging in repeated exploration and manipulation of the objects and if the objects are giving them joy, can we not look at the hairbrush and the heap of leaves also as toys to play with? 

Specific Playthings

The toy industry is a multi-billion dollar establishment whose sole purpose is to design and manufacture toys for children. Think about it, there is an entire industry dedicated to selling playthings for children. This is no small thing! This is a huge deal in giving children the much needed place in society, in giving their developing intelligence and innate curiosity due recognition. With more and more research emerging in the field of early childhood, toys are becoming further refined. There are toys to help children count, learn letters, reason, code, hone their eye-hand coordination and challenge their gross motor skills. In a way, the industry has left no stone unturned.  

But, by purchasing these toys, there is a certain security we derive. Firstly, we believe that ALL the toys that come through the industry are developmentally appropriate – they serve a purpose, a goal. That the toys are essentially what children should be playing with. That the toys with the lofty labels are what shape children in their lives. As goal driven individuals who seek results, we are convinced to buy a toy only when we are assured of its outcomes.

A mock example of how we typically choose toys for play

We know that by purchasing that particular toy, we are offering, essentially, a lesson on logic or the letters. We bask in the safety of these toys because we simply know. We feel secure because we can, in a certain sense, control the kind of early childhood experiences we can give our children. A rich environment filled with age-appropriate toys, each of which promise a skill, a learning! 

The Child’s Play 

But then, this child enters the scene and runs toward the cardboard box in which the toy itself arrived and plays endlessly with it. This is unsettling because we question what skill the child is acquiring through such play. We want them to play with the toy and not the box.

So, we show them to place the ball in the hole and the baby chooses to roll the ball on the floor. We are tempted to redirect them. Because, we know that by dropping the ball in the hole, they are learning a very specific skill. But what if the baby wants to roll the ball elsewhere? Drop it down an inclined slope? Are we willing to let them? Are we willing to let go of knowing ‘what’ they are learning from each exploration, from each play? Can we be comfortable in that space of not knowing? 

We must remember that children do not differentiate between a didactic toy and a non-toy, nor are they result-oriented. In a sense, children make every object a didactic object. They are little scientists who engage through experiment. They also do things for the sake of it.

They jump in the puddle of water because that is calling to them. Just because. What could they be learning from that play? We don’t know. Maybe they are teaching us to be joyful in the moment.

Letting Go | Finding a Balance 

In some ways, we need to let go of this control. We need to let children decide what they want to play with and how. We are going to watch for disrespectful behaviour and redirect those energies but, even that, we need to watch. Remember, young children are free of the layers of conditioning that we have? So, are they intentionally disrespecting the object or just exploring it in yet another way? We need to observe before intervening. 

We also need to strike some balance. Children do need didactic toys, they do need play that meets specific developmental needs. But, they also need time to play without constraints. If they want to roll the ball downhill instead of putting it in the hole, let them. 

We need to take away the notion that children need to learn something from every toy. We need to let go of controlling what they are learning from every experience. We need to be okay with not being able to pin down on what developmental need is being met through each play. 

So, the next time they go for the empty box, refrain from redirecting them to play with their ‘toys’. Instead, mark the joy of sitting inside that empty box, diving into the heap of leaves and jumping on a puddle of water as the mystery of childhood, the child’s world, their own domain and sometimes, at least sometimes, let’s not meddle with it.

“Let the children be free; encourage them; let them run outside when it is raining; let them remove their shoes when they find a puddle of water; and, when the grass of the meadows is damp with dew, let them run on it and trample it with their bare feet; let them rest peacefully when a tree invites them to sleep beneath its shade; let them shout and laugh when the sun wakes them in the morning as it wakes every living creature that divides its day between walking and sleeping.”

Dr. Montessori, The Discovery of the Child

Nurturing a Holistic Relationship with Food : From One Mamma to Another

Hear it from the Mammas!

Hi Janani, thanks for being back to share another story on the blog. Last time was about baby swimming. This time let’s talk about food.

I am happy to be back on Srishti to share yet another story as a mother. Although food and food making are given a lot of importance in our (Indian) culture, I grew up eating food for the sake of it. It was an imposed activity which I never really enjoyed, until I met my husband, Abhinav. He is a food enthusiast and appreciates any food offered to him and this entirely changed my relationship with food. I realised that the food that we eat not only decides our physical health but also the very way we feel and experience life. Therefore, as a mother, it was vital for me to enable my daughter, Agni, to have a positive relationship with food right from the beginning.

When did you start introducing other foods to your daughter and how did you go about this?

When A was about 3-4 months old, just like every other baby, she used to put things in her mouth to explore the environment through her senses. I consider this ‘mouthing’ to also be a natural instinct for babies to explore foods. I initially introduced food by giving her whole carrots, lemons, apples, coriander etc., to play with. From 5 months onwards, she was let to feed herself when she was hungry. She was made to sit on a highchair and was offered finger foods that included a mix of soft-textured fruits, veggies, and some cooked grains. As she grew older, I introduced foods with harder textures, and mixed ingredients. By 8-10 months, her chewing skills, dexterity, hand-eye coordination and even sorting skills (she used to sort a mixed platter of fruits by colour, shape, type) had improved tremendously. This whole process allowed her to be ‘in-charge’ of when, what, and how much she wanted to eat.

Can you describe Agni’s eating area?

We are a small family of three – Agni, my husband and myself living in Germany. When we are at home, we prefer to eat together as a family sitting at the dining table. Agni used to sit on a highchair until 1.5 years, but then shifted to a normal chair with a booster seat that helps her to independently climb up and climb down from it. While we eat, we appreciate the different tastes, and discuss our day’s activities. It is important for us that there is no other parallel activity happening while we are eating. This focus helps Agni to appreciate, enjoy, and be grateful for the food she eats.

How open is she to trying different foods?

Right from the beginning, Agni loved to explore different tastes. I could say, mealtimes are the ‘high points’ in her day. She looks forward to eating every meal with so much joy and excitement. She is always curious and ready to try out new tastes.

How do you and your husband support your daughter’s approach to food?

We support Agni’s approach to food by enabling independence. We introduced her to a spoon by 15 months, and a fork and knife by 18 months. We keep some healthy snacks and fruits that are easily accessible to her throughout the day that allows her to eat something in case she gets hungry. Just like how she is in-charge of eating the food, we also encourage her to be part of the clean-up in whatever way she can. Overall, the whole process over the last 2 years has required tremendous patience from our side especially because – as a baby, it used to be extremely messy when she ate, involving an elaborate clean-up after every meal. But all this effort has been totally worth it.

Does your daughter participate in preparation of food?

We generally prepare two meals at home every day. I try to do most of my household chores along with Agni. So, she is continually involved in the preparation of food as well. She participates in washing, de-stemming, sorting, and clearing of the ingredients used to prepare the meal. She smells and tastes the different flavours while I cook. She understands that preparing a meal takes a long time and effort. She is also part of our visits to the farmers market or supermarket where she chooses the fruits and vegetables.

Is it important to give children the experience of seeing food grow? How do you think this impacts their attitude towards food?

In a world where we are so disconnected with our choices, it’s important that a child knows where the food comes from. In the last few months, we are actively involved in growing plants at home in our small garden. Agni tends to the soil, waters the plants, and experiences the process of growing them. We, in whatever way possible, explain and communicate to Agni the importance of actively contributing to a changing world – a kinder world. So as a family, we are trying to reduce the consumption of animal-based products (dairy, eggs etc.).

Can you share with other parents a few guidelines on approaching food holistically?

Every human baby has an in-built mechanism to feed themselves. As a caregiver, it is important to nurture and give space for this to develop well. Besides, exposure to food need not just be confined to the dining table but can be extended to the kitchen, gardens, or farms.

Let’s talk about Mess!

Articles

Children are messy! This is a common notion that we adults share. Whether they are playing with some blocks or washing their hands, whether they are painting or rolling up a rug, mess always seems to follow children. We instantly know there is evidence of a child’s handiwork wherever things are in disarray. 

Trigger for a Reaction

Mess is something that throws many of us off. It is a cue for an elaborate clean up – no adult with a toddler needs to be told the scrubbing that has to be done following a painting session. Mess is something many of us struggle to look past because it requires effort to rectify, energy to restore and time to reset. Mess is not something we want to have time for because we associate mess with mischief, disrespect and unruly behavior. We think of mess as bad.

But, in early childhood, mess is not a sign of rebellion. It is a sign of learning, a sign of overwhelm, a sign of wanting some 1:1 time. In young children, mess is a reminder for observation. 

Types of Mess 

  • The “ I’m learning” Mess

When a child is learning to do something by themselves, there is going to be a mess. This is a natural part of exploration and learning. We need to train our eyes to look at the mess and see what it symbolises. It is a sign of work. In the process of taking food from the plate to their mouth, their yet-to-be coordinated body, their yet-to-gain finesse hands have spilled some or most of the meal. This type of mess is the remnant of a child at work. 

How to help?

We help by first not saying, “Oh my god! Look at what a mess you have made. This is why I prefer to brush your teeth myself!” Likewise, there is also no need to tell this child that the mess is a sign that they are learning. Instead, what we can actually do is look at this child.

  • Is this child a baby, a toddler or an older child of 4 or 5 years? 
  • Can this child help you in the clean up? If so, is this child actually going to clean up without your prompt?

If they are going to clean up, we just wait. Else, we swoop in and say, “Okay, so you have finished washing your hands. I notice some water here. How about we get that purple sponge and clean it up?” If this is a baby who cannot yet help, we can offer a piece of cloth for them to hold and also model how to clean up. Yes, this is hard work! But we need to remind ourselves that we are setting the tone for future initiatives by this child. When this baby becomes able and ready, they can collaborate in fixing the mess. 

  • The “ I have too much” Mess

Another kind of mess happens often with children who have too much. For this, we need to understand that our level of too much and the child’s level of too much are not the same. If we have a book cabinet with about 30 books, we can look for the title we want from the mix and move on to reading the chosen book. But, even we struggle nowadays, I must say. Everytime we are on Netflix, we take hours just deciding which movie to watch. If this is true for us, then it is even more true for little children. They need limitations. 

When we have all their toys dumped in a tub inside a playpen, there is going to be a mess. This is a kind of mess that is detrimental to progress because it curbs exploration. It leads to a child jumping from one to another, banging, throwing, screaming and creating further mess – signs of the child coping with the mess. 

How to help?

We help by offering this child the much needed limitation. Have a look at what draws the child and choose 3 – 5 toys that support or aid this. Put everything else away in a closet, out of the child’s sight! Now, these chosen toys can be arranged very neatly on a mat on the floor, under the centre table, on a low cabinet or shelf. The toys can be rotated when we feel the child is seeking new challenges. 

  • The “ I need some attention” Mess

This happens to almost all of us several times a day. Adults have a lot of responsibilities around the house – we have to wash the dishes, fold the clothes, take that important call and we cannot give children our full attention all the time. And, we needn’t! But, when the child is creating a mess, it is a sign that they need help. It is not a time to ignore the child or the mess as this child needs help to fix the mess, to fix that feeling of wanting to create the mess. It is  a reminder to stop. 

How to help?

If this is a toddler or an older child and you have to take that important call, talk to them. Tell them, “Amma really needs to talk to this client. I will be with you as soon as I am done. You can bring a nice book over here and read it. We can look at it again after I am done.” They may be able to wait or they may not, depending on the situation and prior experience with waiting. Once you are done, you can go over and give them that 1:1 time to calm their energies.

It is important to stop because we first need to calm the energies, calm the need to make that mess. Children also need bites of 1:1 time with us during the day. This will calm, ground and secure them, readying them for periods of play. 

  • The “ I’m curious” Mess

Young children are learning. They are learning that when they release their hold, that piece of potato will fall splat on the floor, that when they turn the tap fully, water is going to flow at full force. This mess is similar to a child who is learning. However, this mess may happen because of a curiosity to know what happens if? This is a way to understand that their actions impact their world. 

How to help?

We help by showing the child how to fix the mess once the curious exploration comes to an end. This is very similar to the, “I’m learning mess” and requires the same kind of assistance in resolving.

Looking beyond the Chaos 

Understanding where children are in their development, observing their actions and the motives behind them will help us form a bigger picture of their mess.

The child’s order and disorder, the successes he attains, depend often on one’s ability to observe the least particulars, because only through doing will the result be satisfactory.”

Maria Montessori, The Child in the Family

As we have seen, mess is a sign of work, a sign of learning, a sign of exploration, a sign of having waited. Mess is a sign of growth. 

Hummus

Our Little Kitchen

Hummus is a traditional Mediterranean dish that always accompanies a batch of warm pita bread. In pop culture, hummus is seen pretty much everywhere, as a side for some baked pita chips or along with raw vegetables such as carrots, cucumbers and bell peppers. Hummus is packed in nutrition and is a wonderful snack that young children can help prepare for the whole family. It helps them sequence steps, exercise their muscle strength, use their judgement and practice plenty of perseverance. These days, hummus is made in a blender but for young children, it is wonderful to learn it the traditional way, using a mortar & pestle and their bare hands to put them all together!

Who is this for?

I would recommend this for children upwards of 2 years.

Things Required

1 bowl for (15 tsp or 25 grams cooked and soft garbanzo beans)

1 spoon

5 small bowls for (diced garlic, salt, lemon juice, tahini and olive oil)

1 sturdy and functional mortar and pestle

1 small pitcher (for water)

Preparation

As part of preparation from your side, make sure the garbanzo beans are very soft and cooked. With young children, I prefer to add the beans in batches and mash them instead of adding them all together. This also encourages them to count and makes it quite exciting. It increases the challenge of mashing for the child, making it accessible instead of overwhelming!

It is also important to remember that if we aim for a perfectly mashed hummus with young children, it may throw them off the activity. When you begin, let the child mash however they can and as much as they can. You can also offer to collaborate and take turns. As always, you are the best judge of what works will for your child in your kitchen!

Illustrated Guide

I like to begin with an invitation, “Let me show you how to make some hummus today.” Introduce everything at the table, else tell the child what is required and gather them together.

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Encourage the child to explore the ingredients using their senses, taste a little garlic, a bit of the tahini and even some raw lemon juice to get to know the flavours that are going to enhance their hummus!

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Show the child to transfer the minced garlic and salt into the mortar.

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Exert pressure and show the child to crush them using the pestle. It is important to exaggerate this movement to draw attention to the pressure applied.

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Show the child to count 5 spoons of the garbanzo beans into the mortar. Stop and show the child to mash them.

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Let the child mash however they can. You can offer to hold the mortar and even take turns mashing them (if the child needs that help)

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Spoon 5 more spoons of beans into the mortar and continue mashing together. Once they have been mashed well, encourage the child to taste a little bit of the hummus before adding more flavours.

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Show the child to transfer the lemon juice, the tahini and olive oil to the mashed beans. Mash again using the pestle.

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If it looks dry, show the child to fetch water in the small pitcher and add it to the hummus. Mash again using the pestle until you and child are satisfied with the desired consistency. Involve the child in putting the use items away or for wash.

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The child can have hummus as a perfect snack with cut cucumbers, carrots or celery or even bread or cracker.

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Short Guide

I like to begin with an invitation, “Let me show you how to make some hummus today.”

Introduce everything at the table, else tell the child what is required and gather them together.

Encourage the child to explore the ingredients using their senses, taste a little garlic, a bit of the tahini and even some raw lemon juice to get to know the flavours that are going to enhance their hummus!

Show the child to transfer the minced garlic and salt into the mortar.

Exert pressure and show the child to crush them using the pestle. It is important to exaggerate this movement to draw attention to the pressure applied.

Show the child to count 5 spoons of the garbanzo beans into the mortar. Stop and show the child to mash them.

Let the child mash however they can. You can offer to hold the mortar and even take turns mashing them (if the child needs that help)

Draw attention to how the beans are getting mashed and soft.

Spoon 5 more spoons of beans into the mortar and continue mashing together.

Once they have been mashed well, encourage the child to taste a little bit of the hummus before adding more flavours.

Show the child to transfer the lemon juice, the tahini and olive oil to the mashed beans.

Mash again using the pestle.

If it looks dry, show the child to fetch water in the small pitcher and add it to the hummus.

Mash again using the pestle until you and child are satisfied with the desired consistency.

Involve the child in putting the use items away or for wash.

The child can have hummus as a perfect snack with cut cucumbers, carrots or celery or even bread or cracker.

Making Peas Pulav

Our Little Kitchen

Peas Pilaf or Pulav is an aromatic rice made using a variety of spices and green peas. It is a wonderful multi-step activity that helps young children in sequencing and organising steps and coordinating their fine motor movements. The control required in spooning rice and peas, pouring water and calculating when to close the water dispenser are simple challenges that make the activity exciting. Not to mention, the aromatic spices are a treat to the olfactory and gustatory senses.

Who is this for?

I would begin around 22- 24 months

Things Required

  • 1 medium sized bowls (½ cup shelled green peas)
  • 1 medium bowl (1 cup long-grain basmati rice)
  • 1 pitcher (water)
  • 1 small bowl (2 tbsp ghee or soft butter)
  • 1 small bowl (2 – 3 cloves)
  • 1 small bowl (cumin seeds)
  • 1 small bowl (salt to taste)
  • 1 mixing ladle
  • 1 spoon
  • 1 rice cooker

Preparation

I generally do not recommend pre-measuring water in a cup because walking up and down to fetch water and learning when to close and open the water-dispenser challenges young children’s judgement and developing gross motor coordination. I also do not prefer to crowd the pulav with too many spices especially when young children are smelling, tasting and mixing.

Slicing onions are a wonderful step that can be added to the recipe. Onions can be sliced by the adult since they are tough roots. However, the tears that come while slicing onions, the spicy taste and aromatic smell of onions are all wonderful experiences to offer young children who can assist in discarding the skin, washing the onion, etc.

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

Illustrated Guide

I like to begin with an invitation, “Let’s go and make peas pulao for dinner.” Introduce all the ingredients at the table.

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Let the child touch and feel the tough peas, the washed rice and smell the spices and ghee.

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Show the child to spoon the rice into the cooker.

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Move the peas to the front and the empty rice bowl to the back to give better access to the child. Show the child to spoon the peas into the cooker. 

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Once they have been transferred, mix the two well.

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Show the child to measure two cups of water and pour into the cooker. Let the child pour however they can.

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Transfer the cumin, cloves and the salt into the cooker.

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Bring the ghee bowl closer to the cooker and pour it into the cooker.

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Mix all the ingredients well.

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The child can carry it to the plug source and the adult can plug it in. Involve the child in putting the used items away or for wash. Once the rice is done, take in the aroma and warmth of the pulao.

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Short Guide

  • I like to begin with an invitation, “Let’s go and make peas pulao for dinner.”
  • Introduce all the ingredients at the table. Let the child touch and feel the tough peas, the washed rice and smell the spices and ghee.
  • Show the child to spoon the rice into the cooker.
  • Move the peas to the front and the empty rice bowl to the back to give better access to the child. 
  • Show the child to spoon the peas into the cooker. 
  • Show the child to spoon the peas into the cooker.
  • Once they have been transferred, mix the two well.
  • Show the child to measure two cups of water and pour into the cooker. Let the child pour however they can.
  • Transfer the cumin, cloves and the salt into the cooker.
  • Bring the ghee bowl closer to the cooker and pour it into the cooker.
  • Mix all the ingredients well.
  • The child can carry it to the plug source and the adult can plug it in.
  • Involve the child in putting the used items away or for wash.
  • Once the rice is done, take in the aroma and warmth of the pulao.

Note

Since the recipe calls for several small bowls, as you finish transferring, you can tell the child that the bowl is empty and move it to the side. Washing Rice and Shelling Peas are separate activities which can be viewed here. 

Washing Rice

Our Little Kitchen

Washing rice is a tradition that has been sacredly followed in many cultures for several generations. Children growing up in such environments watch this activity on a daily basis. This familiarity creates enthusiasm and since it involves water, they relish it. The texture of the dry rice as against the wet rice, the unique scent of each rice and their colour, along with the eye-hand coordination and muscle strength that this activity requires, contribute to an engaging and rich sensory experience.

Who is this for?

I would recommend this for children older than 18 months.

Things Required

  • 1 small bowl for rice (white, brown, black or red)
  • 1 medium pitcher for water
  • 1 rice washing colander 
  • 1 medium bowl for the starchy water 

Preparation

Usually, as adults, we wash rice at the sink by holding the colander in one hand and washing with the other. This is hard for young children who lack that kind of control. Also, most sinks at our homes are at adult height and for a toddler to stand on a step stool and handle the colander and water is inconvenient. For this reason, I find that having everything at a table frees the child to focus on the task in hand. An older child, who has more balance and control over water usage can wash directly at the sink.

Some families are sentimental about wastage of rice. In such a case, minimise the quantity of rice in the bowl or switch to a smaller bowl.

I also feel that we need to find a balance between child size tools and adult tools in the kitchen. For instance, in this recipe I have used an adult colander because I feel the child can achieve the purpose of the task with this colander. These are also ways to communicate to the child that our worlds can meet and merge in the kitchen! As always, you are the best judge of what will work in your home for your child!

Illustrated Guide

I like to begin with an invitation, “Come, let us wash some rice for dinner.” Introduce everything at the table else tell the child what is required and gather them together.

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Show the child to feel the texture of dry rice and take in the unique aroma.

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Show the child to transfer the rice into the colander.

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Fetch water in a pitcher and show the child to pour into the colander.

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Mix and draw attention to the change in colour of the water.

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Let the child mix and wash the rice however they can. Show the child to pour the starchy water into the medium bowl. 

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It is helpful to draw attention to the water flowing through the holes. 

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Let the child repeat by fetching more water and washing. I generally use the starchy water to feed the plants or pour in a bowl for birds and squirrels. Involve the child in putting the items back in their place or for wash.

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Short Guide

  • I like to begin with an invitation, “Come, let us wash some rice for dinner.”
  • Introduce everything at the table else tell the child what is required and gather them together.
  • Show the child to feel the texture of dry rice and take in the unique aroma.
  • Show the child to transfer the rice into the colander.
  • Fetch water in a pitcher and show the child to pour into the colander.
  • Mix and draw attention to the change in colour of the water.
  • Let the child mix and wash the rice however they can. 
  • Show the child to pour the starchy water into the medium bowl.
  • It is helpful to draw attention to the water flowing through the holes. 
  • Let the child repeat by fetching more water and washing.
  • I generally use the starchy water to feed the plants or pour in a bowl for birds and squirrels.
  • Involve the child in putting the items back in their place or for wash.