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!

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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. 

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

Breaking Beans

Our Little Kitchen

Green Beans are healthy, juicy and crunchy vegetables that are rich in nutrients. Very young children, just inducted into the kitchen, find the single step process of breaking beans just enough to challenge and hold their attention. The slender pods of the green beans help the child’s tender hands find strength in breaking them; there is joy in discovering tiny green beans inside. The repetition of the same step helps them gain confidence and a sense of completion of a task from start to finish.

Who is this for?

I would recommend this for children as young as 16 – 19 months. Even if they aren’t walking well, the adult can set this activity up at a table with a seat for the child to challenge their fine motor skills and muscle strength.

Things Required

  • 1 bowl (with a handful of green beans)
  • 1 colander

Preparation

Traditionally, green beans come with a thin string that runs along the seam. If you find this variety, for younger children, it is better to pick pods with the stalk. That way, we can show them to snap the stalk and also pull the string. In this recipe, I have used beans that do not have the string and can just be snapped in two. Also, a point to note is that when beans are steamed, there is usually no need to pull the string.

If you prefer, you are also free to trim the edges of the beans before setting the activity up for the child. In that case, it is nice to show them how you trim the edges. The child can be involved in discarding the edges.

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

Illustrated Guide

I like to begin with an invitation, “Let us break some beans and steam them for lunch.”  Introduce everything at the table. It is nice to point to the pods and even create an element of surprise on what will be inside when we snap the pods. 

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It is also wonderful to describe some physical properties for children such as “Oh these beans are green in colour, they are slender and long.” etc.

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Show the child to take and hold a pod in both hands.

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Exaggerate applying pressure and break the beans into two pieces.

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Point to the surprise in the pod – the tiny green beans.

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If you find that even after breaking, the beans are long, you can just casually remark, “Oh, this is still long, I am going to make it shorter” and then just snap it again.

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Place the broken beans in the colander. Let the child break beans however they can.

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Once the beans are broken, they can be taken in the colander for washing. Involve the child in putting the used items away or for wash.

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Short Guide

  • I like to begin with an invitation, “Let us break some beans and steam them for lunch.”
  • Introduce everything at the table. It is nice to point to the pods and even create an element of surprise on what will be inside when we snap the pods. It is also wonderful to describe some physical properties for children such as “Oh these beans are green in colour, they are slender and long.” etc.
  • Show the child to take and hold a pod in both hands.
  • Exaggerate applying pressure and break the beans into two pieces.
  • Point to the surprise in the pod – the tiny green beans.
  • If you find that even after breaking, the beans are long, you can just casually remark, “Oh, this is still long, I am going to make it shorter” and then just snap it again.
  • Place the broken beans in the colander.
  • Let the child break beans however they can.
  • Once the beans are broken, they can be taken in the colander for washing.
  • Involve the child in putting the used items away or for wash.

Play with the Natural Environment : From One Mamma to Another

Hear it from the Mammas!

Today, we live in a society where children and adults are increasingly cut off from and deprived of time with nature. How can we expand our understanding of outdoor play and understand the importance of children playing with nature?

We have a Montessori Mamma of an 18 month old from Bangalore, India sharing how children can explore the outdoors and develop a sense of belonging with the natural world.

Hi Karuna, tell us about yourself and your family.

Thank you for having me on Srishti. I am from Hyderabad, India and currently settled in Bangalore with my husband and our daughter, Urvi. My mother was a Montessori guide and that inspired me to become a certified Montessori teacher. Being aware of the Montessori philosophy, my husband and I chose to adopt it at home. It is a way of life and has empowered us as parents in so many ways. 

Can you describe Urvi’s home environment with some details about different parts of her home such as the living room, bedroom, bath, kitchen and dining?

Living Room : At the foyer, we have a child-sized chair set up for her to be able to sit down, put on or take off her socks and shoes. We keep two pairs of shoes tucked under the chair and the socks come from her wardrobe. Adjacent to the living room, we have an entertainment room with a few age-appropriate activities and an indoor slide set up for her. 

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Bedroom : Although we co-sleep, ever since she was mobile, we moved her onto a floor bed to facilitate independence. We have a small area set up with books and 2-3 activities for her to choose from while she is getting ready to tuck in for the night. We also have a changing station that includes a child-sized chair, a laundry basket, dustbin and a table with all the necessary supplies for her to access. At the dressing area, she has access to her comb, tissues to wipe herself, bindis and a few  hair bands if she wishes to wear one. 

Bathroom : Our bathroom setup is still a work-in-progress. At the moment, we are in the toilet learning phase and the door is always open for her to access. We have a floor potty chair, if she chooses to sit on it. As she has been showing interest in the water closet, we have a training seat on it as well. We are yet to set up a stool for her to be able to wash her hands independently. Meanwhile. we help her up at the wash basin to wash her hands. We’ve also kept a small towel for her to dry her hands once she is done. 

Kitchen & Dining : We converted an old step-stool into a kitchen helper in order to facilitate independence in the kitchen. Few of her utensils such as plates, glasses and spoons and snacks are arranged in an IKEA play kitchen. We also have a few cleaning utensils like a dustpan, brush, mop cloth and mopping stick handy for her to use when there is a spill. 

At mealtime, she has a choice between eating at her child-sized table and chair or at our table. She sits on the high chair or bar stool when she is at the table. 

Tell us a little about Urvi’s daily routine.

On a typical day, Urvi’s day starts between 6 and 7 am. Changing her diaper, offering to sit on the toilet and brushing her teeth are the three things that we try to be consistent with. If she resists, we come back when she is ready. 

Mornings are usually rushed, but she is involved in meal preparation, if it is simple (like idly or rice roti). She spends time with her father either reading books, listening to music, putting away laundry or going outside. Between 8 and 9 am, she has her breakfast followed by a bath. 

Between 10am and 12 pm, we do a sensory activity, listen to music or if the weather permits, we explore our outdoors and have a snack in-between. By 1pm she has her lunch. Usually, she takes a nap for an hour or two between 2 and 4 pm. Post 4pm, we run errands, do household chores, visit a park or do an activity at home like art, food preparation or dance. By 7pm, she has her dinner and bath around 8.30pm. Before going to bed, we spend sometime reading or singing a few songs. 

What constitutes Urvi’s outdoor environment?

We live in an ancestral house and are fortunate to have a back and front yard. The front yard has a few potted plants and a lawn. The backyard is mostly concrete floor with a patch of lawn. 

What are some ways in which Urvi explores the outdoors?

At present, she is drawn to movement, especially climbing, and loves climbing anything she can. An example being, the gate or stairs or a ramp. She enjoys following ants, butterflies and snails. At one point, she loved plucking leaves and flowers but now she prefers putting them in her mouth. Outdoor time has been an opportunity for trial and errors. Just the other day when we were outside, she put her thermic sense to use and started standing at different areas to check the heat. Our outdoor environment has been a wonderful source of repetition and concentration. 

What kind of outdoor activities do you set up for Urvi? How do you change them according to her needs and interests?

In the front yard, we have two buckets of different colours, a wheelbarrow and a watering can. One bucket is used to fill water for watering plants and the other bucket is for collecting dried or fallen leaves. The collected leaves are used for our fir trees as compost.

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In the backyard, we have rice flour for doing rangoli, bubble solution, primary coloured clothes pegs which she uses while drying clothes. We also use the pegs as an open-ended toy to form different shapes. We have some coloured chalk to go wild on the floor and refine her fine motor skills, a bowl and brush to paint with water on the floor and also a small scooter to scuttle around. 

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Our small patch of lawn has a concrete boundary and Urvi uses it as a balance beam. One of her preferred activities is to climb up the ramp, drop a ball and watch it roll. If there is something she is trying to master, I try to incorporate it in the outdoors or indoors. 

We love spending time in the outdoors doing sensory and art based activities. We spend some quiet time outside as well to observe and listen to our surroundings. We do sound mapping – since she still can’t put her thoughts on paper, we track sounds by pointing in the direction of it. If we find an insect, snail or butterfly that is idle, we try to observe it in proximity. 

How do you cultivate a love for plants and caring for them in Urvi?

The way she interacts with plants has changed over time. At one point, she had this strong urge to pull, pluck and yank flowers and leaves. Although, I gave her opportunities to satisfy her need to pull, my husband and I constantly modelled gentleness and mindfulness towards everything that needs to be dealt with care. Now, at 18 months, she is slowly aware of the fact that weeds need to be plucked, flowers can be plucked for use, herbs can be cut for cooking and everything in the garden needs nurturing. 

Do you regularly give her experiences of other outdoor environments that involve fresh air, plant care and natural exploration? How do you manage to find such places in buzzing, urban cities?

Almost 3-4 times a week, we go to different children’s parks in and around our locality. At least once a week, we go to the market to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers. There are days when we simply go for a stroll on the roads near our home (you will be surprised with the amount of things that catches our attention). To be honest, living in the city is quite a challenge in terms of finding age-appropriate places to explore with her, but through friends and social media, we find interesting places and events to explore at times. 

In what ways, do you think Urvi has benefitted from the outdoors?

I feel that spending time outdoors has helped her to be physically active. All the experiences outdoors, from her crawling days to walking now, has helped her to develop good balance, agility and coordination. At times, I find her in bouts of deep concentration. She seems to be aware of her surroundings and has good observation skills. Most of all, I feel it has helped her to be a calm and collected child. 

As a parent, why  do you think it is important for young children to spend considerable time outdoors, amidst nature?

Having exposed Urvi to spending time outdoors since birth, I feel that it has been the best stimulus for all the senses. The child is constantly evolving and nature has the power to constantly cater to the child’s developing needs. Being in nature is the perfect opportunity to observe the natural habitat for animals, notice changes in seasons, enjoy the cycle of plant growth. Supporting the child’s experiences and exploration through precise language nurtures their learning further. The foundation for all the sciences is rooted in nature and the best thing we can do as adults is to give them the time and expose them to different situations and places. 

Can you share a few guidelines with other parents on how to set up an outdoor environment for young children? (both apartments as well as independent houses)

For most parents, the biggest challenge is knowing what activities to offer to their children when it comes to the outdoors. Although there is no particular list to refer to, I believe irrespective of age, it’s wonderful to expose our children to gardening and composting. For a lot of us, gardening can be quite intimidating but for young children all you need is a pot, soil, seeds and water. It may grow, it may not, weeds may come, worms can come, the plant might die – it’s all an opportunity to learn.

For the ones who do not have enough outdoor space, they can consider bringing outdoor elements into the indoor space. A few easy-to-maintain and safe indoor plants for the child to take care of or a few herbs by the windowsill, a bird feeder, art, water play and open-ended loose parts (chips of wood, stones etc.) to explore can be other things to consider.

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.

aishu-kitchen-2-e1558134998634.jpeg

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.

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.

A Peep into Mantrini’s Curious Mind

Tales of Little Children

Here is a story of Mantrini who lives in Coimbatore, India with her parents Raghav and Shanti. Little Mantrini just turned four and was gifted a spacious sand pit in her backyard where she loves playing and enjoys the ample space all to herself. Mantrini’s mamma is expecting her second baby and although little Mantra has been well-informed of a new sibling in sight, she does not fully comprehend that she will have to share everything, including her precious sandpit with her new sibling.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, it was Shanti’s turn to rest after lunch while Raghav played with Mantra. Of late, it was becoming easier to engage her because of her new-found love – the sandpit. Little Mantra would promptly take her pail and spade with a couple of cookie moulds and plop herself in the sandpit for hours, playing and making castles and pretend-cookies. This Sunday afternoon was no exception. Raghav decided to relax on his favourite armchair with a book and oversee his daughter’s play.

Just as the book was beginning to get more gripping, Raghav heard a squeal from the bushes. He shut his book and was ready to run when he heard Mantra’s excited voice from behind the bushes, asking him to come there immediately. Raghav wanted to see what was causing all this exuberance and ran to see an army of ants marching towards the bushes.

What follows is the conversation that transpired between Little Mantra and her Appa. Although, we like to call it a conversation, Raghav is bent on calling it an interrogation, one that was a lot trickier than a job interview!

M  : “Appa, Appa, what are these?”

R  : “Oh!” Raghav’s excitement had waned a little on realising that all this fuss was over some ants. “ These are just ants, Mantra.”

M  : “Where are they going?”

R   : “Umm… to their home.”

M  : “Where is their home?”

R   : “Somewhere in those bushes.

Mantra, on hearing about a home in the bushes, promptly declared, “ I want to go there now!”

R   : “We cannot go into an ant’s house Mantra. It is too small.”

Mantra paused and glared at the ants and in no time bounced back with her next question, “ Is there an amma in the home?”

R   : “Yes”, Raghav was surprised at his vote of confidence in this reply.

M  : “Is there a paapa (baby) in the amma ant’s tummy?”

R   : “I don’t know Mantra.”

At this point, little Mantra seemed pensive and almost as if her curiosity had been satiated. As Raghav turned to head back to his chair, she shot back another question, “Appa, Appa, does the ant go poop?”

R   : “Yes, I’m sure they do.”

M  : “I want to go poopy too.”

Raghav lost all hope of finding out what happens next in the book and shut it. “ Okay, let’s go inside.” Mantra ran towards him and continued asking questions in between breaths. “Does the ant wear diaper, appa?”

R  : “No kanna, not at all.” Raghav was becoming more and more surprised at his expertise in the matters of ants.  

While Mantra was on her potty, she didn’t stop her questions and continued, “ Does the ant like Dora?”

R   : “No kanna, the ant likes sugar and all things sweet.”

M  : “Can I bring the ant inside to play? I will give it sugar. It can be my friend.”

R  : “No, Mantra, you cannot do all that. Ants will bite you.”

Mantra was about to ask her next question on why ants bite and how they will bite her if they were her friend, when Shanti entered the room. Raghav, who was perspiring at this point with the way the questions were progressing, gladly let Shanti answer Mantra’s questions and returned to his lazy chair.

On his way back, he couldn’t help but wonder how his four-year old daughter had managed to ask him more questions than his manager at work!

Making Lassi

Our Little Kitchen

Lassi, also known as buttermilk, is a drink that is had in most Indian households. Since curd is an integral part of Indian meals, children get to see someone in the home busily churn buttermilk on those hot and humid afternoons. Lassi-making is a multi-step activity that draws young children because it involves pouring water, transferring the curd and churning the mixture. Traditionally, in South India, we use a மத்து (matthu) to churn the buttermilk, but in this case, I have used a whisk.

Who is this for?

I would begin around 20 months.

Things Required

  • 3 small bowls for (jaggery, cardamom and saffron) 
  • 1 tumbler/pitcher for water
  • 1 medium size bowl for thick curd
  • 1 spoon for the curd
  • 1 large bowl for whisking
  • 1 small whisk
  • Glasses for sharing

Preparation

I find that to spoon curd into a bowl calls for more focus and eye-hand coordination which challenges young children. They may lose interest if they are older. Instead of having water in a tumbler, walking to fetch water is an option which young children, who have just begun walking, enjoy.

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

Illustrated Guide

I like to begin with an invitation, “It’s such a hot day, let’s make some sweet lassi for all of us.” Introduce everything on the tray (if you have them arranged) else tell the child what we need and gather them together. Pause and take in the aroma, texture and appearance of each of the spices – jaggery, saffron and cardamom.

Lassi 1

Show the child to spoon the curd into the whisking bowl.

Lassi 2

Pour the water into the bowl.

Lassi 3

Now guide the child to add each of the spices.

Lassi 4

Begin whisking! This movement needs to be exaggerated and slowed down for the child to observe! When the child repeats after, let them whisk however they can.

Lassi 5

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

Lassi 6

Short Guide

  • I like to begin with an invitation, “It’s such a hot day, let’s make some sweet lassi for all of us.”
  • Introduce everything on the tray (if you have them arranged) else tell the child what we need and gather them together.
  • Pause and take in the aroma, texture and appearance of each of the spices – jaggery, saffron and cardamom.
  • Show the child to spoon the curd into the whisking bowl.
  • Pour the water into the bowl.
  • Now guide the child to add each of the spices.
  • Begin whisking. This movement needs to be exaggerated and slowed down for the child to observe.
  • Let the child whisk however they can.
  • Involve the child in putting the items back in their place (or for wash)