Today, September 22nd aka Fall Equinox was a day to celebrate the beginnings of my self employment. I showed up to High Park in Toronto and was met by a group of shy 4 5 and 6 year old's. We started by discussing our favourite spots at high park as they had already built a relationship to it.
I shared that my favourite place was the black oak savannah near the nature centre. As I explained why I liked it, I focused on the ecology and the history and cultural importance of this area. The kids seemed interested but when I asked them their favourite spots they told me a cedar tunnel and a dirt pit.
It sounded like some great spots and when I asked them why they liked those places, they couldn't give me an exact answer so we just decided to go to them.
On the first day, we went to the 'cedar tunnel'. What it turned out to be was a cedar shrub that their tiny bodies could get under and into. There are a bunch of little tunnels and secret spots for them to hide, but most importantly, it lends itself to imagination! Within minutes of our arrival, they ran off into the 'castle' forts of the cedar tunnel, the rocks nearby became unicorns and the entire area was their castle grounds. Each kid took on a role and as I left them to their play, I recorded what happened.
One kid asked me if I would help her feed the unicorns while the others wanted me to come inside and check out their forts. It was a great imaginative morning.
The next day, we strolled along to a dirt pit as they called it. It turns out this is a dried up stream bed that perhaps used to be a waterfall and a meandering stream going down the ravine. They LOVE this place. It's made of soft sandy surfaces, tree roots, ravine walls, and lots of opportunities to dig with sticks and make up games. They played here for two hours uninterrupted and I just observed them and recorded. Their game consisted of some of them becoming dogs while the others were the trainers. Some kids created a sofa while others some stairs to climb up to the top with and some others created a frog habitat to help a frog we found trying to jump up to the top.
It was a wonderful time and the kids were sooo happy to have free play time at these places. Kids don't need a lot to feel excited, they need mostly for adults to step away and leave them be to their play. Their ability to self regulate, get along, solve problems, and work as a team was amazing. They were giggling and laughing for hours and that was a fantastic first two days in nature!
It's almost fall, the bees are busy pollinating golden rods, the squirrels are collecting and eating nuts, and the leaves are beginning to change colour. Let's take our children outside for some great learning opportunities about nature in late summer.
In this September newsletter, I'll introduce you to a great game you can do to help kids learn about strategies that different squirrels use for hiding food and how to be inquisitive about different insects you can find lingering on the fall flowers.
In order to get your kids interested in squirrels, just start by asking them some inquisitive questions such as...
1) Why do squirrels bury nuts?
2) How do squirrels organize their nut hoard?
3) Do red squirrels and grey squirrels hid their nuts in groups or individually? Why?
4) Where do squirrels hide their nuts?
5) Do squirrels remember where they hide their nuts?
6) Which predators eat squirrels nuts?
7) How much do you think a squirrel weighs?
8) What do squirrels do when they perceive danger?
9) How many squirrels are in ... Toronto? Why are there so many squirrels?
10) Do squirrels hibernate in the winter?
Activity Ideas- "Oh Nuts!" from 'The Big Book of Nature Activities' by Drew Monkman/Jacob Rodenburg
Red squirrels- Hide their food in "piles". They'll need to find their food during winter. When encountering danger, squirrels touch a tree, indicating that they have climbed to safety.
Gray squirrels- Hide their food "one by one". Like red squirrels, they'll need to find their food during winter. When encountering danger, they too touch a tree".
Jays- Can steal food. Jays are free to watch squirrels hide their food.
Red fox- Eat squirrels and jays. Foxes simply tag an animal to indicate that they have eaten it. Tagged squirrels and jays must return to the start area.
I most recently started researching Peter Gray and other unschooling- play researchers and learned a lot.
Most of what I've been doing naturally in my work at Gradale and with my own camps and pandemic pods is based on child-led structured play. I watched Peter Gray's "the decline of play" on youtube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg-GEzM7iTk&t=849s)
and I also found a fantastic teacher "teacher Tom" online.
I know instinctively that kids like to play and need it because they are happy when they do it but also they learn how to get along.
When kids are given freedom to play, they will. They will play all day. Hunter gatherer children who have been studied, say that the children and young teenagers were free to play and explore all day long from day to dusk all day long. The adults in these cultures know to let them play because it helps them learn.
These kids are super resilient, cooperative, mature, and happy. Therefore, play is really important that young mammals aquire skills that will let them be successful adults.
Why is play then on the decline? In the last 50-60 years, children have lost the ability to play. When I ask my parents who are in their 60's, they told me they had school but that they would spend most of their time playing outside alone with their friends or siblings. Not only this but the recess and lunch time hours were much longer during school. Kids in elementary school didn't have homework so this gave them more time to play.
We need to bring back this hunter-gatherer education for kids. Kids NEED more time to play. Play is self-controlled and self-directed. The self-directed aspect of play gives it the educative power says Peter Gray.
Stop having a 'schoolish' view of education thinking that adults are the only ones who can educate children. This isn't grounded in facts and science about how children learn.
5 to 8 times as many kids today suffer from anxiety or depression as was true in the 1950's. The suicide rate of 15 and under has gained tremendously. Our world is declining for children. Not only this but children feel they have a lack of control of their lives more and more.
In my work with children during the pandemic, they have continued to show the highest rates of resiliency than the adults. They are more concerned with playing with their friends than they are about the pandemic. The kids I work with are motivated by playing, climbing, using their imaginations, being creative, and problem solving in groups than they are about the pandemic.
Things must change. If you are confused about how to educate your children right now as a homeschooling parent or you are worried that they are learning enough at school, please try to study the decline of play. Our anxieties and worries are completely in the wrong direction, worrying about academics when we should rather be concerned about the lack of recess time our children get, the lack of time they have playing freely with their friends, the lack of time they get to choose how they want to play, and the increase in mental health disorders of children.
Play play and more play is needed.
Last year I had a unique opportunity to teach a group of 'special needs' children at Gradale Academy. I was the only teacher and there was minimal supervision, so for an entire year, I decided to take the kids outside for mostly unstructured play time two hours a day.
At first, I tried to teach them the names of trees, play games, learn about the pond life.but all these kids wanted to do was play on their own. The age of the kids was grade 4-6 so 8-12. There were 9 boys and 2 girls.
What happened? They didn't just climb and catch frogs, they learned essential social, emotional, and self regulation strategies, they engaged in risky play, learned how to get along, solved their own disputes, made up imagination games, and NEVER GOT BORED!
Some of my favourite members were- the kids found sticks and created forts against some fallen trees. The fallen logs became a highway and their forts were their homes and they named this place downtown. They created an entirely imaginative town and role-played different social figures. One student became the police officer, another was the town mayor etc.. The kids got a long mostly but at times, conflicts happened such as students entering another students home or someone throwing a stick at another student. However, they were able to sort out the fights on their own through active dialogue without me.
Another really great memory was when we discovered a frozen shallow pond and the kids decided they wanted to play hockey with found sticks in nature and used a chunk of ice for the puck. The kids played this game for HOURS.
What did I learn in this year...the more I allowed them free unstructured play as I sat in a quiet area where I could observe them and supervise, they students play got more dynamic, rich, imaginative, creative, and socially driven. The more I asked them to do something specific, they more they had aversion to us being outside.
It taught me how much children crave free unstructured play time and why they need it. It's how children learn and play allows them to be themselves- creative, imaginative, curious, and simply have fun.
If you are a parent or teacher, please give your children as much unstructured play time as possible and enjoy watching what they do!
I worked as a teacher trainer for 4 years, and prior to that in an English Educational Department as a trainer for pre-service teachers. In those experiences, I was always frustrated by the lack of open mindedness and flexibility of the trainees to stop having such a ridiculously detailed agenda aka the 'lesson plan'. Lesson plans are like a recipe. If you haven't made the dish at all, it can be useful to use a recipe the first time in order to make the dish tasty. However, as you progress along in your cooking, you can add lib and make it up as you go along. If you cook without a recipe, you are inventing, you are creating, you are taking a risk, you are in the moment, you are trusting yourself. These are all of the elements that are also necessary when working with children.
1. Trust- trusting children to learn themselves isn't easy to do if you are used to planning a detailed lesson plan with a goal. Having a goal at the end of the lesson isn't allowing for creativity, imagination, invention, and the use of curiosity. When you trust the children and the flow of their play, you'll see that they come up with very interesting games, role-plays, and games that require no prior set up and there is no end goal. The kids just enjoy playing in the moment and they are then able to do what they do naturally, invent, be creative, and play.
2. Stop talking- don't talk. Even I would move yourself away from the students or children to give them the impression that they are alone. I usually sit on a fence nearby or above them on a hill so I can see them all. I don't even interfere right away if they are fighting. I let them sort it out on their own first. This isn't laziness, it's me observing their play, making sure they are safe, and being fascinated with their play. It's great, you should try it.
3. Responsiveness- responding is a way of mentoring. When you have no plan, you put yourself in a position to be passive and responsive to the children's needs. There is usually reactiveness in a planned classroom when students aren't on task or doing what they're supposed to so they fit the standard and the end goal. In a non planned atmosphere, your job is to respond to students interests, questions, or just general play. Easy.
4. Lastly, you need to be in the moment and think like a kid. I find, when I get really grounded and focus in the moment, I can really let the kids play, explore, and be curious about the world around them. I don't think about the past, or the future or how these even connect. I literally just observe what they are doing right now and then what they do next and so on and so on. Kids are in the moment intensely and they have a different sense of time. When you stop planning, you allow the present moment to occur and this is why kids enjoy it when you stop planning and be like them, enjoy the 'present'- it's a gift.