Saturday, 25 April 2020:
Two weeks. It's been two weeks since I've written. Ah….
Sorry, folks. Sometimes, writing just doesn't work. Sometimes the mind is elsewhere. In my case, nowhere bad, nowhere unpleasant. Rather, lost in daydreams and memories, fantasies, imaginings. The mind at play. The mind at rest, rejuvenating. My mind, reviewing my life.
I've also been writing in my latest math notebook, continuing to work on a problem that's intrigued me. (Yes, I'm an old math student. It never really dies.) I've done a lot on it lately. My wife says I'm going to have to get more notebooks, when this isolation is over.
In short, my mind hasn't really quit; it's just been elsewhere.
Like many of you, I bet, I've been thinking about what life will be like after this is over. Thinking about the many lessons I'd like to see this country and the world learn from this pandemic. Wondering whether we'll learn any of them.
But that is a topic for another day. Today, I wanted to talk about what this has taught me about the importance of social connection, and being out in the world.
Oh, I've been out; I've taken walks almost every day, sometimes for hours. They do much to keep me sane. I'm glad we're not being obliged to actually stay indoors all the time. That, I would find hard.
It is true that exercise and movement help us to stabilize, perceptually and emotionally. Anna Jean Ayers, who studied what she eventually named sensory processing disorder, became convinced that stimulating the vestibular sense—the sense of balance—stabilizes our other senses, at a deep, primitive level of the brain. I've been told, by an occupational therapist, that OCs use this principle all the time. It seems to work.
For myself, I know that exercise, whether walking or working out at the gym, helps me to release frustration, anger, anxiety. This is hardly a new discovery. In fact, there is a whole lot of processing—cognitive as well as emotional—that goes on through movement. This is a huge topic all by itself, a topic I don't know enough about.
But there are other aspects of us that also need an airing, that also need to be exercised.
We are generally aware that sensory deprivation is bad, for people and for other living creatures. That people kept in sensory deprivation are prey to hallucinations. That people isolated from others will talk to themselves, perhaps for hours on end. Yes, I've seen this on the bus.
(Talking to yourself is not necessarily a bad thing! We use self-talk all the time, in teaching our youngest children. We might describe what we're doing, what we're noticing, what we're thinking. This has all sorts of good effects: encouraging cognitive and language development, strengthening the adult-child bond, helping the child to understand routines and the world around him or her. And, it can help distract a child at need, helping to put that child at ease. Just a soothing voice can be reassuring and relaxing.
(Adults can use self-talk for themselves also; many people, including me, talk themselves through difficult tasks or situations, reminding themselves of what needs to be done next, reminding themselves that they've been through this before. It is effective personal management, and good therapy.)
Starving the brain of sensory input is not generally a good thing. I seem to recall reading about animals—cats?—being deprived of light for the first several months of their lives, and so becoming blind. The brain loses its wiring for visual processing, in those early months when it is busy, first wiring, then pruning.
So, to help keep yourselves and your children in good health during this period of isolation, get exercise, often. Give yourselves sensory input. Taste and smell good food. Listen to music; go outside, and listen to the birds and frogs welcoming in the spring. Watch things on your screens—they connect us to the outside world, which is important right now—and also go outside and experience nature! Or walk in your neighborhood, and experience where you live more fully. (Please use good social distancing.) Touch things: the leaves and the grass coming back to life, after a long Wisconsin winter; the dirt in a pot where you're transplanting something. Dance! Your vestibular sense (sense of balance) and proprioception (your brain's sense of your body's position) also need to be used.
Keep your brain running smoothly. It's just like starting up and running your car every few days, even if you're not going anywhere.
And keep thinking. Read good books. Have real conversations, either with your partner, your kids, or your aunt in Albuquerque. Just give yourselves breaks from the news, and from politics, when they become too infuriating.
Feed your imagination, and your sense of wonder. Watch travel programs, or nature specials. (Of course, all too often the nature specials are about how people are screwing up the world, which I, personally, find dispiriting.) Watch movies. Even sci-fi, if you like. Even romantic comedies. My wife and I recently watched An Affair to Remember. I didn't realize what a tearjerker it was. But it ended happily; right now, we need some happy. And it reminded me that, sometimes we need something that's not dark, or violent, or cynical. That there can still be innocence in the world, and joy, and love.
The hardest need to feed, these days, is the social need. Humans are social creatures.
One of the Reggio schools' main philosophical points is that all learning takes place in a social context. That it is the input from others—the teaching, the teacher's affirmation of the student, the expectations—that give that learning importance and meaning. Our primal urge to belong, and our primal urge to learn, are the root of the emotional content that makes that learning powerful, makes it memorable.
We—all of us—are always learning from others. About how they see the world. About their interests. About how they see us. That outside affirmation of us—or the lack of it—is a powerful influence, on both children and adults. And outsiders' views of us, especially outsiders we hold in high esteem or importance, are a powerful regulator of our self-perception and self-esteem. As such, they are also powerful regulators of our emotions, our sense of security, our stability.
How others see us, and what they communicate of their perceptions, can have a profound impact on our perception of our fitness to be in the world—on our sense of worth.
Can people survive without positive reinforcement from others? Of course they can; that is what a great deal of therapy concerns. Therapy can give the client tools to understand and handle abuse and neglect, can help to put it into perspective, can help the client see herself from a healthier perspective. But therapy never makes it as if the abuse had never happened. It is always a struggle.
To be truly healthy, emotionally and psychologically, we do need that emotional support from others. We are a social species.
In these times of isolation from each other (except for immediate households), we are fortunate indeed to have our various devices. Zoom, and Hangout, and Skype; texting and emailing; even old-fashioned phone calls, they all help us to stay in contact. They all give us the deep, underlying support that those who are important to us are still there, still care about how we're doing. They all let us share in the day-to-day events, large or small, that are the cement that hold the fabric of our own personal societies together. They all let us share our opinions, providing a sense of cohesion among family and friends, allowing each member to play his part. Our technology is a wonder, making all of this possible.
But technology doesn't take the place of being there, in person. You cannot physically touch through a screen, over a phone, in a text. You cannot hold someone's hand, let her physically cry on your shoulder, give someone a hug. And these things are important. Our physical bodies, our emotional beings, are hungry for these sensations, these reassurances—and even more so in times of stress or doubt.
And touch, facial expression, gesture: these do more, too. They can convey subtleties, underlying messages, even contradictory messages to what is being communicated in the language of words.
**Don't get me wrong: I love the language of words, and love to use it. Obviously! Especially in writing, where I can compose my thoughts.**
Non-verbal communication can convey sarcasm. Or, it can let you know that something is being spoken "tongue-in-cheek", and not to take it too seriously. A smile, a gentle tone of voice, a light touch on the shoulder, can soften a message, providing sympathy and support even when the news is difficult. A wink, a shrug, a roll of the eyes, can let you know that the speaker may be relaying someone else's message, but that she doesn't concur.
All of this non-verbal subtext is more difficult to convey remotely. Screens and microphones and real-time video communication lack the acuity to convey these subtleties. In typed text, you have to use emojis or other signals to hint at them.
You won't likely see someone's sweat, or the tear in an eye, hear the hitch in a voice, through your phone. And some people say that humans may even communicate subconsciously through pheromones. I don't know whether to believe that or not. But one thing I know: they won't come through a screen!
There's nothing like being there in person. And that's the one thing we can't do, in this "time of cocooning".
So what do we do? Well, of course, we do what we can. We can use the marvels of our technology to communicate as well as we can, for now. Or, we could even write really old-fashioned, physical letters. You know, with pen and actual paper. And support our Post Office, which some in Congress want to abolish. (Don't stand for it!) And we can look forward to being able to get together in person again. (Though even then, some social distancing will likely be in effect.)
But my other point is that, we are all probably being psychologically affected by this remoteness we are all experiencing. Understand that, and give yourself a break. Give yourself support and empathy. Don't be surprised if you feel depressed or lethargic, or are sleeping poorly—these are natural responses to an unnatural situation, and to be expected. Reach out for help if you need it. Give all those around you, especially those within actual, physical reach, support and understanding. Call your mom. Call your aunt in Albuquerque.
Understand that we're all missing the physical presence of those we're used to surrounding ourselves with. Understand that we're missing the sense of purpose that comes from being, physically, immersed in our society. The tugs of emotion that we normally experience in our everyday lives—some of that is missing. And while it can be exhausting at times, it is also invigorating. And it is a part of our purpose in life. So if we're lethargic, lacking ambition—lacking purpose—this is a big part of it.
So, we make keeping ourselves well—and to the extent that we can, keeping others well—our present purpose. As so many have said, over these past weeks, we will get through this together.
Oh, one more thing. As I was reminded this afternoon, it's important to find joy! Do things you enjoy. Do things that bring you back to yourself, to where you feel powerful. Do things that are central to your being. Do things that remind you of why you matter! and why you're unique! And laugh! Laugh for the sheer joy of being alive. Go do something, or imagine something, or whatever—that makes you feel like laughing just for the joy of living!
This is what takes us out of the doldrums. This is what brings us back to life!
Saturday, 11 April 2020:
Continuing with sensory play…
This is the third quintessential type of sensory play. When I think of sensory activities to do with children, this is one of those things that comes to mind. Messier than playdough, but fun!
A note: some kids will dive right into this—but some kids just won't. There are those who don't want to get their fingers messy. Please respect that. I've seen children who took a whole year before finally, gingerly, trying it. It might be a sensory sensitivity. It might be that their minds just can't tolerate something so not neat—it might feel too out of control.
The following link was suggested by our wonderful art ladies. It's a keeper:
The following two websites both contain wonderful descriptions of the whole fingerpainting process. If you haven't done fingerpainting with kids before, I suggest you read them!
The first of these sites also contains an easy fingerpaint recipe, different from the one given in tinkerlab.
Of course, if you want to buy fingerpaints rather than making them, a simple web search will turn up options; I know fingerpaints are available through Crayola and Amazon. Another suggestion: read the Art Studio's Art & Creativity in the Cocoon 3/27/2020. Our art ladies not only give some of their favorite sources for buying art supplies, they also give other great sources of artistic inspiration!
And if your kids are adept at this fingerpainting stuff, and you're looking for a way to extend their learning, read the Studio's Art & Creativity in the Cocoon 3/25/2020; it's about printmaking.
Now, to help keep your fingerpaint experience cleanable:
Make sure the painting action is happening in washable surroundings.
Make sure that you're okay with your child's clothing getting painted; or strip the clothing off. (A smock or apron will help, but there's no perfect safety here.)
Have a protected place to put your child's creations. They will be wet, messy, and floppy!
Have soapy water immediately available for washing (hands, and arms, and…).
Oh, one more note:
I remember, during my early days in this field, there was some controversy over whether to encourage children to fingerpaint with food (eg applesauce, pudding). The pros: relatively easy to clean up, and safe if the kids eat it. The cons: such activity teaches children to play with their food, which may be a precedent you don't want to set. (Many folks view mealtime as an occasion for teaching appropriate social behavior, as well as good nutrition—neither of which is aided by the children fingerpainting their pudding all over the table.)
I think the consensus was: use food for eating, use fingerpaints (even edible ones) for fingerpainting. That way, you're not giving the children mixed signals. Also, fingerpaints make much better finished art pieces, if your child wants to take pride in her work.
Both of these are wonderful, if you have a very little one who just delights in smearing stuff all over your (washable) table. Of course, the whipped cream is edible, and the shaving cream isn't; on the other hand, I think the shaving cream will last a bit longer.
Suggestions for clean-up:
Put an apron on your child, or strip off his clothes, or be prepared to change those clothes as part of the clean-up process.
Have soapy water immediately available!
Consider using a pastry scraper, or a cloth, to scrape the bulk of the cream off the table when you're done. The rest will easily clean off with soap and water.
Remember the above discussion about food: make sure your child knows that this is for playing, not for eating.
Some suggestions to further the play with smearable substances:
You and your child can experiment with using different parts of the fingers and hands, and different motions. The paint and cream are great media for helping your child to notice the different ways her hands and arms can move: up and down, side-to-side, in circles, in wiggles, in triangles, in dots, etc. What happens if you make dots with just one fingertip? With two? With all five? What if your fingers are tight together? What if they're spread apart? What if you arrange your fingertips in a circle? What happens if you drag your fingers through the medium, with fingertips in these different arrangement, rather than making dots?
You can also add tools, and explore the different sorts of marks to be made with them. Combs, different widths of paintbrush, spoons of different sizes, trucks and cars…. Experiment!
Your child can "paint" favorite plastic toys with cream: little people or animals, cars and trucks. Let the child cover them all over! This is a great way of exploring shapes and details of favorite objects. (And incidentally, your child can help wash these afterwards—washing is another great way to explore objects!)
Both fingerpaint and the other smearable substances are a great way to experiment with color mixing! If using shaving cream or whipped cream, add a few drops of food coloring, different colors in different mounds of the cream. Then let your child go at it!
Have fun exploring!
Thursday, 9 April 2020:
We left off, at the end of yesterday's entry, talking about Manipulative Play. That does seem, perhaps, a bit off topic, when we're supposed to be discussing Sensory Play. However, as will be made clearer as we proceed, sensory play blurs into several other types of preschool learning experiences; there are no hard delineations in the early childhood curriculum. Sensory play, manipulative play, art, science, math, dramatic play, social and emotional learning: these all blend together seamlessly. In fact, all of these different aspects of learning deepen the experience for the children, thus reinforcing each aspect involved.
You know, this can be true for adults as well. Cross-disciplinary studies—where expertise in one field or sub-field is applied to problems in another—often leads to surprising revelations. I know this is true in math, my old field of study.
Besides, this is just us talking. We can speak of whatever comes to mind, right?
Okay, back to sensory play.
For me, the following three categories are the heart and soul of sensory play.
Choices of materials:
For each of these materials, you should have a sturdy, flat, washable surface.
For playdough recipes, see my recipe in the Slides on the Resources page of this blog; or the similar recipe given in the domestic superhero website. (Resources: For Preschoolers page, under the heading Specifically for young children.) Or do a web search—there are many recipes out there. (Including for glow-in-the-dark playdough!)
If you want to continue using your playdough in days to come, please keep it in a washable container with a lid that seals tight. (I use a yogurt container—recycling, right?—but other tightly sealing containers would work. Many classroom teachers just use Ziplock bags!)
For me, playdough is the world's coolest sensory stuff. Endlessly malleable (ie able to be reshaped), it offers wonderful avenues for creativity, self-expression, dramatic play, and social interaction. It is great for pounding on, when there's frustration or excess energy to be dispersed. (In other words, it's great for grounding children, and adults.) And, if fingers and hands need something to be busy with, it's great for squeezing and squishing.
Sometimes, having something to squeeze can help children (and adults) relax and focus.
Have a difficult conversation you need to hold with your children? Try sitting at the table together, squishing playdough! It will calm you, and help them to relax and focus, too.
When I'm doing playdough with the children, I like to use just my hands. There's so much your hands can do! Playdough can be pounded or squashed flat. It can then be rolled up into a tube, and that tube can then be bent and shaped. A flat sheet of playdough can be poked, or torn, parts of it bent up, and so on. You can make faces—portraits—with flat playdough.
Playdough can be rolled into long "snakes". (With one—or two—hands flat on your playdough, apply a little pressure and pull your hands toward you, then push them away. Keep repeating, watching for fat and thin areas of your snake.) Of course, "snakes" can immediately lead to dramatic (pretend) play; your child's snake may be coming to eat you up! Long snakes can be coiled, and then shaped into three-dimensional objects (such as cups).
Playdough can be rolled into balls. (Cup your hand slightly on your playdough, then roll the dough around in a circular motion on the tabletop. You may have to reposition the playdough, and vary your pressure, to get it nice and round under your hand. This is how bread bakers shape dinner rolls.) Balls can be stacked to make snowmen, or squashed in the center with a thumb to make bowls, or….
Playdough can be pinched between the fingers. This would be the perfect technique for forming a duck's beak, for instance.
Playdough can be pulled apart; how far do you think it will stretch, before breaking? Do it slowly, and watch. I've seen children methodically pull their hunk of playdough into tiny pieces, spending lots of time in the process; these pieces might then transmogrify into pizza, or cookies, or bugs, or….
And, of course, playdough can also be squished back together. These two simple actions—breaking apart, and putting together—enable the construction of all sorts of things: animals with legs and tails and heads, trees, cups with handles, castles….
If what you or your child is trying to shape is too intricate to stand up in three dimensions, try making a two-dimensional "relief" version of it instead. Work with a flat sheet of playdough on your tabletop, tearing or cutting out pieces to form your shape, curling or mounding it or adding pieces of playdough on top to create a more three-dimensional effect. (Your face, for instance, could have a nose and eyebrows—or even a funny mustache!)
This sort of detail work leads to
(Butter) knives. (Sturdy plastic ones work just fine.)
Cookie or playdough cutters. (Preferably not too intricate. It can be difficult to clean playdough out of all the crenelations.)
Rolling pins. (Preferably small ones—easier for children to handle.)
Heel of the hand
Plastic (play) screwdrivers
Tongue depressors (Craft sticks)
(Advice: You might want to avoid the use of toys that have lots of little spaces in which playdough can get stuck. Cleaning dried playdough out of those little spaces can be frustrating. Examples: Legos, some play trucks.)
Textured rolling pins
Toy cars or trucks. (But see Advice above.)
Use you imaginations!
Materials suitable for adding to playdough creations:
Plastic animals or people or cars (for enabling dramatic play) (But see Advice above.)
A few additional techniques, and notes:
Children love to hide things in playdough; this can become quite the game!
With a knife or pizza cutter, a thin flat slab of playdough could be cut into strips. These could be laid one-atop-another to form walls, or perhaps woven to form baskets, or fences, or fancy loaves of "bread", or crust for a "pie". A collection of long, thin "snakes" could be treated the same way. Experiment!
Playdough can also be baked, to make ornaments or other permanent treasures. Here is the uncooked salt dough recipe that our wonderful Art Studio ladies recommend for this purpose:
The Recipe for aromatic salt dough (uncooked)
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup fine salt
1 TBSP refined oil
1/4 cup warm water (start with less and add as you go to get the correct consistency).
2 drops essential oil of your choice (lavender, rosemary, ying-yang, lemon grass, orange, etc). A few drops of liquid food color. You can use the powdered or gel food color after dissolving in water.
1 TBSP instant starch (dissolve in water to get thick, gooey consistency) -if you do not have starch, 1 TBSP of cream of tartar can be substituted.
Mix and knead thoroughly.
Other tips when making homemade playdough:
If you decide to bake your creations, make sure you do so at low heat – 200 degrees F, or else they will puff up and may spoil the shape and look
Using very fine salt will ensure you do not get a granular texture. The salt grains make the dough crumbly.
Make sure the water is warm so as not to form lumps
Some recipes do not mention vegetable oil for uncooked dough, adding the oil will give a nice texture and smoothness
You might even consider adding some white glue to the mixture to make the dough cohesive
Adding a few drops of glycerine may improve the shine and smoothness.
You can store your salt dough by placing it in a covered plastic container and storing it away in the refrigerator
Finally, you can add any color and scent to your dough. You can use cinnamon powder, unsweetened cocoa, other aromatic dried spices (these tend to add both color and scent) or use food coloring, liquid watercolor, and a few drops of essential oils.
(From Art & Creativity in the Cocoon 3/18/20, sent out by PSA's Art Studio to all PSA families and staff. Wonderfully informative!)
As I hope all this makes clear, playdough enables endless creativity! Enjoy—experiment—have fun!
I'm not going to say much about clay, because I haven't worked much with it. I'd rather leave that to the artists among us. I will say that it is a wonderful medium, stiffer than playdough and so better for shaping—and carving, and texturing—bigger, more intricate three-dimensional artworks. Many of the same techniques used for playdough can be applied to clay, and some additional ones as well. But I have little actual experience with clay techniques, and I don't know much about the care and keeping of clay.
Clay is stiffer for little fingers to shape, and so might not be as suitable for the littlest ones; it is also more work to clean up, I think.
Choices of materials:
(See Jescie's recipe on the Slides on this blog's Resources page.)
Silly putty, or Flubber:
This stuff is wonderfully stretchy and strange, fascinating and fun to play with, but I have some recommendations:
Play with it on a washable tray, on top of a washable tabletop.
Keep it off carpets and rugs.
Keep it off clothing.
Keep it out of hair.
Silly putty can be difficult to get out of fibers. The best advice is not to get it into any fibers in the first place! This might mean stripping down at least to short-sleeved shirts, and doing this on a smooth washable table (and preferably in a washable tray, to contain it), over a washable, non-carpeted kitchen or rec room floor. And keep the kids' hands out of their hair while they're playing with it. Making sure the silly putty stays on the table (not dripping off the edge) is the best way to keep it off of pants.
(The following recipes come from https://www.wikihow.com/Make-Silly-Putty);
go to their website for detailed instructions):
Using Glue and Liquid Starch
* 1 5-ounce (147-milliliter) bottle of clear school glue (Can use white school glue—makes opaque white silly putty.)
Liquid watercolor or food coloring (optional)
½ to ¾ cup (120 to 180 milliliters) liquid starch
Extra-fine glitter (optional)
Spoon, fork, or popsicle stick
Plastic zippered baggie
Using Glue and Borax
1 4-ounce (118-milliliter) bottle of school glue
½ cup (120 milliliters) water (Mix with glue.)
Liquid watercolor or food coloring (optional) (Mix with glue.)
1 teaspoon borax
½ cup (120 milliliters) warm water (Mix with borax, to dissolve.)
Extra-fine glitter (optional)
Spoon, fork, or popsicle stick
Plastic zippered baggie
Using Glue and Laundry Detergent
8 ounces (240 milliliters) school glue
Liquid watercolor or food coloring (optional)
¼ cup (60 milliliters) laundry detergent
Extra-fine glitter (optional)
Spoon, fork, or popsicle stick
Plastic zippered baggie
Using Cornstarch and Dish Soap
1 cup (125 grams) of cornstarch
½ cup (120 milliliters) dish soap
Liquid watercolor or food coloring (optional)
Extra-fine glitter (optional)
Spoon, fork, or popsicle stick
Plastic zippered baggie
Leave out the glitter; you don't need it.
The glue-and-liquid-starch recipe is the one I've made. Simple, and it works.
Instructions: Pour the glue into your mixing bowl; add liquid coloring, if desired, a little at a time, and stir it in. Add the liquid starch, a little at a time, stirring it in until it gets too stiff; then you have to get your hand messy, and knead. Continue adding starch, a little at a time, until mixture is no longer sticky. Knead—and play!
If silly putty is too sticky, add more starch;
if too dry and tough, add a little more glue. Knead.
Snow—and things to hide in the snow, or food coloring to color the snow—is great sensory play, in the winter. (Might want to wear mittens, and use scoops.) Plus, it makes good science and math, to watch it melt. To measure the volume of the snow, and the volume of the water it becomes. Or to measure how high you can pile it, by sticking in rulers. Or….
Yup, you can do it. Maybe outside. Maybe with the kids dressed in bathing suits, with a hose handy. In warm weather. If you have a place where they can just dig right into the ground, and optionally add water, great. (Of course, digging in the dirt is a great way to explore the natural world.) If you don't want them digging in the yard, then a tub full of dirt, maybe with rocks and sticks and who knows what else added—that would be fun. And adding water? Well, that just makes everything better, right?
Enjoy, happy adventures! And on this blustery day, when it's been periodically raining and even blowing snow, think spring!
Wednesday, 8 April 2020:
Okay: back to writing. Today, I'm going to find out whether I have anything useful to say about sensory play. That was, after all, one of the reasons I started writing this blog.
We are born hungry.
Lots of parents will laugh with recognition at this statement—those whose kids never seem to stop eating. But please note: I didn't say, hungry for what?
Once they stop eating, then they start moving, right? They start doing. They start getting their hands into everything. (Anyone with toddlers at home will instantly recognize this.) They are hungry, right out to their fingertips.
They are hungry for experience. They want to immerse themselves in the world!
So they dance, they move, they roll around on the floor, wrap themselves in blankets, swathe themselves in dress-up clothes—or they throw their clothes off and run, wild and free.
Wild and free. Free to be—into everything!
They are hungry. Hungry in their fingers. Hungry in their skin. Hungry in their eyes and their ears, their noses and their mouths. (Infants and young toddlers, they mouth everything!) Hungry in their brains.
Hungry to experience. Hungry to do. Hungry to join.
Hungry to join in the dance of life. They have that drive.
That drive is to survive! It runs that deep. To survive and to thrive, in their new world.
They are born with nerves, they are born with ever-active brains, primed to grow, primed to know. And when they have that equipment, primed to act in the world, it cannot be denied! It's wired to the core of their beings.
Of course, it doesn't look the same in all children. Some do not roll around on the floor, or run around crazy. Some are quiet. Maybe they follow you around, asking incessant questions. Maybe they keep to themselves more, always looking, eyes everywhere. Maybe they sit, playing with their fingers, their toes, their hair, wondering about these strange and miraculous things, their bodies.
But their brains are always going, their fingers are always moving. (And their toes! When's the last time you watched your baby's bare feet?) They're thinking with their brains. They're thinking with their fingers. They're thinking with their toes. They're moving through space, and they're thinking with their whole bodies!
They're thinking with their whole bodies.
So, how can we nourish those bodies and brains, growing together? We can give them experiences, materials to explore, sensations, objects to manipulate.
These sensory experiences can serve many purposes, many needs. As a primary vocabulary of young children's learning, sensory episodes can run the whole gamut from stimulating to calming, from agonizing to irritating to relaxing, from frightening to soothing. Through their sensory explorations, children delve into their world, and themselves.
Of course, sensory play also links to lots of other aspects of children's learning. Gather children (and adults) around a sensory activity, and suddenly there's a lot of language, social negotiation and learning about others that's taking place. For older preschoolers, a collection of nuts and bolts and things to attach together will have them practicing fine motor coordination, and that difficult rotary motion. For younger children, a tub with puff balls, scoops and containers of various sorts, and perhaps several sets of tongs, will give them plenty of challenge with eye-hand coordination and fine motor strength.
And how about that "academic" learning that so many ask about? When children start scooping and pouring, filling and emptying containers, then they're learning math concepts such as volume and length; they're experiencing physics concepts such as gravity, density, and sound. (Start pouring sand. Would you call it a solid or a liquid? Is "goop"—a slurry of cornstarch and water—a solid or a liquid?) Sensory play can have children exploring art concepts such as color, transparency, texture, and malleability. Put out a bunch of natural materials—perhaps with magnifying glasses, flashlights, whatever makes the experience fun and exciting—and suddenly your kitchen becomes a laboratory for exploring the great outdoors. Have your kids help you collect recyclables to build or create art with, and suddenly they're thinking about their culture and how they live—and choices they might like to make for the future. Add human or animal figures to an invented environment, and suddenly your children are diving into dramatic play, re-enacting and inventing the interactions of their everyday lives, practicing and gaining understanding of social interaction and the society around them.
For an example of such an invented environment, see Jen Beltz's "Provocation" in the slide show on the Resources page.
Caroline Troia, a gifted toddler teacher who gave many years of service to PSA and its families and children, used to set up whole ecosystems in her sensory tables. She might, for example, have fake grass and rocks and acorns, with dinosaurs or other animals hiding, waiting to be discovered by the children. And incidentally Caroline, also a professional interior designer, helped pioneer the use of lamps for area lighting in PSA's classrooms, and taught all of us a lot about how it's done.
Fortunately, PSA still has many gifted and dedicated toddler teachers, each with her own strengths. How wonderful to work among them all!
For many fine examples of scientific exploration that is also sensory play, see Jescie's activities on the last six slides, on the Resources page.
Playdough, and "oobleck" ("goop") recipes can be found on the slides on the Resources page.
And here's another resource, a site Emma (Cloud Room teacher) put on slides for the Cloud Room families. This lady's playdough is much like what I make in school—but she gives great instruction on how to make it, and includes links to source all the ingredients:
in preschool, we have washable tables, easels, sensory tables, washable floors, even drop cloths for setting up messy activities, with sinks nearby for washing. How does one do these messy activities at home?
Here's one example of how:
(You can find this website on the Resources: For preschoolers page, under "Specifically for young children". Explore more of the site—it's helpful.)
There are probably people out there, much handier with tools than I am, who could build a sensory table for home use. In the absence of that, or an expensive Community Playthings piece of furniture for children's play, how does one do sensory/pouring play at home?
My wife and I both used to work in restaurants. We have a stack of bus tubs that she bought from a restaurant where she worked, years ago. They're probably not cheap, and you'd probably have to purchase them from a commercial restaurant supply company—but they're sturdy, and they'd do.
Really, any sort of large, sturdy tub, without sharp edges, not too high for children to reach into, and preferably watertight—that would do. If it's not too large or heavy to put on a table, even better; but the kids could do sensory play from a tub on a bare, cleanable floor.
If you've got water in the tub, you might want to put towels under and around it, to catch the inevitable spills, and to keep the floor from getting too slippery.
Or, as the busytoddler website above makes clear, you can use the bathtub. Just make sure you're not putting anything gritty, or anything that will clog, down the drain. If you're using paint, make sure it's really washable. Best to test it first.
If you've got any fine, dry material in your bus tub—cornmeal; uncooked rice, beans, or pasta; etc—you might want to keep the broom and dustpan and trashcan handy. Periodic sweeping will keep the floor from becoming too hazardous. The kids can help!
Flour can be fun to scoop—but it is fine, and will fly everywhere. The kids, and you, the furniture, the floor, the counters—everything will be wearing it. And breathing it. Take it from a former baker: you might want to make another choice.
If the kids are using any sort of paint, make sure that clean up is right nearby. If you don't have a sink handy (that you don't mind getting paint on!), have another tub with warm, soapy water handy. That should be the first destination, as soon as a child is done with painting. And that tub should be on a bare, washable floor or table, with towels around it to contain the spillage.
And clothing. Rolling up the sleeves, putting on a smock or even an old, oversized shirt will help, if they're playing with water or paint. But why not just take off the clothing, instead? If you have toddlers, strip them down to diapers. (And make sure they're warm enough.) Doing this outside, or in the bathtub—with supervision—might be best.
All these preparations, all the forethought, will make things go smoother, and will ease your clean-up.
So, what materials can the children use in their sensory explorations? The possibilities are endless! Let's talk about different sorts of sensory play.
Vital note!!!! If your toddler is still mouthing objects, test your materials for size. Nothing small enough to get stuck in a little airway!
Also note that small—and not-so-small—children may put objects up their noses, into their ears, into their mouths. Beware. Know your children.
Scooping and pouring:
Choices for ingredients:
Water (Try warm soapy water—soothing!—or colored water, for variations.)
Puff balls (Or cotton balls.)
Dried rice, beans, or pasta.
Oatmeal (Or cornmeal.)
I believe what Emma had in the Cloud Room sensory table was rabbit pellets. (That is, dry rabbit food.)
(If any implements might have sand on them, be sure to pre-wash them before putting them through your dishwasher. Sand is death to dishwasher motors!)
Scooping and pouring implements:
Tubing (Plastic, PVC or, for dry ingredients, cardboard.)
To encourage dramatic (pretend) play:
Kitchen implements: small pots and pans, cooking utensils, cups and bowls and plates, tea set, etc.
Make sure these are not precious to you. They may have hard use.)
Small trucks of various sorts.
Little people or animals.
Plastic babies to wash! (With warm soapy water, and sponges or washcloths. You child may also want to wrap them up in towels afterwards, so they can get warm. Dress them when they're dry.)
Count how many of this cup it takes to fill that container.
Pour among containers of various sizes and shapes.
(Very young children may not yet understand conservation of volume: they may think that the liquid in a tall, slender container is more than was in a short, wide container—even if they watched you pour that same liquid from one container to the other.)
Above all, just enjoy and experience the play!
You don't have to talk a lot—just be there, listen, share in the sensations and thoughts.
Especially when pouring dry ingredients: how does it sound, when you pour onto the bottom of the tub? Into a metal mixing bowl? Onto wood? Into a plastic cup?
Let your child pour into your container, and—with permission—pour into your child's.
Put out your hand; invite your child to pour into, or onto, your hand or arm. Offer to reciprocate. How does it feel?
(Especially with toddlers, ritual is powerful. Little ritual games, like taking turns pouring into each others' cups or hands, can help a small child learn how to play, learn how to socialize. They help to strengthen the bond between parent and child. And they are very soothing.
(We often think of our littles as having very short attention spans. And that can be true. But soothing, sensory ritual games like this…well, they can go on for quite some time. Enjoy them, and enjoy your little one!)
Grasping and manipulating objects:
Choices for ingredients:
Puff balls (or cotton balls)
Buttons! (If you have a whole lot, and don't mind them getting all mixed together.)
Small found objects
Intriguing pieces of wood, or cardboard, or packing materials
Natural materials: scraps of wood, tree bark, twigs, pine cones, acorns, maple seeds, walnuts fallen from trees, mown grass, flowers, leaves….
Fake grass (that stuff we used to put into Easter baskets, when I was a kid)
Tinsel, scraps of wrapping paper, other remnants of holiday decorations
Children's necklaces; remnants of children's necklaces
You see, the list can go on forever. You are limited only by what's available, your ingenuity, and your child's interests.
Newspaper! (You can tear it, or leave it whole—and the children can tear it as they choose!)
I think sitting on the floor and tearing newspaper might have been the first activity I ever did with toddlers. It can be endlessly fascinating:
newspaper can be torn, crumpled, thrown, rolled, sat on, squished in the hands, easily cut with scissors—and it makes great sounds. Simply opening up a full-sized page, holding it up and letting it go, and watching it drift slowly to the floor is something that can go on for a while. Especially if you're actually letting it fall on your little one's head, while she sits there on the floor, laughing….
Oh, and for that matter…
Of all the cool dress-up items I've used with children over the years, scarves are my favorite. They can be used in all sorts of ingenious ways: as headbands, as traditional scarves, worn around the neck (loosely please!), tied onto an arm or leg, tied around a hat, worn as a sash (if long enough). They can also be used to hide under and play "peek-a-boo", or thrown up into the air to drift down over excitedly waiting children. (I've seen Casey do this for minutes at a time with groups of children.) If you have them in various colors or patterns, and they're transparent enough, you and the children can have fun looking at the world in different colors.
But they can also be used as materials in your sensory table or tub.
It can be a real challenge, depending on the length and stiffness of the tongs, for young children to pick up objects such as cotton balls or pieces of batting or fabric with tongs. Good for focus, eye-hand coordination, and finger strength.
Large serving spoons
(It would be interesting to play a game with large, hollow noodles such as [uncooked] manicotti, and forks: can the children pick up the manicotti on the tines of their forks? Or "string" several end-to-end on a chopstick?)
Activities and games:
Many discoveries can be made, if you hide plastic animals, or any sort of treasure, underneath a bed of fake (or real) grass, or leaves, or fabric scraps, or newspaper.
Hide an assortment of shape puzzle pieces under a bed of fake grass. Can you find the triangle? (or square? or circle?) Can you find three triangles? Can you find two yellow shapes?
Can you decorate your doll with tinsel (or pieces of yarn)? But, you have to pick it up with the tongs—no touching with your fingers!
Or, what if you say "They're hot. You can only pick them up with gloves!" (Or oven mitts) Then, watch your child—and you—focus on the challenge of manipulating small objects with mitts on. Really makes one work on those eye-hand skills!
Or, we could just let them play! How about that?
I'm going to stop here for today. This discussion will be continued in the next entry!
Friday, 3 April 2020:
Hi, all. My big endeavor, probably for the next several days, will be to add online resources to the Resource pages of this blog. However, I wanted to share with you all what I found on my walk yesterday. Just a little stroll in the neighborhood…
It's located on the corner of Regent Street and East Campus Mall, (just east of Park Street), on the southeastern outskirts of the UW campus in downtown Madison. I've walked by it before—I'm always wandering, and love to explore—but today I was taken in. I lingered…
You see, it's full of stories. Captivating stories. Humorous stories. Bittersweet stories. Stories of a time gone, of a place changed.
Stories of people uprooted. For those of you who know, I'm speaking of the Greenbush.
The Greenbush was a neighborhood centered on "The Triangle", the land bounded by South Park Street, Regent Street, and West Washington Avenue. It was a poor neighborhood, a neighborhood of working people, of immigrants. It was a neighborhood where people of different cultures, different ethnicities, could live together in peace. Italians, African-Americans, and Jews all coexisting, sharing in each other's cultures and daily lives.
In the 1960s, outside developers called it "a slum". The housing was substandard. The City of Madison used it for a dumping ground, I've read. The developers wanted to raze it, in the name of "urban renewal"; they showed pictures of the beautiful things they'd build in its place. They persuaded the city, and its voters by a narrow margin, to go along.
And then the Greenbush was gone. All that was left were the survivors, displaced from homes and community. All that was left were stories.
I stood at that memorial, reading those stories, peering at the reproductions of old photos, taken in by an age gone by. Taken in by those voices. Taken in by their anecdotes, snapshots of their lives.
I want to share a few with you. Just a sampling. There were too many to photograph and share them all. Go see it for yourself!
Now I'm going to shut up, and let these people speak for themselves. They are eloquent.
(Sorry about the photo cropping problems. I struggled with this for a long time.)
By the way, if you'd like to learn a little more, here are a couple of links
Last notes: Fraboni's is gone from Regent Street—and that is a real loss. It was a fantastic place, for deli, for pasta…and it always smelled amazing! But the Triangle neighborhood is still there, in those apartment complexes; and the Triangle Ethnic Fest has been fun.
May the Greenbush live on!
Sunday, 29 March 2020:
Hello, everyone. I hope you all are finding ways of dealing with the challenges of these uncertain times. And I hope everyone is remembering to reach out to others, to support and to be supported. This is especially important now.
It's been a little while since I've been in touch. My wife and I lost our internet connection for a couple of days—router problems. The kind repairman who fixed it came into our apartment with mask, gloves, and shoe coverings. Sensible precautions for strange times.
And I think I've been absent because I needed time to absorb this new reality. My wife (who is always right) was trying to talk sense into my silly head last night: about budgeting, about health insurance, about unemployment. Yes, there's room for doubt: what if PSA can't reopen?
But I don't really believe it. I believe that PSA will be back. What we do, helping children to grow up sane, strong, and empowered, is too important, especially now. We will be back.
At heart, I'm not feeling down. Instead, I'm feeling faith. And, surprisingly, peace. I've actually had time, during this enforced absence, to think. Time to write. Time to take walks, and time to remember. Time to chat with my wife. Time to remotely communicate with friends and family. So far, we are all safe—just hunkering down.
Dear families, I hope you are doing well. That you are having some enjoyable family time, and that you're not feeling ready to pull your hair out.
I've been meaning to get to talking about down-to-earth early childhood topics; I started this little endeavor thinking I'd be discussing, say, sensory tables and sensory play. I still mean to do that.
But not today. Today, I'd like to take you on the ramble I took this morning. Why? Perhaps for your vicarious entertainment: if you've been feeling cooped up with overactive kids, unable to get out, unable to focus on work or relaxation, perhaps this will help.
Or perhaps not. But at least you've been warned.
I started my little stroll by heading south down Fish Hatchery Road. But, on a whim, I turned off onto a little dead-end road, leading past some parking lots and a little remodeling company headquarters. At the end of the road came sodden ground, and then railroad tracks sitting on a raised gravel bed. I followed these for a while, then crossed them when I saw access to a little road on the other side. I followed that to its end, then walked a grassy verge until I came back out onto…Fish Hatchery Road again. How did I get so turned around? I'm used to navigating on instinct.
So, back up the road, continued to follow it in the other direction until I came to another cross street; took that to a parallel road, and turned onto that to pursue my previous heading.
Down a grassy dell into a neighborhood park. Nice park—I would have loved it as a kid. Climbing structure with lots of variety, a slide, a carousel, a small field with soccer nets. A quiet, out-of-the-way place to explore, hang out, just be a kid. Love it.
Continued down the road—a quiet country road that barely felt like Madison—until I suddenly came out on to Park Street. There had been all those roads back there, that I hadn't even known existed!
Seeing an old familiar neighborhood right across Park Street, you know I had to go check it out. Eventually found myself on Fisher Street; I used to work at Child Development Inc when it was there. From the signage at the front door, it was now One City Schools. So that's where they are! I'm glad to see good work with children still being done there, in the neighborhood.
I saw on a sign that One City is involved in Anji Play. Good for them! Anji Play emanated from a city in China; they practice risk-taking play with children. This builds physical skills, cooperation among children, judgement, and a sense of accomplishment. The children rightly feel capable, when they're finding ways of working together to achieve complex tasks. Good, good, good!
The mural is still there, painted on the wall beside the front door. I don't know most of the people in that mural—but I think Rosie, who ran CDI for many years, is there. And Paul Soglin, too, I think—an image of him when he was quite young, and used to be known as the Red Mayor.
I took a moment to remember. I remembered Joe, a very capable and dedicated early childhood educator; I remember he used to hold regular evening gatherings for the preschool children's parents, meetings where he'd discussed a variety of early childhood topics. Educating parents. Building bridges. Building community.
I remembered Miss Sadie. She was a grandparent, raising a child who went there. For a time, she was also the janitor. (Good, trustworthy cleaners can be hard to find. Treasure and keep them!) I remember Sadie with a cast on. (Her arm? My memory is unclear. This is a quarter century ago.) I remember her with a cast, still mopping floors. A quiet, unassuming woman, with an easy laugh. But she did what needed to be done. I treasure my scant memories of her. I think she has become one of my heroes.
Silly me. I think, at that time, I felt very young, unsure of myself, and maybe a little scared—trying to learn how I would make my way in the world, wondering what I would do with my life. Clueless.
After gazing at the mural, recalling, I wandered next door, to find the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County. Excellent! Back when I was working in the area, that was a community center, with a gym where we'd sometimes take the kids to play on rainy days. For years I had a photo, stuck in some anonymous folder of my papers: Jane. Lovely Jane. Smiling up from where she was riding a tiny little tricycle on that gym's hardwood floor.
There's something to be said, for joining in the children's play, joining in their sense of hilarity. A lot to be said, actually. We'd go over there and ride bikes, or throw a passel of plastic balls, and have a great time. Laughter, lots of energy, a sense of community.
From there I wandered through the neighborhood. Down a path, where I found a motley collection of abandoned grocery carts. So this was one of those unnoticed places where grocery carts went to die. A waste. One of those carts held an unopened bottle of milk—dated 1-6-20. I guess no one will be drinking that. It was keeping cool, though, in the cool morning.
Through a tunnel under the railroad tracks, to Quann Dog Park. A community garden: excellent. I don't remember that, from the days when I frequented the neighborhood.
My stroll continued along the bike path at the edge of the park—on this misty, blustery, raw early spring morning, the path and park were practically abandoned. But the mist, the birds' singing, the spring: they welcomed me. And strains of Puccini's Turandot were wafting through my head, from when my wife and I had watched a production on PBS a few days before.
Be warned: I am a tenor at heart; perhaps—finally—I am becoming one in fact as well.
Along the bike path leading to Park Street at Wingra Creek, I found a leaf. One single, solitary leaf. I bent down to pick it up. There it was, held in my fingers by its stem: gently curled, partially hiding and protecting its delicate intricacy of tiny complexities, its rich red color as fresh as if it had just been created. Just fallen on the path, one little leaf discarded. The natural world strews our paths with a profusion of beautiful gifts; how many times do our busy feet and distracted eyes even bother to notice?
I aimed my feet up Beld and then Park Streets, past successive dirt alleys leading to more hidden roads hardly noticed by passersby. I walked across a parking lot to Fish Hatchery Road. Past the large new apartment building under construction by its intrepid crew, through Wisconsin weather and world-wide pandemic. I reached home, and decided that this was what I was going to talk to you about today.
Why? Because it's all about time—taking time. Becoming "a little lost". Taking time to lose myself, and to find new places, make new connections, remake my sense of the world. And, in getting lost, refinding myself, reliving old memories that haven't much come to mind. Refinding treasures.
Because it's all about raising children. Giving them the time, the opportunities, to live, to experience in fullness their adventures, their sensations, their feelings, their thoughts, the connections they make. Time to make, and treasure, memories.
Because it's all about you, and about me—about us. We, too, need the time to experience our own lives, to have adventures, to experience our responses to them and, in so experiencing, perhaps discovering new aspects of who we are.
We all are children. And all children are people. And, with love and respect for our common humanity, we will carry on.
Friday, 20 March 2020:
Good morning, everyone. I'm here to complete my thoughts from yesterday.
So, living in time. Moving through time. Experiencing situations and the accompanying emotions in time.
Time—our experience of time—is at most only loosely bound to the hands of a clock. Time is subjective. It crawls, with heavy ponderous slowness, when we're waiting for something. Our tensions, our unresolved yearning or dread, suffuse each moment with a heavy burden of emotion whose weight seemingly will never end. And then, when we're feeling carefree and our thoughts are far away, time also can drift away without our noticing; only later, looking back, do we perhaps wonder: where did the time go?
Why did the time go?
It went because we were not there.
Time loves attention. You could say, time is attention.
So, maybe we were physically present; but our attention was elsewhere. If our minds go wandering, if our attention is in imaginary worlds or distant memories, that's where we are experiencing time. We are momentarily living in those imaginary worlds, or in those memories (which may be as clear to your mind as the day right before your eyes). So, if on a bright and sunny summer morning you're gazing off your back porch across the opposite field towards the distant horizon, and you're remembering when you were a child and could run carefree across that field, instead of having to do laundry or go off to get the car fixed and do errands—then your daughter comes and tugs on your arm and asks "What's for breakfast?", and suddenly the sun is well over the maple tree when you could swear it had just risen—well, you know where the time went. It went with you.
Time is subjective. Time is carried by emotion.
This makes some biological sense. If nothing particular is happening, if we are in repose, the mind can relax a bit. Why put your mind in the habit of living endlessly in overdrive, endlessly being taxed, endlessly being worn down? It makes more sense to conserve your brain's resources for when they're really needed, and to reduce its wear and tear by slowing it down when it's not so needed.
And what tells your mind when it's needed? Your senses, sending messages to the brain; motion being detected, memories of past threats perhaps being triggered. Terror, or rage. Your autonomic nervous system being activated: adrenaline pouring into the bloodstream, heart rate accelerated, senses primed, muscles fueled, brain working at high speed. Among the first parts of the brain to set to work in threat situations: the limbic system. Memories (the hippocampus). Emotion (the amygdala). These more primitive sections of the brain go into action before the thinking, conscious brain does. They are what kept our hairy ancestors alive. I presume they are what's keeping many mammals alive, today as well as in the distant past. The primitive brain.
Emotional time: subjective time expands or contracts depending upon its emotional content. It is emotion that charges our moments, puts our brains into overdrive, dilates time until each second is its own eternity, and directs our attention. It is emotion that cues us that something is important to us. Note that: emotion tells us what is important to us; emotion guides our choices. And when we're doing what's really important to us, emotion is what keeps us there; our emotions are invested in what we're doing.
So, after all this discussion, what do we say about our children? Just a few simple statements.
Children need time for what they do. Children in a "learning moment" need to be able to get "a little lost" in time. They need that expansiveness of time in order to find new aspects of themselves, new aspects of themselves to address a new learning situation. They need to learn how they will learn about this new material, this new activity, this new situation.
And of course, if they're really immersed in the activity, then they've made an emotional commitment to it as well, and their involvement with that learning situation needs the chance to live and to find some sort of resolution. It needs to fade in its own time, or the assurance that it can happen again, or it needs to be transferred to something else. We must respect and support that need. Our children require our support: to respect their needs, to give them meaningful time and emotional attention, and to understand and soothe their turmoils.
Thursday, 19 March 2020:
Hello all! It's a quiet morning here. I'm sitting at my front window, listening to Sibelius symphonies, watching a few solitary people walk by on the sidewalk, and reading email from many of my marvelous PSA coworkers. And I'm getting all teary-eyed. As Nati so beautifully said,
"I’m proud to be part of an amazing place like our PSA these days.
When the world around us looks crazy it's good to be part of a creative and caring community."
So many thoughtful and caring contributions from so many, our staff and our wonderful families:
The Art Studio has been sending out studio experiences to be done at home. But these are much more than simple recipes for doing little activities. These master teachers are helping all of us to learn what it is to do art: how to go about exploring materials, how to take time in our explorations, how to experiment in using materials of all sorts to explore and express who we are. To see the possibilities inherent in a situation. This is very Reggio—this is also what it is to live a truly rich and full life!
And the Art Studio sent out something else: the link to the PSA Virtual Art Gallery. Some of our families have already created beautiful entries, and they are inspiring to view. I hope many more of our families will share the work they and their children are doing!
Our beloved Sarah Hofstra has created a set of slides with activities that families can do at home; it is a great gift to have another set of eyes, another creative mind, to consult when a fresh set of ideas is needed. Such as when we're feeling all cooped up. Fresh slides have been added, and I hope more folks will contribute.
Classes are finding ways to get together, ways to share ideas, ways to check in with each other. I got to witness part of the Cloud Room Hang-Out yesterday: great (and reassuring) to see some of the children, family members, and teachers.
And I got to read the letter that the Rainbow teachers sent out to the children and families, explaining simply and lovingly why our school is closed and how they plan to keep in touch and keep the spirit of community alive.
And I saw an incredible list of websites that Nati sent around: many dozens of sites for children and adults to explore.
And of course, there's a lot that teachers, and families, are doing of which I'm not aware.
I hope people are having fun exploring. And, parents, I hope you are finding the time to do the things that you have to do, and the things that you want to do. If there is any way in which I can support you, or anything else you want to say, our wonderful Abby has inserted a comment form in this blog.
Now, I know I had a number of topics in mind to explore. One of them is time. On this timeless afternoon, maybe I'll meditate on time.
I sit here, staring out the window, waiting for my thoughts to take shape. And as I sit here, watching the motionless trees across the street, wondering where could be the "bird club" that my wife often sees sitting in those trees at sunset, watching the traffic a couple of streets away, noting the grayness of the sky and the yellowness of the grass in the cool of late winter days, the puddles no longer marked with the spatter of raindrops that have now ceased, thinking that maybe now I should take a walk and let my head clear and creative thoughts stir, and thinking back to walks I took when I was in college in rural southern Vermont 40 years ago, muddy dirt roads and trees all dripping in a rain's aftermath in early spring….
Well, one can get lost in time.
We in this culture often think of time as the motion of hands on a clock. And we measure—we're obliged to measure—all of our activities, all of our required achievements, against the motion of the hands on that clock. And when I'm at work, or trying to catch a bus to get somewhere, I do that too. And you know what? I do it badly. I am forever being late. I don't want to stop what I'm doing until the last minute—but I forget: to make a transition itself takes time.
Always, always rushing, to catch up with the movement of the hands of that clock.
We spend so much time rushing, so many moments trying to catch up. With what? And why?
There are arguments for the clock. It allows us all to work in sync. It enables us to make sure we include everything we wanted in the day. It helps us to ensure that everyone's needs are met, like eating. And sleeping. And, if we're out for a hike, it helps us to time our walking so that we'll be off the trail at nightfall. (It is really easy to get lost in the wild at night.)
But, what if you want to be lost?
Being lost is not necessarily a desirable state of affairs. You probably don't want to be lost in the wrong neighborhood in a big city. And being lost in nature can be alarming and dangerous.
But being a little lost can be wonderful. Not knowing precisely where you are, but being able to navigate "by the seat of the pants". Having enough familiarity with the area, and having enough sense of direction, that you can find your way back to known ground when necessary.
Being a little lost is how we discover new, even unexpected, things.
I remember wandering the back streets of downtown Boston, north of Beacon Street. Quaint streetlamps, old buildings, little shops, cobblestones. Quiet. Few cars. Only occasional foot traffic (when I was there, at least). Unexpected vistas. Amazing fire escapes. An old city school: pass under the entrance, gaze across the courtyard—tucked away.
Downtown Boston, especially along Beacon Street: wonderful ironwork in fences and on balconies, old doors in fancy brownstones. Doors of ornate beveled glass, doors of manorial solid oak.
The Italian North End. Streets to wander, streets festooned with banners announcing upcoming festivals. An Italian restaurant on every corner (or so it seemed). An old monastery: arched doorways, quiet courtyard. And that kitchen supply store my wife and I came across--we did not leave empty-handed….
And then there was that summer night I spent wandering downtown. All night, occasionally lying down on a park bench to shut my eyes for a few minutes. Strolling along the Charles river, hearing the water lapping at the shore, the lit buildings of Cambridge reflected in the waves. And, around 3 o'clock in the morning, the haunting notes of a horn wafting across that gentle water, the city curled up along its shores, a sleeping dragon being serenaded.
Memories I cherish.
As Tolkien says, not all those who wander are lost.
Only "a little lost". Just enough to explore. Just enough to experience. Just enough not to have any particular destination in mind, and so to be open to where I found myself.
And, in wandering, we do "find ourselves". In being willing to lose ourselves, we find new aspects of who we are—or recover aspects we thought we'd lost.
Among those aspects: a sense of wonder. If we're willing.
There are many ways to wander, to let yourself become just "a little lost". We can wander physically: in a city, along country roads, in a favorite park. Even in an airport.
(Boston's Logan Airport has this wonderful Rube Goldberg/ Mousetrap contraption, in which balls run endlessly down chutes, over chimes, knocking against levers to propel other motions, eventually being hauled up to do it all again. It's almost endlessly fascinating; I recall it being in the International Terminal.)
(Chicago's O'Hare has those lovely colored lights along the walls of a tunnel connecting two buildings, underneath an access road. And Detroit's airport has a really cool fountain—as well as an overhead tram system running the mile length of the terminal building.)
We can wander online. (As we're all being reminded, in this "cocooning time".)
We can wander in mind, exploring old memories and odd new thoughts, being willing to venture down unsuspected passageways, perhaps creating whole worlds and stories with the strange denizens we meet in our own interior recesses.
(Peter S. Beagle, in my favorite introduction of all time, praised Tolkien as a "colonizer of dreams".)
In our minds, we can create stories growing from scenes in our past, or springing fresh from the wealth of "loose parts" we've collected in our life experiences and from our cultures. And we all create stories about ourselves, about who we are, about why we act. We wander among those loose parts, fitting them together until they work for us.
In our untrammeled, unbounded, unfettered minds.
But when we wander in mind, and when we wander online, and when we wander in our physical world—we also wander in time.
For time is the realm in which things happen. Time is the realm in which stars and plants and thoughts grow. Time is the realm in which we grow.
Time is the realm in which experiences happen. And time is the realm in which we fully absorb and respond to our experiences. Time is the realm in which those experiences change us—and in which we change our experiences.
In the depths of time. In an instant, and across years.
We dance with our experiences, sense and respond, respond and sense. But, beyond the outward dance, we are kaleidoscopes, mixing and matching all that we have felt, all that we have seen, all that we have thought. It is an inner dance, constant motion, ever-changing patterns, often of great beauty, in which we deconstruct and build again our inner worlds, our conception of the outside, our views of ourselves and of events in our past. The pattern can change slowly, over the course of a lifetime, or it can change quite rapidly if the impulse is great. And what is the impulse at work here? It is the force of the world about us, pushing and tugging on the skin of our inner selves. And it is the drive of our own inner selves, to survive in that world, to live; and it is the drive of our own inner selves, to join in that world, and to thrive!
For to live in that world, to be and to grow into our full selves: that's what we're here for.
Those forces that impel us from within, to act to survive and to thrive—those are our emotions. They may not always make sense to us. They may not always seem appropriate, or necessary. But they are programmed into us, and grow with us, and drive us to live, according to our needs. And—like everything else that happens, like everything else that we experience—they occur in time.
They need time to grow, to ripen to maturity, to live according to the need, and to pass when the need, inner or outer, is past.
All events, and all states of being, need time in which to be experienced. We need to give them that time.
Whether we're eating, or painting, or having a screaming fit (whether outwardly, or in our own frustrated minds), we need time in which to experience these activities, and the states of mind and emotion that underlie them. This is true whether we're 2, or 35, or 82 years old. Indeed, we all have the same basic needs, though those needs may appear different at different ages and stages of life. (Adults know that emotional needs can be deferred when necessary, if they're not too acute; what adults sometimes forget is that those needs cannot be deferred indefinitely.)
So, time. Give the gift of time. Give it to yourself. Give it to your spouse. Give it to your whole family. Time is one gift that can be difficult to find in this culture whether we're rich or poor—but it is all the more precious for that.
Time. Attention. Love.
**Ah, time; the clock says it's getting late, and my mind and body say that too. So, I think I'm done with this reflection for tonight. But it might not be done with me!
There are some resources sent around by other teachers that I wanted to attach to this document, to be shared with everyone; technical questions and time have delayed this. I hope I can find a way.
Abby just sent out a sample of what classes and teachers have been doing. One of the things that struck me was how dedicated to the community our PSA parents (and grandparents) have been! Participating in class Hang-Outs and activities, sending responses back to teachers, sharing beautiful artwork and documentation with all via the PSA Virtual Art Gallery. All while taking care of busy families largely confined to home, and perhaps trying to get some of their own work done as well. Kudos to you all!**
Tuesday, 17 March 2020:
Hello, all! I wanted to make a few more comments about what folks in the field generally call "room arrangement".
The good folks in the Reggio preschools speak a lot about "children's rights". They speak about creating beautiful spaces for children. And everything the Reggio educators do exhibits a deep belief in children's ability to interpret the world around them, to express themselves in a variety of ways, to act independently and capably in pursuing their explorations. This is what we believe in, as a school; this is what we have been exploring in all the time I have been at PSA, a quarter century. And you, our community of families—this is why you are with us. Because you believe in this, too.
We all love our children. We want to empower them to become who they are. We want them to feel at home in the world. And part of that feeling at home is the spaces they live in.
The Italians live in a culture suffused with art: sculpture, architecture, music. And clothing. And food. Opera! And that Italian countryside, so famous for its luminosity: so much beautiful painting has been produced there! An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that everything the Italians do is art. Natural that such a people would put such an emphasis on creating beautiful spaces for their children.
But children everywhere deserve beauty, and have the right to it. They don't always get it. But it is their birthright.
Beauty uplifts the soul. It calls us back to our true selves. It reminds us of why we're alive. And, if we're not too jaded, it can help us feel at home.
So, when we're thinking about creating spaces for children, we're thinking about functional spaces. We're thinking about spaces in which children are empowered to act independently, as much as possible. And we're thinking about aesthetics.
The Italians think about the quality of light. They have preschools filled with light. The children play extensively with light—the Reggio exhibit in town last year (The Wonder of Learning) demonstrated that. Light, and color, and mirrors, and fabric hanging and stirring in strains of rosy luminescence. Curiosity, and science, and a community (teachers and parents and children) all at work in the exploration of that which is beautiful all around us.
They look at shadows: how they can be made to move, how the illumination from the sun shining through a window moves across a wall in a dark room.
They look at forms, as would a people whose land is populated with classic sculpture, and architecture two millennia old. I remember video of children exploring the Malaguzzi Center when it was newly completed in Reggio Emilia—children joyfully running around massive stone columns, learning on dancing feet all the ins and outs of that newly minted space. I remember video of children manipulating on a computer photos of that same space, digitally moving and resizing those stone columns. Another way of exploring and owning it.
The Italians teach us all that aesthetics are important, "even" to children. If the children are encouraged in noticing them. If the children's right to live their full lives is respected, and not trammeled in the struggle to survive.
Create beautiful spaces for your children. Create beautiful spaces for yourselves. Because beauty calls us to ourselves, and makes us feel at home.
**Oh dear, I do go on, don't I? I bet you all have beautiful spaces—but I need to clean up my apartment!
Now, where was I?**
Ah yes, aesthetics. There's another reason for talking about this: sensory perception.
Brains are busy: they have a great deal to process, and to manage. The visual processing system alone is amazing: it orders a vast array of input and sends it through a sequence of increasingly sophisticated subroutines that recognize various attributes of what is being seen. (Are there edges or corners? Is there movement? etc). The visual system also coordinates everything with other processing areas: hearing, the autonomic nervous system which governs fight-or-flight-or freeze, the executive prefrontal lobe which governs conscious response to a situation.) And this is the simplified version, for laymen such as myself. (And I hope I haven't garbled it.)
The cerebellum, a dense network at the lower back of the brain, is constantly coordinating our muscles, helping us to balance and to move.
Our inner ears, a miraculous and delicate mechanism in themselves, sense both linear and circular motion (in all three dimensions); our brain coordinates the output from both ears and eyes to sense motion and to keep us in balance.
Our ears' better-known function, of course, is to sense sound. They do so with another delicate mechanism, a tiny curled membrane whose length responds to a spectrum of pitches from low to high, transmuting those vibrations into tiny electrical impulses by means of tiny cilia on the membrane; those impulses then travel into the brain. In short, our ears and brain are mechanically carrying out what any mathematicians among us would recognize as Fourier processing. And they were doing this long before there were mathematicians.
And so on. Why am I babbling on about all of this?
Perhaps because I'm obsessed. Maybe even to show off. (Silly human!) And because, in all of the brain's miraculous workings, sometimes things can go a little off. Or sometimes a brain can be overwhelmed.
Especially a child's brain, which is just developing.
Perhaps the wiring gets a little confused, or a regulatory mechanism isn't working quite right, or a part of the brain just gets overloaded—but sometimes our brains sense something too much, or too little, or sense something in a confused manner. And it can take a person a while to consciously sort out what's real and what's not. Or if a brain momentarily gets overloaded and cannot take in any more information, because it's still processing the input it's already received, it might need some time to recover.
Sometimes our brains just need a break. Sometimes our children's brains just need a break.
What does this have to do with aesthetics?
It has to do with eliminating cacophony. It has to do with eliminating clutter. It has to do with simplifying. And all of these things enter into creating attractive spaces.
There's a reason we go into nature to find calm, to find peace, to find rest. Nature usually is calm. Nature usually is restful. This is one of the aspects we usually find beautiful in the natural world.
(Not always. I love thunderstorms, and wind, and the crashing of waves—as long as I'm not in a small boat. But even that wind, those crashing waves, have a "white noise", calming sameness or rhythm about them.)
In short, our senses and our brains have evolved in nature, to handle nature's impulses. And nature's impulses usually have enough sameness, enough order, in them that our brains aren't overwhelmed. And when they are overwhelmed? Well, that's because we're in the middle of a tornado, or being chased by a rhino, or something—and that's not calming or pleasant at all!
So, make beautiful spaces. Because beautiful spaces are calming. Because beautiful spaces are what we've evolved for. Because beautiful spaces are where we feel at home.
And, incidentally, one of the aspects I've spoken repeatedly of here is light. The lighting of a space. Because it matters. At PSA, we've generally gotten away from using the bright fluorescents. If a room is really dark, there may be no getting away from turning them on—but we try to bring in enough area lamps that we can do without. These area lamps serve many purposes: they help to indicate boundaries. (The area lit by that lamp is the area intended for a given use.) In our school, a large building which can feel institutional, lamps help create an atmosphere of hominess. Lamps are usually less bright than the overhead fluorescent bulbs (whose sheer brilliance can be overstimulating). And our area lamps don't "vibrate" the way the fluorescents can: for children with sensory processing disorder, or epilepsy, fluorescent lighting can be a real problem.
The short and sweet: use attractive area lamps, enjoy natural light (including northern light, without the sun's brilliance) wherever you've got it, use enough light for what is intended, but don't over-light the scene. Okay?
I'll talk to you all again. Until then, be well and have fun, and may you find rest.
Monday, 16 March 2020:
As we all try to cope with the new reality, I’ve been pondering what I can do to help. And, since last Friday evening, what has been gestating in my head has been, well, just talking. It started with talking about sensory play ideas, and how to do them at home. But it’s grown. It’s grown into musings about room arrangement, and how to set up spaces that help to guide children’s behavior. It’s grown into discussing routines and expectations, so that children can feel secure. And it’s grown into something that I hope others will participate in, because we are (virtually) surrounded by people who know things that I don’t, or may have forgotten. We are surrounded by a multitude of people with all sorts of gifts to share. And, especially in this strange time, we need to be sharing. It is time to be caring, for ourselves and for others.
Every person is different, has different experiences, different knowledge; every family is different as well. You may or may not have a use for any of my ruminations. All I can do is offer them up, in the humble hope that they may help someone.
So, if your kids and you are doing fine, if you’re okay with whatever’s going on at home--don’t listen to me. (Unless you want to.) Carry on!
But, if things are getting a little wild at home, and you need some words from the Great Beyond to soothe your stressful day, let’s talk.
There are many factors that cue our children’s behavior. Obviously, many of them are inside: their energy level, mood, comfort level, what they’re thinking about or struggling with, what they ate for breakfast. But perhaps what’s less thought about is how their surroundings, both physical and emotional, affect them. Lighting, noise level, the softness or hardness of furnishings, the comfort of their clothing, how busy the surroundings are--all of these affect children. All of them affect children’s willingness, even their ability, to behave appropriately. And you can influence all of these factors (save perhaps their unquenchable energy!)
(Children are also impacted by the emotions of the people around them. This is a significant topic--we’ll save it for later.)
I’m reminded of my younger days, when I used to do the student thing of going to coffee shops to write. I had to find the right atmosphere to be comfortable, so that I could relax and let things flow. Hard enough sometimes to deal with the challenge of The Blank Page, without feeling self-conscious and all bottled up. Even now, I often listen to music when I write, to take some of my edge off.
I think children often face the same thing. They may not be able to articulate it, but if they’re not at ease, for whatever reason, then they can’t focus, can’t relax, can’t “behave appropriately”.
Children often show their stress by misbehavior.
So, what can we do to help?
Start by creating comfortable spaces that clearly indicate their purpose.
If you want a place for the kids to read books, use the couch, or a carpeted floor--a few soft pillows would be a cozy addition. Or the bed. Wherever it is, make it comfy and inviting. “Invite” a favorite doll or toy to join in.
As I recall, the Red Room teachers created a lovely little single-occupancy space, complete with hanging fabric and pillows, where a child can nestle in and read. Or just be.
If your child wants a place for writing (real or pretend), that’s great! Is there a little table in the child’s room? Can you put one there? Having his or her own place to work is empowering. Set it up with a good supply of paper, and with writing utensils that really work. Provide an array of magazines and books, posters…whatever has text and interests your child. An alphabet around the bedroom walls? Okay. An alphabet the child helped create, perhaps by tracing and cutting, or by doing rubbings? Even better!
And encourage calm, so the child can focus. Just as we might encourage calm in a space in which we are working.
Maybe, if you’re sitting at the kitchen table doing some work yourself, your children might like to work alongside you. Sounds companionable! Just remind them that you need to get some work done, so if they want to be there, they need to “work” quietly and give you some space.
If the kids are really physically active, really need to move, and you’re stuck inside: try clearing away some space and setting up materials that they can crawl into, or jump on, or build with. Do you have a space where it’s safe to throw soft balls? They’d probably do that for a long time, and use up a lot of energy! If you have some old mattresses around, maybe you have a place to set up a jumping arena--perhaps even complete with padded walls, to keep heads safe. If so, let them know that this is where they can jump around to their hearts’ content.
The Copper Room set up a space like that.
Know that you can use furniture, rugs, lighting, even wall hangings to delineate a space and to set a mood for the children. Since you are in your own homes you probably won’t need to do much--but when we set up classrooms at the beginning of the year, we experiment with moving furnishings around. We look at setting boundaries for spaces that provide appropriate work areas and storage for the intended functions. We look at lighting: is it attractive, sufficient, and does it set the mood we want? Would wall hangings reduce the noise in a space, and set the mood for its purpose? Where do we want to hang children’s artwork and family photos, so that they feel they belong?
We also look at traffic patterns in a space. Are there looping paths among the furniture, that encourage rambunctious children to run laps? Is there enough room for the intended number of people to use the space? If other people have to pass through the area, is there room for them to do so without disturbance?
Enough talk for the moment; this will be continued. Be well!