Play at the Center

What makes a child engage playfully with materials?  Is engagement with open-ended play all self-motivated, or is there something we can do as adults to support children's creative, imaginative play?  Does it matter if a child does not play?  Are we imposing what we consider as "playfulness" onto them?

These are just a few of the reflection questions that we, as a teaching team, have explored over the past few weeks.  They come up organically while we look at photos, videos, and the kids' own visual representations of their play. 

Play Lab exists, now, as an after school program in two public elementary schools, and the spring pilot is winding down over the next three weeks.  Each week, teachers present the group with new materials for open-ended play; the curriculum is emergent.  Throughout the pilot, we have played with different aspects of the program, from including a meeting/gathering/conversation at the beginning of the session, to how much to expect children to play with the materials we provide, to offering children the opportunity to reflect on their own play.  

psm venn.jpg

The kids have played with loose parts, newspaper, cardboard, blocks, and cardboard tubes + ping pong balls.  We have observed kids deeply engaged with materials, but they are often just as engaged with their peers and the physical space - the materials are not the only thing that defines engagement. 

So, once again, I am circling back to the importance of thinking about how all of these things (people, space, and materials) interact.  I believe we can plan for an engaging process of play, as long as we are prepared to be surprised.

When planning, these individual components overlap - we can't consider materials without considering the people who will be interacting with the materials, or the space where the play will happen.  The more I see different children in different spaces using the same materials, I realize that it is the nuances that we must pay attention to: the time of day, the patterns of behavior and interest we see week after week.

A particularly vivid example of this interaction of people, space, and materials happened with long cardboard tubes in a school library.


The materials for this particular week were cardboard tubes of varying lengths, small pieces of cardboard, string, tape, clothespins, and rubber bands.  A group of boys worked to connect tubes together, becoming more and more impressed by how long the apparatus was.  It was used as a limbo bar, and in the process of moving it around the room, someone noticed that it was long enough to reach the ceiling.  

That feat required multiple people to help support the tubes.

The kids were deeply engaged in the evolving process of using the tubes: manipulating them to connect them with tape; talking into them and manipulating sound; and finally noticing that the length could be vertical.  From the teacher perspective, I fretted about the physical space we were in.  How did the librarians feel about the sound levels?  What happens if we knock over a book, or a whole shelf?  Are we respecting the space in which we are guests?

I said phrases that, upon reflection, I would not have repeated.  I very generically told them to "be careful".  They were so joyful in that moment of lifting the apparatus together to touch it to the ceiling that as they chanted "ceil-ING! ceil-ING!" in unison, I thought about what others might think of such loud behavior in the library.  My comments didn't deter the fun and joy of this exploration because they were so deeply engaged that they continued on - with an awareness that I was asking them to be careful, but with an even greater awareness that they had control over their play and their work.  They were not reckless, they were not destructive.  They were engaged.

This sequence of events (the kids' truly open explorations, my fretting, nothing being destroyed, children's joy) is a pretty typical story of play-based learning.  That is, when we are really letting kids play, it is the norm.  The scale changes, but the story is consistent.  We (adults) put a lot of parameters on children's play based on our expectations, the learning outcomes we want to see, safety, respect, kindness - we step in as adults to support children in the ways we see best.  

We, the adults, are in that PEOPLE category of the Venn diagram above.  It is impossible to plan for children's play in a space and then step back and do absolutely nothing.  We are a piece of the equation as well.  It calls for children to have time and freedom in their play when they are not in our care as well, which is a whole other story.

The two kids who were engaged with the ceiling poking/limbo bar/sound machine object from start to finish, as it changed from one thing into another, drew their representations of it during their reflections at the end of the session.


In these reflections, there are no drawings of adults nagging over their shoulder; there are no books almost being knocked over.  There is no writing that expresses worry about the physical space.  We adults have seen our fair share of accidents, and we see it as our duty to prevent future accidents.  But accidents/mistakes/"oopsies" happen, and we learn from those experiences, too.  I do not suggest we let kids be reckless, but I do suggest we give them the benefit of the doubt for a few extra seconds before we jump in. 

And, if we do jump in, what can we say to raise children's awareness rather than shut down their play?

As this session of the program winds down, I'll be sharing more, specifically about the reflection process, and specific stories of children's play.

Naptime #2

Just in time for the darkest months here in the Northern Hemisphere, its Naptime #2!

Perfect for rest time in the classroom, an evening of tea drinking + reading, or your own Saturday nap, this mix is meant for kids and adults to enjoy. 

You can stream it on Spotify, or head to the Mix Tapes page to download it as one continuous track.



Favorite Things : October 2017

Oprah has her favorite things, and I have my favorites right now, too!  I can't buy/create time for all of these things for you, but know that if I could, I would.  Maybe one of these things will make it into your life, too!

Ping Pong Balls!


They float!  They bounce!  

Too big to swallow, too light to break anything.  Cheap.  Available in a variety of colors.  Absolutely endless possibilities.

Ping Pong balls are my new favorite loose part.  Over the past few months I have seen them added to cardboard structures with rubber bands, acted as a ball pit for a toy dinosaur, and tucked into secret places, drawn on with sharpies:  The options are endless for children, and worry-free for educators.  

I bought this colorful and affordable pack from Amazon.

 Let's not assume that ping pong balls are only for rolling, bouncing, and throwing: let kids show you the possibilities.

Let's not assume that ping pong balls are only for rolling, bouncing, and throwing: let kids show you the possibilities.

Lifelong Kindergarten by Mitch Resnik.


I devoured this book on a flight from Seattle to New Orleans, and when I got off the plane I recommended it to anyone who would listen - I was probably a broken record.  The creative communities - both physical and virtual - that the MIT Lifelong Kindergarten group has nurtured is inspiring.  They believe in the open-source sharing of information and the importance to play and failure and community building - not always what you associate with coding and computers.  Although they are applying a lot of this research to digital settings, it is applicable to the bigger conversations that are bubbling up around teaching and learning.

Get the book at your local library, or on Amazon.

As a bonus, there is a free online course exploring the book happening in October: you can sign up today.


Hidden Brain.

Stress?  Love?  Hard Decisions?  Bad Habits?  Shankar Vedantam has you covered on NPR's weekly Hidden Brain Podcast.


Education is closely related to psychology - and I love how Hidden Brain frames different everyday challenges with little “hacks”, like overcoming perceived obstacles.  It is incredibly relevant to teaching young children, and also helps teachers who are working through stressful situations.  My recent favorites include Be the Change (which addresses gender bias from infancy through the life span) and the “You 2.0” series from the summer.  Subscribe to the podcast.


Penguin by Polly Dunbar.

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This sweet little story was chosen by a kiddo on a trip to the library, and I love everything about it, especially the colorful illustrations.  I made a grand assumption about the plot when I opened it that was debunked, and I am always pleased when I am that engaged and delighted with a picture book.  We read it over and over again as a group, but this is also the kind of book that children can engage with themselves, retelling the story on their own using the pictures.

Find it at your local library, or on Amazon.

Google Photos Animations.


I use Google for all my raw documentation - photos and videos from my phone and camera - and sometimes their magic algorithm makes little boomerang-style videos.  I love them, and so do the kids: the two here were magically created from video I took this summer.

If you use Google photos, click here: you may already have some animations waiting for you.


Getting Outside.

It may seem like a silly thing to recommend, but it is easy to forget, or make excuses not to.  

It is still pre-rainy season here in the Pacific Northwest, and I am all about being outside.  Stressful morning?  A short lunchtime hike.  Interested in finding a book on cultural development and play?  I walk up the hill to the university instead of driving - or looking something up on the internet.  It is a habit I hope takes me into the winter, despite the weather.  Spend time outside by yourself, with a friend, a partner, your dog:  remember how lovely it is to be out in nature.  I also recommend leaving your phone at home - its too tempting for me to take photos and listen to music instead of just taking the time to just BE.


What are some of your favorite things right now?


Chalk and Crates

I am running an afternoon drop-off program at Play Lab this month - an afternoon extension of a local morning forest preschool.  I meet the class at the end of their outdoor morning and we travel downtown by bus to spend the afternoon exploring materials.

 The Play Lab classroom.

The Play Lab classroom.

The classroom is set up to be modular: the tables are light and movable, and the primary home for all of the materials is in storage.  This allows the children a certain freedom: I am not attached to the small animal figurines staying in one place or enforcing something as arbitrary as “legos stay on this table”.  The materials are on shelves, allowing kids the flexibility to use the materials how and where they want; when we tidy up, we bring things back to where we found them.  The battery powered tea lights (my personal favorite new material) travel around the room, from birthday party to dark pirate ship.

On the very first day of this program, we dug right into finding a balance of safety and risk with materials.  I had planned to observe the kids, interacting as they explored the materials and the environment.  I saw a story of exploration unfold, and I owe that story to a flexibility with materials, allowing children the space to show me what is possible, rather than me telling them.

One of the most flexible choices I made was to use milk crates for seating in the main space.  These milk crates can be filled with things and dumped; I can use them to pack up and transport items to community play installations; they become part of construction projects, holding up ramps and tubes.  They are also our chairs.


These crates also afford standing on - just right for getting a three-year-old to a height where their perspective - and their literal reach - offers more opportunities to manipulate their environment.  The chalk wall became that place of opportunity on Tuesday, and an opportunity for me, as a teacher, to trust, understand, and support.

R, age 3, was drawing on the chalk wall, and running his hands over the chalk lines to make smudges.  He seemed really satisfied with the action, or the visual maybe: he kept making marks and smudging them.  D, also age 3, joined him, making short, sharp marks on the wall.  D began to jump to make marks on the untouched part of the wall that was a bit out of reach, and R followed his lead, jumping and making marks.

D saw a milk crate nearby, and brought it over to the wall, and stood on it to reach the blank part, making marks.  I said, “you’re higher up now, does your body feel safe?” and he answered “yes”.  This was our first day together, so we had not broached any conversations about safety or risk.  This, though, is the most natural way to start a dialogue about it - while kids are taking risks.  My priority was in them seeing Play Lab as a place to explore and experiment, where they can feel "safe to risk" (hat tip Susan Harris Mackay).  R saw how D had solved the problem of not being tall enough, and he got his own milk crate, and brought it to the chalk wall.

After some time, they had exhausted the part of the wall they could now reach with that one milk crate, and the top of the chalk wall was still unmarked.  D got a second crate and put it on top of his first, and began to scramble up.  This was where I decided to support them with some decision making around safety.

This is an example of my philosophy of education with kids:  its okay to give them advice and support, but we should be selective and patient with it.  The first time we want to say something is likely a time where we are squelching exploration.   With D’s scramble up the double crate stack, I saw the hazard of one crate falling, becoming unsettled in that little crevice that makes the crates feel stable as a stack.  I asked him again - do you feel safe?  As he hoisted himself up, the crates wobbled a bit, and I thought out loud: “How might we make it safer to get on the top crate?”  I imagined that he might ask me to pick him up and put him on top, but he had a different solution: he got a nearby crate and pushed it tight to the crate stack, acting as a bottom step, a gradual way to get to the second crate.  He stepped up to the first, and then the second crate, and was able to get up and down safely.  Again, R followed his lead.


With kids this age - young threes - there is a certain amount of miscalculation of their physical movements, and I believe that is where some of the perceived danger for accidents comes in.  The very next day, for example, R stacked two crates in front of the clay bar, and the top one came down as he was beginning to climb up.  There were some very different factors that I helped him identify that made that situation different:  at the chalk wall, the crates were right against the wall, and they had the wall to use for their own physical stability.  A stack of two crates in the middle of the room is a bit different.  These aren't commands: these are thinking out loud and offering a conversation.  There is not a "only stand on the crates with the support of a wall" rule, and there will not be.  There is documentation of their experience, and we can use this experience as a jumping off point for getting deeper into the topic as the weeks go by.

These are appropriate risks for kids to take: they can explore their bodies and space in a safe environment.  If every time a child begins to do something that is perceived by an adult as risky, they are swept away without explanation, they will probably keep putting themselves in a risky situation.  In Early Childhood settings, this requires us, as teachers, to be vigilant but patient.  We need to know when to let kids explore and do a few seconds longer.  When we ask them to stop or modify their behavior, they deserve to know why: they can understand.  Short, fear-filled yelps of “Stop that!” or “Be careful” make us feel like we are changing a child’s behavior, and sometimes we do just have to jump in.  But most of the time, it is simply a stack of milk crates that are being climbed, a slide being climbed up while someone is on their way down.  We want to protect children all of the time, but they will learn so much more about their bodies and risk if they have the autonomy to explore for a few more seconds.

Next time you are working with children and you want to step in, try this:  count to 5 in your head.  Watch the kids while you count.  Maybe one is not sharing a toy and another child is pulling on it; maybe they are trying to climb a ladder on the playground; maybe they have a marble in their hand and they look like they are about to throw it at the window.  There is something common about all of these situations: we immediately expect the worst, and we let that guide our decision making.  But we are in this for the education of young children, not a badge.  Children will get bumps and scratches and hurt feelings; toys will break and paint will get on the carpet.  Parents will worry that their child might get sand thrown in their face:  yes, your child might get sand thrown in their face.  We might get sand in our faces, too.

As you jump into this school year, I encourage you to explore your limits, and the space that young children need.  I’m not telling you to be dangerous.  I’m just advising that you to be a touch more flexible, and make decisions that support children’s learning and development - don’t let your own fear direct your teaching.

Inspiration : Anni Albers


Anni Albers is, perhaps, the most well known textile artist of the 20th century.  She was a weaver, and, as an educator and writer, shared her ideas surrounding materials, design, and art.

Her thinking about the power of materials, and exploration and play with those materials, strikes a chord as an analogy for those of us focusing on the power of materials for children's explorations.  What materials can we provide, and what makes them playful?  How are we - without even knowing so - restricting the creative experiences that children can have with materials?

In a world of finished products, Albers was well known for her creativity and detail.  She was deeply interested in the process of creating with materials as well, writing philosophically on the subject.  

The selected writings of Anni Albers include two short but thought provoking pieces: Work with Material (1938) and Material as Metaphor (1982).

"Material, that is to say unformed or unshaped matter, is the field where authority blocks independent experimentation less than in many other fields, and for this reason it seems well fitted to become the training ground for invention and free speculation. It is here that even the shyest beginner can catch a glimpse of the exhilaration of creating, by being a creator while at the same time he is checked by irrevocable laws set by the nature of the material, not by man. Free experimentation here can result in the fulfillment of an inner urge to give form and to give permanence to ideas, that is to say, it can result in art, or it can result in the satisfaction of invention in some more technical way.
But most important to one's own growth is to see oneself leave the safe ground of accepted conventions and to find oneself alone and self-dependent. It is an adventure which can permeate one's whole being. Self-confidence can grow. And a longing for excitement can be satisfied without external means, within oneself; for creating is the most intense excitement one can come to know." 

-Anni Albers, Work with Material, 1938


What strikes me most about Albers' work is the value that she places on the process, and the understanding of the language that is being explored.  Whether in drawing, printmaking, painting, or weaving, her mentality as a designer is insightful: as educators, we design curriculum and spaces; we curate materials and experiences.  Our understanding, via playful exploration and experimentation, has as much meaning and value as the explorations of the children we serve.

I am inspired by Albers' mentality on design and materials, the creative process, and the role of making and creating.  Spend a little time reading Albers' writing - she offers an approach to learning with materials that will ring true for any constructivist classroom.  She saw the potential in the everyday - asking materials to do things they are not typically asked to do, stretching their limits and possibilities.


Dialogue at Opal School and Beyond

I experienced my second Opal School Summer Symposium at the end of June - an experience that produced 20 pages of notes, photographs of inspiring environments, a reading list that might last me until the next symposium, new relationships, and deeper existing connections.  

The symposium is a unique experience: in my visits, I have looked at my teaching, and education in general, on a bigger scale, while simultaneously developing an understanding of how that plays out on a daily, weekly, and yearly level with children.  

My Opal School experience did not change my mind about my work, but it helped me find a way to articulate it, to move forward.  This is a place where I am consistently stuck.  Without other people to bounce ideas off of, to reflect with, I feel limited.  Getting out of the Play Lab studio and connecting with other people is something I crave - just as I did when I was a classroom teacher, eager to see other schools and meet other teachers.  I went to the symposium to listen, and to talk about children’s voices; I left with an understanding of where I can help amplify children’s voices even more: through dialogue.


Dialogue as a Big Idea //

Dialogue is an interaction with the world: with one thing or many things, with people or with objects or materials.  We can have dialogue with ourselves, with food, with places.  Listening to that dialogue can be challenging.  Acting on that dialogue in a way that moves us forward?  That is intimidating.  

The teachers at Opal School told stories of children’s explorations and dialogue around big ideas: dialogue with cardboard, clay, democracy, hate, power, story characters, the city of Portland - and each other.  There are projects and topics, but the underlying message is the people and the world they share.  The way we frame and create environments for children is important, of course, but the real work is in the community - and dialogue affords us the opportunity to build those relationships.


In Context //

The week after the symposium, I taught a one-week summer camp called Playful Textiles.  I planned for the camp and chose the materials and the projects before heading to Portland for the Opal School Symposium - and when I returned on Sunday evening, I looked at my plans and wondered who wrote them.  Who decided to do closed-ended projects everyday?  Who left no room for exploration, for children’s ideas?  Oh, that was me, in a mentality clouded by parent expectations for products, and what I perceived as limited time (10 hours total) with 6-10 year olds I had not worked with before .

Here’s what I know now: Just because it is a sewing class does not mean that all of the learning to be centered around sewing.  Sewing is a vehicle for a community experience, just like a math class, a birthday party, an overnight summer camp - can be.  We can’t ignore the possibility of the impact of a group dynamic on learning.  This is what I believe about Play Lab installations:  its not about the cardboard or the tape or the clay.  It is planning for playful interaction - yes, with materials, but also with space and people.  The experience of picking play dough out of the grass underneath a table with another 4-year-old is something new, something memorable - and I cannot plan for that.  What the learning looks like cannot be dictated.

And maybe that is why I am not, by most standards, a great sewing teacher.  These kids didn’t learn about seams or grain lines or what different stitches are called because of a carefully planned lesson.  They learned some new skills and some new terms that they will definitely be able to apply to their future sewing; or perhaps their curiosity around making things has been piqued.  There was some playful exploration of materials, but there could have been more:  I feel a certain pressure for children to create concrete, take-home products from these series classes, and that is something that is asking for some personal reflection.  There was not one way to make a pillow - children chose their fabrics from the store, along with accessories, creating their own design and plan.  But, everyone made a pillow.  One adult with seven children does not exactly afford super individualized projects.  But there is that attitude again: I could have planned for more open-ended, engaging explorations, a dialogue with the materials that are common to the practice of sewing.  My planning was lacking in imagination and in openness.  The kids had a fantastic week, and I did too.  But I am also feeling like my understanding of framing explorations of ideas with children has been blown wide open.

Sewing Camp is not necessarily about becoming an expert.  It is about gaining new skills in a playful, exploratory way that, hopefully, sparks your interest in continuing to sew and make things.  Your blanket stitch will come in handy when (read: IF) other adults in your life don’t get overpowering when you just want to tinker around with sewing.  Our attitudes about right and wrong are an enormous influence on children - and if a five year old isn’t mastering the blanket stitch, I can’t get frustrated - I need to meet her where she is.  I think we can appreciate having space for dialogue with different things in our lives, getting to know new people, places, and ideas.  


Playful Textiles // Documentation

 In dialogue with materials, looking at properties and the shapes they might offer a sun print.

In dialogue with materials, looking at properties and the shapes they might offer a sun print.

 Loose Parts + Sun Prints

Loose Parts + Sun Prints

 Planning pillows in our sketchbooks

Planning pillows in our sketchbooks

 A self planned and executed pillow project.

A self planned and executed pillow project.

Storytelling in the Early Years

I'm excited to release a new online workshop this weekend, aimed at helping Early Childhood Educators support children's natural exploration of story in the world.  Storytelling is deeply embedded in our lives: in this workshop, you get to look for the hidden gems, and learn how to share the relationship between stories + learning with parents, families, and children themselves.


About The Workshop

Literacy and storytelling are about so much more than reading and writing.  Children are natural story seekers and storytellers, using the information they gather to imagine and experiment with the possibilities of their family, classroom, and world.  

In this online workshop, you'll explore :

  • how to expand your understanding of stories, and what they look like in everyday contexts
  • the relationship between stories, biology, and culture
  • how to can support children's emerging literacy with materials and activities
  • ideas for sharing children's stories
  • the diverse ways that storytelling looks in different educational contexts

This 10-hour workshop is self-paced: engage with the work on your own schedule.  You'll have audio, video, and readings to help you along the way, as well as a discussion community to explore questions, wonderings, and ideas for implementing this work in your classroom.  Participants receive a certificate of completion at the end.

The workshop goes live on Saturday, July 8!  

You can enroll in a monthly workshop membership today to explore ideas in reflective writing, photography, loose parts, and more, while you're waiting for the storytelling workshop to go live!  

On its own, Storytelling in the Early Years is $45 for one year of access, including all updates.

Sign up for occasional emails about upcoming online workshops:

Name *

Playful Planning, and Planning for Play

These days, most of my time is spent planning for play and creating play installations as Play Lab.  

It has taken me away from this online space more than I expected, but I'm thrilled that my work is to be out in the community 2-3 times per week, supporting children's explorations with open-ended materials.

The first community Cardboard Playground of the summer is this weekend, but I had my first "private" Cardboard Playground last Sunday.  I was at the Farmer's Market yesterday, with a play dough bar that was a big hit with kids of all ages.  I've just finished a run of drop in play in that studio, where we have explored everyday materials as toys.

Before working on Play Lab full time, I did not think much about engaging in play myself.  For classroom planning, I always trusted my instincts: if an idea popped into my head I would write it down and bring the materials and idea to the kids, letting them explore.  

In the classroom, there was more flexibility with the potential success or failure of a play prompt: If something wasn't working, we could simply sweep it off the table.  If it was deeply engaging, we would find a way to keep it around so children could revisit it.  One of my favorite (and most space-invasive) materials explorations was a weaving that began with a single piece of twine attached to the ceiling and taped to the table below; over the course of a few days more string and ribbons and tape and flowers and paper and little bits were added.  We had to relocate snack and meals to be picnic style on the floor, but that wasn't a problem - it was bonus fun!

With Play Lab, I head into the community with a plan for the playscape, but I do not know how people will interact with the space and the materials.  That classroom flexibility isn't there: if its a flop, I can't just pack it up and go.  That means I need to play around a little bit more and take a few tangents so I can be aware of the situations where children might need more support.  I want to be as prepared as I can to provide a positive experience for players.  That does not mean there are not problems to solve throughout the day - those problems are part of the play experience, embedded in this kind of play. If a child wants to make a hat from cardboard, it is easiest for us, adults and facilitators, to step in right away and make decisions for them, from design to execution.  We won't be as necessary to that process, though, if children have the right kind of support before that potential problem arises: an adult who can point out resources, or the way another person solved a problem, and then step back.  Knowing how much, and what kind, of support to give is different with every interaction, every situation.

Moments like the one in the video above are not situations that I can predict, but the interaction in that clip is in line with the opportunities I hoped to create when Play Lab began:  chances for children to take the lead and try things out, without an adult sweeping in prematurely.  I thought about that yesterday at the Play Dough Bar installation, also:  every child interacts with open ended materials differently, and when they take the lead, they are following their instincts and curiosities, making deeper connections to the stuff they're using, and the ideas and concepts related to their play.

As Play Lab grows, so do the play opportunities I can offer to children.  In July, I'm hosting a few summer camps at the Play Lab studio, which are structured more like the classroom play prompts I created during a decade of preschool teaching.  Perhaps selfishly, I'm using the opportunity to play around with technology, and ways for children to make it their own.  During a Playful Textiles camp, we'll tinker with sewn circuits (with conductive thread!) and I need an understanding of where and how things might be challenging along the way.  I need to play and tinker to deepen my understanding.

The same goes for the art and technology day camp.  We could all create the same scribble bot - or we can play and tinker with the components, prototyping and exploring.  This way the kids can take home their drawing robot, but they don't need to be attached to that specific product.  The components - batteries and a motor - can be discovered and explored, giving them a potential new life after its work as a drawing machine.  I had fun playing with components for an afternoon, and I was able to take it all apart as I tested, redesigned, and tested some more.

As much as there is to be done in a company that is only one person, it is essential that I take time to play, and to reflect on that play.

Its easy to get up and go in the morning when your day is filled with supporting children as they are deeply engaged in play, talking with parents and families about the importance of play, and getting to play yourself.  


Open-Ended Materials : Tuning Into Affordances

What are affordances?  How can they help us frame children's play experiences?


One of the biggest hurdles for people beginning to use open-ended materials in the classroom is choosing and curating the materials.  What can a material do?  How can it be used?  What are the possibilities for play and work?  Those are questions that we should ponder as educators, and curators of materials and environment.  Those are questions that we can see children answer through their hands-on play with open-ended materials.  We don't need to orchestrate how play will unfold, but supporting children's play doesn't end with choosing materials

Open-ended materials offer the opportunity for juicy, creative, and independent work for children of all ages.  Choosing and curating materials is not just creating a setup that draws users in : it keeps the user engaged.  Choosing a material that has multiple uses means that one thing is endlessly engaging:  it can be used one way by one child, and another way by the next.  It can be combined with other materials, or perhaps used on its own.  



Affordances, or clues in the environment that indicate possibilities for action, are perceived in a direct, immediate way with no sensory processing. Examples include: buttons for pushing, knobs for turning, handles for pulling, levers for sliding, etc.  (Source)


Those "clues in the environment" can both suggest possibilities, and communicate restrictions.  Blocks, for example, are used for building, usually in a block center.  What might happen if some blocks were put in the sensory table - in particular, blocks that span the width of the sensory table so they might function as platforms or bridges?  A threaded bolt might live at a woodworking station, but it can also make an interesting mark in a soft material, like clay.

This idea is eye opening when we think about it in conjunction with open-ended materials (loose parts), and presenting them to children.  How much does the presentation matter?  How much thinking should we do before we offer children materials?  If we offer children clipboards, we may hope that they write or draw; but paper also affords ripping and cutting, creating confetti, or snow.  At Play Lab, materials move around the space freely. That was a conscious decision - it is part of learning more about my comfort level, and the secret affordances children can see that I cannot.

I thought about this in terms of art materials, too : is there only one way to use paint?  An environmental feature like a chalk wall can start to fall flat when it feels like it is just there to make marks on with chalk.  So, what else does chalk have to offer?  What do we know about chalk that can suggest a new idea?


In the video below, M uses markers and a shower curtain ring as a "spinning machine" - a machine that she tried and failed to make for 5 minutes.  She began with a colored pencil and the ring in one hand, and the ring flew off.  She swapped the pencil for a crayon, and the same thing happened.  She swapped the crayon for the marker, and made it a two-handed motion, protecting the ring from flying off.  She had a number of variables, and tested the limits and affordances of the materials.


You need to decide how you feel about these kinds of explorations.  There is something tight and nervous inside most of us when it comes to the unknown! Here are a few ways we can tune into the affordances of objects to deepen our understanding, and support children's play with that knowledge.

#1 : Play

A logical first step is for adults to play with materials!  Adults aren't too accustomed to truly open play - most of the messages in our lives tell us that we are either right or wrong.  It is challenging to get into the mental state that children can with their play.  We talk about the importance of play for children, so experiencing it in our own lives can't be a negative thing.

Gather some materials, and see how flexible you can be with them.  How many options does one item afford?  How might you combine different objects and materials to increase the affordances?  

#2 : Be Observant

We need to be prepared to observe children at play.  If children need our support and troubleshooting around the room, we don't get to see and understand children's thinking and meaning in their play.  If children are working with small items and clay, then we should be prepared for children to surprise us.  Clay on the floor, as a bracelet, in their hair, inside small spaces - these are just a few possibilities.  And if we believe that children should have open-ended materials and engage in open-ended play, that takes stepping back, and perhaps some deep breaths, on the part of the educator.

Many of the choices that children make cause adults to cringe.  I was at Play Lab recently, playing with M, a 2.5 year old girl, as her mom watched.  M dumped the markers; she dumped out the crayons; she dumped out the chalk.  She used the now-empty containers to make beds for foxes, and for clay "worms".  There were drawing instruments on the floor and modeling clay on the "drawing" table.  It is absolutely necessary to ask yourself:  does it matter?

It doesn't matter to me; I understand that she is in a place in her understanding of the world where dumping and filling just makes sense.  Observe children before jumping to conclusions about what is inappropriate.  There are different circumstances every minute of the day with young children, and part of our job is to adapt.

#3 : Plan for Playfulness.

The affordances of objects - their secret, hidden uses - are meant to come out loud and clear in children's open-ended play.   If something is happening with a material that is crossing a line, I see that as my planning oversight, not a challenge from children.  I planned for the play, so I should keep the possibilities for what may happen in mind.  Right now, I work in a glass room, so we don't use the golf balls - I haven't quite figured out how to frame that in a way that makes me comfortable.  We may never play with the golf balls here, and that's okay.  I want children to be free and playful; that means that I choose materials that I don't think will need a laundry list of rules attached to them.  

If we are not supporting children's explorations in our planning, then we are putting restrictions on how much children can explore.  Children are natural players - play is an impulse, a spontaneous decision.  And, not everything they do will surprise us:  capes will be worn, blocks will be part of a building.  

#4 : Suggest or Create a New Affordance.

Children want to figure out how things work, and we can give them a few suggestions - that's quite harmless.  I think it may actually be helpful to draw attention to some of the more alternative uses for items.  If we offer pipe cleaners or wire, maybe we wrap one around a pencil, to suggest that the material affords bending and changing form.  This isn't how it must be used, but it suggests how it might be used.

The simple suggestion of that hole in the stump - perhaps a stump that did not have a hole in it the day before - piques children's curiosities.  As an educator, you can draw attention to some of the affordances that you notice, or perhaps the children feel comfortable to begin their experiments unprompted.  This stump is asking to be played with, and a conversation about it in a small or large group would, no doubt, be a rich dialogue - especially if the children know they have an opportunity to interact with this interesting new object.

The goal is not for children to discover every possible affordance of an object, but to follow their curiosity to focus.  As a curator, you play a role in the momentum of that curiosity.  The stump alone is one thing; the stump alongside a basket with ropes and string and sticks of varying lengths is another.  The stump on a tarp with buckets of paint, water, and brushes is yet another.  I want to be surprised by children, but I also want to delight them with new possibilities.  

#5 : Reflect

Keep the teacher-self in mind when you work with open-ended materials.  What is making you cringe?  Why?  What is making your co-teacher cringe that isn't bothering you?  What kind of language are you using when you approach children with materials?   From how we were allowed to play as kids to how we are used to running a classroom, we have some deep-seeded ideas about what works and what does not.  

Affordances are not just about making a list of potential uses and hidden possibilities:  it is a way of approaching and working with open-ended materials.  There is a unspoken language of materials in our world, designed by experience and culture.  Can you expand your thinking about everyday materials?

Learn more about materials and affordances in the Materials and Prompts Online Workshop.

Everyday Materials as Toys

This post originally appeared on the Play Lab blog.


What do remember about being a kid?  What do you remember playing with?  Where do you remember playing?


For kids, the whole world is a place for play. And, all those things, all that stuff that is around in our day to day lives - it all has a function in play.  Or, an unlimited number of functions in play, really.  When children have the opportunity to make decisions about their play - especially their pretend play - they dig deep to explore the ideas that are a bit of a mystery to them.  What does it feel like to talk on the phone?  To make dinner while the baby is crying?  To put everything inside of this bag?  To be “bad” or “mean”?  

As an adult, what do you remember about your play?

I have memories of sliding down a snowy hill, using cardboard as a sled; of playing hide-and-seek with my siblings in clothing stores, hiding in the middle of round clothing racks while my Mom shopped.  I remember gathering treasures while I played outside all day long - acorn caps and translucent rocks and leaf skeletons.  I remember being up so high in a tree that I thought I might never make it down to the ground again.

As a teacher, I have spent more than a decade watching children play.  Often, that play looks very different than I would have predicted.  When I first began teaching, I tried to make a lot of choices for children - meaning I, the adult, would decide what kids will do at a certain table, or with a certain toy.  Children have their own ideas, though - and it took me a long time to embrace the importance of those ideas.  Play Lab exists as a way to celebrate the competence, the creativity, and the voices of children, so we might understand children’s choices and ideas more deeply.

I envision some exciting things happening at Play Lab - and rather than keeping that learning and new understanding to myself, the plan is to share the messages about children’s voices, ideas, play, and learning.  The goal is letting kids just be kids in their play, in the way that I was given the space to just be a kid.  This doesn’t mean chaos and madness, although we might see some of that.  It means curating an irresistible and highly interactive space, and trusting children to make their own choices in that space.

Curating the materials in that space is the work that happens before children come in.  The big idea of materials, which we will explore through May, is really a focus on how children use everyday objects.  What do children pretend with everyday objects?  How do these everyday things help children learn more about how the world works?

When you were a kid, did you ever pretend that a fork was a hairbrush?  Did you ever try to stack the salt and pepper shakers while you waited for food at a restaurant, or build a fort out of couch cushions?  Can small stones, lined up along the floor, become a path or a road?  

It might seem silly to promote a focus on this kind of play - the kind of play that most adults now will say they engaged with as children.  My 1980's childhood was full of time and space to explore the world in this way.  My play was deeply engaging, and very independent.  The norm seems to have shifted to increased screen time, with less energy put towards hands-on, interactive, engaging, child-driven play.  I believe that all kids - not just little ones - are really engaged when they are in control of their play in an interesting, curated environment.  Play Lab aims to be that place for kids, and a place that helps adults learn more about making this kind of independent play available for kids in and around their homes, too.

All of this informs the action research question that will guide my teacher research through June:  How might everyday objects support children’s playful learning?  My work is to curate the environment - the space and the materials - and observe and document children interacting with the space and the materials.  These everyday objects range from doorknobs to tile spacers to cardboard - things that are around us in our everyday lives.  These objects get a new, playful life when children interact with them.  In Early Education, the buzzword for these everyday objects is “loose parts”.

I take photos and videos and notes while I observe at Play Lab so that I am able to show, not just tell, the importance of independent play in childhood.  I can’t predict what will happen on a given day because I want Play Lab to be a place where kids make that choice, not adults.  There is a certain pressure to understand our adult role more deeply, and that is another layer to the action research question.  The planning and curation doesn’t stop at the objects in the space - it also matters how we approach children’s ideas and initiatives as the adults.  I believe that we can’t just stand on the sidelines and chat with the other grown ups, but I also believe that we can’t be stuck to children like glue while they play.  Through the programs in the coming months, I’ll think about how our actions as adults influence children’s play decisions - it is something for adults to be conscious of.


Loose Parts Installation by Play Lab, 2016


Giveaway : Becoming Brilliant

Today, I’m giving away two copies of the audiobook Becoming Brilliant, by by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek.  The authors - long time researchers of all things learning and young children - also wrote Einstein Never Used Flash Cards - a book I am constantly recommending to new parents and teachers.

This is a great listen for anyone who loves to listen to their books on the go, and wants to get a deeper understanding of how we are preparing children for the world and workforce of the future.  

Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek introduce their idea of the “6 Cs” in this book: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence.   When I listened to the explanation of these ideas, I thought about the young children that we work with in Early Childhood settings.  The authors highlight the learning that happens in every moment of every day for young children: from walks to car rides to putting on their shoes, every day is filled with learning moments that help children connect with the real world on a deeper level.

This giveaway is closed.  Congrats to the winners!



Giveaway : Documenting Children's Meaning

I'm giving away a copy of a wonderful book for Early Childhood Educators who are interested in documentation and family engagement!


Documenting Children's Meaning: Engaging in Design and Creativity with Children and Families  is a book about documentation as a tool for teaching, and for engaging families.  It is a collection of observations and documentation from a drop in program, told by the documenters through stories of materials, space, and people.  

The children and families and educators who interact in this book are all engaged learners: learning about themselves, each other, and the potential of materials and space.  The educators in this space don’t approach their work from a “parents just don’t understand” perspective - which is pervasive and more common than we, as early educators, like to admit.  The Together for Families program sees children and caregivers as partners, not as people to be educated about the “right way” to support children.  All of the people in this experimental space are learners.

This book is about the power of documentation to communicate stories and deepen learning; but more so than that, it is a testimonial about the importance of how families are involved in educational spaces.  We don’t know better than the parents of children about their own child.  We have ideas and theories about spaces and materials, but we need to carefully watch and document the people as they interact with those things.  

This book is an incredible inspiration for the programming at Play Lab, where we will be welcoming children 0-6 years old and their families for explorations of materials and space, and documenting the stories and threads we find over the days, weeks, and months.  This book is an illustration of the discovery of ideas and stories over time, and how families and educators can celebrate this learning and development together.

I have one copy of this fantastic book to giveaway to a lucky reader!  Complete the form below by Sunday, March 12 to enter to win, and the winner will be announced on March 15.  If you win, you'll have the book in your hands by the end of the month!

Thanks to Davis Art, the publisher, for the giveaway!



Giveaway Entry Form

Name *





What's Going On?

Over the past few years, I have been bringing open-ended materials around my community to create play installations.  The project is called Play Lab.


I have been trying to find my role in Early Childhood Education:  I consider myself a teacher and an advocate and a writer.  I want to share what I know (and the things I am still learning about) with other teachers.  The online workshops are one way I can connect with other teachers, but the big missing piece is that I am not a classroom teacher: I don't get up in the morning and go to teach children.  

What I know about teaching and childhood is valuable, though, and it has been hard to describe, in words, wonderful things to do with children instead of illustrate those ideas through documentation. 

So this week, Play Lab moved out of my garage and into the world!  Play Lab has a home, in downtown Bellingham, about 600 square feet that will serve as a space for children to explore materials and ideas, and also for educators to learn about play-centered and child-led curriculum.  I plan to be a careful observer and documenter and questioner, using what happens in work with children and teachers to inform the ideas that I pass on to all of you!  The online workshops will not only continue, but they will become richer with the learning happening at Play Lab.  

Play Lab will have drop-in open labs for exploration; registration programs for infants, toddlers, and 3/4s; open planning sessions for teaching teams; book clubs; and workshops for educators.  I hope to work with area schools to help teachers add elements of true, child-centered play to their curriculum.  I see Play Lab as a cyclical place: the ideas we choose to explore with children stem from educator curiosities, approaching all aspects of programming as action research.



Early Childhood is multi-faceted: we think about everything from the physical to the emotional to the cognitive, every day.  Play Lab is a vehicle to learn more about childhood, and about teaching young children.  

Bakers and Astronauts has been an important part of my work since it started in 2008, and I don't plan to let it go.  I plan to let things progress naturally, with a special focus on Play Lab, and the online workshops here on Bakers and Astronauts.  There will be blog posts, there will be new workshops, there will be Instagram stories!  There will be ways for you to engage with Play Lab from afar, or come visit to see for yourself.

If you want to keep up with both Play Lab and Bakers and Astronauts, the best way is through the Early Childhood Playlist: a weekly email that tells you what I'm up to, along with the week's best Early Childhood content from around the web.  Sign up here.

Whether you've been following along since 2008 or you joined somewhere along the road, thanks for reading my words.  There is more to come!

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Kid Music For All!

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I've been putting together mix tapes for different Early Childhood occasions: naptime, playtime, and (coming soon) dance time.  

I believe that we can all listen to the same music.  Kids are not born wired to listen to Old McDonald Had a Farm, and I have not met an adult who listens to any version of that song on their own.  Children and adults can listen to music together and enjoy it - neither party needs to suffer!

That said, there is great music out there that is technically for kids, but adults can actually enjoy.  Read on for a few suggestions.

I grew up in a household where Original Cast Recordings from Broadway shows were always playing in the car and in the house.  So, I think I have a soft spot for the sound that John Lithgow tackles on his first album.  Its funny, its upbeat, and it is for kids.  And, underwear songs are great.

In college, I worked at Books of Wonder, an independent children's bookstore in Manhattan.  This CD was displayed on the counter, played on the stereo, and made its way into my student teaching placements.  Dan Zanes and a cast of wonderful musicians play "kid songs" without making you want to rip your hair out, and he peppers his albums with interesting songs and sounds, from hip-hop to original compositions.

Lullatone is a prolific group, recording albums with interesting instruments and sounds in Japan.  Their work is all instrumental, which I prefer as background music.  The music is playful and bright; it makes you feel like you're in a movie.  Try taking a walk while listening to it on headphones - its cinematic.

Woody Guthrie recorded this album in 1958.  All of his songwriting is storytelling, but he has an extra special ability to write from a child's point of view.  I've sang some of these songs with preschoolers, and danced around to even more of them!  

I have to include Free To Be...You and Me in this list because it was my absolute favorite as a kid.  So I am partial, but the skits are absolutely timeless.  And I sang the title song in my bedroom.  A lot.

What are some of your favorite adult-friendly kid albums?


5 Reasons : Children as Photographers



Do you have a camera for children's photography?

Whether you share your camera, smartphone, or tablet; or have a dedicated camera for kids to use, photography is an incredible addition to the Early Childhood classroom.  

I sketched out a few reasons why real cameras are a great classroom tool.

The camera lets us look at the world through fresh eyes.

The world through the naked eye and the world through the viewfinder of a camera feel different - using a camera is a unique experience.  When children use a real camera, they get to try on a different perspective; and as educators, we have the opportunity to see the world through children's eyes when we experience their photographs.

Photography is one way to include student voices in documentation and stories of learning.

You may be collecting photographs of children at play and examples of their work and their words.  When we offer children a camera, we offer them a tool for sharing their perspective.  We can include that perspective when telling stories of learning to parents, families, and colleagues!  Including children's photography in digital and print documentation, and children's portfolios, adds another viewpoint on learning.

Photography is super engaging!

You know those timeless, tried-and-true materials that seem to engage everyone, week after week (and year after year)?  Blocks, paint, play dough, water - these are some universal and engaging materials that many Early Childhood Educators use in their classrooms.  Real cameras are highly engaging for children: they are not pretending to take photographs, they really are!  And, when we reflect on those photographs with children, their engagement continues.  Children love to see the world through that little screen, and also the images of familiar faces and things in printed photos in the classroom, or a reflective slideshow.  

A photograph can be realistic or imaginative. (Kids get to choose!)

I have observed dozens of children in my classrooms over the years with cameras, and they can take a realistic or an imaginative approach to photography.  A child may take ten photos of a favorite object in the classroom, or see what it feels like to move the camera while pressing the shutter.  There is no wrong way to take photos - the tool is there to experiment with.  As adults, we get pretty rigid in our thinking, but children see the playfulness of photography.  When we give children the space to make these choices, they are free to explore, which is exciting and engaging.

Photography is more accessible than ever.

Gone are the cameras that my parents had to deal with: they gave me a 35mm point and shoot camera when I was a kid, I promptly used up all the film with pictures of my stuffed animals, and then they had to pay to get the film developed, and get more film.  Digital photography is very cheap, and chances are, you already have everything you need!  You can use an old point and shoot camera; you can use any computer or screen to put together digital slideshows for reflection; you can share children's photography with parents and families through email, a class website, or shared photo albums.  


New Mix Tape : Playtime #1


Another playlist for your listening pleasure!  Head over to the Mix Tapes to listen, download, or follow on Spotify.

Sometimes, background music can be distracting.  People seem to be on one side or the other of the background music argument - love it or hate it - but I don't think we need to be so divided.  Music can compliment what we are doing!  When I settle in to read a book at night, I like something instrumental, something ambient, without lyrics.  When its playtime, the right music sets a tone for getting into that mindset of deep play, and can be a soundtrack for exploring.  

Adults and kids can enjoy music together - I don't assume that the only music children like is "kid music".  Learning about music can certainly include singing songs that we associate with preschool, like The Wheels on the Bus, but that shouldn't be the whole picture.  How can we learn about the diversity of wonderful music in the world if we are restricted to a genre that, to be honest, is not popular outside of preschool classrooms?

The Bakers and Astronauts Mix Tapes are an easy way for you to dip your toe into music that can make kids and adults happy.  Try the new Playtime #1 Mix Tape on for size!  


Why Reflective Writing?


You’re a busy person: you plan activities and prompts; you clean up and organize; you make sure everyone washes their hands after using the toilet, and before eating.  You chat with parents, you put bandaids on scrapes.  All this, and I still argue that you should find the time to reflect on your teaching practice and the events of each day.

Reflection helps you to articulate what is really happening in your teaching practice.  It is an introspective act: you examine the choices that you make, try to dig a little deeper to see where those choices came from.  Reflection is the act of getting to know yourself better as an educator, and as a person.  "Reflective Practice" sounds much more complex than it needs to be, so today, let’s simplify, and see how you might find the time for reflective thinking and writing in your teaching practice.

Set an Alarm.

Set an alert on your calendar or phone to remind you to stop for some writing.  

Perhaps you can reflect for 10 minutes during lunch on Wednesday, or for 15 minutes on Saturday morning. The first step is making a bit of time, and holding yourself accountable for that.  There is no wrong way to reflect - it is personal.  Anytime, anywhere, any length of time is fine: all you need is yourself and place to gather your thoughts.

Talk to yourself.

Use your smartphone to reflect!  You can use a voice memo app, or something that helps you organize more. I use Evernote.

We can have some clarifying moments when we articulate ideas out loud - it does not always need to come through writing.  An extra benefit is that you can do your audio reflections while driving home, or while cleaning up at the end of the day.  Keep the recordings to listen to again, or make some notes when you are done with the audio reflection to collect your key ideas.

Embed reflection into staff meetings.

A weekly or a monthly staff meeting can be an opportunity to introduce reflection to staff, and make time for their reflective thinking.

Try starting your staff meetings with a 5 minute reflective writing session, either open for teachers to choose their own explorations, or following a question or prompt.  This can turn into a group discussion, or just an example of how reflection might fit into what already seems to be a busy schedule.

Learn More with the Bakers and Astronauts Reflective Writing Online Workshop!