Whether you consider yourself a foodie or not, your kids are likely all about food. Food is at the center of daily life and the heart of family rituals and traditions. Every day, kids watch us shop for and cook it. They love to help make and, of course, eat it. So, there's no more universal context for pretend play—and no more free and engaging way to play chef that than in your very own outdoor kitchen.
So, pack up a few kitchen tools (pots, bowls, spoons, cookie sheets), head outside to a spot with open dirt, and then let the play roll!
Set the context: Start chatting up the idea. “I was thinking we could cook up some ‘nature food’ outside. What’s a good spot to make a nature kitchen? What stuff can we use to make pretend food?”
Gather “ingredients” and additional tools: Establish that you might need to gather more sticks for stirring and objects for ingredients. Kids can use a bindle, bag or pail to gather sticks, leaves, seeds, tree fruits, flowers, grasses, etc. Kids can also pick up more as they cook. Find objects with a variety of colors, sizes, weights, and even smells to bump up the sensory impact.
Choose a spot for your kitchen: Head to a spot outside with open dirt and plenty of nature treasures (sticks, leaves, grasses, flowers, berries, tree fruits). If you have an outdoor water source (e.g. hose, creek), consider setting up nearby. If not, you can always bring a gallon or two of water with you.
Build the kitchen: Kids often want to jump into mixing, stirring and pouring more than they want to set up an outdoor kitchen. But we’ve found that doing simple things to transform a spot into a kitchen heightens the experience and promotes even more imaginative play.
For example, work with the kids to drape a tarp or bed sheet over a rope strung between two trees to designate the patch of earth as a special space. Kids can enter and leave, and they just seem to know that special stuff happens there. Use sticks, leaves, twine or even sidewalk chalk to turn a tree stump or log into a stove, a pile of sticks into a roaring fire, or the hollow of an old tree into an oven.
Need ideas? Read here to learn how to make a simple no-nails mud kitchen or here for inspiration from our OutdoorsAll4 FB community. Or, keep it simple! A bowl, dirt and water will inspire just as much imaginative play and learning for kids!
Promote improvisation and invention: One twist we like to throw in is, “Oh no! We forgot the spoons (or some other valuable tool)!” The fun starts when kids have to improvise and use the materials around them to get the job done. Kids will get to wonder things like, “Which piece of bark makes the best spoon? If we use bark, a stick and some twine, can we make a spatula?”
Guide play: Let kids play and play alongside them. Periodically “ooo” and “ahhh” about their dishes and ask them about what they are cooking. Play the Sous chef. Sprinkle “ingredients” (leaves, tree fruits, grasses, etc.) around where kids are working or set them out in small pails or piles. Do some experimental cooking yourself, and share your own dish when ready.
Why is this activity great for kids?
By introducing a set of kitchen tools (pots, pans, spoons, cookie cutters, etc) in a setting with the greatest of raw materials (water, dirt and nature stuff), you provided a context that invites sensory play and pretend play. Lots of our kids get to help in our kitchens, but an outdoor kitchen is their domain and one in which both kids and parents can totally embrace the mess. This kind of unbridled mess-making frees up kids to develop genuine creativity.
Mixing, smashing and mashing may seem so very simple to our adult brains, but these actions “transform” the objects involved and are a powerful and universal way to support brain and body development (a behavioral schema).
Finally, as parents, it's nice to know such a simple way to turn a dirt patch into an outdoor kitchen can inspire a day of sustained, imaginative play.
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By creativity, we mean the ability to both imagine original ideas or solutions to problems and actually do what needs to be done to make them happen. So, to help kids develop creativity, we parents need to nurture kids' imaginations and give them lots of chances to design, test, redesign and implement their ideas.
"Creativity is as important now in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.”
Why, you ask? For one, it is through being creative that a person is able to get senses, sensibility and spirit working together. Simply put, without creativity, we don't think our kids will live a full life.
On a more practical level, it's also the means by which humans of all ages make an impact on the world and other people around them. A lot of heavy stuff is going to go down in our kids' lifetime, and their generation will need to imagine and implement solutions to big and very complicated problems. Although our kids are still far from public office or the boardroom, today's political and business leaders worldwide are already pointing to creativity as the most important leadership quality for the future.
Although years from the art studio or design lab, little kids can learn to think and act creatively if you give them time and the right practice.
What is Imagination?
Imagination is defined in many ways, but one we like is, "the act or power of forming a mental image of something not present to the senses or never before wholly perceived in reality." This is no small task to little kids, and yet young childhood is a time in which imagination is developed more than any other. How does imagination develop in childhood? Through an increasingly sophisticated life of make believe.
We all likely have a sense of what we mean by make believe or good old "pretend play." How do experts define it, though? To some, there are different types of make believe that vary in sophistication and make pretend play different than other types of play. For example, kids may use objects to represent something else (e.g. a block becomes a cell phone). Or, they may start to give an object certain properties (e.g. a doll is asleep or a tree is on fire!). Still yet, they may themselves take on the properties of someone or something else.
From there, pretend play evolves into acting out scenarios or stories, those getting increasingly intricate as imagination develops. As kids' pretend play grows more sophisticated, these stories come to involve not only the creative use of objects, but multiple perspectives (e.g. good and bad guys in the same story), and/or the playful manipulation of ideas and emotions (e.g. I am sad, but then become happy after I save the village from certain doom).
Why does it matter?
An ever growing body of research substantiates the many benefits of pretend play including the enhanced development of: language and communication skills; self-control and empathy; flexible and abstract thinking; and creativity. These are the skills that will help kids balance emotions, form healthy relationships, work effectively on teams, stay focused in school, be successful at various jobs and solve the problems of an increasingly complicated world. An individual's creativity in particular, both requires and is limited by her imagination.
What are schema and why should you care?
There are patterns of repeatable behavior known as "schema" that you can notice in your child's play during early childhood (~18months-age 5 or 6). No matter where you are in the world, these same schema are exhibited by kids. Experts believe that when kids repeat these patterns in different situations, kids develop physically and cognitively. In turn, they are better able to understand, navigate and interact with their worlds, resulting in transformative learning. Kids naturally become absorbed in repeating these patterns, and practice with schema is highly engaging for them.
“Children’s schemas can be viewed as part of their motivation for learning, their insatiable drive to move, represent, discuss, question and find out.”—Professor Cathy Nutbrown, UK
How are schema useful to parents and teachers?
First, it just feels great to better understand your little ones. Once you notice these patterns, your child's seemingly random and (occasionally frustratingly) repetitive actions suddenly appear elegant and purposeful. Best of all, once you realize that they are really exploring a certain schema or two, you can pick activities for them that give them the opportunity to practice them, increasing their engagement and extending their learning.
Does every kid get absorbed in schema?
These are universal patterns, but different kids will engage in schema in different ways. For example, some kids dabble in schema, engaging in several at any given time. Others move from one schema to another over time. Others still stay working on a single schema for years.
How should you support your child as they exhibit schema?
Exploration with various schema is built into Tinkergarten activities. It's also interesting to notice how some of the best kids' toys enable children to practice with schema.
To get started, check out the most common schema and see if you recognize these patterns in your child's behavior. If you do, check out our activities that help to extend his or her learning by supporting that schema. For fun, mention these to your friends as you watch their children at play. They'll be in awe of your observation skills, any maybe even refer to you as the toddler-whisperer?!
The scoop on common schema:
You may have noticed that your child seems to spend lots of time picking up objects, putting them into a container, perhaps only to transfer them to another container or dump out the container and start again. Your child may also simply love to haul around hefty things (e.g. logs, books, blocks). Kids may also love to fill up wagons, carts, strollers, etc. so they can "transport" objects or people around.
So many children become engrossed in spinning around and around to the point of dizziness…who hasn’t?! Kids who are focused on rotation/circulation spin themselves or become fixated on watching things that rotate, like a wheel, or the clothes dryer. That is the magic behind rolling down a hill.
Many kids go through a phase or just always seem to like moving in straight lines. They probably like to walk along the cracks in the sidewalk, balance on the curb, walk along a log, climb up and down ladders or whiz down slides. Some can't get enough of those swings. They also love to throw, drop, roll and toss all kinds of things.
Kids like to order, arrange and position objects or themselves. They may arrange blocks, cars, rocks or other objects in lines, rows, piles or patterns. Drawing, painting and sculpture work likely includes lines and patterns as well. Lining up may be a favorite activity, and where friends and family stand, sit or walk may be of particular interest.
Kids like to cover, wrap or enclose things and themselves. For example, your child may hide themselves under the bed covers, love to wrap up in a towel after the bath, or use a single crayon to cover a whole piece of paper during art time. You may also notice a time when your kids continue to find places to tuck objects or themselves out of sight (aggrrr, not the keys again!). They may love to sit in tunnels, climb into empty boxes, hide up in trees, build forts, or squirrel away in a little area under the stairs. Or, they may love to tuck treasures away into boxes, bags, pockets or hidden nooks around the yard.
A child might spend a great deal of time connecting things to one another. You may notice that they love to join the train tracks together, link LEGOs in long chains, build “fences” out of blocks, each block touching its neighbor. They also love to use tape, glue, string, and other things that connect objects.
Kids like to transform the shape, feel and look of things and themselves. You'll notice this when they are dressing up in costumes or putting on make up. These are your potion-makers and demolition crew, who may add milk to their mashed potatoes, make potions in the backyard, knock down buildings and towers, and mix all of the play-doh colors together...in short, they can be a big sister’s nightmare!
What is Sensory Development?
Although some scientists classify as many as 20 senses, when childhood educators talk about "developing the senses," we typically mean developing the five standard senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell and taste. In addition to honing these senses, educators care about sensory integration, which is the ability to take in, sort out, process and make use of information gathered from the world around us via the senses.
Why does it matter?
The better kids are able to tune and integrate their senses, the more they can learn. First, if their senses are sharper, the information kids can gather should be of greater quantity and quality, making their understanding of the world more sophisticated. Further, until the lower levels of the brain can efficiently and accurately sort out information gathered through the senses, the higher levels cannot begin to develop thinking and organization skills kids need to succeed. Senses also have a powerful connection to memory. Children (and adults) often retain new learning when the senses are an active part of the learning.
So, if kids have more sensory experiences, they will learn more, retain better and be better able to think at a higher level. Makes the days they get all wet and dirty in the sandbox seem better, doesn't it?