The Winter Solstice marks the shortest day of the year, as well as the official beginning of winter—a phenomenon caused by the tilt of the Earth’s axis away from the sun. Although it's the day of greatest darkness, the Solstice is a time of great hope, as we start to move towards the Summer Solstice once again. This moment has been marked with festivals and feasts by peoples around the world for centuries.
For kids of all ages, a simple celebration is still powerful. Although both ancient and modern pagan Solstice rituals span several days, we suggest a celebration on Solstice Eve and or Solstice Day. We tend to focus on themes related to evergreens, circles, lights and hopes. Whatever you decide, we wish you light and a very Merry Solstice.
This activity is featured in our December calendar. If you do not yet have your free copy, get it here.
Talk about Winter Solstice:
If this is your first year marking Solstice, with great enthusiasm, let kids know that tonight is Solstice Eve! Once you make it a practice, count down the days to Solstice and engage kids in planning your rituals. Learn more about Winter Solstice celebrations around the world.
Welcome Solstice on a walk:
Going on a walk just before and through dusk. Given that this is the day with shortest daylight, darkness falls early, so this "early walk in the dark" can be a unique experience alone.
Solstice is a great time to celebrate the evergreens. At the start of our walk, we look for fallen twigs, solstice plants like pine trees and holly as well as marvelous winter weed flowers. If your climate doesn’t have these plants, gather bits from your favorite local plants.
Make a winter spiral:
If we are in our own yard, we borrow a handful of boughs of evergreen to lay a winter spiral on the ground with a candle in the middle to symbolize the sun and how we are at the darkest part of the year’s cycle, about to start moving back towards the sunniest part of that cycle. (If we're off to a public park, we come bearing our own boughs of green so as to respect the environment.) You can also draw a giant spirals using sidewalk chalk or
Go around and around!
Here is a perfect time to act out the year’s cycle while exploring the concept of rotation, a phenomenon that kids' bodies just love and are driven to do as they develop both kinesthetically and cognitively. Walk around the spiral and back out again, spinning around or even rolling down a hill.
Light and hopes:
Light a fall lantern or, if it's cold enough, make botanical ice lanterns. You can also bring plain, small candles and place them in the sand or dirt. As dusk is really falling, make a circle of candles, one for each of your family. Light them one at a time, giving each the chance to share hopes. These can be hopes for the world, hopes for family and friends, or promises to do good things for your community or neighbors—whatever inspires, grounds and makes kids feel connected.
Decorate your home a bit:
As you walk, collect tree fruits to turn into simple nature ornaments when you go back indoors for the night. Or, collect freshly fallen boughs from a willow tree and bend them into 5-pointed stars, another marvelous pagan symbol of Solstice.
Mmmm…the delicious fragrance of cloves and orange! Pomanders make great centerpieces, small gifts, and air fresheners—and they’re easy and fun to make with kiddos.
No Solstice tradition is complete without a feast of some kind. Whether it is a favorite family dish, cookies shaped like the sun, or sunny-side-up eggs for dinner, enjoy some special feast. Our menu has varied a bit, but always includes cookies by candlelight.
Why is this activity great for kids?
Helping kids become alert to and welcoming of the changes in their environment connects them to nature and helps them embrace change—and there is nothing more predictable in life than change. This simple, yet powerful idea, can be one of life's most important skills to learn. The simple ways we celebrate Solstice also help kids develop their senses, engaging in powerful behavior patterns associated with learning (e.g. transporting and rotating schema).
Celebrating Solstice has even deeper community roots. Regardless of your family's religion, Solstice is a tradition that transcends religious beliefs and traditions, and can be celebrated universally and inclusively. It is critical to us personally as a family, and in our Tinkergarten classes, to embrace difference. We also hope kids develop an equally important sense that we all share the Earth, that our many celebrations have links back to common themes and a common humanity. For our family, celebrating Solstice illuminates those ties. Without feeling that connection to others, it is hard for kids to develop empathy. This idea may be abstract to the youngest children, but by making Solstice a part of our annual ritual, we can help them to deepen that empathy quite naturally as they grow.
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The oldest and simplest definition, “student of plants and animals,” dates back to 1600. The term has evolved over time, it's importance changing as the values of dominant culture have changed. 400 years after that old definition, Howard Gardner, the paradigm-shifting education theorist, added “naturalist” to his list of “multiple intelligences.” Gardner challenged the notion that intelligence is a single entity that results from a single capability. Instead, he recognizes eight types of intelligence, all of which enable individuals to think, solve problems or to create things of value. To Gardner, the Naturalist intelligence enables human beings to recognize, categorize and draw upon certain features of the environment.
A true naturalist has not simply Googled and learned the names of plants, animals, rocks, etc. Rather, he or she has had direct experience with them, coming to know about them and using all senses to develop this intelligence. A naturalist also has a reverence for nature, valuing and caring for living things from the smallest mite to the tallest tree. A naturalist comes to not only knowing the creatures and features of his or her environment, but treasuring them in thought and action.
Why does it matter?
In the process of becoming a naturalist, children become stewards of nature, a connection that is associated with a range of benefits, including greater emotional well-being, physical health and sensory development (not to mention the benefits to nature itself!). In a world in which primary experience of nature is being replaced by the limited, directed stimulation of electronic media, kids senses are being dulled and many believe their depth of both their interest in and capacity to understand complicated phenomena are being eroded. To contrast, the naturalist learns about the key features of their natural environment by using all of his senses and be interpreting open-ended and ever-changing stimuli.
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?
What is Empathy?
Simply put, empathy is the ability to think and care about the feelings and needs of others. The good news is, the more we study, it appears that children are empathetic by nature. All we need to do is nurture it in them—that of course is now always easy. Even though young children are simply working on gaining control over their emotions and won’t learn to really think about their emotions and the cause and effect of their behavior on others until their school years, they can start to develop the foundation for empathy much earlier. Taking actions (and watching adults take actions) that benefit other people, caring for animals and their environment and even just wondering how other people or creatures are feeling helps build both positive habits and a strong base for the development of empathy.
Why does it matter?
Empathy is at the root of what psychologists call “pro-social” behavior—behavior that people must develop in order to develop a conscience, build close relationships, maintain friendships, and develop strong communities. Empathy also helps kids avoid bullying, one of the most worrisome social challenges young kids face. Being able to think and feel for others can keep kids from becoming either bully or victim and equip them to stand up for others who are bullied. Imagine if all kids had such tools!