One of the greatest discoveries of my Early Childhood career, was when I realized that children are competent and capable young humans with abilities and knowledge of the world around them already deeply embedded into their being! I know this sounds like common knowledge; but a lot of people, myself included – seem to think that children need assistance to do everything. That they can’t learn without an adult beside them, instructing them every step of the way. It was a beautiful and gradual realization for me when I learned to step back and let children lead their own learning! This means creating an environment that empowers the child to take their own, individual journey of learning and discovery and it is one of the most powerful things you can do for a child. Imagine a place where the world is at your fingertips? Where you can build, create, explore, discover, eat, rest, read, sing, dance, climb, invent, play to your heart’s content? Where you can totally and absolutely be yourself without being told who and what you should be? This is my desire for every child that walks into my home and my garden; that it becomes their home and their garden and that they feel totally ’at home’ within it.
So, how do we create this place to empower children? We make things available and accessible. We create areas at the children’s level and we set them up for success! The children here choose how they come and go from every space. If they feel like mud play, there is water and dirt to create this. If they feel like painting, they can choose to go to the art area, squeeze out their own colours, choose their paper and create to their hearts content. Create a space for art or dirt that celebrates mess. Cover your flooring, take it onto the grass, put it in an area where the children can relax about mess and so can you!
Allow colours to be mixed in paint containers. One little boy recently discovered a “whole new colour that had never been made before” the excitement he felt when he created this colour was joy personified. Imagine if I had not let him mix paints in the first place? Then this amazing discovery – and sense of achievement that came with it would not have occurred. Mixing paints is a wonderful lesson in science, aesthetics, art and mathematics. It is also a wonderful lesson in patience and persistence. Children deserve these opportunities. Try to let go of your feelings about mixed colours, paint on clothes and floors and set up an area where paints are accessible, easy for little hands to use and easy to clean up afterwards.
This rule also applies to the old “keep the sand in the sandpit” issue. The amount of times I have heard this!! Sand is a wonderful open-ended loose part. The possibilities are endless. But, how do we know that sand and dirt and water make a deliciously mucky sludge if sand can only stay in the sandpit? Here we have what I call the ‘triangle of mess’ in the garden. That means that dirt, water and sand are in an easy to access triangle in an area of the garden where mess is king. Our mud kitchen with water access is along our back fence, the mud pit is in a direct line across from it and the sand pit is opposite both of these; therefore, completing the triangle. The children move between these areas, carting as much sand, water and dirt as they like. It is on the grass, so if they spill anything it doesn’t matter.
On the other end of the spectrum, children need places for less active play, rest and relaxation. There are children who do not enjoy messy, mucky play and that is okay too! Is there a space to retreat to that takes them away from the noise and mess? Little book nooks, a cubby to hide in, a place to lay down, tables for quiet pursuits? Some children who do not enjoy the squishiness of mud do however enjoy the squishiness of playdough. A self-select playdough area is a wonderful thing! Easy to access shelves where the children can choose their own playdough materials really encourages independence, but also so much creativity! (What happens if that playdough ends up over in the mud kitchen with some water, dirt and sand?? A wonderful science experiment, that’s what!)
A word on scissors. The children here have access to scissors all day every day. I know that this makes a lot of people nervous, but we have never had a scissor incident… not one. It is a LOT easier for me to monitor scissors in my small environment, with only a handful of children. But it CAN be done in bigger environments too. Start slowly, create a space for scissors and sit yourself down in that space. Prepare to be there for a while. Have scissors that can be used successfully – blunt scissors do not lead to success and can cause more injuries than sharp scissors because of the use of force. Children generally work out how to use scissors pretty quickly on their own. We have a few safety rules (sitting down, please don’t wave scissors around, if you carry them to the herb snipping garden carry with blades down) but after that it is up to them. I rarely correct a child learning to use scissors. They will slowly figure it out. Patience and persistence are a big thing for a small child to develop. Give them lots of opportunity to do so.
The last thing I want to mention when creating this space of discovery and adventure for children; please give them plenty of TIME to follow their own learning. If your days are heavily scheduled, you are not going to give children opportunity to delve deeply into the world of play. Open up your days so they are flexible and follow the children’s lead. Step back, let the play evolve, and enjoy this messy, inspiring journey of educating our young people.