At Mission Hill School in Boston, Massachusetts, where I teach three and four-year-olds, we are thrilled with the opening of our own new nature playspace. Designed and implemented with a Schoolyard Initiative Grant, we will have our official grand opening in a few weeks – but we are already playing in it.
The other day, as we played, children were jumping from rocks, playing in the water, running along the paths among many new plants (grasses, shrubs, trees and more) and just exploring this new place to play. A visitor to the Boston Public School’s playgroup (which is held in our building) walked by pushing her toddler in a stroller, and asked, “Are you going to build a new playground here?”
“This is our new playground. It is a nature-inspired play space,” I answered. She slowed her pace a bit and gazed at the children and the space…with an utterly confused look upon her face. Yes, our playground looks different from other playgrounds – and we like it that way. This nature play space will inspire many moments of imagination, creativity and discovery – and help us combat what Richard Louv described as Nature-Deficit Disorder in his book Last Child in the Woods.
Here are some typical scenes from our new play space (the names have been changed):
“I’m going to get dirt and rocks and sand,” declares Sasha she worked on building a “worm house”. “The red ants bite but the black ants can’t,” she explains to her friends as they carefully construct the worm house from found objects in our nature play space. “So we can’t go by the red ants.” Nearby, others are stacking pieces of wood for a “campfire”.
A few feet away, Joaquin sees a bee on a purple flower. He calls to me excitedly, “Look! The bee is checking out the butterfly’s flower.” Joaquin is closely investigating the garden area where we released our butterfly a few weeks ago. “Ohhhh!” he gasps. “It’s so beautiful.”
Every day we are outside for an hour. On our schedule, we call it simply “Outside”. In every way, our outside time is an extension of our inside learning time, as the children play, run and explore. Our children are building so many skills: observing, creating, problem solving, communicating and sharing ideas – along with gross motor skills as they carefully balance and move along the logs and rocks. I can guarantee you will be reading more about our adventures in this new and inspiring space.
My last post was about a terrific new natural play space called Grasshopper Grove. The other day I had the wonderful opportunity to spend time at another natural play space – this one is called the Nature Nook and it is located at the Boston Nature Center in Mattapan, MA. The Boston Nature Center is an urban sanctuary with a few miles of hiking trails, a community garden, and more. After a short hike, I visited the Nature Nook with our classes of three, four and five-year-olds.
The children loved the open ended materials (branches, stones, sticks, fabric, etc) for building; the xylophone for making music and dancing; the tree stumps and boulders for climbing and hopping and the sand and mud for mixing, mushing and making pretend food. Most of all, they loved the dry river with bridges, stones and muddy water. It was a rainy day, so some water had gathered in the dry river bed, making a great spot to wade and muck about. At one point, a BNC staff member opened the rain barrel, and let some more water pour into the river bed. As the water meandered its way through the rocks and bends, and under the bridge, some of the students got very excited. “Make a dam, make a dam!” they exclaimed, as they scrambled to contain the flowing water. Others joined in with matched enthusiasm. “Dam it! Dam it!” I heard one enthusiastic builder proclaim.
I love being with young children – especially when they are playing in nature. Where else can you hear some yell “Dam it!” with such pure delight in his voice?
Climb, jump, build, create, discover, pretend and grow! Grasshopper Grove makes it all come together in a natural way.
In the Mid-Hudson Valley where I grew up, there is a treasure in Cornwall known as the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum. The HHNM just got even more incredible yesterday, with the grand opening of the Grasshopper Grove. A few years ago I met with Jackie Grant the museum’s executive director, and Judy Onufer the education director to talk and brainstorm about their budding idea for a semi-structured outdoor play space. We all agreed that outdoor play – a critical piece of healthy development - has been diminishing in kids’ lives. We also know from research that grown-up environmentalists all have one thing in common – as children they spent lots of time playing outdoors. Today’s children who play outdoors become tomorrow’s stewards of the land.
To that end, folks at the HHNM worked for a few years to bring that dream into a reality. Through a huge community effort it is finally ready for the public and yesterday was the ribbon cutting ceremony – and I was honored to be able to attend. Thanks to everyone at the HHNM for bringing this incredible resource to our children and families!
Lots of natural “loose parts” to spark your imagination!
Rocks for jumping and balancing!
Painting with water is tons of fun! Try it at home…
You love it, you hate it, and there it is just over the horizon…Screen-Free Week! From April 29th until May 5th folks around the country will be joining in on this annual adventure. Screen-Free Week is designed to help us turn off screen entertainment and turn on the world around us. “Yippee!” you say? Or perhaps, “That’s crazy!” or maybe even, “Impossible!” Whatever your reaction, Empowered by Play strongly encourages you to give it a whirl.
Our family has been participating for many years – since my sons were quite young. Now that they are nine years old, I know it is going to be harder than ever. This year, since I am in Boston every week, and the boys and my husband are in New York, we are usually only together on the weekends. Routines, including our screen routines, have gotten seriously out of whack. Although we don’t have traditional television, there are so many ways for our family to get sucked in – from Hulu and Netflix on our computers to smart phones apps, to my sons’ favorite activity of late: watching YouTube videos on our Nook. We need a break for sure.
We always make a plan for Screen-Free Week, and that always helps. I know I need a stack of great books to read. I know my sons will want to plan a family outing or two. My husband is virtually screen free every week, and has the easiest time of it, hands down.
The great thing about Screen-Free Week is you don’t have to go it alone. There are many resources out there to help you. Whether you are trying to explain to others why you have decided to unplug, or you need inspiration of ideas for how to fill your time, Campaign for A Commercial-Free Childhood (CCFC) has help for you. CCFC offers many free and downloadable resources. Check them out here - including the brand new quick guides for home, school and community which you won’t want to miss.
And speaking of Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, I am so sorry if I missed you at the Consuming Kids Summit a few weeks ago. My dear dad passed away, and I was with my family. I have spoken to many folks who were in attendance and I have heard over and over again what an incredible experience it was. I am not surprised. You can read here all about the incredible events that happened at the summit.
The great folks at Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood are hosting their 8th international Consuming Kids Summit: Reclaiming Childhood from Corporate Marketers, March 21-23 in Boston. The summit is a terrific place to learn from leading experts in the field – and to connect with other advocates. Two of my colleagues from DEY (Defending the Early Years) will be there: Diane Levin will be presenting Tough at an Early Age: The Harm Caused by Using Media Violence to Market to Children. DEY’s Nancy Carlsson-Paige will be presenting Education in the Marketplace: Data, Choice and Profits. I will be presenting positive and practical strategies for working with parents and teachers around issues of marketing, media and pop culture. And, the very funny and quite fabulous Lenore “Free Range Kids” Skenazy will be there once again! I hope to see you there, as this summit is an incredible and transformative experience. Space is limited so register today.
I have been so busy actually playing with preschoolers, that I haven’t had time to write any blog posts lately. The great news is that in September I returned to the classroom full time – and returned to the wonderful school which I help to start back in 1997. I am the lead teacher for the three year olds at the Mission Hill School in Boston. Mission Hill is a democratic, inclusive, project-based public school for three year olds to fourteen year olds. It has been a busy time, as September brought us to a new (renovated) school building, newly added grades, and new age configurations. After spending the last few years working closely with Head Start teachers in New York, and building on my previous 11 years at Mission Hill School, I felt compelled to rejoin the staff. I wanted to help design the program for the three and four year olds and to help launch this new phase in the school’s history – even though this meant leaving the rest of my family at home in New York. I see my sons and husband only on the weekends – though in a few short months we will all be together in Boston!
If you want to learn more about Mission Hill School, there is a new web series called “A Year at Mission Hill“. So far, two episodes are available, and a new episode will be released every two weeks. Check it out!
Every week we send out an all-school newsletter and post it on our website. Each teacher writes a column and there is always a front page column – often written by our principal, Ayla Gavins. Here is what I wrote to my families recently:
When I heard that Boston Public Schools was calling snow day on Friday nice and early – Thursday around 12:30 we got the word - my heart jumped for joy. For me, that meant I could drive safely home to New York on Thursday after school, and be with my own sons for the snow day/weekend.
The only downside of spending three snowy days with my sons is knowing that we will be tempted to have too much screen time. In our home, we don’t have TV in the traditional sense, but we do watch shows together on the computer. If you’ve known me a long time, you’ve heard me talk about the slippery slope of screen time, and the negative effects that screen time can have on children. Did you know that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no screen time for children under two years of age, and only two hours a day for children older than two? It’s true. Screen time for children under three is linked to irregular sleep patterns and delayed language acquisition, and the more time preschool children spend with screens, the less time they spend engaged in creative play – which is the foundation of learning.
What can you do to fill those hours – when screen time seems like the only option? Play games, sing and dance, draw with crayons, do chores together, play with simple props (like blankets and empty boxes) and of course, read books together! If you are looking for ways to reduce your child’s screen time, I would love to talk with you about it, just let me know.
If you are a teacher, director or administrator in an early childhood program, I highly suggest taking a look at Facing the Screen Dilemma: Young Children, Technology and Early Education. This free guide is a collaborative effort between the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, the Alliance for Childhood and Teachers Resisting Unhealthy Children’s Entertainment (TRUCE).
This guide helps educators wade through the research about screen time and young children, and helps them understand how screens are affecting young children. Ideas for working with parents around screen time and technology are also expertly presented.
One of the things I love best about this guide is that it actually acknowledges that choosing to keep your program screen free is a legitimate and research-based position. It also helps educators defend this position – which in many cases can seem counter-culture. Helping parents and other educators understand why your program is screen free will likely be an important part of your work, since NAEYC (the National Association for the Education of Young Children) revamped their position statement on technology and completely ignored the possibility that excellent programs can consciously decide to keep their early childhood classrooms screen free.
In Facing the Screen Dilemma, you will find a balanced, well-written, and research-based look at the critical question of technology and young children. Download your free copy today at TRUCE.
(Full disclosure – I am on the steering committee for TRUCE and helped review/edit Facing the Screen Dilemma!)
What better excuse to get down and dirty than International Mud Day?! Lucky for me, this year our annual Cousins Camp coincided with this fabulous international holiday. Conceived and promoted by the World Forum Foundation, and celebrated this year on June 29th, International Mud Day is the quintessential unplugged experience.
Seriously, when was the last time you squished mud between your toes? Patted and baked a mud pie? When was the last time your kid got totally and unapologetically dirty or basked in the simple beauty of mud? Admittedly, not all of the cousins and counselors were up for a mud bath on Friday – however, those that were had a blast.
So, here’s to dirt and water – two of nature’s best playthings – and to the World Forum Foundation for spearheading the mud movement. If you missed the actual day, I am sure you could celebrate mud any day this summer. Go for it! As my seven-year-old nephew says, International Mud Day is “Fun! Fun! Fun!”
This is a guest post by Geralyn’s husband, editor, and aspiring adventurer, Mike McLaughlin.
During Screen-Free Week, our two boys and I went to Beacon, NY for a pleasant and sometimes strenuous hike up Mount Beacon. I offer this account today as a great example of what you can do without electronic entertainment, and a great opportunity to get good exercise while going on an adventure. This mountain climb was also the first of a “Do something new!” campaign for me – this writer and dad, who’s looking not only to get into better physical shape but also enjoy being with my sons as we do something that very few people do.
I had made this climb before, as had the boys on a school field trip. But going together allowed the boys to point out to me different types of rocks. As junior geologists, they informed me that lucite was a very common type of rock to be found in this part of New York, and that quartz and occasionally flint could be found as well – and they instructed me to keep my eyes open for samples that we could bring back.
For nearly an hour we followed a twisting rocky path from the parking area to the north summit of the mountain. It was walkable, but the steepness and the uneven surface made the going a real challenge. But we pushed our way up and finally took a lunch break on the concrete lookout point, all that remained of a hotel and casino that had once stood there. We marveled at the fact that we were nearly 1,200 feet above the river. We were, in fact, so high that hawks and crows seemed to be circling around us at eye level, even though this was their normal cruising altitude! Lunch consisted of more water, bananas, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (thanks, Mom!), with trail mix (nuts, raisins and some candy-coated chocolates). We needed re-fueling, since the walk from the lookout to the fire tower on the south summit was at least as far as we’d already traveled.
At this part of the hike, the boys had become the expedition leaders. We were heading toward a point on the mountain that they had been to before, but I had not. This doesn’t happen often in a parent’s life, where the kids are now the experts, and I marveled at it. I was hesitant, but also liked the idea that my boys were teaching me something new.
The path was easier to walk and the ascent was more gradual, and often through dense woods from which we couldn’t see the river at all. But sky and valley opened up to us as we reached the south summit, nearly 1,600 feet up. The view from here was astonishing. We could see many miles in every direction, making out distant bridges across the Hudson, as well as other cities and towns – even Manhattan, sixty miles to the south! Our perch also gave us a 360-degree view of the broad expanse of rolling mountains and hills that flank both sides of the river. The sun was strong but there was also a cool breeze. This made the summit a pleasant place to rest, have a snack, and simply enjoy being there. We stayed for about half an hour, taking it all in – and then we headed down.
The return was more tedious than the climb up. You use different muscles in your feet and legs when descending, and the fatigue made it even more difficult. Our calves and ankles were burning as we slowly made our way back. We stopped more than once for a rest. “My legs are committing leg-icide!” my younger son declared. But he was a trooper about it. We knew that the longer we rested, the longer it would take to get back. We pushed on, keeping a slow but steady pace, until we finally reached the bottom.
Screen Free Week was six weeks ago, and the boys and I have been back up Mount Beacon three times since. Many friends and family members have also come with us on this adventure that is both pleasant and a challenge, as well as a real confidence-builder. I’ve also made it a solid part of my own exercise program. I continue to make the trek to the south summit by myself, as a new healthy habit. After confirming that other family know where I am going – very important! – I make the trek as quickly as I can, burning calories and building endurance. In addition, I’m now getting further cardio exercise at the gym and going for long runs in our area. This real-life adventure with the screen off has been – and continues to be – a great one, and is (quite literally) highly recommended!
Earlier this month, the Senior Advisers to the DEY project, Diane Levin and Nancy Carlsson-Paige, asked if I would step in to direct the project, and of course I said yes. The mission is closely aligned with Empowered by Play, and all that I stand for as a teacher, activist and parent. Yesterday, Valerie Strauss published an op-ed piece, How ed policy is hurting early childhood education in her column The Answer Sheet at The Washington Post. The op-ed is written by Levin, Carlsson-Paige and myself. Here is an excerpt:
A coalition of national leaders in the field of early childhood education are becoming increasingly concerned about the impact of recent federal education policy reforms on early childhood education and care around the country. The coalition, called Defending the Early Years, believes that children develop best — socially, emotionally and cognitively — when they have educational experiences that promote creativity, thinking and problem solving skills, and engage in meaningful activities geared to their developmental levels and needs.
If you are an early childhood professional, I strongly urge you to check out the DEY website and to respond to the current national survey. Thanks so much to those of you who already have! Please do what you can (through social networking and good, old-fashioned word of mouth) to spread the word.