Play that revolves around real-world themes (often called play projects) are great ways to engage kids’ imaginations and spark hours of independent play. One of our favorite play invitations is camping! If your family is planning a real-life camping trip this fall, a pretend campout is a super way for kids to learn and practice camping skills and campfire safety within the comfort of an imaginary world. Having this pretend experience can make the real camping trip feel even smoother for kids (and for their grown-ups too). And, even if your family is not quite ready to head out for a camping trip just yet, a pretend campout is a great way to connect kids with nature and spark hours (or days) of imaginative play.
Ask, “Would you like to go on a pretend camp-out?” Take a walk together around your yard or favorite outdoor space and look for the perfect spot to set up camp. What would make a good camp-out spot? What features are in your outdoor space that your child could incorporate into their camping play?
Set up camp:
Create a cozy hideaway or set up a real tent in your outdoor space. For a simple hideaway, all you need is a bed sheet or tarp and something to drape it over (i.e. tree branch, table, chairs). Work together as a team in imagining, planning and building a hideaway using your materials. If all falls apart, you can always suggest one of the simple structures in this video.
Pack a camping bag:
Now that you set up camp, what does your child want to bring on their pretend camping trip? Offer a backpack or bag and invite kids to fill it with their camping “gear”. What objects would help them sleep at night in their tent? What games or books might they bring? What kitchen items might they pack to eat their meals? Once they’ve gathered materials, kids can “hike” to their campsite, unpack and arrange their items in and around their tent.
Build a fire:
Suggest that a campfire will help keep kids warm at the campsite and can be used to cook their food, too! Invite kids to gather sticks and rocks in their camping backpack. Model arranging the rocks in a circle near the campsite and welcome kids to arrange sticks inside the circle to make a fire. To introduce fire safety, lay out a circle of twine or string 3-4 feet away from your "fire." Let kids know this is called the "circle of safety" and that if this was a real fire, we would stay outside the circle to keep ourselves safe. Pretend to warm your hands near the fire (but don't get too close!) and add more sticks and leaves to make the fire bigger.
Have a cook-out:
Offer a few kitchen items you don't mind getting dirty (muffin tins, bowls, spoons) and a container of water and invite kids to use mud and nature treasures to create their own campsite feast. Put a bowl or pot of water near the pretend campfire and invite kids to shop for “ingredients” around their outdoor space to make their own nature soup. Or, stick a ball of mud or forest putty at the end of a stick and roast your own marshmallows.
Tell campfire stories, sing songs or read a book at the pretend campsite together. Invite family members or stuffed animal friends to join you, too!
Take down camp:
If you can, leave the campsite in place for a few days so kids can continue to add to the play throughout the week. When it’s time to take down the campsite, make it part of the play adventure. Invite kids to pack up their camping bag, extinguish their pretend fire with water, and return sticks and nature items to where they were found to model the concept of “leave no trace”.
Why is this activity great for kids?
This activity incorporates many universally engaging play activities for kids, such as enclosing themselves within small, cozy spaces, cooking play, and collecting and packing up play materials. Pretending to camp out is a play theme that can extend over time and in many directions, giving kids chances to iterate on their ideas and invent new play scenarios. Pretend camping, like the real experience, also offers kids the chance to stimulate multiple senses, learn to stay safe while taking risks, and connect to their outdoor environment. As kids pretend to set up a tent, build a fire and cook, they get hands-on experience with camping skills and can even learn about fire safety. Best of all, this type of imaginative play is a super way to create playful family memories together.
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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 is a Naturalist?
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 Problem Solving Skills?
When we talk about problem solving, we mean the ability to solve a problem in which the solution is not obvious and in which the possible paths to solution are many. To solve such problems, kids will need two things. First, they’ll need the self confidence and comfort to both attempt to find and persist in finding a solution. The only way to develop this is to be given the chance to struggle with ambiguous situations or open-ended problems. We parents are all guilty, from time to time, of helping kids avoid struggle or swooping in to alleviate frustration when our kid encounters challenge. The goal is actually to do the opposite whenever possible. As long as the problem is not too difficult to understand or challenging to solve, even young kids can get comfortable with the feeling of not knowing the solution and fall in love with the joy of finding a solution to a problem.
Kids also need strategies to attack problems with which they are faced. If adults are able to work with kids to solve problems “as a team” but in such a way that the children feel and act “in charge” of the decisions, adults can actually teach foundation problem solving skills and strategies through modeling. For example, when you solve a problem together, kids get practice with key parts of the process like brainstorming, testing ideas, revision and solution. It’s also pretty easy to model how to use simple strategies like trial and error or breaking a problem down into smaller parts. Although children age 1 to 7 should not be expected to name, catalog or identify when to use a particular problem solving strategy, they are able to form habits and repeat approaches once those habits or approaches have become familiar. The more problems they solve, the better they know and can use these methods.
Why does it matter?
“The highest ranked skills for students entering the workforce were not facts and basic skills; they were applied skills that enable workers to use the knowledge and basic skills they have acquired” (Source: Are They Really Ready for Work? Conference Board 2006).
Although it seems a long way to go before our young children are hitting the job market, the ability to solve challenging, ambiguous problems has already been identified as a critical skill for success in the 21st Century. With advances in technology, finding information has never been easier. However, knowing how to interpret a problem and use available information to devise a solution still needs to be learned. And, we fear that the classrooms of today are neither designed nor incentivized to teach these skills effectively. In most schools, so much time is spent learning discrete skills, that applied skills like problem solving are wildly underemphasized. In a world that demands it, it is increasingly necessary that children learn and practice these skills outside of school.
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!