If you’ve ever watched kids play with forts, you know firsthand how captivated kids are by the work of enclosing themselves within small, cozy spaces. And for good reason- this act has positive physical, psychological and cognitive impact. A cozy hideaway can also serve as a shelter in which to hunker down and bear the elements, helping to extend outdoor play regardless of what the weather brings. All you need for this activity is a few simple materials and some family teamwork. And, once constructed, your hideaway will invite endless possibilities for imaginary play.
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). You can also offer some simple construction materials, like duct tape, bungee cords or string.
Wonder, “How could we use this sheet to make a cozy hideaway?” If you have children under the age of 3, you can set up the hideaway ahead of time. Little ones will get plenty from discovering, experiencing and playing with the hideaway. For older kids, our favorite way to add an element of surprise and put kids in control is to throw all of the materials needed and a note into a large bag (sleeping bag cover, pillow case), then tuck the bag somewhere outdoors. While hiking, you’ll stumble upon the bag and read the note, which introduces the materials as those meant to build a hideout.
Build a hideaway:
Work together as a team in imagining, planning and building a hideaway using your materials. Try to have kids do as much as they can, gently asking questions to guide their process as needed. If all falls apart, you can always suggest one of the simple structures in this video. Note: If you are in a public park, please check the rules to make sure you can attach things gently to trees. If not, you can use other objects like picnic tables, boulders, benches, and even adults, in lieu of trees.
Once the hideaway is up, let kids have at it. Decorate the inside or outside of their hideaway with their favorite nature treasures. Bring favorite books, stuffed animals or special objects inside. If weather allows, leave the hideaway in place for a few days and invite your child to invent new ways to use and play in their special space. Need ideas? Try out some of these ways to play in your hideaway:
Animal Play: Invite your child to pretend to be a bear or a bat and build a special cave for it. Or, pretend to be a hedgehog, cozying up in its winter nest. What would these creatures need in their cozy shelter?
Pretend cooking: Offer bowls, cups or other kitchen items and welcome kids to pretend to cook a meal, gathering additional “ingredients” from outside to add to their play.
Eat a meal together: Kids love experiencing familiar routines in new ways. Pack a family picnic and enjoy a meal together in your child’s secret hideaway.
Parachute play: To add a physical twist to the sheet play, invite the kids and/or adults in your home to each take a corner of the sheet and coordinate moving it up and down together. Invite kids to scurry inside the sheet on its way down so they can experience the sensation of being enveloped in the fabric.
Light and shadow play: Invite kids to experiment with flashlights inside their hideaway. Can they use the light to create shadows?
Why is this activity great for kids?
Transforming an everyday object like a sheet into a hideaway supports the development of divergent thinking, a skill that’s at the heart of creativity. As kids engage in the process of planning, trying new techniques and making adjustments to their design, they explore early STEM concepts and activate important skills like problem-solving, collaboration and persistence. As kids maneuver their bodies and heads in different positions to crawl in, out and around tight spaces, they activate their proprioceptive and vestibular systems, the senses that support balance, muscle coordination, attention and focus. Finally, creating this new, super special outdoor space is sure to spark hours of imaginary play.
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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 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?
Persistence & Grit
What are Persistence & Grit?
A persistent person can continue on a given course of action in spite of challenges or barriers that arise. In other words, persistence is the ability to stick with something and keep trying. It's partner, grit, is the strength of character, and sometimes courage, to allow one to persist. Those who possess grit don't mind rolling up their sleeves, focusing on the task at hand, and sticking with it to completion despite the challenges that come their way.
Why does it matter?
Talent is helpful, but it's hard work, persistence and grit that unlock talent and turn capable people into success stories. As Thomas Edison so famously said, "Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration." Practice with being persistent, including the chance to struggle and learn how to overcome struggle, will help kids later have ability to wade through and make sense of confusing new information, navigate difficult situations, and solve tough problems.
Further, studies like those discussed in Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman's NurtureShock tell us that kids will actually perform better when we praise their hard work instead of just telling them how smart or great they are. As parents, we also tend to offer kids activities which are enjoyable and attainable and, as such, too easy. Bear in mind that if we spare them frustration, we actually deny them the chance to work hard and develop persistence and grit.
What is Self Reliance?
Nearly all parents agree that we want to raise our children to become independent and self-reliant people. When they are babies, children rely on us for their basic needs and mobility. As they grow, they rely less directly on us for these basic needs but still need us for love, protection, direction and help. As they grow into adolescence and early adulthood, they will rely on us less and less, separating from us to prepare for the transition to adulthood.
Even though much of the separation dance plays out during adolescence, how we offer our kids both support and independence in their early years paves the way for them to develop self reliance later on. Many well-intending parents may become too involved, protective or demanding of their children and, by doing so, actually foster dependence in them. In turn, their kids grow to rely on others for motivation, happiness and direction, unable to make sound decisions for themselves.
Independent children, however, possess the belief that they are competent and capable of taking care of themselves. They were given the freedom to experience life and learn its many important lessons, both the joyful and the not-so-fun ones that come from taking risks and doing things for and by oneself.
Why does it matter?
Independent children emerge as intrinsically motivated, natural explorers. They are capable decision makers who have had practice weighing various options and, with the support and guidance of their parents, have been allowed to and lived by their own decisions. This kind of self reliance helps children navigate all realms of life. Academically, they advocate for themselves, take chances and try new things. Socially, they are less dependent on others for happiness, making them far more likely to weather the ups and downs of young friendships and social power dynamics. They have likely had the chance to identify and pursue their own interests and, therefore, have a rich sense of self. They are also more likely to make sound judgements and far less susceptible to engage in negative behaviors, succumb to peer pressure or become either bully or victim.
As children grow into adulthood, these same patterns continue to play out. Self-reliant adults have an easier time feeling happiness, self-respect and the respect of others. They are better decision-makers and often accomplish more given the self confidence and self awareness that comes from having been allowed to try, succeed, fail and learn along the way.
“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance
What is Teamwork?
Teamwork is the ability to be both an individual contributor and a supportive member of a group. Not easy for little ones, but never too early to start learning how. Although the notion of teamwork seems rather self explanatory, the combination of skills that are required for kids to effectively work on a team is rather complex. People can work effectively in a group when they have a sense of their own strengths and needs, the ability to understand the needs and motivations of others, the ability to agree and focus on a common goal, and the capacity to adjust their personal needs for the good of the group. Needless to say, young kids are too young to master these skills, but they can make tremendous progress if we give them genuine experience with teamwork and help them develop the foundations that underlie this more complex set of skills.
On a most basic level, kids start to build teamwork skills as they learn to negotiate and share limited resources. Anyone who has kids know that these skills do not come naturally, but are developed with age and practice. Kids who have experience sharing and working in groups without the dominant management of parent or authority figure (e.g. the good old pick-up game of kick-the-can that was managed only by the kids in the neighborhood) get much more opportunity to develop the self awareness and skills needed for effective collaboration. The more chances we give kids to feel the pleasure in sharing and giving, the more quickly they become effective at sharing. In addition, when we model how to set a goal and allow kids to practice working towards that goal, we model the behavior they will eventually adopt as their won. Finally, when they experience success as a member of a team, they develop a lasting sense of the power of teamwork and the motivation to start to value a team over themselves.
Why does it matter?
Collaboration makes the cut on nearly every list of top 21st-century skills—and it has become not just a goal but a requirement for most jobs. Technology increasingly enables people to work together with people who differ by geography, culture and mindset, and businesses and institutions worldwide expect employees to work effectively in both face-to-face and in virtual teams. Those who collaborate effectively will not only be effective workers but will be poised to help find solutions to the increasingly complicated challenges this young generation will face.
Further, in most schools from elementary level up, kids get more out of the curriculum if they know how to work well in groups, and this trend of increased peer-to peer-teaching and learning is only gaining ground in older school years. Research even shows that how well young children solve simple problems in groups predicts how they will transition to and fare in formal schooling.