Our boys are now over two. A lot has changed since they were born, and their life (and our too) has been influenced by many wonderful people, ideas and thoughtful conversations. One thing that never changes – we still love watching them play, and we still admire how much is hidden under this one tiny umbrella term – PLAY. Learning, discovery, experimenting, mastering, hypothesizing, trying out, compromising… you name it, it is all there – in their play. Here and here we talked about what play looks like for children until 1. So, what do toddlers do when they play?
Well basically – Play can be divided in two. On one hand children play to follow their needs. They are driven by some inner urge that is almost impossible to resist. On the other hand – there are the toys that mainly we provide. And the child, following Heinrich Jacoby, asks: ,Thing – what do you want from me?‘ and explores what he can do with it.
In this post we want to talk about the first part of play – the one driven by needs and urges. All the things that are so important for our children, their healthy development and later life, that happen during play in these first years. And in the next we will have a closer look at what toys we can offer that allow a child to ask: ,What do you want from me?‘ rather than ,What am I supposed to do with that?‘
Developmental steps, schemas, needs and urges
Children at every stage of their development have certain needs that emerge within their bodies, in connection with their brain, and which they have to follow. It might be that „your toddler’s desire to climb makes you want to climb walls“, but it is not something they are doing on purpose, and asking them to stop is futile – the urge is stronger, and more importantly – it’s necessary.
I remember looking at Antek standing at the edge of a huge puddle, looking at it. You could see the struggle – he knew he could not go in, but this urge to go in was so strong, it was almost painful to watch. Finally very slowly he walked around it. (Anna)
Surely you have seen a ton of moments like this. The developmental urges are similar, only stronger – the body wants what it wants, and not only that. These are all the things that the little body needs to do, for the big body to later fare well in life. Knowing what these things are can help us in finding safe ways for our children to explore the world, do what they need to do, all the while making sure they are safe and happy. Recognizing those urges in our children’s play not only allows us to offer safe ways to fulfill their body’s needs (‘I know you want to climb, but I cannot let you climb on the table. Why don’t we go outside and find something you can climb on.’), but it also gives us as parents a unique view on their developing bodies and minds. It is easy to say that we should observe children at play, but hard to do when we don’t know what we’re looking at (http://everymomentisright.blogspot.nl/2011/09/day-in-life-of-scientist.html) – it takes time, trust and practice. Knowing a little bit more about the natural ways in which children develop gives us more joy in observing them as well.
We also believe that the best toys (or, as Magda Gerber called them – play objects) to best support toddlers in these activities are exactly the simple, open-ended toys you don’t need to spend a fortune on, some of them you might already have, and a lot of them you could even find interesting to play with (more on that in the next post)!
So, first things first, what are these urges?
Some of these actions have been well discussed and classified under the common heading schemas. Schemas are all those behaviors and actions we see our children repeating over and over, in a variety of settings, using a number of different things. Sometimes they appear as a single action, sometimes a child is particularly interested in one, sometimes they are joined and combined together – like pieces of a puzzle. They are:
Carrying things around, from place to place. Moving objects from place to place. Carrying things in your hands one at a time, or all at once. Perhaps filling a toy truck and going around with the load.
Covering themselves, each other, other things, hiding. Pulling a sleeve over their hand so it disappears. Playing peek-a-boo. Hiding in small spaces, maybe climbing into a box and sitting there. Or sitting under a blanket. Covering your face, their own face – this can turn into a game where you also are invited to participate
Putting things into other things and then taking them out, filling containers, putting their thumb into their mouth and taking it out. Pouring water into a cup, and then into another cup, and another… stuffing all the toys in one box, bag or basket.
Making circular movements with things, walking around something, spinning toys, turning around, watching the washing machine.
Joining toys in a long line, joining train tracks. Making a long line of toys and then rearranging them. Putting blocks on top of one another, or in a line.
Finding a place for something or oneself, putting things on their heads, placing things one on top of the other. Rearranging toys, books, things on the table. Perhaps putting forks next to placemats before dinner time?
Apart from these schemas, there are also things we often see our kids doing frequently – some kids will do one, some all of them, some will prefer one to the other. The things we noticed with our boys were:
This is probably the most challenging activity for us as adults. Because children don‘t just climb onto a chair or a sofa. They move things around to climb even higher. Because we hide things from them by putting them into heights they can‘t reach. And therefore make these more attractive. (Not to mention the fear of them falling – but that is another topic we will discuss at some point later). But remember that climbing is a strong urge (see Lisa Sunbury’s post we mentioned earlier), and such an important one too! Not only for their cognitive and physical development – think of the pride and joy they can experience reaching such great heights all by themselves.
One morning I opened my eyes and found Leander sitting on the work surface in the kitchen. He had climbed onto the chair, from there onto the kitchen table and just another step onto the higher surface. There he was happily pouring maple syrup all over the place. I couldn‘t even be mad. I had to laugh about my own silliness of believing that ANYTHING would be safe up there. (Nadine)
Pushing and pulling
Especially when learning to walk children quite often reach forsupport that helps them
walk. Instead of buying dangerous walkers that gain speed they can‘t control kids find themselves furnishings, boxes or big objects they can push around. Once they are able to walk it becomes more interesting to pull things. It keeps them busy and they have the feeling of actually working.
Gathering, collecting and categorizing
This, of course, is a development of schemas as well. Eva Kallo talks about this as a phase of development in her book ‘The Origins of Free Play’
‘In the collection process, the child discovers by searching through and choosing among various objects that there are differences among them and notices their particulars. When he compares things, he notices their shape and disparate properties, and as he puts them together, he takes care to group them according to common feature. Examination, comparison, abstracting certain properties and disregarding others, grouping them by feature, all are intellectual processes repeatedly evidenced by children engaged in collecting, whereby perception and action remain closely linked.’ (Eva Kallo, ‘The Origins of Free Play’)
In the first stage of their interest in collecting, children begin to gather together toys that are identical, to later start putting them together in line, or alongside one another. At this point it is important to have more than one of something within reach or in sight. This later develops into categorizing objects, putting them into containers or in piles, depending on their shape, colour, size etc. (we talked about this also with our boys and their favourite cars. Only later on the child begins to also be interested in the result – at first you will probably see collecting to fill a box, but later he might also keep the box close by as a sign of what he has accomplished.
Knowing what these urges are, and that it would be near impossible (and also possibly harmful) to control them, helps us parents to allow our children to safely explore what they need to explore. The action in itself is most of the time not as important as the child’s need to fulfill the urge – knowing what these urges are allows us to see them as learning experience, rather than perhaps some unwanted behavior (such as climbing dangerous places, pouring water out of the cup etc.).
So before you head to the toy store – think of what is actually in your house. Or don‘t even think and let your child explore. That a laundry basket is great for climbing in and out, for putting things inside or pushing it around the room. That a shopping bag is not just for emptying but also for putting all the things back inside (you might not see much of your shopping for an hour after you got home). And that pots, bowls and Tupperware make great hats – more on that in our next post!
And before you leave the house with a toddler – make sure you have got a spare set of socks and shoes (or waterproof boots). Because these puddles ARE very very tempting!