Updated: Oct 4
As a parent you might have come across (or may soon will) at some point the age old irony, of the child presented with a new toy, who would rather play with the box it arrived in. In these modern times in a Capitalist world where we are sold everyday images of the perfect life directly into our homes via TV, to our phones via social media, childhood has become big business.
An endless array of toys that promote early development and the early intellectualisation of children that flash, light up, sing the alphabet whilst displaying shapes and colours of all kinds tell parents ‘its ok you are busy, it’s ok the system leaves you with little time to play whilst you work all day..we’ve got you covered. As the age of hand held technology has arrived, there has become other ways to help keep the minds (and bodies) of children occupied whilst we frantically try and fit in everything that us ’expected of us’ whilst trying to retain some kind of sanity knowing that one day - when we are retired we will be able to sit back and take in this life.
It is no coincidence I feel that one of the United States Steiner~Waldorf Schools is in Silicon Valley, home to the worlds leaders in technological development, you may wonder why when these companies are pouring out apps and programs to millions of parents around the globe, they themselves it seems are placing their children in an educational environement where screens are not promoted or endorsed in childhood and where the focus is on creativity, human interaction and deepening the imagination.
With technology though has also come information. Technology however has its benefits, knowledge is power, parents have read, researched and found their way through the modern ‘packaged childhood’ presented to us by huge corporate companies and have found their way to understanding how they want to live and how they want their child to experience the world, a much softer and gentler approach where academics can wait, where toys are quiet and imaginations are big...and these toys are beautiful, from forward thinking companies who look after their workers, pay fairly and create sustainable and environmentally friendly products which the world needs right now more than ever) obviously with all this comes a higher cost, which some parents cannot afford.
Waldorf Education itself strives to deepen the childs connection with the natural world and many of the toys you see in Kindergartens are not from expensive stores but from nature. Open ended ’loose parts’ as they are now known provide opportunity for play which a ‘mass manufactured’ toy simply cannot...the potential of a pine cone that can be a gnome, a tree. A shell that can become a plate, a phone, a boat. Stones become mountains and a basket of plums, pieces of wood become bridges, caves and bread. The only limit to these toys is the imagination of the child. The child chooses an item, and using their own deep thinking incorporates it into play, bringing other children into their world creating magic which as adults we can only touch upon.
I remember watching the children’s film ‘Hook’ a little while ago with my eldest two, I don't know if you have seen it? the scene where all the lost boys are sitting down for a feast with Robin Williams, for him to be perplexed at where it all was, when he found his inner child he was greeted with the most spectacular feast you could imagine. Open ended items are the food for the child's imagination and these simple items in their playspace can replace almost everything else they play with.
In my home playfood, small world items, trees etc have been replaced with baskets of pine cones, shells, tumbled stones, tumbled gemstones, sanded down branches and pieces of wood such as driftwood and bogwood. Pre-formed figures of people are simple peg dolls, with some additions to handmade dolls without faces (to allow the child to decide the face and emotions in play) from time to time. Most of these items I found in my local garden centre, in the aquarium section for a few pounds or when we have been out on walks in nature, I have purchased very few ‘structured toys’ from trusted companies, I have a grimms natural rainbow and semi circles for building and stacking, they are used for play in many many ways, and some Ostheimer animals which even now for me are a little too ‘formed’ than I would like. I will be exploring and sharing here ways of making our own animals for play over the next couple of months.
What about colours and shape, letter and number recognition I have some ask. One thing I have found about this approach, about not providing an array of puzzles or books with numbers and letter and colours, is it has given me so much trust in the childs jounrey and theit amazing capabilities to learn and soak in the world without any of this. Storytelling and Singing form the back bone of ‘structured’ ways of introducing these concepts in Waldorf Education...we learn colours through everything we interact with, we count everything, pieces of fruit, steps everything, we learn volume and broad mathematical concepts though simple baking tasks, through independent self care, pouring a simple glass of water from a jug. Development improves everyday as she uses objects we have in the home in purposeful work and through her own play and exploration.
Natural open ended items allow the brain and imagination to deepen itself because the lack of structure means the brain has to do this work instead developing the imagination deeply. We can liken it to running a marathon and deciding to do a light jog every night to prepare, when the marathon comes we don't have the physical stamina to get there. If we don’t provide items in play which allow children to use their imagination in freedom, then they will not have the opportunity to develop and enrich this part of their play.
Without the endless array of puzzles and’ structured toys, the little ones imagination has had time to take things in to develop and grow, she names colours because they hold meaning to her, because she has discovered them in play and made deep and meaningful links, she runs in the living room flying an aeroplane made from a log and pointing them out in the sky when we are in the garden, she truly see the world in all its glory. She is not ‘awakened’ to the world as we represent it through intellectual means but is allowed to discover, to experience, to see, feel and touch it, to absorb every inch of it and gently deepen her relationship with it as she plays and experiences the day.
Allowing nature - to lead my child has only given me more awe, respect and love for it. It has deepened my trust in her and in her journey, in her voice, that she is just following her own instinct to learn and absorb this world in the way she was born to.
Try adding some natural objects into your childs play if you haven’t already and watch the magic that comes with it.