Why is natural play important for children?What is “loose parts play” all about?
What’s the big deal with wooden toys? Aren’t pegdolls and random bits of wood a bit plain and simple for my child’s sophisticated intelligence?
Loose parts and natural play seem to be very much the “in thing” these days. But what’s all the fuss about?
I wanted to know these answers when I first came across natural wooden Montessori and Steiner toys such as the Ostheimer type simple wooden animals. I was comparing them with detailed plastic toy animals such as the high quality Schleich brand which I had so admired.
Then I met a family who was raising their children entirely naturally. All their toys were made of wood. All their food was organic. They weren’t vaccinated or given conventional medicine, only treated with plant remedies. The children were the happiest, healthiest, most loved little beings I had ever come across. And I had the privilege of being their nanny!
The two year old taught me about the importance of wooden toys. He had a simple little wooden rabbit just the size to fit in your hand.
One day we took the rabbit for a walk to see the spring flowers. He let me hold it. I seemed to enter a different world. The wooden rabbit felt like it emanated a kind of calming, grounding, living energy which made me feel a deep inner peace. I didn’t want to let go of the rabbit! He was my friend. I entered the world of a small child holding a wooden toy.
A group of nursery children taught me about the joys of loose parts play. I think I “got it” the day I watched two 3 year old girls playing with mud and sticks. When I went closer I saw they were making “sandwiches” by using a stick to spread mud on bits of wood and having a picnic! Another time I watched a little girl arranging a beautiful pattern with flower petals; a group of little ones mixing and sorting a bowlful of bits of wood; and two children playing with a pile of nuts in quiet fascination. The very simplicity of loose parts invites children to become totally absorbed in designing, creating, exploring and experimenting. Loose parts can become anything and be played with in multiple different ways, from building and sorting to pattern making, creative fantasy play and mathematical organising. There is no right or wrong way to play; the child decides. Loose parts play encourages flexibility and resilience and taps into self motivated creative thinking.
Detailed plastic replica toys, where everything is already put together, leave no scope for imagination. What can the child do with them, what part of themselves can they immerse in these toys? The more detail is predetermined, the more distanced the child becomes. The simpler, the more focused and involved. Loose parts are an irresistible invitation!
Plastic is bland, inert and has no energy or living substance. Wood and wool have texture, warmth and life. They are from the earth, in tune with the same matter our own bodies are made up of. On a vibrational level, they resonate in harmony with the human soul.
I wanted to explore this concept further, so I took time out to have a walk around a local woodland park. It has plenty of trees. I figured that if I could feel the energy coming from a wooden toy, maybe I could discover the source of that energy in a living tree.
I walked slowly all around the park, stopping to touch and lean on each tree; to come under the shelter of its branches, examine the texture of the bark and gaze up at this majestic ‘being’ towering over me like a protective guardian.
My mind was filled with a primal awareness, echoing the consciousness of a small child. I saw the little hidey holes in the tree trunks where small creatures lived.
As I came near to each tree, a humming, vibrational consciousness entered my awareness. Was it the spirit of the tree? I don’t know.
This may sound fanciful or hippyish, but this is what I felt. An incredibly deep soothing peaceful and grounding energy, which became stronger the closer to the tree I moved. As I touched the tree is intensified, and thrummed through my body. With this heightened awareness, I traversed the park, noticing the beauty of the wooden sculptures and natural tree forms.
I came away with a bag full of beautiful twisty branches to make a natural building set for children. When I began to put together my natural building set, I introduced it to the family I mentioned above. The little boy (now four) and his nine year old sister were ecstatic! “This is the best toy ever!” they exclaimed, as they found dozens of different ways of playing with each random piece.
Now I ‘get it’. It is the open-ended nature of these loose parts, these pieces of randomly shaped wood, the simplest toys, that so engages the imagination of a child. It is as if a fire is ignited within them. The joy and enthusiasm I see as the little boy sings happily to himself and exclaims in wonder over his little sculptures and creations, explains it all.
In this building set, I try to make each piece fit together with any of the other pieces in any number of different ways. I let the children inspire me with their way of using these loose parts in their play.
The different pieces of wood can stand all kinds of different ways up and join together to make different little dens and structures.
On a side note, a den is an extremely engaging and exciting idea to a child because it harks back to a very primal part of our collective consciousness; that of seeking territory and shelter. Going all the way back to the earliest days of mankind upon this earth, we have an inbuilt instinctual need for the security of our own home space.
A child making a den is not just play acting. Whether it’s a clothes horse and a blanket, a stick den in the woods or a miniature den made for tiny wooden figures, it’s an externalising of that deep primal instinct.
So wooden toys are important. They give a child the experience of being grounded and soothed, comforted and energised. As a child belongs to his family and gains his security from that sense of attachment, wood (and other natural materials such as silk and wool) offer him the same kind of attachment and security of being part of his home planet earth.
There are many situations in life where you have to laugh or you’d cry. (I used to work in a nursing home, which was the perfect training ground).
I find it absolutely essential to keep a sense of humour when dealing with other people, especially little ones. Maybe I haven’t quite grown up yet, but if being a responsible adult means I can never see the funny side, I’d rather be a child. And anyway, I think it helps children gain a sense of perspective when they see I don’t take life’s ups and downs too seriously.
We all make mistakes along the way, and being able to acknowledge with a smile that you’re having a ‘dropping day’, or are a bit of a ‘forgetty-pants’ (as the four year old puts it when I’m being scatty) can help children accept their own limitations with less frustration.
One day I was preparing supper whilst dancing to an Abba CD with the three children, who were two, four and six. As I waved a bag of frozen peas above my head, it suddenly burst open and a cascade of peas showered over me and the floor…right on the spot where the new puppy had done a poo earlier. It was actually incredibly funny (judging by the childrens’ reaction) and I had to laugh as the cold peas ran down inside my bra. Suddenly I found myself spontaneously changing the lyrics of ‘Dancing Queen’:
“Lots of peas, covering meee, running everywhere! …. Yeah, I’ve lost my peas, oh where can they be, do I even care? Oh yeeeah!”
As the song changed to ‘Mama Mia’, my lyrics became a song about sweeping:
“Dearie dear, here I go again, sweeping, all those naughty little peas!”
I hammed up my performance, revelling in the lack of self-consciousness that the company of small children can release. The kids cavorted happily around me, hooting with laughter at my pea song .
It crossed my mind as the kids joined in with their own songs while helping me scoop up peas, that not only were we acting as a team engaging in cooperative helpful behaviour, but they were learning about rhyme, rhythm, metre and performance, as well as attitudes and ways of responding to an accident. If I had become upset or angry over the waste of peas or the inconvenience of having to clean up when I was busy, I bet I wouldn’t have had any happy little helpers. And what a different message I would have conveyed: that cleaning is a tedious chore, accidents are very upsetting, and fun stops when somebody makes a mistake. Instead, the pea mishap had turned into a joyous occasion of shared laughter and performance art.
It was very liberating.
I have also found that since play is the way kids relate to the world, I can make better relationships with them if I join in.
Children have a highly developed sense of the ridiculous and will turn anything and everything into a game. They don’t need expensive toys. Which is why I always save bubble wrap. They love it even more if I join in with the game and make bubble wrap outfits for them. Sometimes I think laughter is the fuel kids run on.
On a deeper note, shared laughter is incredibly strengthening, healing and intoxicating for kids. It releases a flood of happy emotions and endorphins that bind you all together. Laughing together at something she says or does (coupled with lots of hugs and physical play) gives your child the powerful internal message that she is worthy, accepted, loved and strong together with you. It promotes resilience and self-confidence for the future: no matter what the world throws at them, they know they are strong and loved.
Every child, at some point, will hit you with one of those Big Awkward Questions of life that we tend to dread. You know the ones: “How did the baby get into your tummy?” “Why can’t I see God?” “Why do some people have different colour skin?” “Why did Jesus die?” “Why is poo brown?” Children really want to know everything, don’t they?
Lots of us feel a bit nervous about what to tell young children about the facts of life and such sensitive subjects, how much detail to go into and when is the right time to begin. The last thing we want to do is corrupt their innocence. I have been asked by several mums what is the right thing to do.
Of course there are very many opinions, and you must do what seems right to you. But if you want my opinion, here it is.