The Joy of Discovery

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Young children have an inbuilt hunger to understand their world; they are biologically created to explore, create and seek out new experiences. They need to master their environment and grow in independence.

Cocooned in Bubble Wrap

Too much TV and safe programmed entertainment can eventually squash that desire and result in a passive, dependent, dissatisfied and frustrated child, who is easily bored and relies on adult-directed activities rather than developing their own imagination. I’ve watched it happen.

The Plastic Trap

Sometimes children just get bored with their collections of plastic toys. And no wonder – most mass-market toy manufacturers are specifically aiming to make themselves maximum profit by encouraging a ‘collect the set’ mentality rather than thinking of maximum play value for your child; after all, the more limiting the toy, or the more easily it breaks, the more toys you will have to buy! And also, to be fair, the amount of regulations attached to toy manufacture make it virtually impossible to sell anything really interesting because (unlike life) it has to be 100% SAFE! So manufacturers prefer to follow the herd, stick to what sells and make more of the same.

This makes me angry: we, and our children, are being cheated by greed and red tape! So what do we want to teach our children with the toys we give them? How can we know what is a truly worthwhile toy that will be loved, treasured and returned to again and again?

The key, from what I have observed, lies in two qualities: simplicity and discoverability. Simple objects can often stimulate a child’s imagination because he has to stretch to figure out how to play with it. What could it be? And discoverability because children are intensely curious and love investigating every new object they find.

We need to allow them the gift of discovering it themselves, instead of wading in and robbing them of that joy by telling them “This is a nutcracker. It cracks nuts like this.” To your child, it could be a space rocket.

Put these two ideas together. A collection of simple items waiting to be discovered. You have a Discovery Box.

And what’s the point of a Discovery Box? How is it different to any other toy?

Think about your child’s other toys for a minute. A doll says “nurture me, pretend I am your baby” or “this is what you are aiming to be when you’re a teenager”. A plastic dinosaur says ” make me roar and stamp”. A pirate set says “now we sail the seas and all go ‘ooaaarrr’ “. Board games have rigid rules.

A Discovery Box has no set agenda. The child takes the lead and decides what to do with it. It can be or do anything on any given day, according to your child’s imagination and investigation.

Child-directed Learning

I believe children are their own best teachers, and if we can only listen to them (their REAL needs, not the ones our materialist culture programs into them) then they will teach us what we need to know to care for them and what to provide them with. I want to counteract the bland plastic Disney-princess-collection culture that it is so easy to buy into, and instead, help enrich a child’s world and facilitate their journey of exploration through life.

Immersive Education

Shin’ichi Suzuki taught very young children to play the violin by simply immersing them in a musical environment from before birth to encourage musical ‘language’ development and sensitivity. Surrounded by adults and older children who played musical instruments for the joy of it. Once they became able to reach out and speak, they naturally wanted to learn to play music themselves. Exactly the same way in which children learn to speak, by hearing language all around them. This method of learning was later adapted to other types of education.

I aim to tap into this same kind of Suzuki attitude. Not to teach, but to facilitate a joy in natural learning, based on the child’s curiosity reaching out into an enriched environment full of exciting possibilities, rather than simply complying with our adult educational agenda.

Learning Gentleness

I like to give children real things and also let them handle delicate or breakable items, like the miniature china tea set which this little one is learning pouring with. He absolutely loves his tea set.

He got really excited on a trip into the town centre where we discovered a whole tea shop! REAL teapots and plates!!! He had to handle them all! We came home with a new set of beautiful rainbow spoons.

He loves to come shopping with me. I never tell him, “Don’t touch!” as I so often hear mothers say to their children. For a start, that simply doesn’t work – children NEED to touch everything! And they see adults touching everything in the shop! I want him to learn to handle china gently, and how else will he learn? He proves to me every time I take him out that he CAN be trusted to be very gentle, as he goes around the shop investigating ornaments while the assistant hovers, looking jittery. 😁 I just crouch next to him saying softly and REALLY CALMLY, “We have to be Very Gentle with this. It’s Delicate.” And he is! We’ve never had a single breakage!

This is really handy in other real life situations. How many two year olds could you trust to carry a china plate loaded with snacks to a table on the far size of a hall jam packed with mothers and toddlers? This one does, without dropping so much as a grape.

But then he had the benefit of a year’s experience investigating a multiude of objects made of heavy stone, light cork and balsa, delicate feathers and shells, robust rubber, squashy wool, hard wood, soft suede and fur, rough pumice and bark. I’m sure his Discovery Box helped him develop an awareness of the sensory properties of anything he was likely to encounter. His hands taught his brain how to handle each thing.

Had he only been allowed to play with plastic toys, I would not be remotely surprised if he broke anything else.

Update: at the age of eight, having gone through ten sensory this same little boy is an ardently curious, focused, wildly imaginative little being who is absolutely confident in his physical abilities, is a fearless climber, has exceptional spatial awareness (he’ll do somersaults in the air) and is a leader in the playground because of his original and exciting ideas for games.

When he grows up, he wants to be an inventor.

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About Cathy Owen

I have enjoyed working and playing with children for over 20 years, starting with a holiday job as mother's helper to two different families and babysitting for neighbours from the age of 17. My experience since then includes working with children from 3 months to 12 years, in schools, nurseries, toddler groups and homes, as a teacher assistant, play leader, special needs facilitator, after school and holiday club supervisor/planner, childminder, and currently as a private nanny. My Discovery Boxes developed out of my observation and interaction with young children and a desire to enter and enrich their world. Children are our greatest teachers; their imagination has a magical quality that makes the world a more exciting and wondrous place. I love nothing better than to join them in this adventure that is life and see where we can journey together! To learn more about my way of working, see my posts.

One response »

  1. Cathy-you are absolutely spot on and brilliant. Everything you say chimes with what I believe and try-with limited success sometimes-to put into practice with the grandchildren. You must get this blog more widely known as it is essential for future generations of children to have a foundation built in the way you describe. Keep influencing the younger generation. But more importantly-teach the parents!

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