Let’s Play: Creative-Free Play Keeps Spaces Shifting

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Empty Rooms

Empty rooms are great catalysts for energizing creative-free play!

I live with a re-arranger. Every three to four months she requests assistance moving books and furniture to make her room “just perfect.” The bed goes up so she has a nook below. The bed goes back down. Other times the bed needs a tent over it to hide in. I indulge this. I see no good reason not to. She is making her space her own.

Six years ago we moved and I brought her tricycle into the completely empty living room so she could ride around and around while I cleaned kitchen cabinets and scrubbed bathroom tiles. I placed a large sketch pad, pencils, markers and books in the empty playroom. She rode in circles. She drew piles of pictures to decorate her new room. She flipped thru her favorite picture books over and over. I did a lot of cleaning without interruption. Preparing the house for our move-in was the beginning of her free play in empty rooms and spaces as part of the re-arranging addiction. Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: A Tribute to Friendship

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Forest People in Massachusetts and Michigan

This October I am paying tribute to one of my college roommates. I first met, Erica, Labor Day weekend 1991. Twenty-three years ago. I was starting my sophomore year at the University of Michigan School of Art. Erica and her two assigned roommates, Katie and Ellen, were two doors down the hall in a converted triple. This means three freshman are mushed into a double room. Lots of freshman entered the Residential College that year ready to start an intensive language program on top of their regular major. As the year progressed, I was amazed at how they made that tiny room work for three while becoming life long friends. I was in and out of my single room odd hours staying up late juggling studio work, academics and my job downstairs in our dorm. Those three women at the end of the hall were a definite bright spot during a very stressful year.

I learned early that Erica was excellent with kids. Some people just have the “kid thing.” Erica was one of them. She watched little ones for extra spending money. When my niece or nephew visited on siblings weekends (I was the youngest of five, so no little sibs to bring), Erica just had the ability to talk with them and help them fit right in with our house full of crazy college women. Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Bonding Through Art Bombing

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Free Play, After School

We’ve all heard of Yarn Bombing… how about Art Bombing? Read on for Carrie’s Art Bomb idea, a fall version of her Play Bombs spread throughout the community in the spring.

We made the switch again. Library Monday. Music Tuesday. PE shoes needed Wednesday and Thursday. Art Friday. Nightly reading. Pack the lunch. We are in the school routine but missing something.

Third grade could not come quick enough for an 8 year old at our house. Third grade means being on the top floor with the big kids, having the teacher she wanted and more freedom and responsibility for herself and her school work. Third graders earn a second grade buddy in the spring. She is even excited about the tests in March and April. The school makes a big fuss over the third through fifth graders during testing. She wants the fuss. Curious.

“Mom, can I add blank paper to my backpack tomorrow?”

“Mom, can we just play after school today?”

“Mom, can we just draw all day Saturday? Both of us at the kitchen table?”

The answers are, “YES!”

I see what is missing. I realize the social and academic bonuses to school but September always leaves me with the feeling that the hours of 8:50am to 3pm are an obstacle to my fun time with my kiddo. I grow accustomed by October. September is my transition month as the mom with a kid growing up, quickly. We will transition together. Read the rest of this entry »

11 Ideas for Creative Free Play

Creative Free Play Encourages Child’s Development

Puppetry can be the first step in a child developing story-telling skills. 

For many of us, our memories of childhood are filled with mud pies, wooden block castles, and games of house, and hide-and-seek. At the core of these common childhood activities is creativity and freedom – the elements of play that transforms it from a time-filler and kid-quietener into an opportunity for learning and discovery that knows no bounds. Creative free play is quite the opposite of the structured and prescriptive play afforded to children in certain settings and with defined materials. Generally sparked by a play environment filled with loose and/or adaptable materials, creative free play is both developmentally beneficial (for all ages) and incredibly engaging and exciting.

With the final weeks of summer upon us, families still have time to take advantage of school-free days stretched out before us. Summer, by August, may no longer be such a novelty to kiddos and enjoying its warmth and sunny days is now a matter of course rather than a treat. However, filling some of the summer’s last few days with opportunities for creative free play as a family will stimulate your collective creativity, curiosity, and enthusiasm. Of course, the nature of creative free play is such that the possibilities for engaging in it are completely endless. It can be nice, though, to have some suggestions and gentle guidance, and for this families need look no further than Hilltown Families contributing writer Carrie St. John’s monthly column, What to Play? Play Ideas for Family and Community. Read the rest of this entry »

What to Play? Make Your Own Toys!

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Getting back to creative basics, and making your own toys!

DIY toys stimulates creative free play. Make this cup & ball with materials you have at home! (Photo credit: Carrie St. John)

While looking for some DIY toys and games for my summer campers to make or design and to inspire play, I found a great book at Gabriel Books in Northampton, MA. John has amazing finds in his $1 box on the sidewalk. I am guessing these are the books he considers duds. Not his best sellers. They take up valuable shelf space. I frequently find good things in that box. I have never had it in me to be a tag sale person or thrift shop hunter but I love to stop and check on old books. This find, Easy-to-Make Old-Fashioned Toys by Eugene F. Provenzo, Jr., is dated in style and illustrations. It was published in 1979. I was 8 years old. I am dated, too. Read the rest of this entry »

What to Play? Summer is Time to Absorb the World

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Stories and Reading and Writing and Drawing

The flood of articles is out for the end of the school year. Summer reading. The percentage of material lost over the school vacation. Summer classes. Summer learning activities. Educational trips. I ask, “Is there a play solution to all these things we, as parents, are told to worry about during July and August?” Absolutely.

I believe summer vacation is vacation. A break from the routine of school. Time to be a kid. Time to explore your favorite things.

I have an avid reader. Books are the favorite free time activity at our house. The trick is to keep up with her. Library visits. Bookstore finds. Recommendations from friends.  Read the rest of this entry »

What to Play? Creative-Free Music Making!

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Make Some Noise

This month is dedicated to the younger set. All the big kids we know have baseball or track or bike rides with friends keeping them active in this warm weather. The toddlers and preK set are looking for things to explore and play with. How about some music/noise? Noise is always attractive to make when you are three. Noise brought outside however, is more attractive to the adults in the house!

Here is a plan for loud bead shakers:

Materials:

  • empty and dry small plastic water bottle from the recycling bin
  • various plastic and wooden beads
  • colored duct tape
  • 6 inch wooden dowel that fits snug in the open end of water bottle (sand the ends smooth)

Add a handful of various beads to the bottle. A funnel will help little ones get the beads in the small opening. We have found a mix of pony beads, wooden beads and fun decorator beads make the best noise. If needed, wrap a length of duct tape around one end of the dowel to secure a tight fit. Place the dowel completely into the opening of the bottle. If you push the dowel into the bottle an inch or two beyond the opening, that is okay. The dowel helps the beads rattle around and prevents beads from getting stuck in the opening. The final step is to cut a 6-8 inch length of duct tape and secure the dowel to the exterior of the bottle opening. SHAKE! This shaker is loud. Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Creative-Free Play in the Spring

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

April Showers

Spring. The peas are planted. The bulb flowers are starting to emerge. The kids are running out of school seeking the sun and fresh air. Mud. Worms. Puddles. Bugs. Green grass.

One of the best things my mom did for us was providing hours of unstructured free play. She gave us the gift of just being kids.

With this fresh, new season I am challenging you to head outside with the kids, but take nothing from inside. No toys. No sports equipment. Nothing. Snack before you go. At least for an hour or two, forget all the ideas that today’s kids need classes and team sports and organized fun and electronics. It is okay to get bored to the point that you need to hunt around and investigate your surroundings to occupy yourself. Some of the best memories from my childhood are wandering about with my brother exploring the creatures living in the creek, poking at things with sticks and sending leaves floating in the puddles after a heavy rain. We had a lot of free play time growing up in the countryside in the 70s. My mom never had to be reminded that kids need exercise and fresh air. Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Mix and Match Creatures

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Mix and Match Creatures

Mix & Match Creatures inspires creative free play while supporting quality family time!

We were spoiled over our February stay-cation. The end of a relaxed week brought 50+ temperatures and SUN. With books and beverages in hand we sat outside in February enjoying a warm-ish afternoon. Spring appeared to be on its way. We were fooled. The frigid, icy mornings returned with the restart of school. This put me over the edge. I am joining the throngs of other whiny voices waiting for warm breezes and lighter jackets. We were hibernating as much as possible.

The little one has also retreated to avoid going out. She is reading and drawing around the clock. Small breaks are only taken for food and to carry the cat around the house. He has convinced her he needs private transportation from her bed to his lounging spot in the living room. It is exactly like the Olivia Trains Her Cat book! I had no idea cats had this power over kids until now.

I love that she reads and draws but I would like to interact with my girl. What can I set up at the table to entice her into a little family time?  Mix and match creature drawings…

Let’s Play: Winter Flashlight Tag

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Tag in the Snowy Darkness

Looking for something to spark play and get you moving in the middle of a long, cold winter? How about flashlight tag… in the snow!

My daughter and I are finding it hard to get ourselves outside to play this month. The initial, “Yeah! It’s a snow day!” thrill is disappearing as the winter goes on. Sunny days and more hours of early daylight are fooling us into thinking we can try to head out minus the necessary hats, mittens and scarves. She has grown tired of the gear and bundling time needed to enjoy the cold and snow.

“Mom, we could just stay in to snuggle up to read or make something inside.”

“Kiddo, we should get a bit of fresh air. Let’s at least go for a walk or sled ride. I’ll pull you.”

The moans and groans commence.

So here I go. Time to add spark to a long, cold winter and get us moving. Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Favorite Reads Inspiring Creative-Free Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Favorite Books

I am currently working with a small and energetic group of 2 and 3 year-olds. Our daily routine involves lots of food, group activities and free play with the usual suspects—cars, babies, trains, play food and building toys. We have art time with play dough, paints and simple projects. And, of course, we all (including the 2 adults) need outside time to run and breathe in some fresh air before lunch and nap. The cold, cold days mean less time to run outside. There is only so longthose short legs can trudge through the snow piles and those tiny fingers can keep warm and dry. Everyone loves a snowy day but the frigid temps often take over.

We are constantly seeking new activities to spark play and imagination. We need to keep those minds and bodies engaged through the winter cold. I turn to favorite books to add surprise games. During the fall a train book slowly became a pre-nap favorite—The Goodnight Train by June Sobel. One little one insists upon it before a final heads down, blankets on and “Have a good sleep, everybody.” Like many children with favorite books, they have it memorized. If I skip a word or say the “Choo, Choo, Sleeeeep, Sleeeep” line with different emphasis they catch me. I like to change things up for my interest but not the kids…

Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Indoor Forts Inspiring Creative Free Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Pop-Up Forts

We celebrate Christmas with our extended family which means we pack suitcases, ship gifts and fly off to Grandma’s in Michigan the morning after school is out for winter break. This also means the break offers little down time for us, so I declare the weeks of December as our free time. We limit holiday gatherings and play dates to one a week. We say, “No way!” to the mall crowd. We carve out more time at home. We make time to sled, if the snow falls. There is definitely time to make a batch or two of our favorite holiday cookies. We have time to just be. We make sure to wander through downtown after dark to enjoy the people, lights and an ice cream at Herrell’s on a cold night. No rushing about… Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Drawing Pen Pals

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

More Free Drawing

My 74 year-old mother, who lives in Michigan, went through a very long hospital stay because of a hip replacement gone awry. She is too active to be confined for 3 months. My daughter and I thought about what we could do to keep grandma upbeat during her spring spent indoors. She came up with a brilliant idea one morning during breakfast while looking at a painting my mom made in high school. It hangs near the table. She zoomed off to her room and came back with a small blank notebook and a pencil. She started drawing and asked if I could mail it off to grandma with an envelope and postage for grandma to return it to us. Drawing pen pals. This started a very interesting exchange of images. I have just been the delivery person making post office runs until last week when the little purple notebook arrived once again from Michigan. For the first time in months, I looked inside. They have quite a visual conversation going. My mom draws what she see from her favorite chair or just doodles. It was fun to see that she still traces coins to get perfect circles. She did this when I was little. She still uses the v shape for birds flying in the distance. She draws things that she sees. She observes. My daughter just draws. A bit of everything and anything. Partial jokes coming from mustaches. Love for grandma. Her ant farm. Characters she imagines. I am more than happy to be the post office messenger for this drawing conversation going on between downtown Northampton and rural Michigan… Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Nature Based Play & Art in Autumn

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Searching for Fall

Scavenger hunts appear to be popular right now. They are being used for local fundraisers. They are mentioned on many television programs this fall. Local college groups are joining in. So we went on a nature scavenger hunt of sorts.

Head outside with the kids to hunt down the visual signs of fall with a mental list of outdoor things specific to the season. Brilliant red leaves. Acorn tops. Pine needles. Helicopter seed pods. Colorful fall flowers. After all your collecting, stop in the woods and make a nature collage on the ground. This took a bit of convincing at our house because this will not be permanent. There was a bit of concern about leaving our project behind…

Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Creative Ways to School & Back

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Silly Walks

We are in the routine now. School drop off. After school play dates. Homework. Dinner. Reading. Bedtime. That means we need to add a little silly play to our day.

The morning walks to school can be quiet. Northampton is just waking up. Shop owners are unlocking doors and unrolling awnings. We cross paths with the BID crew. We wave to the family and dog biking to their school. There is only light traffic on the streets. I added in a little play so my 8 year old walking partner can expel energy before arriving at school to focus on the day ahead. If I do something out of the blue, she will usually join in because I am being silly. Some mornings I start skipping up the hill to Main Street. Sometimes I close my eyes, grab her hand and say, “Lead me to the crosswalk.” She loves the days we bring the Razor and take turns riding. Mom on the scooter is entertaining. Last week we took giant steps to try for the fewest steps possible in one block.

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This started as morning play but gradually the walk home caught the sillies…

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Let’s Play: Organizing & Creating for Back-to-School

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Back to School: Free Draw & Planning

The family calendar.

My little one will be considered a big kid by school standards this September. As you enter second grade, the teachers no longer look for a parent at 3pm pickup for walkers. The kids file out of the classroom, down the hallways and burst out the doors onto the playground—free! No one checks to see that my girl has an adult. Yikes! A new fall plan will be in place just in case I am running a minute late. Fall plans are also in the works just to keep us running as smooth and stress free as possible…

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Let’s Play: Water Paints

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Water Paints

Heat advisories. Pop-up thunderstorms. Summer vacations and summer stay-cations. We have been seeking projects and play that are low key and relaxing on a hot summer day;  projects that involve family interactions while being indoors near a fan, out of the summer sun and downpours!

In my search for projects for a summer art program, I came across a water color paint recipe. We have tried to concoct our own from a stack of recipes. Many are just not quiet right. The recipe found at the link above solves many of the problems we have encountered…

Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Simple Games & Storytelling

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Simple Games

A favorite game, Guess Which Hand, can be used to help tell stories, promoting childhood literacy! Choose a tiny object that has a special family memory or something fun to start a story about your day as a parent…

We recently attended literacy night at our school. My little one enjoys any and all extra free time with friends on school grounds. Whatever the activity, she loves to go. She asks to go to PTO meetings. It means time being silly in school running about and connecting with friends from other grades. Literacy night was perfect for her. Many friends from class, a storyteller/musician and to make it perfect—the parents were ushered into another room to hear from a literacy expert. Parent free silly time.

While the kids heard fantastic tales and played instruments in a very interactive experience (we could hear them across the school), the parents were reminded of early literacy basics such as daily reading with our children and practicing language skills at home. The imagination and ideas that result from reading stories together help in so many areas of early learning. We were given a bit of parent homework on literacy at various stages. I’ll add it to my summer reading and research stack. I try to leave events like this with one item to work on. One thing is manageable. More can be too much during the crazy end of school year rush. One extra on top of culture night, science fair and field day. The facilitator’s point that resonated with me this night—the average child only experiences 3 minutes of one on one, eye to eye conversations each day. The reminders to empty backpacks and put dirty clothes in the hamper do not count. She was talking about real one on one conversations about your day, friends or the playground happenings. Time where you both sit and truly listen to each other. I can top 3 minutes.

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Let’s Play: Sunflower & Popcorn Houses

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Families in the Dirt

This summer we are taking a break from the usual planting and growing of beans, pumpkins,  squash and salad greens.  This year we’re making plans to grow a Popcorn House! (Photo credit: Carrie St. John)

Snow pants, boots and mittens be gone! It’s time for sunny afternoons and mud pies after a spring rain. Outdoor clean up. Digging. Rakes. Water. Hoses. Sticks. Rocks. Shovels. Mud. Now that the younger ones are completely engrossed in dirt play, encourage the older kids to put down their devices and join you for fresh air and sunshine. Their play job this month is to help you design and plant a sunflower house.

The Story of the Sunflower House

Wondering what a sunflower house is? Here is an excerpt from Inspiration from the Garden: Sunflower Houses, a Book for Children and Their Grown-ups by Sharon Lovejoy that shares the story:

In early summer, my mother would wake us up with ‘Get up you sleepyheads, today’s the day!’ and we would get out of bed and pull on our clothes. We didn’t even want to eat breakfast, but she would make us sit down and take our time. It all served to heighten the excitement. We couldn’t wait to get outside. Chores done, watering can and stick in tow, we would head outside and take time choosing the best, flattest, sunniest spot in our garden. Then the work would begin. Mother would use the stick to trace out a large rectangle, usually about 6 by 9 feet, leaving a small opening for a doorway. She would drag the stick along the ground and gouge out a trench a couple of inches deep. My little sister and brother would trail behind and drop in seeds. John would drop in a big, fat sunflower seed; daintily, my sister would tuck in a ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glory seed. I would trudge along behind them lugging the huge tin watering can. I’d use my foot to knock the earth back over the seeds and then I’d give them a small drink of water. Every day one of us would have the chore of walking that rectangle of land and giving a drink of water to the sleeping seeds. We all hoped to be the one to discover the first awakening green heads that poked through the soil. Once the green of the sunflowers peeked through the earth, we became even more interested in our growing playhouse. Usually, we would each water the plot once a day. Soon flowers were climbing skyward and the ‘Heavenly Blue’ morning glories were wrapping their tendrils around the stalk and heading upward too. I’ll tell you there was nothing like crawling through the door of that playhouse and lying on the ground looking up through the incredible lacework of vines and flowers. I guess you could say I spent the best days of my childhood playing, dreaming and sleeping in that little shelter.

The Story of the Popcorn House

My daughter and I planned a slightly different version for our garden—a Popcorn House. Japanese Hulless Popcorn. This year we are taking a break from the usual beans, pie pumpkins, summer squash and salad greens. We have loofah seedlings, hibiscus tea sprouts, wine cap mushroom spawn in our fridge and various flower seeds waiting for warmer days. So why not plant our own popcorn? We saved a space 10 by 20 feet for the Popcorn House.

The entrance will be slightly hidden by a verbena and sunflower border. Verbena has gorgeous, delicate purple flowers with brilliant, green stems and attracts many varieties of butterflies. A mix of ornamental sunflowers (sun samba), giant sunflowers (sunzilla) and a summer mix of bright yellow, red and orange sunflowers will help create the outer wall with the rows of popcorn.

My daughter requested a secret space in the center where she can dig, collect outdoor things and have tree stump seats. Her inner space will also have a carpet of fresh straw to keep the weeds down. The process involves a lot of patience waiting for everything to grow. Hopefully the excitement of warmer weather, planting and planning will help with the waiting for warm summer days playing in the popcorn house while mom weeds and waters the veggies.

April Collections

  • Seeds of choice
  • Outdoor buckets
  • Shovels
  • Water & Dirt

April Book Resources

April Web Resources


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie continues to do freelance work for clients here and in Chicago.

Let’s Play: Keeping the Childhood Love of Drawing Alive!

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Free Draw for Free Play

For a few years I was experimenting with effective drawing projects and trying to spread a love and excitement for art with college freshman. I asked each new group of students why they came to art school and why they thought friends stopped drawing and making things. Some had never thought about it. It was just what they did. They assumed others felt the same way whether they majored in art or biology or English. It just happened. Once or twice a semester there would be an 18 year old that honestly sought out art. They lived it. They grew up surrounded by art. They went to museums with their families. They read art theory books. They could not imagine life without it in some way. Those were the challenging ones. I had to be ready for them each class. They were beyond the basics of learning perspective and balance. I had to amaze and inspire them. These few were also the most thoughtful about the path that brought them to art school. They remembered a moment or time from childhood that making things became a part of their everyday. Usually at a young age—by third or fourth grade, adults or peers went out of the way to praise their drawing efforts. The book Drawing With Children also mentions this and goes deeper into the how and why. The children without that encouragement stopped and focused on other pursuits. This saddens me that the childhood love of making can easily disappear without peer approval. I am a true believer that anyone can learn to draw with practice. Not everyone will have a solo show in NYC but you can learn to observe and draw a tree in your yard or love to create just for the sake of creating.

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This month I challenge you to keep the childhood love of drawing alive at your house. Get big paper. Tape it down to that end of the table where the papers of life and random toys usually stack up by the end of the week. Clean those off first. Leave the paper there for at least a week. Put out a box of pencils and markers. Make a mark or two if the kids at your house need a jump start. Draw anything. Paste down a photo of grandma’s head and draw her a new crazy body. Give her a lion’s tail or bunny ears. Watch to see what happens. Eliminate judgements on others’ creations. Don’t go crazy with praise or comparisons. Make drawing something you just do at your house—a part of every day. Hopefully with a tiny bit of effort on your part the kids will make it past the third grade wall where many stop the making.

March Collections

  • Big sheets of paper (at least 30×40 inches). Check your local art supply for the good quality heavier weights or pick up a roll of kid easel paper.
  • pencils, crayons, markers, & color pencils.
  • A big, flat surface to leave work out on, such as a spot on the floor or the dining room table.

March Book Resources

The following children’s books by Peter H. Reynolds are some of our favorites. They will bring a new light to your idea of what drawing and painting are about.

March Web Resources


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie continues to do freelance work for clients here and in Chicago.

Let’s Play: Guerrilla Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Play it Forward

This month we need to spread the play. It’s cold out. People are looking for signs of spring. I think families can brighten a little corner of our world with kindness and have great fun doing it.

Many people are helping neighbors near and far. Knitters have made blanket squares for victims of Super Storm Sandy (Knit Sandy). Many observed the National Day of Service in honor of Martin Luther King (Spreading Kindness). Small gestures are made numerous times a day that can brighten an afternoon such as holding a door for a delivery man loaded high with packages, helping your child’s teacher with a special project or shoveling the neighbor’s walk. We decided to spread play in our community.

I mentioned yarn bombing in my column last year. Those wacky knitters provide the public with visual interest and color in unexpected places. Knitted items pop up over night. Yarn bombers spread creativity, art, beauty and ideas. Technically yarn bombing is an act of graffiti. Northampton frequently removes it from the main areas downtown. We decided to start making Play Bombs! Can play bombs be illegal? I hope not. We have been leaving finger puppets, tiny toys and bouncing balls around Northampton on and off for months now. Have you found a paper puppet in your stroller? Or a tiny purple spider on the jungle gym? Maybe a felt bunny on the chair at a local coffee shop? We try to be subtle and act as if we accidentally left an item behind, as subtle as you can be with a 7 year old excited about leaving surprises for other children to discover. Each has a little note so people know there is no need to look for the owner. You can brighten the faces of kids in an after school program by dropping off something as simple as a box of paper airplanes. Are the neighbor kids home with the flu? Leave a box of hearts to cut out with scissors and glue on the front steps. It’s easy and can quickly bring a smile. Just don’t get caught. Play bombing is much more fun, if it is secret.

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Help us spread some play this month. I have links below for more ideas and examples of random acts of kindness.

February Resources


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie continues to do freelance work for clients here and in Chicago.

Let’s Play: Great Day for Snow Play!

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Go Out in the Snow a Bit Each Day!

It’s a great day to get out into the snow!  Just add kids and go!  But before you head out, prepare so as to optimize the fun! Set up a healthy snack for the kids to energize and hydrate, then have them take a bathroom break BEFORE getting dressed in their winter gear. While they eat, gather up the warm clothes by the door. Layers. No cotton. Wool and other fibers are warmer. Long underwear. Turtlenecks. Sweaters. Snow pants. Snow jacket. Warm socks. Waterproof boots. Winter hats. Warm mittens you can tuck up into the jacket sleeves. And extra mittens to swap out when the first pair gets wet. When its really cold, add a neck warmer and leg warmers. Cover all the skin you can in layers. Then open the door and let ‘em out… and the kids will just play!

Snow has a magic effect. There are the traditional snowy day activities. Sledding. Slipping and sliding on patches of ice. Climbing snow hills. Building a snow person. Walking through the drifts. A snowball fight. Constructing a snow fort or igloo. Making snow angels. For variety, as the winter lingers on, present some other options.

  • Paint Snow: Fill spray or squirt bottles with water and food coloring to paint in the snow (Avoid spraying each other as food coloring can stain.).
  • Build Winter Fairy Houses: Build mini houses with icicles for walls. They can be houses for snow fairies similar to summer time fairy stick houses.
  • Make Mini Snow People: Use snowballs and tiny foods like raisins and nuts for faces and toothpicks for arms for mini snow people.
  • Blow Bubbles: Blow bubbles on a cold, cold day. They freeze.
  • Hula Hoop: Have a hula hoop contest dressed in all those layers.
  • Flashlight Tag: It gets dark early, so consider a game of flashlight tag before dinner.
  • Box Sled: Use a cardboard box or trash can lid for a sled.
  • Tracking: Go on a hunt for animal tracks in the snow.
  • Indoor Snow Bin: IF it gets too cold outside, bring a plastic bin of snow inside to play. Add a few action figures, toy trees and some ice cubes or sugar cubes for building and pretend to have a tiny winter landscape inside.

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Enjoy the season!

January Collections

We are always collecting and saving items in bins and on shelves for creative projects. This month add a few things to enhance snow play:

  • spray or squirt bottles
  • food coloring
  • flattened cardboard boxes and large trash can lids make great sleds
  • traditional summer playthings like bubbles or a hula hoop
  • large plastic bin to bring snow inside

Related Post: 9 Resources for Surviving & Thriving the Winter in Western Massachusetts


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie is a licensed family care provider and continues to do freelance work for clients in Chicago.

Let’s Play: Stories from Family Holidays to Inspire Creative Free Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Stories To Inspire Creative Free Play

I was a bit of a geek as a teen so homework was completed right after school, part time job on weekends and just a handful of close friends. I spent a fair amount of free time at my older siblings’ houses playing with their kids. It was a blessing to be a part of their childhoods. I had part time, little siblings that were really my niece and nephews.

I learned a great parenting lesson from my oldest sister, Penny, nearly 25 years ago. She dives right into the winter holidays the day after Thanksgiving. She has an incredible collection including a wall of elves, a near life size snowman, a shelf of angels and a cabinet filled with Rudolph, Frosty, Grinch and Little Cindy Lou Who and all the other television characters we grew up with in the 70s and the Nativity. She makes the tree a family showcase with ornaments made over 20 years ago my her children. Holiday fills their home. When my nephew, now a college graduate and police officer, was 3 or 4 years old, she started a grand tradition that fed perfectly into his love of stories, play and imagination. A mysterious elf visited the house. The elf made tiny foot prints, ate cookies and left surprises. This was well before the current Elf on the Shelf craze. My sister created the fantasy he craved. Stories were told. Questions asked and answers often came on the fly to continue the magic of the elf for a very curious little boy. No one ever saw this elf. He came and went under the dark of night. Andrew never needed to actually see him. The stories alone kept the elf active and alive through December.

The excitement and mystery my sister created for my nephew is something I try to add to our house now. Plant a seed. Put a mind to work on the possibilities. Watch the love of a good story. Create fantasy. Give childhood a bit of magic.

What a great time of year to tell stories! Share family stories. What was this time of year like when you were little? What holidays did you celebrate? What special activities did you do? Boost family memories by telling stories about a special day spent together. Create new mysteries and adventures. What if Jack Frost did paint the windows with snowflakes? What does he look like? How does he get around the earth? Spark ideas to get your little ones telling stories and playing fantasy games. Storytelling improves vocabulary, writing and spelling. It’s fun. Stories can lead to hours of pretend play with parents, siblings, friends and visiting cousins using dress up, toy people, construction toys and tiny animals. Stories encourage children to create images in their minds bringing the story to life. Make illustrations! All ages can create stories with spoken words, drawings or detailed written tales.

December Collections

We are always collecting and saving items in bins and on shelves for creative projects. This month maybe games or a book or two related to story telling and a game to spark an idea:

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December Resources


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie is a licensed family care provider and continues to do freelance work for clients in Chicago.

Let’s Play: Simple Play at the Table

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Where did all the play go? Am I the only parent that is mourning its loss?

The new math makes sense to me. I read Old Dogs, New Math: Homework Help for Puzzled Parents last winter after a friend with middle school aged children mentioned the math concepts coming my way. I like to be prepared. Current reading readiness makes sense. At first I was a bit surprised by the way letter formation and penmanship is introduced in kindergarten—broken down into simple strokes and marks—no letters. I came from the generation of blue, lined practice paper with dashes mid way to mark the height of lower care letters and teachers that loved red marks. I decided to watch and wait. It worked. So far I am on board and enjoying the elementary school experience with my daughter.

BUT. The new lack of recess time does not make sense to me. I know. I am about to use the “when I was a kid” story opener. In my hometown of 10,000 in rural Michigan, we had recess three times a day. Fresh air, running, swinging, jump rope, four square, tag, climbing tunnels, slides and kickball during sun, drizzle and cold. They even allowed us to run around and play good guys vs. bad guys. Play and social time. We had routines (which many children thrive on) that moved us throughout the day from math to reading to recess to music to lunch to recess to art to science to recess and gym. Concentrated times to focus on classroom tasks and ample time to run and be kids. Recess is down to once a day during the short lunch break. Some classrooms are lucky enough to earn extra outside time with a reward system based on classroom behavior. Generally children have only 15 to 20 minutes of free play during a six hour day.

There are many reasons for the cut backs in recess time. Curriculum requirements seem to be at the top of the list along with those tests every one mumbles about. There are many studies out there that I have yet to read and theories I add to my research pile each year. I have read on the importance of play and its POSITIVE impact on all areas of learning. I have yet to come across an article telling how bad play is for children. Play causes enjoyment while promoting creativity, socialization, storytelling, reasoning, working out solutions in play situations with peers and simple fun. All these things and more enhance day to day learning. There is no need to mention how much easier it can be for children and adults to focus on a set task after a bit of exercise and fun. You can get the wiggles out and then tackle a book with new vocabulary or a complicated word problem.

I am not looking for a set answer. The world has changed. Children have changed. I just think it is important to take notice of our children, their school days and their play.

“… children are not one-dimensional, nor does their development proceed along a well-defined path. Everything we add to the mix along with play further advances learning. Drawing, clay, books, music, games and dance suggest but a few areas of enrichment. However, it is the child’s ability to play in a sustained manner that makes sense to other children, which opens the gates to all other pathways.” —Sara Smilansky, research in academic readiness

We can all add play into our lives at home but our time at home is filling up. Art and music exposure is limited at school as well as other enrichment offerings. Can today’s parent squeeze all this in at home to compensate for things lost during the busy school day and still maintain a calm household? I am trying. Play is important at our house. The trick is making it part of the home routine while avoiding the over scheduled household crazies.

November Collections and Projects

This month our collections are easy for some simple play at the table. Grab the paints, markers, crayons, paper and pencils. If you happen to have feathers and goggle eyes, put those out with the glue. Make hand turkeys. Have the kids sign and date them. We make one each year and save it. Very fun to compare the version from November 2005 when my daughter was just a month old to this year’s version done completely solo. When she was so tiny, I painted each finger a different color with non-toxic tempera paints. Her palm was painted brown and I pressed it into the paper. Turkey print. Clean up was easy with a few baby wipes. After it was dry, I added a beak, eye and legs with a black marker. The waddle was done in red marker.

For those of you that like to play with your food, pick up a few extra apples for apple turkeys. This link was sent to me by a family friend after I sent out a Facebook post encouraging everyone to make hand turkeys this month. An excellent sculpture. She made a similar apple turkey as a child. The supply list might include tooth picks, marshmallows, raisins, cranberries and gum drops in addition to the apple. An updated version might have kale or spinach for tail feathers mixed with carrot or celery sticks, a date for a head and dried blueberry eyes with a carrot waddle. Maybe some popcorn feathers. Admire him a bit, take a photo and then have a healthy snack. A perfect use for those delicious, local Honey Crisp apples.

Two ideas that encourage my favorite kid activities—art making and fun food. Have fun and enjoy your kids.

November Resources:


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie is a licensed family care provider and continues to do freelance work for clients in Chicago.

Let’s Play: Alternate Identities

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Alternate Identities: Masks

I know a 7 year old that loves to dress up. She rarely wears her star covered, super hero cape to school these days (peer pressure). She does continue to pop out of her room on a Saturday afternoon dressed in a cobalt blue, sequin covered leotard, felt crown and flower twirl skirt to prance around the house and then heads out to hang from the monkey bars in full frilly attire.

October is the month for her, planning Halloween costumes weeks in advance. Last year’s mummy outfit was drawn and re-drawn many times in the design phase. I was given detailed instructions when it came to my part of sewing and construction. It had to have a pink bow so everyone knew it was a girl mummy. The mask was the key to the entire suit. She loves to conceal her identity. This year’s diagram mapped out a vampire from head to toe. Each part labeled with colors.

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Scary. Funny. Shocking. Disgusting. Evil. Silly. Horrid. It is fun to hide behind a mask. Join in. Dress up. Run around acting out a story. Disguise your voice. Pretend for a bit. Masks can be as simple as an eye patch, a little makeup or an over-sized animal nose. It magically takes very little to alter who we are.

What to Collect

The fun of dressing up and make believe need not end on November 1st. Carry it through the year by keeping a dress up corner or a bin with masks, funny glasses and hats.

  • Paper in all colors and sizes.
  • Paper plates for starter masks.
  • Elastic string for headbands.
  • Colored duct tape by the roll (it also comes in sheets for crafting).
  • Basic craft store eye masks to embellish.
  • Box of feathers.
  • Ribbons and yarns for mask hair.
  • Paints and glue.

Resources

Online

  • Paper Plate Animal Crafts – Some of these are not intended as masks but it is an easy step to cut out holes for eyes. An elastic strap can be added or a wooden paint stir stick as a handle.

Books

Knitting Patterns


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie is a licensed family care provider and continues to do freelance work for clients in Chicago.

Let’s Play: Collages

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Crazy Collage

I have a kid that craves creative time whether it be playing or making things. We added a leisure, table centered art project to our mix this fall. Something to do while dinner finishes up or we are discussing tomorrow’s plans and schedule. A chance to sit and unwind. Simple. Fun. Silly. Crazy collage. (photo credit: Carrie St. John)

Our days have changed. School routines. September is in full swing. Fall is definitely here.

I put a bit of effort into keeping our days calm. Chaos be gone. Life brings enough automatically. Last year at this time I was chatting with another parent at school pick up. I commented on how busy, crazy and rushed days became after my daughter entered kindergarten full time. This is a parent I have know for a few years and she always appears to have it all under control. That afternoon I realized one reason why. Her response to me was, “This is the new normal. The school normal. We just go with it and do what we can but not too much.” These thoughts come back to me when work piles up, school events and volunteering snowball and parties and sleepover requests come at us non-stop—times when we are seeking moments of calm.

Summer is perfect for us. I have the luxury of adjusting my work schedule to enjoy it with my little one. There is time to wander, dinner time is relaxed indoors or out and time to play is abundant. How can we bring our slower summer days into our hectic school days? Some calm into this new normal?

Here are steps I have taken. There is always time to play for 20 minutes after school. We limit the extra curricular activities to one a season at most. We eat diner together at the table to talk about our days. I sit at the table and catch up on my mom things while homework is completed. I aim to only volunteer for what I can do while keeping home sane and/or we work on a school volunteer project together.

I have a kid that craves creative time whether it be playing or making things. We added a leisure, table centered art project to our mix this fall. Something to do while dinner finishes up or we are discussing tomorrow’s plans and schedule. A chance to sit and unwind. Simple. Fun. Silly. Crazy collage. Gather up the junk mail, catalogs and magazines. Grab a scissor and a glue stick. Cut out fun and interesting people, animals and objects. Collage them together to make a story or just a wacky picture of an alien dog with twenty eyes and people shoes. Simple. No prep time. Clean up  just means tossing the paper scraps back in the recycling.

Check out the links below for more ideas. Older kids can make a book mark for a favorite bedtime chapter book or a notebook cover collage to liven up their school supplies. Enjoy.

What to Collection

We are always collecting and saving items in bins for creative projects and play. This month add in collage materials such as junk mail, magazine and catalog images, greeting cards, paper bits, stickers, etc… Pages and sheets can easily be stored in a large zip lock or flat shirt sized box/bin. Glue sticks for the younger set and Mod Podge with a small paint brush for the big kid. This is also a great time of year, as the seasons change, to look for paper shape punches on sale.

I am also going to suggest exactly what many teachers and schools are hoping for with busy school days. Try to make a special spot for your child to have as a work space. Their own space for creative pursuits like drawing and for homework. A place he or she can get to work when they need to without interruption to set up a routine and spread the stuff they need.

Resources


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie is a licensed family care provider and continues to do freelance work for clients in Chicago.

Let’s Play: Special Places

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Clubhouses, Forts, Tents & Hideouts

Two summers ago Forbes Library in Northampton had this incredible wooden house on the front lawn just outside the Children’s Department. The installation was called “Little House to Honor a Request for Poems: A Traveling Writing Hut” and was installed by Plainfield, MA artists/husband/wife team, Gene and Susan Flores. Visitors were encouraged to go in, hide out and write or draw a little something to hang up and share. We made repeat visits over the summer. It was just steps from West Street and the busy intersection at Rt 9 but entering inside transported us to a secret, special place. The size was perfect. The walls were made of horizontal wood slats alternating with branches. Sunlight and shadows made stripes on the floor. You could see out and pedestrians could catch glimpses inside. There was a desk with pencils and paper and a stool facing the entry. Simple furnishings. We talked about that little house for months.

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Visiting that house put us on a search for the perfect playhouse. My daughter is always searching for a space of her own to hide out with friends, play out of adult ear shot, read books or draw secretly. Some days that three foot space at the end of the couch hidden in the corner is just perfect. Other days she hides out under the dining room table she asks to have covered with blankets, or she disappears up onto her bunk bed. Last year we added a fabric tent cover over the bed to make a bed cave. The idea of that wooden house at the library kept coming back. Last winter I called my construction minded older brother (He built his own house 20 years ago.) and we made plans over the phone. We have this 4×4 space in the playroom nestled between 2 closets. My dad and I built a free standing loft for my college dorm. I understood the basics. My brother checked and re-checked for safety. “Make sure she can jump up and down without it moving an inch.” That 4×4 space became our indoor, two-level clubhouse complete with trap door. Finally, her own little wooden house.

Summer came and my daughter was seeking that same secret space in the garden. We had been to the North Amherst Community Farm to take a Compost Worms for Kids class. During the break they encouraged kids to explore their children’s garden. The outdoor teepee covered in flowering vines was everyone’s first stop. I put my thinking cap back on for the prefect outdoor playhouse. This spring I made her a teepee from bamboo poles and twine. She asked to plant peas, green beans and flowers. I added in a clematis vine to fill in a shady area over the next few summers. A neighbor offered a tree stump from the October storm for a seat. We did it. The outdoor clubhouse was complete.

This need for a space of her own is strong at our house. I understand. I had this same feeling as a kid. My brother and I would walk back to the woods behind our house to look for spaces to set up camp. I would climb the giant pine trees behind the house to disappear at times. Kids need their own space to be kids. Why not encourage it? My daughter can disappear into her space after a big day at school and pop out 20 minutes later refreshed and ready to go. She fills her clubhouse with favorite toys, books and drawings. There are imaginary games, elaborate toy setups and simple down time. I only go in when invited or to hand off snacks. Whether a temporary blanket tent or a more permanent structure, it is just HER space to play!  Read the rest of this entry »

Let’s Play: Tactile Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Kid Goop and Tactile Play

Download these Kid Goo Recipes. (Photo credit: Carrie St. John)

Messy. Yes. But icky, goopy, slimey, mucky, slushy, gooey, mushy, sticky, yucky play is so fun.

My favorite part of messy play—it is inexpensive and open ended. We can gather a few simple ingredients, use containers from the recycle bin for storage and work on following a recipe all in the name of fun. There is color mixing, watching what happens when wets are added to drys and experimenting. Kids can make sculptures, build structures, use toy animals with goop and just mush it around. All ages can play. Messy play encourages fine motor skills and uses the senses of sight and touch simultaneously while exploring and discovering different materials. These are educational advantages, but honestly, goopy mess is just great summer fun!  Here are several ideas for tactile play this summer:

  • PLAY DOUGH: Our first homemade messy thing was play dough. I volunteered to make play dough for the Northampton Parents Center when my daughter was little. Swansea (NPC Director) gave us the recipe they use. Great stuff. Soft and smooth. Not the salty, dry stuff I made as a kid. This recipe lasts for weeks. Choosing the color is always fun. Watch out for brown and black. They turn to look quite disgusting after being cooked and cooled. At that age of 2 to 3 years, we played play dough non stop. Cutting it. Rolling it. Squeezing it. Trying to make puppy dogs and snowmen. My daughter was addicted.
  • FACE PAINT: For another event at the parent center we researched non-toxic face paint. My little one has always had sensitive skin so it made sense to make it at home and know all the ingredients. I found a face paint recipe that came off easily. You can make any color you can imagine with a bit of mixing. Though not as stable as the store version, we know what it contains and can wipe it off with no harsh scrubbing.
  • GAK: We acquired our gak recipe at a friend’s 5 year birthday party last spring. They had little puddles of gak out on low tables with chairs for the kids. The kids could not put it down until cake time (Cake always wins!). This was the best gak I had ever used. Great consistency. I had to ask for the recipe. It is easy to make and very kid friendly—no heat required. You can make it and use it within minutes (Thank you to Theo and Karen for the great party and recipe.).
  • BUBBLES: Bubbles. I don’t think I need to explain this any further. Kids like bubbles. They make us all giggle and run to catch them.
  • CHALK AND PAINT: Paints and chalk. I admit store versions are easier. We make them simply because we can. A project to do together on a rainy day or to take outside to work larger than life on the sidewalk and driveway. Watercolors. Finger paints. Liquid tempera paint from the store (A note on tempera paint. It is worth seeking out the good stuff from an art supply store. The colors are bolder and it dries nicer on the paper. But is can be harder to wash out.). — My favorite thing about paint is that you can get a big brush, some paper and go. Nothing needs to be perfect. Make marks. Splatter dots. Thin it down and use paint in a spray bottle. A fun thing to try—draw with chalk on paper first and then paint with watercolors on top. Lay it flat to dry. The chalk repels the paint in some places and mixes in others. Color mixing. Paint is excellent for experimenting with colors.

KID GOO RECIPES

I’ve created a PDF of recipes for readers to download: Kid Goo Recipes. They are set up four, to a page similar to traditional recipe cards. You can print both pages and cut them into a total of 8 separate cards or leave them as 8.5″ x 11″ size and slide them into a protective sleeve. Store the recipes in a craft binder or your play dough bin. Included are gak, slime, play dough, bubbles, various paints and chalk. We have made them all, altered some a touch, and enjoyed the process from recipe to play. Please help your young ones when heating ingredients. Try some recipes. Sit back and watch the fun.

COLLECTIONS

We are always collecting and saving items in bins for creative projects and play. Try to keep a few bins of supplies within your child’s reach. Here are some ideas for your play dough bin.

  • cookie cutters—any seasonal cutters at end of season sales, the small ones meant for play dough, and simple shapes—circles, stars, hearts
  • rolling pins—small sizes to fit kid hands, a 6 to 8 inch piece of one inch wooden dowel works great, maybe a scrap of plastic pipe
  • scissors—have a spare scissor or two set aside with the goop recipes, it is fun to cut play dough and gak

RESOURCES

You can also search these sites for more tactile recipes and ideas:


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie is a licensed family care provider and continues to do freelance work for clients in Chicago.

Let’s Play: Miniature Playhouses & Creative Free Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Tiny Playhouses

There are playhouses we imagine and run to gather supplies for. Some are played with for hours and hours. Some made and forgotten by afternoon. Some re-emerge weeks later.

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The Smurf cottage made from an empty oatmeal container and paper bowls gets mixed with horse barns and Rapunzel’s tower. They can all be neighbors. Some we never actually play with like the fairy houses in the woods. Those are left for nature’s creatures and other kids to stumble upon. I have been told that every garden needs a tiny house for gnomes. There are playhouses we dream of having after reading a book. A tiny, tiny house under the floor boards with multiple rooms and all of life’s necessities for the three inch tall people to inhabit it. Chapter books create amazing daydreams. There are miniature playhouses we acquire over the years from wooden castles to a plastic replica of the Hall of Justice.

So much story creation and play comes with these tiny houses. I wonder if my maternal grandfather knew how much my sisters and I used the doll house he made from a spare bookcase. Three girls over a span of ten years. He added room dividers, wallpaper, paint, trims and magazine images cut out for framed pictures on the walls. Fisher Price people, Thumbelina and the Sunshine Family (My mom did not allow Barbies. She was not fond of the enhanced figures.) could all fit. Why didn’t we ever take pictures of that house? Our current version is a bit more modern and simple but I think he would have approved.

A leftover box from a delivery can be just right to get play started. Draw a window, cut a door or string a curtain. Tiny playhouses offer a place to escape. A spot that can instantly be altered. Maybe a familiar house that is comforting with the same tiny animals and people day after day or multiple cereal boxes for houses, barns or castles can become a village, city or town to altered overtime. A small, empty box turned bad guy hideout can be carried along for a summer camping trip. A square of gray print fabric transforms a table top into the moon.

Leave out some supplies. Older kids can make a house to match a current favorite book or movie. Try new materials. Create a paper clay igloo formed over a bowl for an Arctic adventure. Cut triangles of cardboard and tape together for an Egyptian model. Introduce your favorite toddler to playhouses by cutting a door in an empty shoe box and adding a paper roof.

RESOURCES

Web sites like madebyjoel.com and thetoymaker.com have some great readymade templates to just print, cut and tape for instant lodging. Have fun.

WHAT TO COLLECT

  • We are always collecting and saving items in bins for creative projects and play. Try to keep a few bins of supplies within your child’s reach.
  • Empty food boxes—cereal, oats, cans that those preformed, salty chips come in, paper or plastic picnic bowls and cups

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie is a licensed family care provider and continues to do freelance work for clients in Chicago.

Let’s Play: Monsters and Creative Free Play

What to Play? by Carrie St. John

Monsters

Here are the results of my very informal pole of 5 kids on the subject of monsters: Monsters bite. They are white. No hair. Teeth. They live in caves. Monsters bite everything. Nice monsters don’t bite. They are small, tiny. Why? Because they are monsters. Monsters are brown, purple and pink. Two eyes. Five feet. Ten arms and hands. As tall as a mom (This mom must have a side I have not seen.). They live in a house but the house hopped away. A monster house. Monsters eat seaweed and water. Red eyes are creepy. They have no toys. The babies are born brown. The interesting contribution by our 10 year old neighbor, “There is a potty monster. If you make a mess in there or have an accident the monster eats you up.” Monsters are cute and fuzzy. Some mean. Some nice. I like the nice. They are weird, hairy creatures that crawl into your brain and make you hallucinate.

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My daughter and I did a bit of brainstorming over breakfast. What monsters could we make? My idea for a bubble monster was shot down. “Mom that is not scary. It would just be cute. All a kid would do is pop it and then no more monster.” My idea was blow away by six year old logic. We worked out that swamp monsters had to be super slimy, green and brown and that they only could be out at night. Cute and fuzzy colorful monsters are not really monsters. They are something else that we could not really label.

Monsters started being of interest with us around age two. The idea comes and goes. We always made it fun, read stories and talked about them being pretend. I like to think this helped us escape the idea of monsters under the bed or in the closet. A fear of monsters never became an issue. We had a crazy phase at age 3 where each night after dinner was spent drawing monster after monster after monster. The idea recently came back so we decided to make a mural and work on it together. We started by taping a long strip of 18 inch wide paper to the bottom of our chalkboard (this is a hollow core door on its side painted with chalkboard paint). I added a few items while my daughter was at school. Just enough to get her thinking. I put out a few monster related books. We went a bit crazy with coloring book cutouts, drawings, paper mountains, a paper city and a cardboard house. We needed the house so we could tackle the idea of monsters under the bed. We found some glow in the dark monster stickers. Lucky find. We went super crazy with making all 50 paper monsters in the book Papertoy Monsters by Castleforte. That was a feat and took far too much time over six days. We had fun but the mom list of to-dos was pushed aside a little too long. A good lesson for me that sometimes play just has to win out over all the other stuff. Along the way many ideas were explored, talked through and played out. Monsters eating dollhouse people. Bloody teeth drawn in. Monsters devouring Northampton at night. Monster teachers that say mean things to kids. Monster food that eats you from the inside out. Today after school a friend joined her and made the monsters eat up my old Jawa action figures from 30 years ago.

We were elaborate. Not necessary. Making a mural at home can be very simple. Big paper, crayons, markers and ideas. On a sunny day, you could head outside with chalk for the driveway. It always amazes me how putting out a few simple supplies and talking out an idea or two can lead to hours of play and making. For younger children it might be fun to just trace them on paper and use markers or paints to turn them into monsters. Maybe some giant eyes, pink claws and yarn hair to add on. Older children could make a monster book with drawings and a short story or they could add comic strip word bubbles to a mural to tell a story. Have fun.

Resources

Collections

We are always collecting and saving items in bins for creative projects and play. Try to keep a few bins of supplies within your child’s reach.

  • a roll of white paper—this comes in various sizes and can easily be found where they sell kid art easels
  • stickers—all kinds from animals to people to buildings
  • tape—colored tapes, scotch tape, masking tape

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carrie St. JohnCarrie St. John

Carrie was born, raised and attended university in Michigan. As a child she rode bikes and explored her rural neighborhood freely with siblings and neighbor kids. Mom and Dad never worried. The kids always made it home after hours wading in the creek and climbing trees in the woods. After college she moved to Kyoto, Japan to study traditional Japanese woodblock printing. In 1995, she began a career at a small Chicago firm designing maps and information graphics. Life brought a move to Northampton in 2001. Carrie completed her MFA at UMass in 2004. Her little love, Sophia, was born in 2005. The two live in downtown Northampton where they constantly make things, look forward to morning walks to school and plan each spring for additions to their plot at the community garden. Carrie is a licensed family care provider and continues to do freelance work for clients in Chicago.

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