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Enough Is Enough (also titled: Less Is More): Create Spaces Where Children Thrive!

Giving our children everything we can is a notion planted deep within the DNA of parents and educators. Time, energy, creativity and....stuff. Lots of stuff. Colorful, cheerful, fun stuff. Choosing the right stuff is sometimes a matter of trial and error, but we can learn what to choose for Sunday schools, playrooms, and other areas in our Harbor Homes. Read on and be encouraged!

I can not remember a time when I didn't have a passion for young children and learning about what they need to thrive. There is an intuition in many people that drives us to tune in to little minds and hearts, and consider what they are thinking and feeling. Most of us that are in love with early childhood education also spend a lot of time trying to have as much patience with adults as we have with children. We usually don't get there. Oh well.

Something else we spend a great deal of time working on is recognizing and organizing all the toys, materials, and paraphernalia necessary for helping children learn, play, and grow. There is certainly no lack of stuff to sort through when there are children around. If you are the parent or grandparent of young children, or someone who works with young children regularly you are painfully aware of all the stuff that materializes.

Your child's room, your Sunday school, your preschool classroom all can become the repository of all things that look like "toys"; even if you didn't ask for them, need them, or want them. Sunday school teachers especially know what I mean. Well meaning people who are cleaning out their toy collection think that church is a great place to take their unwanted items. So the stuff piles up. It doesn't take long for a few toys to become too many toys. And there is such thing as too many. Less is generally more in this area of child rearing.

How do we decide what to keep and what to discard? Which toys are valuable tools for play and the learning that comes from play? When do we begin to pare down and tidy up so that what we have is useful, enjoyable, beneficial, functional and entertaining? There are some great thoughts that I have garnered from professional experts on childhood education and also from field experts that obtained their knowledge and wisdom from years of experience.

I have collated the best of these thoughts and made a list of suggestions for making your playroom or classroom an area that is welcoming and inviting. Not too crowded, not too sparse. Enough to incite curiosity and excitement, but not chaos and confusion. Here are some of my colleagues' best thoughts.

  1. Store all toys so that they are visible and accessible. If children have big toy bins that store and hide everything, toys sift down to the bottom, small pieces get lost from their "mother toy" and value is lost. Instead, get some cubbies (attach them to the wall so they don't fall over. Safety first) and put the toys in them. Keep like things together and multi piece items in a small bin to allow easy access. Keep things organized, and teach even very young children where and how to put the toys back where they go.

  2. Check for age and developmental appropriateness. Very young children need careful monitoring around toys. Children who are four and under must not have access to small lose pieces, because little ones still put things in their mouth and have limited control over the muscles in their face, jaw, and throat. They can choke in a moment and it is silent. Just as children drown silently, they choke silently. You must be the gatekeeper for toys that are too small for our toddlers. Toys should be at least 1 1/4" in diameter and 2 1/4" in length in order to be safe for them.

  3. Toys should invite exploration and imagination. Children need a wide variety of open ended toys. These are toys that have many ways to be enjoyed, have no one correct way for them to be played with and can be set aside without the play feeling incomplete. Examples of this are: doll houses, cars, trucks, tractors, planes, small world play such as barns with toy horses, child sized kitchens, dress up accessories, phones, baby dolls and accessories, building blocks and more. Think like a child!

  4. Toys should also provide a goal. Toys that have a beginning and an end are called closed ended toys. These are things like puzzles, books, board games. These toys encourage children to focus on an activity for a length of time and provide them with a way to enjoy the satisfaction of completing something. Include these items in the play area.

  5. There should be some challenges. Matching games that require close looking are good for young children. Putting like things together get children thinking. Toys that require stacking things in a particular order gives hands on experiences in engineering. They begin to see how our world works. When a block will only fit in one opening, this will help develop spatial awareness and eye/hand coordination. Provide these opportunities.

  6. Keep it simple. The more toys a child has to choose from the more time they will spend deciding and then redeciding. And then getting distracted and choosing something else. A few high quality toys are much better than piles and stacks and endless choices. Children with chaotic play areas spend more time confused than playing.

  7. Rotate. Shake it up. Have some storage bins that the adults control, and change out the toys from time to time. My mother used to do this and every now and then toys would reappear that I had forgotten about. It was like Christmas! I can still remember how exciting it was to rediscover a favorite toy that had lain neglected just a few months earlier. It was a good idea then and it is a good idea now.

  8. Outdoor play. Every play and toy tip listed above needs an outdoor counterpart. Children should spend a lot of time outside. Fresh air, sun, weather, natural textures and vital to your children's development. This is true for faith formation classrooms as well. How much time can you spend outdoors? If you are creative, all your classes can take place outdoors. You need the correct material. Take it outside!

I could write myself into a coma just jotting down all the great suggestions I got from my friends and colleagues concerning children and purposeful play. These thoughts are the ones I heard from everyone as their top suggestions. They are worth some action. At first it may seem like a bit much but it is well worth it.

Play is the most important work of childhood. Children must play to learn. Children must play to develop. Spend time playing with your children on their turf. Play their games. Let them direct the play and you follow along. You will learn what is in the hearts and minds of your children or your students when you do this. Connect at a deep level with play.

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