It’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining and the garden is blooming. The ground is damp from the morning sprinklers and young children are exploring the garden with all its natural sensory rich stimulants.
Adam, a two-year-old discovers a discarded paper cup on the ground. He picks it up, turns it over, and purposefully returns back to the garden entrance gate, where there is a small puddle of water and begins scooping up the mud.
Did he remember seeing the mud puddle from when we first entered, I wondered? What was his process? Upon surveying the garden ground I did not notice any mud puddles anywhere else. Honestly, I did not notice this one either, but he obviously did.
He brings the cup of mud closer to his face, he studies it, he touches it, he pours it out and watches it drop, he starts all over again.
He is joined by another two-year-old Jack who is curious and wants to get in on the action. They both bend down to scoop, study, and engage. No conversation needed, they are communicating silently. Exploration through discovery is shared and expands beyond the mud.
Jack walks over to a watering can laying on the ground, picks it up and starts pouring. Nothing comes out so he turns it every which way to try to get water out. Realizing it was empty, he drops the can and continues digging in the mud.
So what is really going on here?
Two-year-olds zero in on a small spot of mud in this sensory rich garden. I watched in awe as their play was intentional and focussed. They worked so hard in filling the cup and dumping its contents that nothing else mattered. Their curiosity was sparked and satisfied on their own time schedule. They were purposeful while flawlessly executing their intention.
The mud puddle gets smaller as they scoop and spill. Soon they give up and move on to the sensory path. Adam still has the cup in his hand and begins to explore the pebble rocks. He plops down, studies a handful of rocks, and tosses them in the next section. I continue to observe their engagement and process.
Nature and all its elements transform the meaning of play into a giant playground for children. There are a multitude of sensory stimuli to refine the observational lens for both the child and the adult. Nature has laid the ground work to scaffold foundational knowledge and elevate cognition. One child’s spontaneous move to mud play became a destination of intent and purpose. There was no directive on how to play or guidelines on what to play. The child’s instinctual motive to pick up the cup and retrace his steps to the one little puddle was clearly an extension of prior knowledge, or was it? Why did he scoop up the “wet dirt” and not the “dry dirt”? How did he know the difference? How fine tuned was his visual perception to notice the mud when we entered the garden? How did he know when he picked up the cup that he could use it as a shovel?
Observation of play is critical to understanding development and supporting children’s need for optimal learning. By identifying and observing the young child’s play, an educator can then begin to plan and facilitate extended play through their behaviors and actions. Is there a pattern and how can we expand on this to support higher learning? Do we jump in and teach or do we provide provocations for independent learning? What kind of play is instinctual and what about it is newly discovered? So many questions to ask as an observer.
I have been working on this post for weeks. I have stalled because I questioned my purpose. As an experienced knowledgeable educator, I knew rich learning was happening, but sometimes the theory behind the observation delays the writing process. After reading Diane Kashin’s and Cindy Green’s recent post on Loose Parts Learning, it got me thinking and researching to dig deeper on the different meanings and theories behind play. It helped to define and question my purpose even more. Why is this important? It matters because knowing the why and how of play will honor children’s learning, nurture and elevate development, educate parents and bring valuable knowledge to the early childhood educator. As an effective educator these questions must be asked at every observation. Play is never “just play”. Spread the word.