We went to a new park today. The park has a giant sand area with a running river, a big messy tactile-creative full-body experience. Here's what fascinates me about lots of children with lots of sand: Watching the kids play and work together. I could sit on the bench overlooking the sand-play and just watch. (If you're like my husband and the idea of a detailed discussion of children and play makes your eyes glaze over, you might want to skip this part. If you want to make me feel better about it you can nod and say "Uh-huh" a couple times.)
A group of little girls connected and stuck together, working to excavate a dinosaur skull. (This sand pit is sooooo cool. It's got "fossils" buried at the bottom. Deep. It's quite a project digging that far down.) Many of the boys, one of the fine young gents included, hopped from group to group depending on what other kids were doing or making. Most interesting, though, was not the individual children, but watching the on-going projects. Two "rivers" snaked through the sand pit, one a little longer than the other, both beginning at the spot where the water pours from the water feature (a raised model river) into the sand pit. It was amazing to watch the child-made rivers grow and change, get longer, suddenly change course or acquire dams. Most of the work was done by kids between the ages of five and seven. The kids would run from spot to spot and start digging, children would come into the sand area and children would leave the sand area. There was very little planning or verbal interaction beyond "Let's dig here!" The children worked randomly, individually or in ever-shifting groups of twos and threes. The water kept running dry in the lower river as the children working on the upper river sat in the stream or inadvertently dammed it up with piles of sand. And yet, marvelous feats of engineering were taking place. By the time we left both rivers had lengthened, changed their courses dramatically, and the pool of the upper river was spilling neatly into the lower river without emptying itself completely or overwhelming the lower pool .
How do they do that?
Watching the kids play reminded me a little of the Reggio-Emilia approach to early childhood education, a constructivist child-led developmental approach to teaching young children. At the Reggio-Emilia preschool (in the town of Reggio-Emilia in Italy), a child's interest in birds led to an ongoing project that spanned several years, the creation of an elaborate amusement park for birds. Amazing.
Just to tie up, here's an article on the benefits of sand play. It's about sand table play, but we can all generalize a little.
An unexpected surprise: Will in the World made a great read-aloud. I read it to the fine young gents as they were drifting off, and it was such fun to roll the sentences off my tongue that I sometimes kept reading after they'd gone fast asleep. Never fear, I am not turning into an "I read Shakespeare to my far-more-advanced-than-your-children" mom. I simply find that reading something that they can actually understand and absorb tends to keep them awake. Reading to them out of my books sends them right off to sleep, and nicely, with the soothing sound of Mom's voice for background. If they develop a taste for Shakespeare down the road, so much the better, but I really just want them to go to sleep so that I can go watch trashy television, er, I mean, read Hamlet or some such intellectual fare.
I learned several new words, as you can see by my Will in the World bookmark set atop the book. I'm too interested in what I'm reading (or I'm too lazy) to stop in the middle, get up, lug the dictionary to the table, and look up a word. Usually I can guess what it means in context, right? Don't learn much that way, though, so I've started using a blank bookmark, writing the words I don't know onto the bookmark, and looking them up later. (Why didn't I think of this long long ago?) Some favorites from Will in the World: pettifogger, crenellated, and internecine.
I hear voices in the backyard, my hammock and my patient husband await. Happy play and happy reading.