“Play is the mechanism by which children learn—
how they experience their world, practice new skills, and internalize new ideas—
and is therefore the essential “work of children”.
– Dr. Vivian Paley from her book, “A Child’s Work: The Importance of Fantasy Play”
“Through play, children learn
about the world and engage in activities
that encourage their cognitive, emotional, and social development”.
– Dr. David Elkind from his book, “The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier and Healthier Children”
When people hear that I am a Waldorf homeschooler, the first question they usually ask is, “What is Waldorf?” The second is usually, “I love your toys, but why so simple? Why open ended? Do they really help”? I am here to say that yes, they do help! It’s not just Waldorf teachers and advocates who say this. It’s also prominent child developmental psychologists, former public school teachers, and linguists who say the same thing — that children need to play, that their play does not need to be tinkered with by adults, and that children need suitable, simple, open-ended toys to play with in order to get the most out of their play. This is precisely where Waldorf, and other educational philosophies, get it right and do it well.
What then could be more simple than having a basket full of natural toys in your playroom? You don’t need expensive blocks. You don’t even need expensive toys. Really a basket of shells, rocks, and pine cones will do!
Children can get overloaded by too many toys. It overwhelms their senses and it can diminish their play and focus. I know we’ve all been there too when we walk in our bedrooms at night and have to tidy it up before our minds will calm down and sleep. It is the same for children.
Joan Almon, Coordinator of the U.S. branch of the Alliance for Childhood, and former chair of the Waldorf Early Childhood Association of North America, said that “children were most relaxed and played best if the space was fairly simple but pleasing to the senses. It should be calming and lovely, but not so beautiful and complete that the children hesitate to move anything or disturb the order.” This is where we as adults can step in and help. We can create environments for our children that are relaxed, beautiful, and filled with natural and simple toys.
We also need to make sure that children can easily clean up their playrooms. Almon goes on to say “Play is a messy business in the best sense of the word, for it is hard to create without making a mess. A good play environment invites you to come in and change it – but it is orderly enough that it is easy to clean it up again. There’s a place for everything and it becomes fun for the children to know where each object lives and put it back at the end of play time.”
So this Autumn and Winter, as your child’s play turns inward and takes place indoors more often, why not try bringing more nature in? Reassess what toys you have in your home and how you have set them up. Does every toy have a simple home to sit when play is done? When you sit in the room do you feel calm or cluttered? If your answer is the latter, your child might feel the same way. As I was researching why natural simple and open-ended toys were best, again and again, I found that the simpler the play materials, the more effective they are at stimulating play. And if play if the child’s’ most “essential work” then ensuring that we bring nature indoors for them and having open-ended toys should therefore be part of our essential work as their parents.
Nicole Justice-Kleemann is a stay at home mother to her three young children as well as a rotating group of animals. After graduating with her Masters degree in Teaching, she has decided to homeschool her children in the Waldorf tradition. Her journey to Waldorf and her family’s daily adventures can be found at her blog. Also her favorite food is pineapple!