The Wonder of Child-led Play.

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See the joy? Its catching.

My littles spent three days OBSESSED with parachutes. I could not get them to even glance twice at hot air balloons. How could they not want to learn about hot air balloons? Its the first picture in the curriculum! What is happening? I almost, almost, had a Type A panic attack.

I refrained.

I decided early on to surrender this year. I want the boys to experience child-led play, not mom-led agendas. It will look different from the picture in the book. It will be unspeakably messy. It will absorb their thoughts and mesmerize them as they sink into it. It will be unpredictable. This is more than ok. It is glorious.

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I set out one story book about hot air balloons, a little invitation to come and wonder. It sat, undisturbed, for two days. Eventually, the four year old started looking through it. Then he asked, “will you read this to me? The pictures look so so funny!” He loved the book. This newfound love sent us to the library in search of other books. “Lets find more balloons and colors and travel!” We came back with our arms full. “Lets color something…something…amazing!”

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So we got to work. He gave me directions. Cut this way. Draw these lines. Then we colored in each block.

“It has to go in my room!” he shouted.

We went to the nursery and took the decorations down off one wall. Decorations that pleased my aesthetic but held no value for him.

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We put up his creation and admired it together.

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“Can this ballon stay here all year long? And then everything we learn we can put up right next to it?” He was wide-eyed with barely contained glee.

“YES!” I said.

Yes, we gave our preschoolers freedom to decorate their own room with all the things they are discovering.  They are making plans to add coffee filter flowers and a book basket for all the books they will be making this year. By the end of the year it will be a spectacular, beautiful mess. I fully anticipate holes, glue residue and staples to litter this wall.

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After we made our nesting world, we realized that it really needed an additional circle, “My Room,” this small space that is their domain and holds so much importance for them. The rhetoric around here is changing. Not just in deciding to “say yes” more often. The boys have taken ownership of their surroundings. Learning to say “please” and “thank you” has quickly evolved into learning how to unstack the dishwasher, feeding the dog, making the bed and throwing shreds of paper in the trash. This should not surprise me. After all, play is the hot air balloon that can take you far beyond your wildest dreams. When I first opened the curriculum I wondered why we weren’t given specific tasks for each day. Now I know. This cannot be tethered or outlined. These little-big imaginations run the schedule. How fantastic to see where the sparks fly and what they bring us to next. One question leads to a whole other avenue of exploration. I show them colorful balloons and before I know it we have spent three days with Lois Elhert, planting a rainbow. Then we are off around the around the world, finding ingredients to bake an apple pie. I remind myself everyday, “Hands off those imaginations! Let them be little and let them be!”  We still have our rhythm, but there exists another rhythm within that is entirely of their own making.

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Our little sensory seeker is pleased as punch with his herbal playdoh. He was hesitant at first, so I set the playdoh down on a wood slice and walked away. A few minutes later I walked by and he was standing at the table, eye level with the herbal doh. Three minutes later he was sniffing its yummy cinnamon-apple scent. Soon he was poking one finger slowly into the warm center of the freshly made doh. I brought down a basket of items I had asked my elder children to collect. Then my second-born son (who is also my little guy’s BEST BUD!) sat down next to him and started to play. Soon they were both engaged in deep play.

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Forty minutes later the little guy wandered off. My six year old kept on playing. The seven year old stopped by and joined him.

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The four year old, having had his middle-child “someone is having fun without me” radar sound off, soon joined in as well. The littlest came back with him.

They played for hours. Deep, deep, engaged play.

I washed dishes. I folded laundry. I swept the floor. They played.

They played inside stories. They played new kingdom orders. They made tiny motorcycles for Ralph S. Mouse. They made plates and cups for Violet and the rest of the Boxcar children. They made snozzcumbers and Wonka bars. They made tiny shields for an invisible army on the brink of war with Uther Pendragon. Our youngest sat mesmerized by a ball of doh. Rolling it back and forth. Learning how applied pressure would change its shape. Many, many levels of play and learning occurred without a word or suggestion from me.

Wonder of wonders.

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My eldest boys are currently in 2nd grade. They have not shown the least hesitation in joining in their little brothers’ curriculum. Far from it. I often hear the phrase, “Need me to test that out before you give it to Team B?”  They were yearning for this kind of play and I didn’t see it before. They played, but not to this degree. “A Year of Playing Skillfully” is geared for children 3-7. I wondered if Team A would bite. They did. They are soaking it in every chance they get! I love seeing them play. In a world where kids are forced to grow up at a break neck pace, its good to see innocence thriving. This world may be going crazy, but my kids can still be kids.

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My husband did a lovely job building our sensory table and plexiglass easel. The boys love playing with it!

We have a lot of eager hands, so I requested three bins for our sensory table. For our pond play, I stirred up a tub of green water and left it in the sun to heat up. I put lots of ice in the blue water. The middle bin held our water beads and our frog life cycle figures. I loved hearing the surprise in their voices as they beheld the table and discovered the varying temperatures.

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I also loved how down right dirty and disgusting they got.

Whenever its nearly time to go back inside, I love to ask, “Are you dirty enough yet?” They always say “NO!” even if they are absolutely filthy. “No! We can get dirtier!” Then they go and find the last few specks of dirt they had yet to discover and drag it inside with them. I’m a big fan of hosing them off before they enter. I’m also a big fan of Oxiclean detergent.

We are spending more and more time outside each day as the unbearable heat of summer dwindles. Pretty soon our main outdoor months will arrive and we will be outside the majority of the day. How I am looking forward to it! Exchanging anxiety for joy–what a life giving act. I thought my year would be one of sadness and regret. Instead it is unfurling into joy and peace.

This week, I corresponded with a dear friend about mothering and childhood and the difficulty of battling our insecurities and feelings of failure. I shared that I had stopped looking at my boy’s childhood as the top of an hourglass, sand slowly trickling away. In saying “yes” I have set my gaze on the hourglass as the sand builds, each grain that falls, each day that passes, I am watching my children grow into who they will become. I am not losing, I am gaining.

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The ball is rolling. The “YES” answers keep coming. These boys are growing their wonder.

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Why We Said YES!

It was crowded in the hallway. Hundreds of fellow conference attendees were bustling by.  I was tucked in the corner, weeping.

Weeks after a string of scary evaluations, doctor’s appointments and therapy sessions for our youngest son, we were still feeling shell shocked and overwhelmed. The thought of sending my baby to the state run special education preschool in our area depressed me. My one visit there left a hollow feeling in my chest.  I had carried those worries to the conference. Hoisted on my back and festering with every passing minute.

Every session left me wondering, how can I give my other children this beautiful education, but then turn around and surrender my son to a broken education system that does not care about him as a person? 

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After the 12th lecture of emotional turmoil, my husband found me sitting on the ground in tears.  Frantic words started tumbling out, “I have to keep him at home. I have to do this myself. Can I do that? I’m not a therapist. We can take him to a speech therapist. But he needs to be at home. What do I teach him? How can I teach 2nd grade to the older boys, teach K-4 and then somehow squeeze in something else for him? I’ll just have to write something out. Plan my own curriculum for him. Something beautiful and meaningful with lots and lots of play. You remember the book by Anthony Esolen that I was reading? Or “Last Child in the Woods?” Fred Rogers and Anthony Esolen would have a baby and that baby would be my curriculum. (Sniff sniff) Leigh Bortins would be its fairy godmother and it will live in messy haven of finger paint and mud half the time and a woodland cottage the other half…. (sniff) You get that right? I don’t know how or when I’ll find the time, but I have to do this for my baby!!”

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My husband held me, said all the reassuring things he knew to say (really, what could he say to all that craziness?) and then we parted ways for the next seminars. I looked down at my program and saw “The Homegrown Preschooler” circled twice.

I almost didn’t go. I felt exhausted. I wanted to cry on Sonya Schafer’s shoulder and bribe Cheryl Swope to come drink tea with me and SHOW ME THE WAY!!!

I found the correct room and sat down and prayed that God would show me what to do.

Then Lesli Richards fired up her power point and CHANGED. OUR. LIVES.

Turns out I didn’t have to write a curriculum because Leslie Richards and Kathy Lee already did it (and waaay better than I ever could have!).

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A curriculum that my two youngest could use together. A perfect fit for our little boy and all his needs. A blessing for our lately overlooked third born. It was beautiful and heartfelt and loving and jam packed with PLAY.

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Every slide in the presentation echoed my personal philosophy of education. Every. single. one.
Throw some Esolen quotes my way, read a passage from ND Wilson’s Death by Living, a few classical models for child development and you will have my undying affection. Before the session was out I was contemplating naming our next child after Lesli.

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Of course, I walked back to The Homegrown Preschooler booth and waited like a sad puppy for Lesli to return from her lecture. She let me cry all over her and she encouraged me. I looked through the curriculum and realized everything we needed was addressed and covered through skillful play. Hallelujah! I bought the entire curriculum and the following day I went to Kathy’s lecture.

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Kathy made me laugh. She reminded me to keep having fun. Undertaking a child’s education is a serious endeavor, but it is also a joy-filled wonder! What are my kids experiencing each day? What sights, sounds, smells, tastes will they recall from their childhood. It was the kick in the pants I needed to stop crying and keep experiencing life with my children.  I walked out of there desperate to find lightning bugs, bake gooey chocolate cookies, knit a soft blanket and sit in the woods with my kids until the sun set. I’m told this side effect is totally common after experiencing these particular lectures.

So we said “YES!”

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YES to puddles and dragonflies and painting the driveway with pastels. Yes to blanket forts and s’mores at 9AM. Yes to amphibian guests at our daily tea party. Yes to reading our favorite book again and again and again.

We watched the YES effect spread throughout the house like a domino rally.  It tumbled into every room of our home and oh, how these children began blossoming and smiling and playing.

I’ll be recording our journey through Homegrown Prescooler’s curriculum, “A Year of Playing Skillfully.”  We’d love to have you follow along!

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6531

“When I grow up I want to live across the street from you. I want to live in a blue house with a red door. I’ll have five kids and a wife and we will visit you every day.”

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Your eyes are wide with excitement when you tell me this.

“The number on my house will be 6531 because that is how old me and my brothers are today and I like this year better than any other year and I always want to remember when we were 6, 5, 3 and 1.”

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You lean in for the hug you need, “Mom? We are going to stay together always, right? Because we are family nothing is ever going to keep up apart, right?”

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“I will be here as long as you need me,” I say.

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“Moooom,” you tilt your head to the side in exasperation, “I am ALWAYS going to need you.”

“Then I will always be here for you.”

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You nod, satisfied, and move off to chase your baby brother and build a rocket and grow 4 inches in a year and learn your multiplication table and catch fish and carve wood and mow the lawn and kiss a girl and finish school and pack up your car and drive away.

You are 5 today and gone tomorrow.

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So do me a favor, dear boy. Stretch out every day. Roll the minutes out in a long, slow line of marching ants. We can lay down side by side and watch them march. It will take a long time but we will stay for every second of it.

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Speaking of ants, lets have a picnic. Out in the sun, under a tree, with lots and lots of books strewn about and a hefty slice of pie for each of us.

You can invite me to lie down on the grass beside you and we’ll watch the clouds together. I’ll have to deliberately lay the anxieties of the day aside and embrace contentment in the small sacred space between today and all the tomorrows after it.

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Lets have an adventure that has nothing to do with the rest of the world and everything to do with our little family, rolling around the great outdoors.

Lets climb the tallest tree and tie a sail in the boughs and go on a floating pirate voyage into the clouds.

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Lets have messy ice cream days and crazy dances in the mud hole.

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Lets watch the baby chicks hatch. I’ll memorize the freckles on your nose and the sweep of your lashes as you take in all the downy softness of newly born wonder.

Lets practice being a family of forgiveness, grace and mercy.

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Lets stretch 6531 as far and long as we can until the days of 7642 arrive and then lets do it all over again

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This piece was written for our original blog Nest to Nest in May of 2014

Dear Boys

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My Dear Boys,

You are a tsunami. A massive wave of sound, dirt, legos and crumbs, headed towards me with maximum destruction in mind. You have wreaked utter havoc on my life. You have annihilated my peace. You have tossed my career goals out the window. You have brought utter ruin to my waistline. Our bathroom is an unspeakable horror.

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I am more than ok with all of the above.

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In fact, I thank you for it, wholeheartedly.

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Thank you, for ruining my life….so that I could have LIFE.

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The stuff listed above …that is just the tip of the iceberg…..want to know what you really broke?

You broke my selfishness in pieces.

You shattered my vanity.

My pride? I don’t even know where you left it…but last time I looked at it, pride was gasping for breath.

Self righteousness?

My need to judge others silently in my head?

Greed?

Oh sweet boys, I tucked those in jars years ago and hid them deep in the darkest crevices of my heart. You found them. You brought them out. You smashed them to pieces on the ground. The foul odor of them rushed up to greet me and I could not escape them. You stood there watching me, wondering what I would do with the mess you uncovered.

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I looked in Bible and saw good and evil. I understood what sin was. But I never knew the depth of my sin, until I saw it reflected back to me from the blindingly bright mirror of my children.

Wether it was the morning at the museum when one boy let out an exasperated, “DAMN IT!” or when another scolded a toddler at the library in an all too familiar tone, “FOR PETE’S SAKE JUST SIT STILL FOR TWO MINUTES AND DON’T MOVE ANYMORE.” Or that time when I sat you boys down to discuss sharing the gospel with others and not a minute passed before one of you asked, “Do you do that too, Mom? I’ve never seen you do that to anyone.”

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No matter how hard I tried to focus on you boys and your hearts and your upbringing, you always turned it around. Flashed the mirror in my face. Forced me to look at myself.

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You forced me to surrender the ugliest parts of myself to Jesus.

Thank you.

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When I graduated from college I had a few books in mind, things I would write and ways I would change the world.

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I didn’t do any of them.

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Instead of bringing change….I am changed.

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When I tried to impress God’s words on your hearts, you turned around and impressed them on my heart.

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When I wanted to parent you from a corner of fear and anxiety, you broke free and taught me to parent you with courage and bravery and trust in God.

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You….

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and you….

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and you….

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and you….

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Being your mother, is one of the greatest honors of my life.

If all I ever do is serve you.

Wash your feet.

Be brave alongside you.

Love Jesus beside you.

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Well, thats more than I ever dreamed of.

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Being my ugliest before you has led me to the beautiful freedom of grace and mercy—and that makes it all truly lovely.

Love,
Mom


This piece was written for our original blog Nest to Nest in April of 2013.