A Taste of Summer

Yesterday none of the school age children had classes so everyone was here for the full day and the weather was amazing.  The weather channel reported a high of 17° C but with the sunshine the thermometer in my back yard registered 22° C – beautiful. We spent all morning outside.

As usual there was a lot of ‘cooking’ going on since collecting items and making concoctions are very popular activities.  It was one of those days that I wish I had brought the video camera out since the ‘action’ is missing from the still photos.  The camera and I both have slow reaction times so what shows up in the pictures isn’t always what I was trying to capture. I spent a considerable amount of time observing the process involved in adding ingredients to this pot.

Fine motor skills were enhanced as pebbles were dropped one by one through the tube and into the pot.  It took more trial and error and a little frustration to discover why the ones placed in the bottom of the tube didn’t come out the top.

I miss the liquid component that we had in the concoctions this spring as the snow melted. I’m working on a plan to relocate one of the rain barrels to the gravel area so we can have a regular water supply.  I just have to move a couple of the big planters first.  Unfortunately I know from experience that the only thing harder than lifting them is sliding them through pea gravel and creating massive ridges. 🙂

While we were out in the yard we cleaned up the garden area a little and picked some weeds.  We found some plants that we couldn’t identify – probably weeds since there shouldn’t be any perennials planted here – but we thought were pretty so we left them to grow more. On the hill the Yarrow and the Giant Hyssop are beginning to sprout.  I am so excited that they seem to be off to a great start.  I’ve managed to kill off many other plants even though I’d been told that they could survive in difficult situations.  Now I’m a believer in the power of native plants. Of course we also engaged in some great gross motor activities outside too.  Running and jumping, ball games, hide and seek and tag.  My son joined us for a while and practiced some more Parkour moves and balance games.  While he tried to balancing on a piece of pipe one of the preschoolers observed and then modified the activity to suit his comfort level. Today it is raining and there is a winter storm warning.  Some of the highways have been closed due to ice and snow.  We will remain optimistic.  We have had a taste of summer and we know it will be here – eventually.

Calendar Art

Fostering independence is one of the goals of my childcare program.  Many areas of my home are set up to allow the children to choose their own activity and take responsibility for cleaning up when they are done too. Sufficient time for unstructured play gives children the opportunity to demonstrate independence but structured activities have a place too.

In my home the sunroom is set up as an art area to be used independently throughout the day.  Mindy’s (the dog) kennel is also in this part of the house and direct supervision of the sunroom is not always possible.  For this reason independent play here is a privilege.

There is not a specific age by which children are suddenly able to play here independently and like all new skills there is a learning process.  To help teach these skills I use the sunroom for the majority of our structured activities like story, circle and calendar time.  Sometimes these structured activities become the basis a child’s independent play.

During free play time last week, a four year old was drawing independently in the sunroom.  Knowing she was fully capable of engaging in this activity without any assistance I was only occasionally checking in on her. On one of these random checks I noticed that she had put away all her art supplies and was now sitting beside Mindy’s bed.  I waited and watched to see what she would do next.

She used her newly created artwork – a calendar and an illustrated story – to lead a ‘circle time’ activity for the dog (who was thoroughly entranced).

She listed the days of the week and pointed to the corresponding coloured row for each day. She discussed upcoming special events and then flipped the page over and continued by explaining about various holidays.

She recited the alphabet including words and names that begin with each letter – just like we do at circle time each day.  Then she switched to the other paper and began ‘reading’ her story.

It was a long detailed story about her adventures with an owl that she befriended while out hiking through a forest.

Independent unstructured play offers a wonderful opportunity to observe and appreciate a child’s knowledge and understanding of the world.

Nature in the City

I wanted to write a post to celebrate Earthday but working on my taxes has taken most of the day and I’m not even done yet!  I’m going to take a break and reminisce about the highlights of our visit to Fort Whyte Alive last weekend.

I think it is great that we have so many wonderful places in and around our city where we can connect to nature.  It has been several years since I’ve explored Fort Whyte and I had forgotten how amazing it was.

I was enchanted by this young couple who chose a spot alongside the path so we could almost touch them.

Who needs a gargoyle when you’ve got a goose nesting on the roof of your sod house?

The bison didn’t seem bothered by the cold wet conditions but up on the viewing mound we certainly were – didn’t dress appropriately for the weather.

We visited the tipi encampment to get a short break from the wind.  It was a rare occasion that I agreed to have my picture taken – I prefer to be behind the camera.  My son wouldn’t join me in the picture – he claimed it would steal his soul.

The tour of the farm was my favourite part of the day. They have so many amazing programs here.  Watching and playing with the chickens just reinforced my desire to have chickens in my backyard.

I wish the city bylaws would allow me to have a few…chickens, ducks, and maybe a goat or two.  The children and I would never want to come back inside.

When I was reading the brochure I discovered something else too.  There are trails that connect all the way from Fort Whyte to the Assiniboine Park!?!?  We didn’t know that.  The boy and I could hardly contain our excitement.  We would definitely have to do that.  My husband began to whimper.  OK then, not today, but someday soon. 🙂

Gravel & Dirt

I don’t get out plastic toys during the winter – because they shatter in the cold — but this week I got out the pails and shovels for our outdoor play time.  It has been a long time since the children have had the opportunity to use them and I was eager to see what the preschoolers would do.

Filling and dumping is always popular with the younger children – so is jumping on small piles of gravel.  In the past one of their favourite activities has been to cover the slide with gravel or make a pile at the bottom of the slide and then smash through it when they slide down.

There are sometimes disputes since preschoolers are often impatient and impulsive – characteristics that result in issues when one of them smashes something while another is still building.  It takes cooperation and self control for them to work together and take turns.  These are important skills to learn — I observe but don’t interfere unless it is apparent that they cannot work it out themselves.

So, how much did they remember from last year?  How much had they matured? Four children, four pails, a variety of scooping tools and a yard full of gravel.  They started with four small piles and then someone said “If you dump your pail on my pile we can make a giant pile.” Soon all four of them were working on one gravel pile.

I braced myself for the inevitable smash down but it never came. The pile continued to grow and even when it was time to go in they decided to leave the pile and work on it again the next day.  I was impressed.

Construction continued the following day – but the ‘castle’ wasn’t really getting bigger.  They had reached the point at which any gravel poured on the top simply rolled down the slope to the bottom – physics – but they didn’t care. They continued back and forth, fill and dump, over and over again.

Then, someone noticed that their hands were dirty.  The gravel seems dry but once you dig past the top layer it is wet…and muddy.  They were used to having mitts on their hands but we didn’t need them today and what should we do about this;

There was a moment of silence when I shrugged and said we’ll wash our hands when we go inside.  Construction stopped, the children looked at one another.  Each of them checked their hands and compared them to the others’.  No sound or movement but they were all thinking.

Suddenly shovels and pails were dropped and the children buried their hands in the gravel.  A new game had begun. Gravel is fun but nothing is better than dirt. How dirty can you get?

Play & the Environment

There are many types of play and we all have our favourites; creative and constructive, dramatic and imaginative, active and physical, manipulative and sensory. When our environment is conducive to our preferred activities we can fully immerse ourselves in the activity.  Like the way a messy, dirt filled house can allow me to passionately engage in cleaning – no, wait…that never happens.

But yes, our surroundings and the other people in it can have a significant effect on how we feel and the things we do.  That effect can be either positive or negative.

Recently there have been a few days that were warm and dry enough that the children and I didn’t have to wear mitts and we could get some of the toys from the deck box. Yeah – we were all very excited.  Giggling and “It is summer” cheers could be heard throughout the yard.

Favourite cars were chosen and mountain races were held.  The ponies initiated some type of intervention to persuade the shark that just because he had sharp teeth he didn’t have to be a bad guy. After all, the dinosaurs, crocodiles and even Godzilla were on the ponies’ side. 

There was peace in the world and life was good. Then Saturday morning I awoke to – more snow.  Ok, I know the weather forecasts had predicted it but they are sometimes wrong and I was hoping this was one of those times.  Certainly in November or December I would think that this was pretty;

But it is mid April and I want to see happy ponies galloping through green meadows with flowers and butterflies.  Today I am sticking to my plan to attend the Earth Day celebration at Fort Whyte Alive.  My sixteen year old son and I have been eagerly anticipating this weekend outing (too bad there is no daycare today – the little ones would have loved to come along).

We are going to play outdoors and have some fun. We will ignore that grumblings of our driver who was hoping there would be a cancellation due to inclement weather.  We are going to celebrate the Earth and all its weather conditions.

Hide & Seek

We don’t play ‘real’ Hide & Seek in my house – you know, the kind where the children hide and whoever is ‘it’ has to find them etc.  Mostly this is because I consider it to be an outdoor game like tag and in order to play it in my house I’d have a rule list that would be too extensive to remember.  Also, the children don’t think there are any ‘good’ hiding spots – I know of some but I won’t tell them where they are.

However, we do have a popular version of Hide & Seek that we play often.  It originated around Easter many years ago when I added little plastic Easter eggs to one of the loose parts bins and the children used them for Easter egg hunts.  They devised their own rules and the cooperation and imagination they demonstrated was amazing.

They were somewhat disappointed when the eggs went back into storage and something else was brought out.  They were not dissuaded though.  They found other small items to use and modified the game accordingly.  Since then not a week goes by without someone suggesting a game of “Hide the …(insert name of chosen items here)” and everyone participates.

Sometimes they play a shell type game where one child hides a smaller item – like a block – under one of several inverted bowls or cups and then the other children try to find it.

Each Spring I bring out the eggs again – not too early or for too long or the excitement of egg hunting might wear off.  This year I brought them out at the beginning of April and I did something a little different.  Instead of just putting the eggs loose in a bin, I put them in Styrofoam egg cartons – I currently have no infants enrolled so I didn’t need to be concerned about the cartons getting chewed on.

I’m not sure if it was the addition of the egg cartons or the developmental changes that the children have experienced in the past year but the plastic egg play is very different.

Interestingly, some of the children still like to hide the eggs but no one will look for them.  Seriously, I’m getting tired of trying to located missing eggs!  There should be 36 of them.  We know because the children like to sort and arrange them by color in the cartons and if there is one missing it wrecks the pattern.

They also like to cook with the eggs,

And have picnics, or use them as cargo for their crane.

Basically any activity other than hunting for them! I don’t get it, but as long as they are having fun that’s OK.

Boredom & Initiative

In my last post I mentioned that usually it is the school age children that have the most difficulty with free play time.  This was a generalized comment and the problem is in part due to the mixed age group setting.

In Manitoba a licensed family childcare home can have a maximum of eight children and no more than five of those children may be under 6 years old – three of the eight must be school-age.

In my opinion some of the greatest benefits of a mixed age group are the opportunity for the childcare provider to build a relationship with the child as they develop and for the child to experience playing and working with children at various developmental levels. When a child is enrolled in a family childcare home as an infant they may be able to stay with that same caregiver throughout their preschool years and even as they begin school.

I say ‘may’ because the province has set a higher daily rate for infants (children under 2 years of age) than for preschoolers (2-5 years old) and some providers will choose the money over the child and not keep a child in an infant space after they turn two.  This is a practice that I find upsetting but I understand that some providers simply cannot accept the drop in income which can be as much as $600/month.  The bond between child and caregiver is so very important and I will always choose to keep child as long as possible even if it results in a loss of income.  I would like to see infant and preschool rates equalized but that is another rant so let me get back to the topic of those school-age children.

Due to the fact that care for preschool children is harder to find, parents often have to look for childcare outside the area that they live in.  Therefore when the child starts school they may need to leave their current childcare setting in order for the child to attend the appropriate school. When this happens there is no currently enrolled preschool child to move into a vacant school-age space.  Many family childcare providers have difficulty filling these school-age spaces and some choose to focus on preschool care and leave their school-age spaces empty.

So, the most likely time for me to enrol a new child in my childcare home is when they are an infant or when they are school-age. For all of us there is an adjustment period while we get to know each other but infants are more adaptable so this adjustment period is usually shorter.  If a school-age child was here as an infant or preschooler our relationship is already well established and although we may have our ups and downs we’re ‘family’ and we work through it.  Those ‘new’ school-age children are the hardest particularly if they have little experience in a setting with younger children.

In a family childcare home with eight children there are rarely more than three school age children. Three is a pretty small group when you’re used to interacting in a larger group in a classroom or childcare centre.  Three is an even smaller group when you consider ‘school age’ can be anywhere from 6 years old to 12 years old or more and you may not have much in common.  Add to that the restrictions because you have to consider that there are babies and toddlers watching everything you do and it is almost unbearable.

Sometimes they resent being placed in a setting ‘with little kids’ – after all, they are growing up and it may feel like a punishment to be in a group with babies. Sometimes they want to help look after the younger ones but it often comes across as ‘bossy’ – at least that’s how the younger ones view it because they have been here longer and already ‘know everything’. One of the hardest lessons for the older children can be learning the difference between ‘helping’ someone who needs assistance and ‘interfering’ when someone is trying to be independent. Many conflicts can arise in these situations.

You know who often does really well in this mixed age setting? — The school age child that doesn’t ‘fit’ with a large group of peers.  The one that is insecure – unsure if their abilities will measure up to those of others their age – who suddenly realize they have so much to offer as a mentor to the younger children.  Or the one that has been labelled as a ‘troublemaker’ at school because they feel they need to be ‘bad’ to be noticed – here they may be revered by the younger children and can be given extra responsibilities – something usually reserved for the ‘best’ children in a large classroom.

Here, eventually the school age children will stop lamenting that there is no exciting entertainment; no elaborate activities set up to amuse and enlighten them; too many things they can’t do because there are little children around. If they are ‘bored’ long enough they will discover that there are plenty of opportunities for them to demonstrate leadership, to make decisions, to offer advice, to show initiative and to be responsible – plenty of opportunities to grow up.



In any childcare program there needs to be a mix of structured and unstructured time.  In my home there are large blocks of ‘free play’ time where the children initiate and engage in activities of their choosing.  Generally I find that the children who have the greatest difficulty with this are the school-age children who were not enrolled here as preschoolers.  Many of them rely heavily on being entertained and instructed.  ‘Go Play’ is simply too vague and often results in ‘I’m bored’ laments.

For this reason during Spring Break I planned more group activities than I usually do.  For most of these activities the school age children enjoyed participating with the group and the preschoolers liked having their mentors around.

We made some pictures with Plastercine.

Decorated some Easter eggs – I know, still many weeks before Easter but there will not be another ‘No School’ day before then.

And we tried a sensory science activity that was a complete failure.  My coordinator stopped by for a drop in visit and the children were excited to have a surprise visitor.  Some of the older children decided this would be a good time to show off and test some limits.  We took a vote and the majority wanted to go outdoors to play instead of continuing the circle time so we headed outside instead.

The science activity was rescheduled for this week when the older children were back in school.  The preschoolers are familiar with this activity and it is one of their favourites.  We start with the treasure box – many of these items have been found on our nature walks or donated by families after a vacation.

We choose items of interest to us and examine them closely using the magnifying glasses.  The children describe how the objects feel and smell and note any other interesting characteristic.  I write down their comments.  “The rabbit fur is so soft”.  “This piece of bark looks like a car” (Do you mean the shape?) “I like the rocks that are soft (smooth) and shiny”. “The sheep wool looks like dust”.

This time we also had the opportunity to inspect a stick bug because one of ours died.  We still have two live ones left – and 216 eggs.  Scrutinizing the stick bug was the highlight of this activity.  “It feels like rubber”

This group of preschoolers could have spent much more time on this activity but it was time to go to pick-up our friend from school – I miss the relaxed schedule of ‘no school’ days.

Spring Break

Today is the last day of Spring Break.  We didn’t manage to get out for a field trip this week but we’ve had plenty of fun and as usual we’ve been spending a lot of time outside.

We have decorated the snow to add some color to the yard.

We learned some new methods to help us decide who was going to be ‘it’ when we played tag.

We found a frozen puddle that we just had to break open.

And then we made soup by adding ‘meat’ (pieces of bark), beans that we found hanging on the trellis, and various dried ‘herbs’ that we found around the yard.

We discovered ‘salt’ and became skilled at mining and processing it so we could add it to our soup.

We dug a hole in the gravel and it magically filled with ‘hot chocolate’ so we had to add some ‘mint leaves’ and ‘marshmallows’ which melted instantly.

And after a long cold winter there is something really special about spending hours outside and feeling the warmth of the sun on a snowy spring day.

We’re disappointed that we’ll back to the school schedule next week.  We wish we had more time together.