Category Archives: Learning Environment

The Snowball Effect

First, a bit of history…

I have four large outdoor lounger cushions. I bought them many years ago at an end-of-season clearance sale – the discounted price meant I got all four of them for less than the cost of just one toddler cot so I couldn’t resist. I briefly used them for napping children – they are thicker, wider and longer than other nap mats. They are very comfortable but also very heavy and cumbersome to set up and put away for daily naptime and take up a lot of space so I ended up getting more cots for naps indoors.

The fabric on the lounger cushions is intended for outdoor use so that is where we used them most – for napping or relaxing in tents or on the deck etc. When not in use they were stored in bags in the big shed. During the Vacation 2019 renovation, ‘Frankenshed’ was disassembled and the new toy storage shed was too small to store the large cushions so they were brought back inside and again stored with the other cots and bedding.

The small room off the main playroom is used for napping infants and storage of cots, bedding, books, and bulky items I don’t want to haul down to the basement storage area. This area is still sometimes referred to as the ‘Nature Area’ because I left the trees in there from when this used to be a play area – written about in the Nature Area and the Quiet Space posts.

Now, this is when the snowball began to form…

I recently wanted to use the big cushions for a toddler activity, but found it was very inconvenient to get them off the shelves behind the tree branches. I decided that on the upcoming long weekend I should move the trees into the main playroom. Afterall, though it did look nice having the tree branches forming a canopy over the cribs, it would be wonderful if the trees were in the playroom where everyone could enjoy them.

So, I started looking for the best place to mount the trees in the playroom…and decided that I would first need to move the toy food counter…which then meant I would need to change the block storage area. *sigh* The list of necessary changes continued to grow and after thirty plus hours of demo, rearranging, building and organizing the playroom has been mostly ‘prepped’ for the arrival of the trees but, even with a three-day weekend, there wasn’t enough time to actually move the trees.

I am pleased with the new arrangement – so far – and the children seemed to like it too. All of the children in the current group have only ever seen the trees as decorations in the nap area – never as part of the play space. They are familiar with having other things in the play environment change but probably don’t realize these trees can be relocated. I am certain they will be excited when I manage to complete the project – and with the cushion activity too whenever I get around to that.

There are still a few more little tasks to complete before the trees get moved but hopefully that will be done this weekend. The snowball forming now it the growing list of paperwork that I should be doing 🙂

Summer Recap

Every year, I take my summer vacation at the beginning of July so I can complete some big projects to prepare for all our summer activities. I don’t like to travel so going places is never on my vacation agenda. Relaxing is something I find difficult – maybe even stressful – I like to be busy. There are some types of ‘busy’ that I enjoy more than others and my summer projects are high up on my list.

Spring 2022 was so late, so wet, so…. depressing that it was really hard to get excited about summer projects. In fact, it was mid-June already when my husband asked, “What are your summer projects this year?” and I realized that I hadn’t even started making my list. Of course, there were things I wanted to do but nothing that I considered a BIG summer project – just a bunch of little things that I would normally plan as weekend projects.

The most obvious project to put on the summer list was the climbing wall – which I had purchased the supplies for last fall and planned to build as soon as the snow melted and have ready for when the school-age children were here for Spring Break – but it was still ‘winter’ when school was out for spring break. The climbing wall was probably the most noticeable vacation project and very popular with the children all summer.

child on climbing wall

The second most noticeable project was the roof over the corner house – and I don’t even have a picture of it. Creating the corner house to replace the tipi was one of my 2021 vacation projects that I didn’t have time to complete the way I initially envisioned. I had simply made a temporary lean-to type of roof last year. This year I designed and built a better roof and moved all the bus benches into the corner house. It was a very popular sit spot all summer – I can’t fathom why I didn’t manage to get a picture of it. *sigh*

I also didn’t any pictures of the new layout of stumps, logs, and steppingstones in the mulch area or the enlarged ‘river’ area. I spent three whole days rearranging the pathways to align with the bridges and entrances to the building and digging areas. It was a very labour intensive project but not something particularly noticeable if you hadn’t spent a lot of time in the yard.

The children and I found the new pathways to be much more functional – as did this little visitor to my yard – caught on my surveillance camera, he/she followed the new curvy path perfectly all the way from the back gate to the side yard. LOL

skunk walking through yard

I expanded the ‘river’ area to make space for a new dedicated area for water play. I added a hand pump so the children could get water for creating concoctions. There was a delay in getting this area ready for use. The hand pump I originally chose did not function properly and was eventually replaced with this bilge pump.

child using bilge pump

The trick here though is that getting water requires some communication as the pump is not near the spouts…

children playing with water
Child collecting water

This area is still a work in progress – we hope to add more pipes, hoses and storage for other concoction making supplies. Of course, we are still collecting supplies too! It was a very popular play area this summer.

I also added a new painting panel. We’ve had several built-in plexiglass panels in the past and I have found that they get damaged in the winter. The framework I built for hanging this one is permanent but the panel itself is removable, so the space is still multipurpose, and the panel can be safely stored when not in use.

Children painting

I love plexiglass for painting on – even better when you can access both sides – and with the garden as a backdrop the artwork is enhanced.

Children's artwork

Well, that didn’t seem like a lot of dramatic changes to our learning environment. Certainly not any major transformations. Still, there were enough little projects to keep me busy on my ‘vacation’ and some new spaces for the children to explore this summer. In my next post I will highlight a few of our summer activities.

Winter Yard 3

I was excitedly anticipating winter this year – every year actually, but this year in particular. We loved all the little play areas that were created during my 2021 yard renovation. Sure there were a lot of fun things to do here in the warmer weather but, when I first designed the plan for the play spaces in the backyard, I was actually also considering how we would use it in the winter.

We love snow – climbing on snow piles, digging tunnels and dens, building with ice and snow. I’ve written posts about our winter yard in 2016 and 2019. Sometimes though, we have had issues with the ‘climbers’ wrecking the towers built by the ‘builders’ or the ‘diggers’ destroying the mountains created for the ‘climbers’ etc. Sure, problem solving and dealing with social disputes are important skills but sometimes we just want to engage in our favorite activity – uninterrupted by those who prefer different activities.

The yard renovation provided an active play area with swings, pathways, stumps and logs perfect for the climbers and jumpers – and also for creating pathways around mountains of snow. The yard renovation had a separated area for digging in gravel – or snow – and a large building area with plenty of loose parts – or ice blocks and snow. The plan was to allow space for longer term/larger building projects without infringing on the needs of the climbers and the diggers.

We have a different problem now though – there is too much snow. For the past several years we’ve thought there wasn’t enough snow and we spent more time hiking to parks etc looking for spaces with more snow. I think the last time I complained about too much snow was in 2014. However, in 2013 I wrote about a year we had the perfect amount of snow for that yard configuration and the group of children enrolled at that time.

I first started writing this post – and took the pictures – in January and we have received a lot more snow since then *sigh* I have no desire to take updated photos before I publish this post so these older pictures will have to do. In the active play area we have two climbing hills and over 100 feet of ‘hiking’ trails around all the snow hills and other structures.

OK, in the picture the ‘mountains’ don’t look huge but they have been packed solid by the climbers. I can’t make them any taller because they can’t go any wider. Besides, when the preschoolers stand on the snow hill under the arbour they can touch the beams the swings hang from in the summer. I usually need a step stool to hang the swings – now the beams are at my shoulder height. The problem is that the ‘pathways’ between the hills are actually almost 18 inches high. I haven’t had enough time to clear all the pathways between snow falls this year.

The picture above shows the bench the babies usually hold on to when they reach up to spin the wheels on the fence. The wheels are now baby hip height and that snow pile in the back is NOT for climbing on. It is on the area of the deck I usually keep clear so the babies have a flat space to practice walking in heavy boots. Besides, if you climb over that hill you will be in the neighbour’s yard.

Above – another view of the pathway between the climbing hills to the gate and beyond – to what should be the digging area. It is downhill all the way from the back door to the gate now – though in the summer it is slightly uphill. Below is the gate to the toy shed and garden area.

Note: as part of my summer renovation I changed the hinge point of this gate – it used to open inward which had posed a problem because I couldn’t open it to clear the snow to the shed. Now it opens outward and although I’ve cleared a path to the gate I’ve given up trying to clear a path beyond it and can no longer get to the shed. I have managed to keep one half of the compost bin clear enough that I can partially open the lid and dump the compost pail when it is full.

I’ve only managed to clear less than a quarter of the building area but not all the way down to the rubber mat.

I made dozens of coloured ice blocks for winter construction projects – we found a few to include in this photo but the rest are buried too deep. The recent snowfalls have hidden these ones now also. All of the ‘convenient’ storage bins full of wood and loose parts for building are not accessible now either. No one has any interest in building anything here – barely enough space to sit – and don’t stand up or you’ll be stabbed by a tree branch.

I do love the trail to the digging area, past the cedars and into the little house in the back corner of the yard.

That area on the right is the digging area – I don’t clear that area. I figured the diggers would like to do that – but they can’t find the shovels…or sticks…or buckets…or even the table or anything else other than snow.

Arriving at the entrance to the little house is like finding a secret little hideaway.

It is so peaceful and sheltered inside the little house. I’ve tried to persuade the babies this is a great place to sit and play – no wind, little snow, level ground – but they don’t seem to like it when I bring them in here.

I think maybe they feel trapped when we sit inside the little house. If they have to be outdoors they would rather just sit in the sled – I’d prefer if they were more active – you will be warmer if you keep moving. To them, from this viewpoint it probably seems like a very long, arduous journey to get back indoors where all the bulky outerwear is unnecessary.

When I took this photo there were infants and preschoolers playing in the yard between me and the house but I can’t see them. You know what would be fun in this yard – a game of hide and seek. I used to have a group that loved to play hide and seek all the time but there were no good hiding spaces in the yard at that time. Some of these children don’t like it if they can’t see me and the ones that like to hide are probably doing something I’ve asked them not too….

Yep, too much snow.

A Variation

I didn’t manage to write any posts about our activities this summer. Additional screen time from virtual meetings may have been a factor that deterred me from computer related activities like paper work and post writing. My preference for spending time outdoors over indoors was definitely a factor too, but that is nothing new. Probably the main reason I didn’t find time to write was due to our schedule and some of the changes I made to it.

This summer was different than usual because I had a much older group of children. All my part time ‘inservice day only’ school-age children needed summer care and with some juggling of family vacation times I was able to accommodate everyone. I also chose to wait until fall to fill a vacant infant spot so, for the summer, that space could be used for a school-age child.

This unusual grouping meant that only one of my children was under four years old. It also meant I was busier than usual and there is oh so much TALKING. Transitions between indoors and out, play and meals, etc take soooo loonngg. Honestly, dressing five toddlers for winter play takes less time than getting seven 4-9 year olds to stay focused on what they need to do to get ready. So much time discussing/planning what they are going to do – please just do it!

I was expecting this – I had witnessed it on inservice days even when ALL of them were not here. The older ones tend to arrive later than the little ones – maybe because they are used to the later start of school classes or maybe because their parents face similar delays getting the out the door at home. I decided to make a few changes to our daily routine to lessen the delays.

Usually the little ones have been here for an hour or more already and it is almost morning snack time when the older children arrive. If I let them go play ‘for a few minutes’ until snack then we have a transition from arrival to playroom, a transition from playroom to snack, a transition to get ready to go outside – which will also require a bathroom break because the first two transitions and snack took an incredibly long time. It will be at least 10:00AM before we manage to get everyone out the door – no way I’m waiting that long before going outside to play in the summer!

So, I decided to make some adjustments to our (my) schedule and in order to do that I’d have to modify the menu. In past summers we have occasionally packed snack to take with us to have on a hike or at the park. On our regular menu not many of the morning snacks are portable so I created a special ‘summer’ menu in which all the morning snacks were portable. Our picnic bag was packed and ready before the older children arrived. The younger ones who arrived early had some indoor play time, bathroom break and were getting ready to go outside when the older ones arrived – also ready to go because they hadn’t actually come in.

That one schedule change meant we were heading out about 30 minutes ahead of our ‘normal’ schedule when I have only preschool children but up to 2 hours earlier than if I had let the older ones play indoors and have snack before going out. It also meant we got our walk, picnic snack and active play/tag/game time in the park early in the day before it got too hot. We still had time for lower energy, outdoor constructive and creative activities in the yard under the sunshade before lunch.

active play in the park

Since that schedule change required a modified morning snack menu, I decided to do a completely different ‘summer’ menu for lunches and afternoon snacks too. Even though I intended to ‘simplify’ the menu for summer, it turned out to be a very time consuming endeavor.

I involved the children in the menu planning with discussions on what they would like to have the following week. They were not very helpful. There were the some who loved everything and couldn’t decide and others who really would prefer only marshmallows and gummy bears. We did try a lot of new recipes – some of them were very popular and have been/will be added to our regular menu. I might have time to write a post about them sometime in the future.

However, there were many weekends when I was left scrambling because I had no idea what groceries I needed for the upcoming week because I still hadn’t completed writing the menu. Meal prep was also arduous as unfamiliar recipes required more time and thought even if the recipes were ‘simple’.

Nap/quiet time in the afternoon was shorter with mostly older children. I barely had time to clean up lunch and only very occasionally got to take a ‘break’ before it was time to get nap/quiet time stuff put away and start prepping afternoon snack. We had ‘refreshing’ afternoon snacks like frozen fruit smoothies or ice cream and berries before heading outside again until home time. Some days I didn’t sit down at all between 6AM and 6PM. When I did finally sit down, writing blog posts was the last thing on my mind.

The older children have all gone to school now. Our routine is changing again. We have welcomed two new infants into our group. The four-year-olds are adapting to their new role as the ‘big kids’ setting examples for the new ones. The former ‘baby’ of the group is now suddenly the ‘middle’ child. It has been surprisingly quiet – and I’m doing a lot more sitting because if I stand there will also be an expectation that I carry one, or more, of the children.

It is another variation – a new phase – in a mixed age group in family childcare.

Vacation 2021

I didn’t take vacation time in 2020 so this year I was really looking forward to the time off to complete some much needed projects. I had a total of 19 days this year and five projects planned. Only one of the projects was an indoor project – replace foam tiles on playroom floor. It had originally been on my list for 2020 but then – no vacation, no reno.

I have replaced the interlocking foam tiles many, many times as a weekend project because removing old worn tiles and installing new ones isn’t very difficult. However, this time it was going to take longer as I was NOT planning on adding more foam tiles because Montgomery eats them and I don’t need more vet bills.

This time I went with much more durable rubber gym flooring. Like the foam, it provides traction and sound dampening over the hardwood floor and is so much nicer for sitting or crawling on.

My second project was not a play space but it improved access. The front sidewalk was just off centre of the front yard – two fence panels on the West side of the walkway and one fence panel on the East. There were stepping stones from the sidewalk to the front steps and side gate both located on the East side of the yard.

Now all three fence panels are together and the sidewalk is located on the East side of the yard and leads directly to the front steps and back yard gate. Bonus result is I could also expand the native prairie garden into the space where the sidewalk had been. The opportunity to add garden space means this project was more ‘relaxing’ than actual work even though the temps were about 30C every day! Oh, and we also added a garden bench because we had some extra wood! Only needed to buy a little soil and mulch, otherwise everything for this project was recycled/reused so total cost under $100 🙂

The remaining three mini projects were all part of the full back yard renovation. The main purpose of which was to define the spaces better and improve storage for all the loose parts.

The picture below is from 2019 and shows the deep gravel ‘digging’ area on the right surrounded by stumps and the lower ‘building’ area on the left. I tried to keep the gravel in the building area level and packed – better for building on – but the children tended to dig here too, after all it was gravel.

The full back yard now looks like this (reverse viewpoint from above photo);

The logs, stumps, table, stepping stones, composter and main garden have not changed this year. The benches have been removed from the swing area, a new herb garden space was added and the mulch was replaced with turf tiles. Though part of the ‘master plan’ this project was actually completed on a weekend in the Spring prior to my vacation.

The first of the three backyard projects during my vacation was the loose parts storage wall between the gravel digging area and the new, larger building area with recycled rubber surfacing (and a carpet in case it gets too hot to sit on – though it is fully shaded). I kept the water area adjacent to the building area because the children LOVE building bridges.

There is so much more space for storing loose parts/building supplies and it is easier to access than the previous deep bins. I used pallets for the wall so more recycled wood!

Bigger items are still stored in some of the bins.

The other side of the pallet wall has new storage for the digging area which never used to have any loose parts or storage, just a few pails, pots and digging tools. Now there are so many more options.

Backyard project two was to replace the tipi – I know, everyone loved the tipi but its shape and placement were not very functional. I used the poles and covering to form a roof over the entire corner of the yard. It makes a larger ‘house’ and the tunnel was moved here too.

This is the view of the yard from inside the house;

The third backyard project is the new messy play area. Located inside the garden wall it is separate from the other areas. Made from reclaimed wood, tile samples, and a salvaged laundry sink, the total cost for this project was $0. We have not used it yet (only been one day), I don’t think any of the children even noticed it as they were so excited to explore all the other new spaces. Besides, I’m still collecting some containers of ‘ingredients’ for the children to use here but…soon…

Catching Up

I’m spending a portion of this four day holiday weekend catching up on some of the things I never seem to have enough time for. This morning my task list included going through a multitude of photos I have taken and deciding which to delete, file, add to the entrance area slideshow or write blog posts about.

Now I have to actually write some posts – this first one is actually about TWO projects that we worked on last summer. Yes, I am that far behind which is why I’m combining two projects in one post.

Back in June I wrote about the new octagon shaped dining table. I also wanted to write about the place mats the children (aged 2-8) made to define their spaces at the table. Each child worked on their place mat design independently so each one would be unique as some of the children are prone to copying or competing with others.

When they were all complete and dry I covered the place mats with clear plastic film to protect them from spills. Only once they were all together on the table did the children get to see what the others had created.

For several weeks these place mats were the main focus of discussions around the table at meal/snack times. The conversations were amazing. So many questions. So much interest in what others had done.

Interestingly it was the work of the two-year-old that garnered the most attention – ‘Hey, how did he do that?’

The answer to that question is ‘After he added paint, he used the handle of the brush to create the textured pattern’. This was exactly why I had them all work independently. Had they all been painting at the same time then either someone would have ‘corrected’ him by telling him he was using the wrong end of his paint brush or everyone would have copied him and the place mats would have all looked the same… End of conversation.

The second project didn’t involve the children but was a space I created for the children. The ‘Nature Area’ is the small room off the main play space. It has always been a quiet space to read, relax or reflect. This post from last year show what it used to look like after the addition of the nest swing.

The babies’ cribs used to be situated on opposite sides of the room with their long side against the wall and the ‘quiet’ space in the centre of the room. There was some ‘extra’ space at the ends of the cribs – not really enough to be considered useful for storage space or play space just wasted space. Wasted space bothers me immensely.

Last summer I moved both cribs to the same side of the room with their short sides against the wall and the cot storage between them – no more wasted space. At nap time a temporary divider wall is placed between the cribs to provide a little privacy for sleeping babies now that they are much closer to each other.

The open area of the room is now considerably larger with the addition of the space on the other side of the room. I rearranged the trees and added some cushions and a wall tapestry. It is now a much more cozy, comfortable area for reading and relaxing.

There is still plenty of open space in front of the window if the children want to stand and look outside at ‘real’ nature. Of course there are still fake branches, bird and butterflies to look up at when you lay on the nest swing.

But that could change too. I did buy another tapestry that I considered hanging on the ceiling here…but I love it so much I might put it somewhere else. I just haven’t yet decided where that may be…

Paper Towels

Around here we wash our hands a lot – before and after every meal/snack, after diaper changes/bathroom breaks, after outdoor play, after crafts/sensory play activities and more. We’ve been doing this since the first day I opened my childcare home. Even before the babies can stand on their own I hold them and help them to wash their hands – teaching them all the steps until they can do it on their own. It becomes a habit – a good habit.

The children are also not allowed to share hand towels when drying their hands. Early in my career I briefly used small cloths for drying hands – single use, one per child after every hand washing and laundered daily. Even with my small group of children it was a lot of laundry. It didn’t take long for me to switch to single use paper towels.

For more than twenty years now we have used paper towels to dry our hands. They were convenient and with the dispensers they were easy for even the littlest ones to use independently. The monetary cost wasn’t unbearable but the environmentalist in me sometimes wondered if there was a better option.

As long as we used a separate bin for used paper towels I could put them in my composter but especially during the winter we would run out of room for them. Around here the only bin that never gets very full is the garbage bin – other than diapers and cat litter almost everything else gets recycled, reused or composted.

When the children crumpled their paper towel in a ball before trying to dry their hands we’d do ‘science’ experiments to show how much more effective they were when they were flat as opposed to balled up. I found it particularly frustrating when the older children would quickly yank three or four paper towels from the dispenser, fold them in half, toss them in the bin and then wipe their hands dry on their clothes. Ugh! Seriously – WHY?

Sometimes I’d see whole stacks of unused paper towels in the bin because they just fell out of the dispenser and someone decided to toss them instead of reloading. A few years ago I doubled the size of my composter but we still don’t have enough room for all those paper towels which take up more space than all our food scraps.

I contemplated going back to using cloths and doing laundry but decided against it. Instead I started researching commercial air hand dryers and discovered that there were many compact affordable options available. In fact, some were smaller than the paper towel dispensers and cost less than a one year supply of paper towels!

A month ago I bought two – one for the bathroom and one for the kitchen. I should have done this years ago! We are loving the hand dryers.

Except every once in a while when I hear a dryer running longer than necessary and find a child huddled underneath it. *sigh* ‘If you are cold we can get you a sweater.

Changing

I’ve been neglecting my website – haven’t written a blog post in almost three months!

This pandemic has brought many changes. For me personally most of these changes have had very little negative impact. I don’t like crowds, concerts, festivals, sports, traveling etc so these limits/closures haven’t bothered me but I understand many people have been greatly impacted.

Line-ups for the grocery store and empty shelves were a bit of an annoyance but nothing I couldn’t adapt to. I’ve always been a borderline hoarder – I have three freezers and two pantries to store all the stuff I stock up on when things are on sale. Still, there were a few items that even I ran out of and had difficulty finding and the increased costs have been rough on my budget.

Luckily my hoarding tendencies apply to my bank account as well – I’ve been called a miser – so my lowered income level wasn’t a disaster. I could still feed my family and pay my bills. Yet honestly, when CERB was announced I did fantasize about what I could do with even a one month paid vacation. I haven’t had a paid vacation in….my entire life! It was just a fantasy though as I didn’t qualify for CERB.

I did have two months of low attendance – which means lower income for the same 11 hour work day. Same number of meals and activities to plan, same amount of supervision, just slightly less busy throughout the day – and that for me is a negative. I would have much preferred either the, sometimes hectic, excitement of having everyone here or having no children here and uninterrupted time to tackle some other projects.

However, knowing that I would have low attendance for an extended period of time did allow me to make some changes. I was able to close some play spaces temporarily – I still had to wait until the children were gone before I could do any of the rearranging, demolition, or construction but I didn’t have to finish the project before they returned. Even with some ‘off limits’ areas there was still enough play space available for the number of children attending.

Work on the loft was the big project I had originally planned to tackle on my summer vacation but instead I was able to break the project down into smaller phases which I could then complete over several weekends in April and May. The finished play space looks like this;

Open gate between main play room and art/dining area with new table (previous post) and reorganized shelves.
Rearranged housekeeping/store area under new loft.
Entrance to housekeeping/store area, side view of loft stairs, animal/nature shelves.
View inside housekeeping/store area and stairs to the loft.
Looking North in the new loft – two separate areas, one for block play, one for doll house
South view from loft block area into doll house area.
Wide view of West side of playroom including entire loft and entrance to quiet/relaxation space.

I’ve had all eight children here full days for the past three months – the longest I’ve ever had all my school-age spaces full. I decided not to close for a summer vacation this year because the need for summer care was so high and I had already finished my summer projects. It has been an amazing summer – we’ve really enjoyed the new spaces during the limited time we’ve used them.

Really, 6:30 – 8:30 AM is our longest indoor play period. Otherwise the majority of our day has been spent outside. In fact, the reason I haven’t been writing is mostly due to long periods outside, away from my computer – trying not to obsess about what the government has done to childcare in Manitoba.

Spending plenty of time outside is nothing new for us – if the pandemic had restricted our outdoor time we would definitely have struggled – even with our new indoor play spaces. September will bring more changes. The school-age children will be leaving again – we will miss having them here all day. We hope they will still get to spend plenty of time outside – even in the winter. We may not be outside all day in the winter but we will still be outside several hours every day – and loving it.

Change isn’t always easy – sometimes it seems like an insurmountable challenge. We’ve faced it before and we’ll do it again. The unknown factors may be scary but we’ll figure it out.

The Table

Over the 23 years that I have been providing childcare in my home we have had many different table arrangements. Here are a few of the various setups from when we used the sunroom for art, meals, table games and activities;

And a few more arrangements from when we started using the room adjacent to the playroom:

Most recently the tables have been arranged like this:

In all our room arrangements we have had two different table heights – one for preschoolers and one for school-age. In some of the earlier arrangements – before I separated the childcare space from my family space – the school-age table was also my family’s dining table.

There were challenges with every arrangement because the children using these tables can be anywhere from 18 month to 12 years of age. Even when the children are similar in age their size can vary greatly. The small table is best suited for most 3-5 year olds so I have these little boosters I can use to make the seat height better for smaller and/or younger children;

Still the biggest issue has always been the school-age table. There are many school-age children that are too small for the adult sized table and they would often need to kneel on their chairs to reach – the risk of tipping chairs always caused me angst. The two different table heights made group activities difficult.

Many school-age children would prefer to sit at the preschool table when there was space available there. Also, because I usually only have school-age children for brief periods of time the school-age table was mostly just using up valuable space. Really, once I separated the childcare space from my family space there was no need for a tall table.

I started to design a plan for a room arrangement that could accommodate a multi age group at at single table height. Back in 2012 when I had a separate art area in the sunroom we used a 12 inch high table that allowed children of all ages to do crafts while sitting/kneeling on the floor.

Sitting on the floor was fine for crafts but I would need the children to be seated for meals so the new table would have to be at least toddler table height. Next I started to consider my options for the table shape. I loved that in our past arrangements the round tables had been great for collaborative activities and conversations. However, tables with straight edges were better for activities that required trays .

I searched through some childcare supply catalogues for ideas and got super excited when I saw an octagon table with adjustable height options. Seriously – what could be more perfect than a ’round’ table with EIGHT straight edges. I have eight childcare spaces. I actually even considered buying the table. I checked to see if they had it in stock, available for me to pick up – they did not, it would take 4-6 weeks for it to arrive if I wanted to order it.

Do you have any idea what I can build in 4-6 weeks?

Besides, I already had eight toddler sized table legs on the two old toddler tables – both of which I had also made many years ago. I had extra paint that matched the room. All I really needed was a 4 foot by 4 foot piece of wood that I could have the corners cut off. Shopping, cutting, four coats of paint and sealer plus assembly and the finished table was ready to use in under three days and cost $250 less. More importantly, because I made it I know I can also fix it if it gets damaged. The old tables have needed a few small touch ups over the 10+ years they have been in use.

So… Ta Da!

Now I know the new table is much smaller than our previous three table group BUT…I also used the old tables to create a separate art area on the reorganized wall where the toys and supplies are;

The art tables can fold down flat against the shelf unit if we want extra floor space. The white toddler chairs can be used at the art table – or the artists can kneel on the floor or sit on cushions/stools if they prefer. Best of all, unfinished art projects don’t have to be put away when it is time for meals. There is even some fancy under cabinet lighting.

I only needed to buy a few extra 2×6 boards, the table wood, and the light otherwise everything for this renovation was reclaimed/reused – total cost less than $75.

Space & Time

It is no secret that I prefer to be outdoors with the children instead of indoors. It is probably also not surprising that I spend a lot of time creating indoor and outdoor play environments. However, it may not be common knowledge that I really dislike planning group activities.

Autumn/Fall tends to make me a little anxious. I love taking long hikes and marveling at the colours and watching busy squirrels but fall is a transition season. After all our long summer days outside the children are starting to complain that it is getting far too cold to enjoy their favourite activities. Many fall days have frigid winter temperatures but there is little or no snow to make the cold exciting. I start to dread the thought of spending more time indoors – confined – bored – bickering – whining. *sigh*

So I start to plan for some additional activities that we can do indoors when it gets too cold to play outdoors for long periods. This year I had some activities that I was quite eager to try. There were even a few fall days when I considered trying them but I didn’t – because it wasn’t yet too cold to go outside to play – except it is never actually too cold to play outside. In fact, so far this winter there has only been one day that we didn’t go outside at all – and then the children were upset when it was lunch time and they realized they missed our outdoor time.

Most days this winter we have been outside for 1-2 hours and once you add the time for everyone to get dressed and undressed that is the entire time between morning snack and lunch. We haven’t needed additional indoor activities to keep us busy. On the contrary, all that ‘bored, bickering, whining’ stuff I was stressing about is because indoors we have too many transitions and not enough uninterrupted time.

We actually have too much to do inside – too many things, too many choices, too many distractions, too many disruptions and not enough space and time. In the confined indoor space every time someone picks up a toy, or moves to a different spot, or the phone rings, or someone comes to the door it changes the focus of all the other children in the room. The last thing I want to do is initiate yet another activity and create another transition.

Transitions – arrivals, departures, meal prep/cleanup, diaper changes/bathroom breaks, etc – even if they don’t involve the busy children, they are distractions that interrupt their play. They notice when I walk toward the kitchen and one of them will announce that it is time to clean up for lunch – it is not but someone will assume it is and an argument will ensue. The children have difficulty engaging in any activity because they are anticipating what is ‘next’ – no one is actually playing. They are in limbo, watching and waiting.

I can relate. I often put off doing paperwork, writing blog posts, working on my website etc – not because I don’t want to do it but because I know I won’t have enough time to fully engage in the activity and be able to finish what needs to be done. So instead of getting a little bit of work done I get none done because I didn’t even attempt to start.

Planned group activities don’t help the children. Certainly they can briefly create an artificial period of engagement and can effectively redirect when the children are in battle mode. However, they also create more transitions and ultimately they just make it more difficult for the children to make their own independent activity choices – the way they do when we are outside.

When we are outside, even though my yard is not huge, there is still more separation between the various play areas than there is indoors making it easier for the children to sustain their focus on one activity without being distracted by others playing elsewhere in the yard. My activities are also not a distraction when we are outdoors. I have several benches around the periphery of the yard that make it easy to blend in to the environment and observe the children without disturbing their play. I am present but not involved, not directing.

Indoors we have many of the same activity choice as we do outdoors – even many gross motor opportunities (that will be another post) but indoors there is less space and I am closer which makes the children less likely to engage in self-directed activities. When I am close their questions are endless; “What are you doing? Where are you going? Can I see in that box? Are we going to do a craft? What was that noise? Who is at the door/upstairs/in the kitchen?” They are not engaged in play because I am a distraction.

When I am too close there is an expectation that I will assist them, I will solve their problems, I will entertain them and they don’t need to do anything. In a small confined space it is more difficult for me to allow them more time to solve problems and I am more likely to redirect their activities. My involvement often increases the likelihood that they will do it again – there is a lot more testing of limits as I become a prop in their cause and effect experiments.

So, I don’t want to plan more activities – we don’t need more activities. I need to tweak our schedule and indoor environment to give us more space and uninterrupted time – or we could just go outside.