Category Archives: Learning Environment

Vacation 2019

Another two week vacation, another big outdoor project – perfect! But before I tell you what I did on my vacation I’ll give you a little yard history.

The upper deck existed before my childcare home opened. It separated the South facing backyard from the East facing side yard. The side yard was the dog’s yard and the vast space under the upper deck was her dog house. The play space in the back yard consisted of a 300 sq ft gravel area with a play structure and a 360 sq ft ground level deck. The outdoor toys were stored in a tarp wrapped wooden frame shed built against the West fence.

There was no back wall on that little toy shed because it was positioned against the fence. It was about 15 years ago that we moved the toy shed so we could use that spot for our first garden – it was the only spot in our back yard that was not deck or gravel. We then attached the toy shed to the South side of the upper deck where the open back allowed us to extend the toy storage to the space under the deck (after we made the dog house smaller).

The tool/garden shed was located by the carport – South of the lower deck and East of the gravel area. When we decided we needed a bigger garden space, we took the tool shed apart and rebuilt it ON the rarely used lower deck and attached it to the front of the toy shed. We then put in a bigger garden where the tool shed had been.

This picture was taken many years ago on the upper deck;

The shelf and framed white panel on the right side is the back and top of the old toy shed. The higher redwood wall beyond it is the back of the tool shed. Not visible in the picture – back door of the house behind me, stairs down to the back yard on the right, and stairs down to the side yard on the left. Also not shown is the bike shed which is in the side yard attached to the North side of the upper deck.

We had created ‘Frankenshed’ – it had a very large foot print but inefficient storage. You could enter the bike shed from the side yard, then crawl under the upper deck, go through the toy shed and then go out the tool shed into the back yard. However, it wasn’t a convenient path – more like a labyrinth where there was the possibility you could be lost for long periods of time. Sometimes when the children asked for toys that were stored I would tell them I’d see if I could find them on the weekend. I was never sure how long it might take me to find the toy and get back out of Frankenshed.

The only good way to get from the back yard to the side/front yard was by going over the upper deck. Even the lawn mower, snow blower, bikes and lumber had to be taken this way. It was frustrating at times. When the children and I were out in the back I couldn’t see the front gate because the upper deck and Frankenshed blocked my view. Consequently we rarely played outside later in the day when there was the chance parents may arrive.

So, on my vacation we;

  • built a new tool shed in the side yard
  • sorted all the stored items from all the sheds
  • took apart the garden shed, toy shed, potty house and bike shed
  • removed half of the upper deck and one staircase and moved the other staircase
  • built a new toy shed and a new garden shed/potty house
  • disassembled, repaired and reassembled the garden wall
  • created a new ground level walkway

We worked outside for 10-12 hours each day of my two week vacation. It was wonderful! Now I want to spend even more time outside in the yard. Some of the changes are actually quite subtle but almost every part of the yard has changed at least a little bit so I’ll include before and after pictures for each corner of the back yard.

NW yard in 2018
NW yard in 2019

The old potty house – by the water barrel in the back of the garden – was used only for potty training toddlers who couldn’t make it inside quick enough. Now that area is our new convenient toy storage shed.

SW yard in 2018
SW yard in 2019

Picture angle is slightly different due to the movement of the stairs so the entrance to the back yard is now six feet farther East. Many of the stumps, stepping stones and tables have been moved too.

SE yard in 2018
SE yard in 2019

Again, stepping stones, stumps and table moved. Added rope swings and removed sensory bins – the bins now have a spot in the gravel area with the toys instead of being in the active play area.

Construction area & kitchen

The pond was moved to make room for a larger loose parts/construction area. In the old fireplace mantle we added shelves for storage of dishes & pots which never had a dedicated space before. There is also a counter which can be used for ‘cooking’ but can also hold the sensory bins when we want to use them.

NE yard in 2018
NE yard in 2019

Here is where you see the biggest difference. The cinder block garden wall was originally built on the wooden cribbing for the gravel area. The wood was deteriorating and sections of the wall were tilting in different directions. The wooden cribbing was replaced with an additional row of cinder blocks. I doubled the size of the awning so we have twice as much shade. The ‘pond’, rocks, table, stumps etc were rearranged to create a larger construction area and make room for the sensory bin area (not visible in this picture).

The stairs and a portion of Frankenshed were visible in the 2018 photo but in the 2019 photo there is only the smaller garden shed/potty house. This new little shed was built entirely from wood salvaged from the old shed and deck. The potty shed half is large enough for diaper changing and also has running water.

This next picture shows my view from the bench by the carport – on the East side of the garden shed I can now see all the way through the side yard to the front gate! The ground level walkway (also built from recycled deck boards) has enough space for the art table which used to be on the upper deck and was not visible from the yard. There is a small gate beside the garden shed to prevent any of the littles from wandering into the side yard which is still not a play area.

That’s enough writing for now – I’m going outside to play…

Quiet Spaces 2

Our indoor ‘nature area’ located just off the main play area has always been considered a quiet space. Decorations include trees, flowers, rocks, birds, butterflies and grass-like carpet. The large window provides plenty of natural light (when the sun is shining) and a view to the real outdoors. The entrance/exit gates serve as a reminder that toys were not supposed to be brought in here. The babies’ cribs are also in this room allowing them to nap if necessary while the older children play in the play room – another reason why this was not a play area. This is where the children can come to read books or just relax.

There were some cushions here for sitting or relaxing on but some of the children thought they were better for tossing or using for pillow fights. *sigh* While most of the children appreciated this quiet space, there were occasionally some that thought the 30 square foot ‘grass’ area was a good spot to play tag or wrestle.

After creating the little quiet nooks I wrote about in my last post, I wondered if we still needed this quiet space – maybe I could somehow re-purpose the nature area into an active play space. I decided against it. We have the music/dance space and we use balance pods, resistance bands and tunnels for some indoor gross motor play when we can’t go outside. We spend a lot of time outdoors and that is still the best place for tag and rough and tumble play. Even if our indoor nature area mimics an outdoor space, it is still indoors and not to be used for active play.

I needed to find a way to encourage all the children to use this indoor nature area for its intended reading/relaxing purpose. So, I purchased this nest swing;

It is small enough that is doesn’t use the whole space but large enough to discourage running and jumping. I have it hung less than one foot off the ground so even the toddlers can easily get on and off the ‘nest’ (we don’t call it a swing) without assistance. It is also the perfect height to use as a table/desk – some of the children prefer to sit on the ground around the nest and place their books on it instead.

I have the nest anchored on two sides so it does not swing far but still provides a gentle, relaxing movement. It is especially nice when laying down and looking up at the trees above.

It has definitely become a favourite quiet space for everyone to read and relax.

Quiet Spaces

Throughout the past couple months I have observed the children using dress-up clothes and blankets to create ‘snow forts’ in the playroom. I recognized this repeated behaviour as an expression of interest in exploring the enveloping/enclosing schema and at first I assisted by simply providing some clothespins.

The children were still often frustrated because in our play room the best places to create ‘snow forts’ are also the walkways. Consequently the builders were always getting into disputes with the children who were trying to pass by to get to the other side of the room.

I had another idea. Recently I’ve been removing many of the items in the housekeeping area because the toddlers were leaving many things strewn about on the floor after searching for a particular item – there were too many toys. I took away a few more of the lesser used items, consolidated the remaining ones and then removed the empty shelves from two of the boxes that form the base of the loft. Then I added some pillow to these otherwise empty boxes.

These boxes proved to be popular places to curl up with a few small toys.

Of course I also knew that two hiding spots would never be enough so I rearranged the musical instruments and created two more spots under the keyboard shelf. These ones are even more popular – probably because the children can feel enclosed while still playing ‘with’ their friends.

Sometimes the children add curtains too

I’m considering adding ‘peek-a-boo’ holes in the board that divides these hideaways – it might make them even more interesting. Even after all the children have gone home, these spaces are still popular.

Vacation 2018

As usual I spent my two week ‘vacation’ working on projects and as usual I didn’t manage to complete ALL the things I had hoped to.  However, this year I DID spend my entire vacation outdoors because I was working on the backyard play space. It was wonderful!

I’m back to work today and the children should be arriving soon so here’s a very quick post about the mostly completed yard.  First, the view to the SW corner as you leave the house;

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Down the stairs and looking to the SE corner;

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From the SE corner looking to the NW corner;

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From the SW corner looking to the NE corner;

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This is one of my favourite areas – my little hideaway under the cedars;

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Here is the old tipi with newly added storage areas and camouflage cover;

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I added ‘castle battlements’ to the wall between the gravel area and the garden and attached the drums here too. The table was made from a spool and some tile samples – supplies that were donated by parents;

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The stump circle containing the ‘digging area’ was moved to one edge of the gravel area to make room for a ‘construction zone’.  All the building supplies are now stored conveniently under the willow;

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The fence panel between the bark area and the car port is now the ‘art wall’ – although not quite complete yet – the planters will hold art supplies and paper etc can be clipped to the fence;

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I also have a large hammock that hangs in this area when we want to relax 🙂

The biggest part of this project is not visible –  the removal of the old deck and walkway – there were sections of it that were rotting and unsafe, it was 18 years old.  I couldn’t just trash the whole thing though, any sections of wood that were still good were of course salvaged and reused.

Total monetary cost of this entire project was $350 (mulch, stone, sunshade etc) and a few hundred hours of labour in 30 degree Celsius weather.  Perfect vacation.

Special Moments in Time

Time is such a difficult concept for children and even some adults.  I often take photos when the children are busy playing – snapshots of special moments. Often the camera doesn’t fully capture what I saw but the photo can still serve as reminder of that brief moment in time.  These are some recent photos of moments that I found interesting.

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These are the props the children have set up as part of their ‘Santa’ game.  The little tree they built from Bunny Blocks and the snack they have put out for Santa.  These preschoolers initiate this dramatic play activity many times every week – not because it is Christmas time but rather because it is something they enjoy doing together – cementing their friendships.  They take turns being ‘Santa’.  The ‘children’ pretend to sleep in makeshift beds in the corner of the room while ‘Santa’ gathers their favorite toys from around the room to give each child as gifts.  They demonstrate such wonderful understanding of what their friends like and the importance of giving to others.  Christmas was months ago but time is irrelevant.

The children also enjoy purposely slipping on ice patches on the backyard deck and walkway. I keep breaking up the icy areas or covering them with sand – not because I don’t want the children to have fun but because I don’t like falling.  The activity was not a problem but there was a better place and time for it – I took them for a walk so they could slide here;

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February was officially ‘I love to read month’ and I didn’t plan any special activities.  With this little group reading is always a special activity especially when you’re with your friends.

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Another special time is the end of the day when there are only one or two children left – they wait for the ‘magic’.  When the conditions are right at the end of a sunny day if you’re lucky enough to be the last to go home you may be here when this happens.

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For a very brief moment in time the sun will make the music area sparkle.

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Sadly, now that the time has changed we probably won’t see this again for a while but some day in the future the magic will return.  It will just take time.

New Space

About six weeks ago I sketched a playroom arrangement on a scrap piece of paper.  It was the my response to yet another dispute over someone knocking down someone else’s block tower which was built in a walkway – a result of a small room with multiple play areas.

This was the old room arrangement with the shelves splitting the room in half – it allowed some separation between play areas but was difficult for me to interact with young infants/toddlers on both sides of the room or quickly intervene when necessary;

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I wanted the room to have better flow and more open space but still have defined spaces for various types of play.  I thought again about all the wasted space above us with our nine foot ceilings and took inspiration from tiny house design to create a new loft space – just for building with blocks, out of all walkways and the reach of infants/toddlers who prefer to destroy instead of create.

Construction took a total of six full 14 hour days over four weekends.  Some of the pieces were assembled and stored, installation was done in two phases.  The result is a completely new, more functional play space.

A brand new kitchen design is located in the SW corner of the play room. The cupboards and appliances were created by stacking and attaching wooden boxes.  The old block bin now contains food and other items that can be used in the kitchen/restaurant/store areas. The table is in the center of the room and has multiple uses.

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The music/dance area was slightly reorganized but remains in the SE corner;

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The workshop area remains in the NE corner along with some blocks;

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And the mini-scenes and entrance to the nature area remain in the NW corner but the dress-up clothes and ‘car’/steering wheel (not visible in this picture) were moved to the space across from the scenes, beside the mirror, adjacent to the kitchen area.

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The new 21 square foot loft is over the kitchen area.  It is 5 1/2 feet off the ground so the children and I can walk/stand under it.  Inside the loft there are bins of blocks and the dollhouse shelf is on the back wall.  I still have to find all the dollhouse furniture and people – most of them were removed from the playroom long ago because they were too small or delicate to have out when babies were present.  Only older children go in the loft so these toys can be there.

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The kitchen area shelves and appliances form a series of platforms that create an enclosed staircase along the side and back of the loft;

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Here’s another view of the new kitchen area and staircase. For perspective, the counter height is 24 inches and the fridge is 36 inches tall.

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I also added some new storage features inside the fridge but haven’t yet finished painting the inside white.

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There’s more new storage under, on, and beside the counter now too;

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The children are thrilled with the new play space.  From the loft they can ‘see everything‘ – makes me laugh when they include their house, favourite store, and the zoo in their list of things they can see from the loft.  Good imagination 🙂

Yet, of all the changes, the one that still excites them the most is the addition of this bell by the cash register.

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Summer 2017

Fall is definitely on its way – today is cool, wet, and dreary.  It has been a wonderful summer.  There were many things I meant to write about but never did – probably because I was playing outside.  Today I’m huddled in front of my computer, cat sleeping on my lap, waiting for one load of laundry to finish so I can start another.  Seems like the perfect time to write a quick summer recap.

In the yard we built a new composter and fire pit and added a gazing ball (lovely good-bye gift).

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We had some old pieces of cribbing that I let the children paint;

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They now arrange the pieces in various configurations for follow the leader games and other gross motor activities;

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Sometimes they make teeter totters but so far I haven’t managed to get a picture of them doing that.  They often make benches too – even though we have eight ‘real’ benches in the yard they seem to like theirs better;

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We went on a long (9 km) hike to the Forks and back.

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Watching the boats, ducks, and geese was great but couldn’t beat this;

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Standing on the path under the train bridge watching/listening to the train above;

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That was pretty amazing.

With colder weather approaching I’ve turned my focus toward our somewhat neglected indoor play space.  Plans have been made and work will begin soon.  By Thanksgiving we should have a new – tiny house inspired – loft.  So excited!