Tag Archives: mixed age group

The Train Debate

It has been just over three months since I last had the train tracks available in the block area.  There are several building sets that have not been our for over six months but the boys (there are no girls in my current group) had been begging for me to bring the trains out again.  I was hesitant because we have a new infant here now – babies are not usually very ‘helpful’ when it comes to building with train tracks but the boys were so insistent.

Last year I wrote about how wonderfully this group plays with the trains and tracks so I relented and brought the trains out again.  Even though all but one of these children were here last year, they are currently at different stages than they were before and the dynamics are much different.  Having the trains out now has been… interesting.

There is one boy who loves to sort and classify everything.  Now that the trains and tracks are available he arranges them all according to size and shape.  He creates groupings and lines the pieces up in straight lines.  He gets frustrated and very vocal when others come near or disrupt his methodology  in any way.

Another one just wants the train cars – ALL of them.  Upon entering the playroom he tries to pick up and hold all of train cars at once but that is impossible.  Instead, he makes a pile of train cars and sits on them.  If any other child has one or more train cars he will sit and whimper, complaining that they have ‘his’ trains.  If I suggest that maybe he should build a track for the trains he has, he will attach two track pieces together, pile his train cars on the track and then sit on them.

The third boy loves to create several small circular tracks.  He is an expert builder and can quickly select all the appropriate track pieces and assemble his tracks.  He excitedly shows everyone his accomplishment and then walks away.  When I remind him to put away his toys if he is finished with them he wails.  For each track section there is dramatic effort required to pick up and take it to the bin.  Each piece is so heavy that he couldn’t possibly carry more than one and often he is unable to even stand so he must slither and drag himself to the bin while sobbing “I CAN’T DO IT…I caaannn’tttt

The fourth boy is so concerned about and distracted by what everyone else is doing that he has difficulty settling into an activity.  He seems eager to play with trains, states his intentions and invites others to join him however it takes a very long time before he begins to play.  Often he hovers around the block area and complains about what the others are doing.  Once he does finally sit down and become engaged in the activity he can play cooperatively, it just takes so long to get there and there are so many disputes along the way that the others lose interest or we run out of time.

Boy five has little interest in building with the tracks but enjoys driving trains on the tracks that others have built.  He reenacts elaborate scenarios complete with narrative descriptions and sound effects but seems oblivious to the others playing around him.  He is fully engaged in independent play but will get very upset if others interrupt or ‘bother’ him.

Boy six likes to build complex track systems using as many of the track sections as possible.  He enjoys having the others watch him build but is easily frustrated if they attempt to assist – he has a plan.  He discusses his design plans with the others and explains how they will be able to use it once complete.  Occasionally he too plays with trains – briefly – but usually once finished building he loses interest and leaves the block are.  However, he cannot clean up because the others are still playing – they do love this massive track.  When finished playing the others will be overwhelmed by the prospect of putting away all those tracks – they would never have built anything that big.

*Sigh*  By the end of the first week of train play I was ready to pack them up and put something different in the block area.  It is not that anyone is using the toys ‘wrong’ but that they are all using them differently.  It wouldn’t be a problem if they would sometimes play with other toys but for the whole first week they all wanted to play with trains – only trains – together but not in agreement.  Essentially it was a week long argument.

I know that dealing with disputes is an important skill to learn but personally I’d prefer to avoid all confrontation.  It would be easier for me to put away the trains and say it is a consequence due to the incessant fighting.  It might be easier for me to create a chart and assign each child a specified time slot where they can each have an equal amount of uninterrupted independent play with trains. However it is probably better if I let them work it out themselves.  I can tell them what I see.  I can facilitate conversations and mediate physical disputes.  I just don’t like to.

At the moment I really don’t like trains either.  Yet, during train week two there were a few moments of hope.  I few fleeting periods when I thought maybe – just maybe they had figured it out.  We are now beginning train week three and the debate continues….

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Rock On

There were several yard projects that I had planned to do during my too short vacation.  They didn’t get done then but because they were all fairly small projects I have been able to work on them  on evenings and weekends.  I’ll discuss two of them today and leave the others for another post so this one doesn’t get too long.  First, some background info…

It was seven years ago that I removed all the plastic play structures from the yard and began creating a more natural play space.  In 2010 I added the ‘hill’ but it never really became the what I had envisioned.  I had used logs to create ‘steps’ on three sides of the hill and intended that the children would actually climb on the hill;

15-09-hill00I chose hardy native prairie plants that I hoped would stand up to the traffic I expected there would be.  Over the years I have planted 10 varieties of native plants here but only the Pasture Sage and the Giant Hyssop have adapted well.  I do love the Pasture Sage but the Giant Hyssop has been a bit of an annoyance.   It has spread all over the hill and surrounding areas – I believe it has driven out most of the other plants I liked better.

It has also made climbing the hill impossible.  The Hyssop grows so tall and thick that it hinders playing on the hill.  It also attracts a lot of bees which we do like to watch as they work but we don’t want to bother them.  So the hill is mostly just a tunnel and a bridge but even those are difficult to use if I don’t continually hack off and tie back hyssop overgrowth to the point where it doesn’t even look pretty anymore.

15-09-hill01 In the past I have used various trellises to control the Hyssop but ultimately these just create more barriers around the hill.  In fact, I don’t think any of the children even think the hill could/should be climbed on.   Last year another issue developed too with the stumps that I had arranged randomly throughout the gravel area around the hill.  Here you can see the trellis barriers and the stumps;

15-09-hill02Yes, I do like the way that looks but it did not function well.  There was not a lot of space between the stumps for the digging/building projects the children enjoy.  The school-age children would race leaping from stump to stump as quickly as possible and they were not very observant about where the little ones were walking/playing.  The little ones were not able to anticipate and avoid the route the older children were planning to take because there were several options.  Attempting to copy the older children some of the younger ones were beginning to take risks that were far greater than their abilities.   I was spending far too much time redirecting play – something I don’t like to do.

So, I arranged all the stumps in a half-circle with each end reaching a different side of the hill;

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The stump path is now defined and they are close enough together that most of the preschoolers can manage them all.  The older children have other options to challenge themselves – all of them require some self control and precision instead of speed and distance.  One option that they enjoy is using the smaller tree cookies to create shortcuts across the circle.

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There is now also a large gravel area for group digging/building projects if that is what the children want to do.  The area in the center of the circle also makes a good corral/cage for their dramatic play activities.   The half circle stump path becomes a full circle when you notice what I did to the hill.  Side one;

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and side two;

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My inspiration to add rocks to the hill came from this playground in Oslo.  I was originally planning to cement the rocks in place like they did but our little hill is not very steep and the rocks seem secure in the soil.  For now I will leave it like this – besides, I’m curious what the native plants will do next spring.    I may add some other small, rock garden type plants too.

Full circle – rock on;

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Making Room

Sadly summer is nearly over and school will be starting soon.  The littles and I have enjoyed having the school-age children here for full days but I’ll admit there was a brief period in the Spring when I was a little apprehensive about having enough space to accommodate the older children.  The dining/art area was originally set up like this;

15-08-room01This arrangement worked OK when the school-age children were only here for a brief period after school.    The school-age table was folded down out of the way most of the day leaving me and the preschoolers access to the toddler table and also plenty of open floor space for group projects, sensory bins etc.

However, when everyone was here it was difficult to have them all in this room.  The toddler table had to be pushed tight in to the corner  when the school-age table was up. It was impossible to have both groups seated comfortably at the same time. School-age children often had difficulty accessing art supplies without assistance.

So, I rebuilt my desk in the corner where the toddler table had been and moved the toddler table to the former desk location.   This switch enabled more space around all the tables AND it gave me more desk space to pile papers on too!

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It looks a little crowded in this picture but the highchairs and school-age table can easily be moved out of the way to open up a large section of floor space when needed.  The old school-age table is still folded against the wall – I brought out the larger table for the summer so the children had room for larger art projects.

The new box window that we built during my vacation now houses all the art supplies, lets in plenty of light and no longer has only a view of my neighbour’s dining room.

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The toddler table now only has one side against a wall so all six chairs are usable all the time.   This means that the smallest children can join the group at the table when they are ready instead of remaining in the highchairs because there is limited space.

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This flexible arrangement has worked well all summer and I’m certain it will continue to once we (sadly) return to the school-year schedule too.

Quiet Time

Possibly one of the biggest problems with having a mixed age group of children in a small space is nap/quiet time. Every day after lunch the younger children have a nap.  School-age children and older preschoolers who do not nap have quiet time.  The emphasis during this time is on ‘quiet‘ – being respectful of those who are trying to sleep in the adjacent room.  When the older children are off school I arrange the dining room like this;

15-06-quiet01There is space for all the school-age children to do crafts, sit and read books, or play with quiet toys from one of the bins.  There are blankets on the dividers to offer a little sound insulation but the children are still encouraged to whisper as they talk amongst themselves.  These dividers are the only solid barrier between the nappers and the non-nappers.

Older preschoolers are usually first introduced to quiet time by shortening their nap time.  They have a brief quiet reading time while I get the little ones to sleep and then they also have a short nap so (hopefully) everyone wakes up at about the same time. When there are no school-age children present I use the dividers to create a smaller quiet time area with just enough room for one or two older preschoolers;

15-06-quiet03At first reading books is the only activity choice available.  Gradually their quiet time is lengthened and other activity choices such as the felt board may be added.  Eventually their nap is completely eliminated and they are capable of independently engaging in quiet time activities for the entire time the little ones sleep.

Occasionally I have one or two toddlers who wake early.  Now ‘quiet’ is not something the toddlers do well, at least not often.  So, for this reason there are two activities that I allow only for those times when a toddler wakes early but the others still need to sleep longer.  One toddler quiet time activity is puzzles;

15-06-quiet06I know some of you are now wondering why I would limit such a fantastic activity like puzzles to such a short, occasional period of time.  Honestly, there are so many other activities that we like to do when everyone is awake that we don’t miss doing puzzles.  In fact, even with only a few short opportunities to work on puzzle skills some of my two-year-olds have  already mastered the easy puzzles and now need more challenging ones;

15-06-quiet07Some of the toddlers much prefer the other quiet time activity choice – stickers!

15-06-quiet04Although some toddlers find stickers to be a tedious, often frustrating activity there are others that will peel and stick stickers for hours on end.  So, even though there are always some miscellaneous stickers in amongst the craft supplies I have a large secret stash of ‘just for quiet time’ stickers too.  You never know when I might need a toddler to be quiet for just a little bit longer before nap time is over.

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The Loft Evolution

It was back in 2005 that the first lofts were added to our play space. These lofts were only one foot off the ground so that we could store toy bins under them and still have useable play space. The ‘puppet loft’ provided storage for blocks as well as a stage for puppet shows;

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Inside there was also a cozy bench to sit and read or relax;

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On the other side of the room was the original nature loft which provided a nature-themed play area with storage for dress-up clothes below;

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At the end of 2008 when we relocated the playroom to the front half of the house the old lofts were disassembled. The new play space only had one loft – a larger nature loft with two levels play space. It was slightly higher than the original lofts but still low enough that all children enrolled at that time could use both upper and lower play spaces. I wrote about it and our other nature spaces here;
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It was only a year later that the nature loft was replaced by library loft. This fourth loft was nearly four feet off the ground and the entrance was gated to prevent toddlers from climbing/falling on the stairs. This loft was intended as a quiet space for the older children to go read or relax – it was not a ‘play’ space.

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The space below this loft was used as the block area. The floor of the loft created a lower ceiling in the block area which limited traffic through the construction zone. Both the block area below and the quiet area above were popular play spaces for many years.

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In fact, these areas were so popular that last year we moved the staircase and expanded the loft. The expansion made both the block area and the library loft larger and more comfortable for several children to use at the same time. We loved it. You can read more about that renovation here.
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However, over the last six months, although the block area continued to be a popular play area, the library loft was rarely used. At first I assumed this was because it was summer and we were spending most of our time outdoors. However, in the fall when the older children returned to school the library loft received even less use – sometimes no children ventured up there for a week or more!

Most of the children in my preschool group are too young to traverse the stairs or read independently. For story times I always brought books down to read to the group. I started to feel the loft was wasted space – so of course that got me thinking about renovating again. Was there a better use for this upper loft space? Was there a way to make the library more interesting/accessible? I started making a list of all the things in our space that caused me angst.

  1. the loft stairs block part of the entrance to the nature area and create traffic flow issues
  2. to enter the block area you have to go through the kitchen play space which is always crowded with people and toys – more traffic issues.
  3. the block bin is too deep – some toddlers have trouble reaching all the blocks without climbing in the bin (discouraged – safety concern)
  4. the block bin crowds the music/dance space – all the children LOVE to sing and dance – a larger music area would be appreciated
  5. there is no good place to put the new cash register – I bought it months ago but haven’t put it out for play.
  6. We need a divider on the back of the kitchen area counter – the children get frustrated when their toys keep falling behind the counter.
  7. My filing cabinet is in the storage side of the nature area – two rooms away from my desk – my excuse to NEVER do paperwork – also means there a huge ‘to be filed’ pile on my desk.
  8. the cribs are usable for napping infants when children are playing in the play room but not when other children are eating lunch or doing crafts/table activities
  9. non nappers can use nature area at nap time but have few toys available and must navigate around cots to enter/leave play area – disturbs napping children
  10. reading and crafts are perfect quiet time activities but library and indoor craft areas are not currently useable at nap time – lighting is an issue in both areas due to children napping nearby.
  11. We don’t have a good indoor space for group sensory bin/messy activities.

If I was going to renovate to make better use of the loft space then I wanted to address as many of these issues as possible at the same time. I briefly entertained the idea of using the loft as a nap area – both the compact cribs would fit up there with space between. After more thought I decided that the biggest issue was the loft stairs – they took up so much valuable space. So…two weeks ago I removed them and changed a few other things too.

Now;

  • the cribs are in the nature area
  • the music area is larger
  • the kitchen area is self contained with no ‘thru traffic’
  • there is a ‘store’ area
  • the library is portable
  • both library and craft areas are useable during nap time
  • there are many more quiet time toys available
    and….
  • the loft is used for storage.

Since I am the only one who needs to go into the loft there is no need for a bulky stair case – I just use my step stool. Yes, this is the first time in nearly 10 years that we haven’t had a lofted play space but so far there haven’t been any complaints. Besides, you never know for sure, there might be another loft in our future….

Favourite Things

I always find it interesting when an old favourite toy from the play room becomes popular with a new group of children. Many of the toys once belonged to my own children and are no longer available in stores.  There are no commercials on TV to entice the children to want to play with these toys.

With a mixed age group in Family Childcare often the younger children develop a preference for certain toys based on their observations of the older children at play – a learned behaviour.  The younger children use the toys the same way the older children use the toys.  The toy itself is not necessarily the attraction – the younger children just want to be with/like the older ones.

There are some items that one or two children may love but others never show much interest in.  Of course, there are often items that are popular simply because someone else wants it.  These items are rarely actually ever played with – just hoarded for the sole purpose of being in control.

Some toys are loved by many of the children – different groups, various ages, over long periods of time.  These are the toys that interest me the most.  Why are they so popular?  One such toy is this little set of 25 year old blocks;

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Every time the Duplo/Mega blocks are out in the play room there will be at least one child in the group who will choose these nine little blocks every time they enter the room.  Of all the blocks in the bin the child/children prefer these ones.  Sometimes just one particular one – like ‘the puppy’ – which is the current favorite for this toddler.

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Yet many children have never even attempted to put the blocks together create the characters.  They don’t seem to care or even notice that there are three feet blocks, three body blocks and three head blocks that together can form 12 different characters.  Yet, of all the blocks in the bin these nine are almost always chosen first.  Some children never even play with any of the other blocks – just the white ones or none.

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There are other people/animal toys in the block bin and other areas in the room but they are not as popular.  There are other ‘rare’ blocks – there are only a few black or purple blocks compared to the plentiful red, yellow, blue or green ones yet only the occasional child will specifically seek out the other rare ones. There are other puzzle/matching toys throughout the playroom – they don’t engage any of the children the way these nine little white blocks do.

I regularly rotate the toys in and out of the playroom.  Two of the children in my current preschool group have never seen these blocks before and have not been influenced by the older children yet they still choose the little white blocks first.  Why?

I may never know the reason these toys are so popular.  There may be a different reason for each child.  I do know that I will continue to enjoy observing the children as they explore and make discoveries.  I will continue to wonder why.  I will continue to be amazed.

Improvements

Back in April I wrote a post about tearing down the half wall that separated the two main spaces.  That renovation resulted in a smaller art area that also doubled as a dining room.  It looked like this;

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Yes, we no longer had our larger dedicated art space in the sunroom but this new space was much more accessible throughout the day and therefore got used more.  Besides, we also had a new outdoor art area with plenty of space for messy art.

However, this new space was not completely problem free.  The preschool table did comfortably seat three small children for meals but three art trays didn’t fit without hanging off the edge of the curved table.

Also, I had four children that I wanted to sit at the table but one of the 2-year-olds had to continue using the highchair because there wasn’t enough room for four toddlers like at our old rectangular table.

So, two weeks ago I did this;

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Now there is more than enough room for all four of the preschoolers to sit for meals, craft time and other table activities.  The ‘counter top’ is no longer attached to the wall so this new table can be moved when necessary.  The school-age children can sit at the taller table which is attached to the wall and folds down when not in use – saving space.  However, the school-age children also enjoy using the little table too!

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I did have one big issue with this new arrangement – the chairs.  I’ve had problems with these chairs throughout the nearly 8 years I’ve owned them.  I bought them because I wanted stacking chairs but these are so bulky that even when stacked they take up a lot of room.  Bigger children complain about squishing in between the arms.  Also, because of the depth and curve of the seat, smaller children have difficulty sitting upright.

I’ve considered replacing the chairs for years now but they were expensive and replacement chairs are even more so.  Now that the table is a rectangle I considered using benches instead of chairs but I decided against it because putting toddlers on benches = trouble.  So, I went to Ikea 🙂 and now I have SIX new chairs;

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When the toddlers sit here I have one on each end and leave the middle chair pushed in as a divider.  The older children can have all three chairs pulled out to function like a bench;

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This new flexible arrangement has been working very well for all of us.  Meals and art for mixed ages in one convenient space.  Perfect.