The Fruit Fly House: Identifying Academic Skills in the Wild

2 young girls investigating an orange on the ground

Emily and Kathrine: “Ants! Ants! Hey! They are flying!”

Me: “I see fruit flies!”

Emily: “I think they’re called fruit flies because they like fruit.”

Katherine: “They do like fruit! I’m going to go look for some more fruit. Ta-da! I found a potato!”

2 girls pointing out fruit and fruit flies to a boy

Emily: “Jake! C’mere! We found fruit flies. We’re finding some things for them to eat. Do you wanna to look for food too?”

girl holding leaves in her hands to place on the ground

Emily: “I’m gonna go find some leaves for them!”

Katherine: “But they don’t eat leaves?!”

Emily: “I’m building their home. This is their bed. This is a fence to keep them safe.”

Emily: “This leaf looks like a green bean, so I think they’ll like it.”

girls arranging fruit on the ground with shovels

Emily: “I’m gonna go check on the bugs…Yep! They’re still here!”

Me: “Do you see the same number of bugs, more bugs, or fewer bugs?”

Emily: “There’s more! You guys! Come look! There are more bugs now!”

Katherine: “They can eat these things up. When they’re hungry, they can eat it all up!”

2 boys and a girls looking closely at a piece of watermelon on the ground

When I opened up the Indiana DOE Early Learning Foundations alongside this learning story, I was surprised to find that Emily and Katherine demonstrated 29 developmental skills across 8 learning domains!* I can say with confidence that I have never written a lesson plan or designed an exploration that intentionally covered that many learning objectives.

Despite that, educators are expected to create lesson plans and activities — not built on the learning strengths of their students — but on their deficiencies. This deficits-based approach leaves many teachers and families feeling worried that they are not doing enough to help their young children succeed.

When we focus all of our attention on the knowledge or skills that our children don’t have yet (i.e. what they are working on), it’s easy to lose sight of the capable children who are standing right in front of us. We forget to celebrate, we even downplay, the valuable contributions that our children are currently making in our families and in our communities.

Children are self-motivated to learn what is most meaningful to them right now, regardless of any lesson plans we have prepared. The challenge is to first identify developmentally appropriate skills in the absence of any direct instruction, or “in the wild.” Only then can we truly challenge our children to stretch their skills and their knowledge.

girl pointing out fruit flies to 2 boys

In the story of the fruit fly house, Emily and Katherine combined their current knowledge and skills to solve 2 meaningful problems: hunger and homelessness. Think about that for a minute. At 3 and 4 years old, these children recognized hunger and homelessness as a problem. Emily and Katherine identified the problems and acted on them without hesitation, confident that they could fix it by using the resources around them.

They collaborated with one another and challenged one another. They reached out to others who they thought might help them. They also practiced flexibility and perseverance in the face of obstacles. These are all skills that will prepare them for the “rigors” of elementary school. More importantly though, these life skills allowed Emily and Katherine to engage as confident and active citizens within their current learning community! 

girls stacking pine cones on top of stones

Life skills like these are often overshadowed or abandoned entirely in favor of skills that can be taught and quickly tested by an adult. It’s easy for us to teach a child how to identify their name or to see if they know 1+1=2. Children however, naturally learn concepts like addition long before anyone tells them that 1+1=2. They discover it simply by exploring the world around them.

If I had only been looking for Emily and Katherine to demonstrate that particular math skill, I would have failed to see the other five math skills that Emily and Katherine did demonstrate in this learning story. By observing and recording the learning story first, and then comparing it back to developmentally appropriate standards, I could see that Emily and Katherine were not just playing. They were actively exchanging knowledge and integrating 29 distinct developmental skills “in the wild.”

If you are worried that you are not doing enough for your children, I encourage you to look at what developmentally appropriate expectations look like in early childhood. Instead of looking for all of the knowledge or skills that your children do not have yet, identify what they can do independently. I guarantee that they did not learn any of those skills purely through direct instruction or rote memorization.

If you, like me, are an educator who believes in the power of child-led learning, this challenge remains. How do I effectively communicate the value of my observations to others who do not yet see the connection between play and learning? I would love to hear your thoughts! Feel free to drop me a message at:

child pointing at a slug crawling on a watermelon


Foundations Observed

English/Language Arts Foundation 1: Communication Process

  • ELA 1.1-2: Demonstrate receptive and expressive communication.
  • ELA 1.3: Demonstrate ability to engage in conversations 

Mathematics Foundation 1: Numeracy

  • M1.3: Demonstrate recognition of number relations

Mathematics Foundation 2: Computation and Algebraic Thinking

  • M2.2: Demonstrate awareness of patterning

Mathematics Foundation 3: Data Analysis

  • M3.1: Demonstrate understanding of classifying

Mathematics Foundation 4: Geometry

  • M4.1: Demonstrate an understanding of spatial relationships
  • M4.2: Demonstrate an ability to create and compare shapes

Social Emotional Foundation 1: Sense of Self

  • SE1.1: Demonstrate self awareness and confidence

Social Emotional Foundation 2: Self-Regulation

  • SE2.1: Demonstrate self control

Social Emotional Foundation 3: Conflict Resolution

  • SE3.1: Demonstrate conflict resolution

Social Emotional Foundation 4: Building Relationships

  • SE4.1: Demonstrate relationship skills

Approaches to Play and Learning Foundation 1: Initiative and Exploration

  • APL1.1: Demonstrate initiative and self-direction
  • APL1.2: Demonstrate interest and curiosity as a learner

Approaches to Play and Learning Foundation 2: Flexible Thinking

  • APP2.1: Demonstrate development of flexible thinking skills during play

Approaches to Play and Learning Foundation 3: Attentiveness and Persistence

  • APL3.1: Demonstrate development of sustained attention and persistence

Approaches to Play and Learning Foundation 4: Social Interactions

  • APL4.1: Demonstrate development of social interactions during play

Science Foundation 1: Physical Science

  • SC1.1: Demonstrate the ability to explore objects in the physical world
  • SC1.2: Demonstrate awareness of the physical properties of objects

Science Foundation 3: Life Science

  • SC3.1: Demonstrate awareness of life

Science Foundation 4: Engineering

  • SC4.1: Demonstrate engineering design skills

Science Foundation 5: Inquiry and Scientific Method

  • SC5.1: Demonstrate scientific curiosity

Social Studies Foundation 3: Geography

  • SS3.1: Demonstrate awareness of the world in spatial terms
  • SS3.3: Demonstrate awareness of environment and society

Creative Arts Foundation 3: Visual Arts

  • CA3.1: Demonstrate creative expression through the visual art process
  • CA3.2: Demonstrate creative expression through visual art production

Creative Arts Foundation 4: Dramatic Play

  • CA4.1: Demonstrate creative expression through dramatic play

Physical Health and Growth Foundation 2: Senses

  • PHG2.2: Demonstrate development of body awareness

Physical Health and Growth Foundation 3: Motor Skills

  • PHG3.1: Demonstrate development of fine and gross motor coordination
  • PHG3.2: Demonstrate development of oral motor skills

Stories by Us – Lantern Road Elementary Media Center

Note: Playful Solutions is an education consultation company. The lead designer and co-owner is an educator who uses her extensive training in Project Based Learning and Environment as the Third Teacher to design spaces with our clients, not for them. The process is entirely collaborative. The end result is a vision that includes the voices of the learning community along with that of our lead designer.

a sign that reads "stories by us"This project began with a tiny space and some BIG ideas! Lantern Road Elementary is a public school serving grades K-4 in Fishers, Indiana. They asked us to assist them in creating a maker space that reflects their unique school culture and values.

Large empty bookshelf with yellow tape criss crossed over it. @ tables with chairs. Posters on the walls.
Before. The original area designated for the maker space.

a large sheet of paper covered in ideas generated by the students of the school
Maker space ideas gathered by LRE students grades K-4

As we talked with the media center specialist about her vision for the space, she repeatedly spoke of her students’ passion for storytelling. Although the media center contained a generous supply of works from outside authors, and it was evident that the staff encouraged a deep love of reading and writing in their students, the environment itself did not speak to this passion.

Bookshelves and couches. view of an empty window with nothing in front.
Before. Expanded maker space area that would later become “Stories by Us”.

It was clear that we were going to need more square footage to complete the vision. Thankfully, the staff and administration embraced our greatly expanded design plan. First, we divided the entire media center into 3 zones.

The staff moved bookshelves and reorganized books to create the first new zone called Stories by Others. This is now the more traditional part of the media center. It contains all of the free-standing bookcases that were previously spread out over the entire media center, the majority of the book collection, and desktop computers.

Large bespoke wooden sign with metal letters spelling out stories by others

The sign is a Playful Solutions custom design that now defines the function of the space. We used reclaimed wooden slats and large metal letters to make a bold statement while also retaining a traditional “old library” feel.

Inquiry is the second zone. It had previously been a place solely for students to check materials in and out. However, it has now also become a place for rotating provocations, collaborative project work, and staff training.

full size desk with clutter on the wall behind
Before. Check out space

The media center specialist removed the left half of the large check out counter to create a better flow from the front of the media center to the back. She also painted the back wall a neutral color. This color helped the new sign stand out even more!

a large sign over a bookcase reading "Inquiry"

The Inquiry sign was another custom designed piece installed by Playful Solutions. We used reclaimed wooden slats and letters with cozy patterns, keys, and door knockers to spell out the purpose of the space.

The third zone underwent the most dramatic change to become Stories by Us.

wooden sign with unfinished letters that spell out stories by us

This sign was designed by Playful Solutions to be distinctly different from the other signs in the space, starting with the placement of the reclaimed wood. The wood pieces were staggered and stained in different shades to give the piece a more homemade look.

bespoke wooden sign that says stories by us

We also anchored these simple, unfinished wooden letters to the backboard so that they could be removed. We did this to give the students and staff the opportunity to finish out the design themselves! We look forward to seeing their work!

Playful Solutions designed 3 new Landing Spaces™ within the Stories By Us zone. The purpose of each of these Landing Spaces™ is for learners to be able to play out, document, and display their own stories using a variety of authentic tools and materials.

a display of student art called Emery's House

After we established the Landing Spaces™, Playful Solutions contractors got to work on custom pieces like this large, wheelchair accessible Lego wall. At the same time, we also set our client out on a task. For educators who enjoy a good treasure hunt, like our friends at LRE, this is often their favorite part of the project.

Boys building on a Lego wall
Large wheelchair accessible Lego wall

For this first space, we asked the media center specialist to use her unique connections with other educators, school families, and even members of the community to hunt for research materials and authentic tools related to fields like geography, engineering, and architecture.

child using a shape stencil

children building with wooden blocks on the floor

We also asked her to try to acquire authentic blueprints of some of the local buildings. The response from the community was amazing! She received so many blueprints (including blueprints from a brand new IKEA store nearby) that they were able to display some of the blueprints in a large frame next to the Lego wall, while others are easily accessible for students to roll out and mark up either on the floor or on the standing table.

The second Landing Space™ in Stories by Us was inspired by this storage unit and a closet full of old games.

a table full of various games, some full sets, others missing pieces
Before. Inspiration for the game story creation space.

The media center specialist told us that the children loved exploring games, but most of their games were missing pieces, so they had been stored in a closet. This was the perfect opportunity for students to create their own stories through game design!

child with a basket of random game pieces and holding up 2 number tiles

We asked the media center specialist to combine all of the game pieces and accessories together.

girls cutting cardboard to make a game board

We also asked her to gather materials and tools for students to be able to make their own boards, document their game stories, and keep score.

2 girls drawing at a table

The final and largest Landing Space™ of Stories by Us is for dramatic expression. Playful Solutions designed and installed a large custom stage at the front of the media center, so that children can create their own backdrops directly on the windows or create their own props to stand up behind the stage.

a wooden stage set against a wall in front of a window.

For this space, we asked our client to collect materials or tools that might be useful for actors, directors, dancers, singers, songwriters, or poets. We suggested items like fabric, scarves and ties, costume jewlery, chip clips, and playbills and concert pamphlets to name a few.

boys standing on a stage singing into echo microphones

We also designed and installed one of our exclusive Sensory Kitchens™ in this space.

a custom play kitchen built out of wood and larger than most play kitchens available in stores

This was a perfect choice for the Stories by Us project because:

1. Many of the children’s ideas centered around food: a coffee shop, ice cream, a chocolate fountain, etc.

colorful dishes set on a table

2. We often associate food with community and conversation, which is a natural form of storytelling.

boy writing down meal orders on a note pad

3. The kitchen provides endless opportunities for authentic literacy and meaningful writing in a playful way.

child reading a recipe book

4. The Sensory Kitchen™ is a place to practice life skills and can be used to enhance cultural studies. We encouraged the media center specialist to rotate what is in the sensory bin as well as any books, tools, and materials used with it. In this way, the kitchen can accommodate project work involving cultural studies.

International grocery stores contain dry goods with unique textures and smells that will easily fill the kitchen’s sensory bin. There are different tools used in kitchens around the world. The kitchen can open up opportunities for family engagement and a cultural exchange of ideas surrounding food rituals and historical recipes. It additionally encourages entrepreneurial skills.

child's kitchen with bar top on the back and stools pulled up to it

We matched the color of the kitchen to one of the colors in the rug that the media center specialist loves, and chose a dark stain to compliment the beautiful, rich color.

We added a bar-top table to the back of the wheelchair-accessible kitchen to give them more counter space, and to encourage a natural flow of conversation.

Every part of this design incorporates loose parts theory, so there is a great deal of cross-pollination. The environment encourages architects, poets, and executive chefs to collaborate and come together to share their ideas and their stories.

After the Project

We returned to take some of these photos several months after the project was completed and were surprised to see that very little had changed. The intent of our designs is to encourage flexibility; to show how the environment can change to meet the growing needs of learners. However, since this is a media center, the children are only here for a short time, 1 or 2 days a week. We were happy to see that they were still fully engaged with all of the materials!

The media center specialist reported that she attempted to switch out just one of the provocations, but the children immediately noticed and implored her to bring it back. She is a great example of an educator following the lead of her students, and I am sure that there will be many more stories to come from Lantern Road Elementary.

children building at the Lego wall under the Stories By Us sign




Find Your Own Space!

girl fitting coins into circular slots

Learning is a social experience, but sometimes we need a little space for ourselves too. My 2yo friends have come to this realization over the last couple of weeks. While I work with them to identify and verbalize their need for personal space, I also adapted one of our invitations to help out. I simply used some closed game boards to create a sense of boundaries with one of our communal spaces.

I did not say anything at all to my friends about the new layout. They could all work together on one board if they wanted. They could freely move around to different boards if they wanted. I simply watched and waited for an opportunity to help my friends with this new social challenge, which didn’t take long at all. It sounded like this:

Regan: *scrunching up her face and shoulders and bearing her teeth*

Me: Regan, your face is telling me that you feel angry or frustrated?

Regan: I don’t want him to be next to me!

Me: Oh! You would like to work by yourself?

Regan: Yes!

Me: I understand! The words you are looking for are, ‘I would like my own space, please!’

Regan to Ben: I would like my own space, please!

Me to Ben: Ben, I heard Regan say that she would like her own space. She would like to work by herself right now. I see that Regan is working on the blue board. Would you like to work on the black board or the orange board while you wait for her? 

Ben: Black!

(names have been changed to protect privacy)

Setting Them Up for Success

Intentionally balance authority with freedom.

I had direct control over what the invitation looked like and why it was set up that way. I also provided physical proximity, knowing that I would have the opportunity to help my friends work through this challenge successfully. My friends however, still had the freedom to choose how they interacted with the materials and with each other.

Translate body language into spoken language.

“Your face is telling me that you feel angry or frustrated.” I validated Regan’s feelings, while also giving both of my friends more verbal language to express their big emotions. This also gave Ben more real-world experience in reading other people’s feelings. Ben can begin to connect words like angry and frustrated to Regan’s scrunched up shoulders and bared teeth.

Turn problem statements into need statements.

Regan stated a problem that directly related to Ben’s actions, “I don’t want him to be next to me!” It sounded like a personal attack, but really it was her way of telling me to take care of the problem for her. However, my job is not to take care of problems for my friends, but to help them navigate problems for themselves. So I turned her problem statement into a need statement, “You would like to work by yourself.” Need statements help children express a personal need to someone else — in this case the need to work alone.

Teach and model common social scripts.

“I would like my own space, please,” is a social script that I teach my friends because personal space comes up quite frequently. Positive social scripts are a common language that we all use to communicate our needs and wants to one another. I also use them as a kind of “bat signal.” If I hear an escalated variation of a script — “Find your own space!” — I know exactly what is happening and how I need to intervene immediately; no questions asked!

Assume the best and say it out loud!

Regan, and many adults in this situation, might assume that Ben was there to take something away from Regan. Even if that were the case, it is my job as the adult to assume the best of Ben. It is also my job to communicate that best assumption to both of them, while also respecting Regan’s right to personal space. “Would you like to work…while you wait for her?” The end of this question assumes and communicates to both of them that Ben was there because he wanted to work with Regan. So if Ben had been there to take something away from Regan, he has now heard me say something better about his intentions, which he is more likely to repeat in the future.

Follow up with positive redirection.

“Ben, I heard Regan say that she would like her own space. She would like to work by herself right now. I see that she is working on the blue board. Would you like to work on the black board or the orange board while you wait for her?”

Positive redirections do not feel or sound like a consequence because they are not. There was no reason for Ben to feel ashamed for standing next to Regan because I assumed the best of him. This positive redirection gave Ben a better understanding of what Regan needed: personal space. I also immediately presented him with a very concrete choice: black or orange. This gave Ben a way to be successful and feel empowered, instead of hurt or embarrassed. Because he already felt successful, he was compelled to make a good choice!

This was the very first time I have used this script with this group of friends. I know from experience that I will need to repeat it and model it consistently many, many more times before they can use it successfully on their own. However, I remind myself that my purpose is to teach them skills that they can take with them for the rest of their lives. That takes time. That takes intention. That takes knowing my why.

In Search of Echoes

child's feet standing on a drain

Henry (3yo): Calling into the drain, “MOMMY! DADDY! MA MA MA. DA DA DA. MOMMY! DADDY!” See, Miss Crystal?! MOMMY! DADDY! I hear it!

Me: I hear it! I hear an echo!

Henry: There’s an echo for me in there! It comes up from here. (pointing to the drain)

Me: The echo comes up from the drain?

Henry: Yes! Where are the other drains that have echoes?

Me: I wonder…I see a tube inside the drain that goes this way. (pointing towards the street) The tube goes under the ground. Let’s follow it! Let’s see where it takes us!

boy leaning over a drain and calling into it

“There it is! DADDY! This one has an echo too! Let’s see if we can find more echoes!”

boy leaning over a water access cover and calling out

“I see one over here! No. This one does not have any water. It doesn’t have echoes too.”

puddle with a reflection of a tree

“I see another one over there! No. That’s just a puddle.”

boy leaning over a drain similar to the first drain

“Here’s another one that’s like the other one (The first drain). It has an echo too!”

This is a sweet little story about finding wonder in the mundane, but there is also something else deeper. In rapid succession, my friend proposed a series of questions and wonderings. He tested them, and formed new theories based on his findings. Reflecting back on the experience, I can begin to piece together the spaces between Henry’s words and actions to see his theories.

boy kicking water into a drain

Echo theories according to Henry’s current research:

  • Echoes are a unique gift. There is an echo for me and there is an echo for you, but they are not the same echo.
  • The origin of an echo lies inside of a drain.
  • If you find one drain with an echo, there must be more drains with echoes nearby.
  • Echoes only come from drains if they have water in them.
  • If you find a drain that looks the same as another drain with an echo, it will also have an echo.
  • Echoes do not come from water that is not inside a drain.

boy shining a flashlight into a downspout

Henry’s theories of echoes are not all scientifically proven yet, but that is the nature of theory and inquiry. Theory is designed to be continually challenged. The goal of scientific inquiry is not to find the “right” answers, but to use answers as a springboard to the next set of questions.

“Is it possible to ‘see’ an echo?”

“Can an echo live outside of a drain?”

“Can an echo live in a tree? In the sky? In a cave with a bat?”

These are the questions that Henry is currently investigating.

2 boys leaning over a drain

His enthusiasm for echoes is contagious! Other friends have begun to join in the experiments adding their own unique points of view and questions to the mix.

boy and a girl shouting into a drain


One of the most beautiful qualities of inquiry-based learning, is that there is no end. One discovery, one question, one story leads to another and another. The depth and breadth of the exploration is entirely up to Henry and I’m excited to see where his echo theory takes us next!

The Marker Who Didn’t Want to Draw

Once there was a young girl, not quite 2-years-old, who loved to draw. She joined a group of young artists who also loved to draw, and I was their guide. But when the young girl saw how the other artists used the crayons and pencils, she was horrified!

child's hand scribbling with a crayon

Some of the artists appeared to have no control at all! Their arms and hands flew across the paper without a thought or a plan. They were messy! The girl called out to them, “No! Stop!” She could not bring herself to work around those friends.

child's hand drawing a rainbow with a crayon

Next, she joined a group of artists who were much more calm and quiet. Their work was meticulous and beautiful, but she soon realized that their drawing skills were far superior to her own.

I could see that she was beginning to feel anxious and unsure of herself, so I devised a plan to help her see art from a different point of view. My plan was based on a simple question, “What if there was a marker who didn’t want to draw?”

Over the next few weeks, I set up a series of experiments to test the question. Before each experiment, I shared a story:

child holding a marker in his hands

This marker is feeling sad. Every day she watches quietly from her box as friends laugh and play all around her. Whenever a friend helps her out of the box, they expect her to draw. Friends say to the marker, “Draw a car!” or “Make a picture for Mommy!” Sometimes they ask the marker silly questions like, “What is that shape?” or “What color is this?” Sometimes the marker just doesn’t know, and she doesn’t really care either.

This marker knows that she is very good at drawing and making things. She is good at it because she has had a lot of time to practice, but today she and her friends would like to do something different. They want to do what you would like to do. So what do they want to do? How would they like to play today?*

Over a period of six weeks, my young artists had quite a few answers to this question, including the anxious almost two-year-old:

girl jumping on a trampoline and marking on a large piece of cardboard

“Go up and down like an airplane!”

“I’m jumping like a tiger!”

“This one goes down the slide with Daddy!”

“The pink is on a roller coaster!”

“It’s kind of like a spaceship. It flies!”

child's hand pushing a marker into a piece of styrofoam

“The brown likes to dig.”

“I have to push hard!”

“I’m digging a DEEP hole!”

Styrofoam with multiple colored dots, lines, and holes

“I’m poking lots of little dots. I will count them 1,2,3…”

“This marker is motorcycling. It’s riding on top.”

close up of a piece of styrofoam broken into smaller pieces

“Look! It’s breaking into orange!”

children coloring on the underside of a table

“This marker wants to go upside down now.”

“It’s swirling into backwards Cs!”

boy holding a marker in between his feet and coloring on the underside of a table

“I’m pinching my feet. This one is ice skating!”

boy laying down on a large sheet of paper and waving the markers in his hands

“I’m swimming like my sister!”

child's hands lining up matching colors of markers

“These markers all like to match, like a family.”

boy rolling a marker down a ramp

“The markers want to roll today. They are going to race like the cars!”

boy holding up a marker tower

“I’m going to build a tower. It’s really wiggly.”

girl holding onto a marker tower from the top and the bottom

“Be careful! Hold it at the top so it doesn’t crash.”

2 children building markers across the floor to reach a basket

“Let’s see how many markers it takes to get to the basket. It’s like the marker is a measuring unit.”

girl lining up markers and connecting them on the floor

“It’s a train! Oops! It broke in the middle. I can fix it!”

girl coloring with a marker attached to a flashlight

“This is the tornado spinning.”

child's hands with a flashlight and markers moving fast

“I’m spinning around in circles. STOP! and GO!”

blurry image of 2 children running around a trampoline

“I want to find circles to spin around.”

“This marker is chasing you around the circles. You better run!”

“First your marker chases me, and then my marker chases you.”

toy bug sitting in colorful styrofoam

The anxious artist, now fully 2-years-old, is still with us. She still needs my help from time to time, especially being around friends who like to get “messy.” However, she feels much more comfortable expressing herself and her ideas now. She has seen how we celebrate the diversity within each art experience. She has realized that not every experience has to have a plan. Sometimes the only purpose is joy; the only goal is self-confidence. Everything else can wait.

*Full disclosure. We also had a conversation ahead of time, every time, about keeping the markers “safe” during the experiments. The markers were to “keep their helmets on until they had a safe place to land.”

The Jingle Bell Challenge

During preschool play group this week, two of my friends discovered a lone jingle bell resting on the stairs. The allure of an object just out of reach was enough to bring a lively game of balloon chase to a screeching halt. A and L immediately set to work, stacking up some nearby cushions and stretching their balloons to try and retrieve it, but the bell would not budge!

boy reaching for bell on the stairs with a balloon

L: Miss Crystal, can you get the bell for us, please?

Me: Oh! I see you found a jingle bell on the stairs. You are thinking about how you are going to get it out?

L: Yes

Me: And the balloon did not help you get it out?

L: No

Me: Hmmmm, I wonder what kind of tool you will try next?

boy reaching for bell on the stairs with a foam block

L: These black squares. I will stack them up here and stand on them to reach. (He stacks the squares.) But I still can’t reach!

Me: I see that your arm is not long enough to reach the bell. You are looking for something that is long to help your arm reach farther?

L: Yes! Oh! I can use this! (He reaches with a black piece of foam.) I still can’t reach

Me: You need something longer than that foam piece?

L: Yes!

Me: That’s good to know. I wonder what is longer than that piece of foam?

girl comparing the length of a brick to a foam block

L: A brick?

Me: Is the brick longer than the piece of foam?

A: Yes!

boy trying to fit brick between stair spokes

L: But the brick is too heavy and it won’t fit.

Me: I see. So now you are looking for a tool that is longer than the foam, and can squeeze through the bars, but is also not too heavy.

L: Yes!

girl trying to grab bell with bubble wrap
A: I’m going to try this bubble wrap

Me: Is the bubble wrap longer than the foam?

A: Hmmmm, maybe?

boy trying to reach bell with a longer piece of bubble wrap

L: I found a LONG one! See this one is LONG! I’m going to try this one! (He reaches with the bubble wrap.) It still won’t reach! It’s falling down!

Me: I see! It IS falling down. The bubble wrap is long enough to reach, but it is not strong enough to grab the bell. So now you are looking for a tool that is both long enough to reach the bell AND strong enough to grab it.

boy trying to grab bell on the stairs with an egg carton
L: This! (He brings an egg carton.)

Me: Ooh! I see! That looks long enough to reach the bell and it feels stronger than the bubble wrap. It is not falling down. Was the egg carton able to grab onto the bell?

L: No

Me: So you found a tool that is long enough and strong enough. Now maybe you are looking for a tool that can grab or pinch the bell too?

L: Maybe, hmmmm.

L: I know! A net! I grabbed the worms on the slide with a net. (He points outside.) Do we have a net?

Me: We do have a net outside; the net that you used to grab the worms. Would you like me to bring it in?

L: Yes, please!

boy trying to grab bell on the stairs with a net

L: The net is grabbing it!!!

L: Oops! It fell down! It’s in a tiny space now! (He tries to use the net in the tiny space.) The net can’t get it out of the tiny space!

boy using a net to try to reach bell in a small crevice on the stairs

Me: The net is a good tool for scooping up, but you are right. It is having a hard time scooping it up in such a tiny space. Pinching tools can sometimes reach in tiny places. Where could we find a tool that can grab or pinch?

A: This pinches! (She brings a clothes pin out of the atelier.)

Me: I see. It is pinching.

A: But it’s too short. It can’t reach it.

L: I found something that pinches in here! (He pulls tongs out of the oven in the play kitchen.)

L: I got it! I got the bell out!

boy carrying kitchen tongs

happy boy holding jingle bells
I recently had a dear friend tell me that these conversations sound so natural, but she feels like she could never replicate them for herself with her own kids. “I wouldn’t even think about it,” she said. “I would just get the bell for them.” Without a doubt, this kind of conversation and deep learning takes practice and presence from both the children and adults involved. However, there is a surprisingly simple conversational cycle visible in this exchange. This cycle does not require a specialized knowledge of child development — just an intentional choice to step back, trust, and encourage the inherent curiosity and resilience of children. It goes like this:

flow chart beginning with observe and listen, then say what I see, then wonder aloud, then wait, returning back to observe and listen

“The goal of any good parent or teacher is to eventually work themselves out of a job.” I’ve heard that quote many times, and I try my best to own it. With every strategy I use, I ask myself, “Is this going to result in my children being more dependent or less dependent on me the next time they encounter a similar challenge?” Quick responses and answers can yield short term gains in time and energy, but these often cost much more in the long run, especially if children begin to see me as the only solution.

This strategy is not quick, but it is extremely effective. It shows children how to look at problems in general, instead of giving them the solution to a specific problem. It may seem like a subtle difference, but it makes a huge difference in real world application. While it does take practice and presence in the short term, I know that my friends will feel a little better equipped and a little more confident in their own abilities the next time they encounter a similar challenge.

Loose Parts In a Nutshell

“This walnut is tricky.”

“First I get it stuck. Then it breaks.”

“I did it! Look! I see the seed!?!”

Cracking nuts is tricky business, especially when you’re only 2 years old, but it’s a challenge my friends embraced with joy. Of course, they still found plenty of other work when their hands needed a rest from the nutcracker.

They shared stories:

“I’m cooking the nuts. Mix. Mix. Mix.”

“This one looks looks a turtle. This one is too! They are swimming together.”

“This one is a crocodile…or maybe a frog RIBBIT! RIBBIT! RIBBIT!”

They made discoveries:

“I hear the nut shaking.”

“This shell smells different?”

“I see a heart inside!”

They found differences:

“The walnuts are BIG! The hazelnuts are little.”

“The almonds fall down. The hazelnuts stand up.”

“This one is brown, dark brown. This one is not.”

We often view skill acquisition from a top-down approach (“This is how I can teach children to            ”, for example). The truth is, children are constantly extending their own skills by simply exploring the world around them. To my friends, an invitation with mixed nuts is a fun way to play, but they are also practicing:

  • Self-Confidence
  • Trust
  • Conversational turn-taking
  • Negotiation skills
  • The Scientific Method
  • Sequencing
  • Classification
  • Pencil grip
  • Geometric thinking
  • 1:1 correspondence

I encourage you to keep your eyes and ears open to all of the ways children teach themselves through play. Let them show you what they are already capable of and you just might be surprised to see skills well beyond their years.