Thursday, March 5, 2020

Packing some unstructured play into a little tin

Our grandson, who's almost 3, visits on Friday afternoons. When he arrives, he usually heads straight for the den, where we have an assortment of toys and random items, including wooden blocks and animal figures; puzzles and cards; books we saved from our children's early years; a couple of long cardboard tubes; balls; cups; measuring pitchers and other kitchen utensils; and assorted containers. 

Some secondhand items that will go into tins of "stuff" for kids.
Surely you remember playing with some mix of toys and nontoys when you were small—inventing  games and stories, conducting experiments, and generally playing in unscripted ways. I remember playing with my mother's extra buttons among her sewing notions, as well as other objects that weren't really toys. 

Early childhood professionals stress the importance of such unstructured or open-ended play in developing children's skills in creative problem solving and original thinking. Carrie Shriver, an early childhood education specialist at Michigan State University, says, "Play, and in particular creative play, has been identified as a key component of building children’s resilience, ability to focus, and the ability to act intentionally, even when the outcome is unknown. These skills translate into competence and capability in adults." 

She describes "open-ended materials" as those things that do not have a predetermined use (the way a licensed character is connected to its role in a movie, say). "A block can be a car, phone, doll’s chair, ice-cream bar or any number of other things in play," she says. (Read the full article here.)  

The little desk where I assemble the tins of stuff.

I think I must have been feeling some nostalgia for this type of play when I decided to make and sell little collections of random "stuff" for kids, in a mint tin (which always include a few buttons). I first got the idea when I would be selling at craft shows, and I had a dice game I invented for school-age kids to practice math skills. I noticed that children who were too young to do the math wanted to play with the dice.

After adding these tins to my inventory, I noticed that preschool-age kids were attracted to them, while slightly older children tended to look at them quizzically and say things like, "What are you supposed to do with this?"

That change in attitude with age seems to fit Shriver's explanation that the first five years are critical in laying the foundation for creative skills later in life. "From birth through age 5, children’s brains are literally forming the complex web of synapses that last throughout their lives," she says. I can't help but wonder if those kids who don't "get" the little boxes of random stuff have already had their capacity for inventing their own form of play driven out of them. 

Michael Patte, professor of education at Bloomsburg University, describes what he calls unstructured play as "a set of activities that children dream up on their own without adult intervention." He's concerned that too many children are over-scheduled, and that open-ended play is not happening enough these days. 

Magnets I made with buttons, postage stamps, and my illustrations.

I no longer sell at craft shows, but I still enjoy assembling my odd collections of very small open-ended materials into tins, which I cover with digital collages of my illustrations printed on a label. I suppose I'm really indulging in my own type of creative play when I collect items for the boxes, and make others (magnets, bottlecap tokens), fit them into a tin, and arrange them for photographing, before offering them for sale in my Etsy shop.

Are you ever too old to enjoy a little open-ended play? I sure don't think so.