On a damp day in mid October, the play yard at Lakeside school is abuzz. As I arrive mid-day, I am greeted by a rosy-cheeked 5 year-old. Beads of moisture cling to her fuzzy hat and the wild stringy hair sticking out below. She informs me that there is one table left at their restaurant, and I better come quick if I want to get something to eat. I am led down to a cluster of stumps and logs where a group of children are busy with a variety of tasks—all jobs at the restaurant. Chefs and waiters bustle about. There is a hostess, who is seated with a computer made of an old board and chunks of bark. She types something in, and scrolls down—confirmed! There is one table left. Another child leads me to a low, wide stump of a table, where I am seated and given a glass of water (another piece of bark). After ordering a big bowl of chili, I watch the hustle and bustle of the restaurant. There is a big plank counter top with organized piles of grass, bits of rock, and leaves—this is the food for the restaurant. Several children are working at their computers, others are running out to collect more food for the kitchen. Attached to the restaurant is a bakery, where bakers are mixing dough made with sand and dirt.
Nearly the entire Kindergarten class is involved in this restaurant play. The elementary children are dashing around the grassy area beyond the trees, and some Sprouts toddle through and sit with me at the table—they are happy to be served a meal of twigs and sand. All the restaurant tools in play are ones the children have found outside.
The objects in the play yard require the children to be resourceful. As they gather and discover the “toys” of the natural world, deeply imaginative and often imitative play results. Everyday Gregg and the children saw “wood cookies” from branches of birch trees: these become the ubiquitous toy of the play yard. They can be found in clusters under bushes, buried in the sandbox, filling buckets and going home in pockets. Wood cookies are, simply, little wooden cookies, but they are also fairy food, magic eyeglasses, tiny cupcakes, and real deal money, the currency of the children who barter and trade with them for other, more interesting bits of wood. Children dream into all these natural objects—branches, twigs, colorful leaves, and buckets of dirt—and they can be anything they want. The benefit is that the children are flexing their creative muscles without any adult directions.
The Kindergartners head inside to do some painting. There is a flurry of activity in the mudroom, as everyone pulls off soggy boots, rain pants, and layers of fleece. Inevitably, mittens and gloves are pushed into the corners, hiding maddeningly under cubbies and behind boots, some not to be seen again until spring. Hands are washed and faces are wiped clean of mud. Finally all are seated at the table, rosy cheeked and settled down—ready for the slow inhale of some quiet time spent painting.
All eyes are on Gregg at the center of the table as he pushes his paintbrush into a jar of deep golden yellow watercolor paint. As he touches the brush down, pigment spreads across the wet paper. The children dip their brushes as well, and soon the only sound is the quiet swishing of brush against paper as the children swirl golden paint across the page. There is only one color, but all the paintings are different. As the children move the paint, they begin to discover how to create darker and lighter spots, how to blend the color with itself to create depth on the page. They won’t use any other colors today, but in a few weeks golden will meet red, and the children will experience what happens when those two colors collide.
Painting in this way gives children a deep experience of color. This slow progression lays the foundation upon which all their future artistic work will build. They learn how to layer and move the paint across the paper with out the distraction of adding any other color or creating distinct shapes. Wet-on-wet watercolor painting is dreamy, fluid. As with the bark and wood cookies outside, the children are letting their imagination flow through the paintbrush onto the paper—these shapes can be anything they imagine. Without specific instruction, there is no limit to the possibilities in the children’s work.
It’s easy to assume that to foster a young, growing creative mind that we must provide expensive supplies and ample lessons and instruction, but really the opposite is true. Young children are innately creative and wondering beings. Given a stick, an empty box or a pile of broken seashells, they will come up with imaginative play. This play lays the foundation for the work ahead when these children leave Kindergarten. As parents and caregivers the best we can give our children is space, fresh air, and lots of time to play. The best we can do for ourselves is to take a step back, trust our children, and watch.