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Using Sobel’s Styles of Play to Guide Toddler Nature Experiences, Part 2

Last month’s nature blog introduced David Sobel’s 7 Styles of Nature Play and how they can be used as a framework for teachers and caregivers to enhance nature experiences with toddlers. The first article covered only three of Sobel’s 7 styles, Adventure, Fantasy and Imagination, and Maps and Paths. This month’s article will take a look at the remaining four styles of play, their definitions and how teachers at Wildwood Nature School and other schools following the 7 styles guide toddler play in these areas.

Animal Allies

Children often feel a natural empathy with wild and domestic animals, wishing to care for and protect animals who are smaller and more helpless than they are. Many children’s books capitalize on children’s tendency toward anthropomorphism by centering on talking animals or animals that have quite human interactions and problems.

School programs for toddlers can capitalize on their animal love as well. Even small animals provide fascinating observation opportunities for young children. Slugs, newts, spiders, beetles and woolly caterpillars are among the animals we’ve spent time watching.

Nurture children’s empathy by providing care for a classroom pet or encouraging children to think of ways they can help animals outside. At Wildwood Nature School, we like to make bird feeders. We have rolled toilet paper tubes in vegetable shortening to provide a sticky surface and then rolled the tubes in bird seed. Another idea is to string bird friendly cereal or popcorn on a pipe cleaner. (Pull back one end to reveal a pointed tip that can be used for stringing.) After the feeders are ready, children can find homes on trees for their feeders.

Special Places

Kids enjoy having places to call their own, where they can construct, retreat or hide. For older children, this often means having lots of “loose parts,” like logs, scrap wood and brush, available for them to build. I have found that for the toddler age, it’s enough to discover places that are already there. In a nature school setting, these special places could be an opening at the base of a tree, a child-size “room” under a bush, or a fort built by older children. My preschoolers enjoy creating “surprises” for the parent-child toddler class to find and play with.

These special places are easy to create anywhere. When my older son was in preschool, his teacher often helped children build “cozy houses,” or little forts constructed from chairs and silk scarves. My younger son’s twos teacher had a large cardboard box with pillows set inside it for children to retreat to when they needed a break from the action in the room.

Small World Play

Inside a classroom, small world play is often associated with a dollhouse, where children can use small, movable parts to recreate scenes from real life. This type of play can be a helpful way for children to process things that have happened in their lives. In my own son’s toddler and preschool years, our family had a succession of moves. At age four, one of his favorite activities was packing up all of the dollhouse furniture into a toy truck, pushing the truck back around the room a bit and then returning it to the now “new” dollhouse to set up the furniture again.

Outside, fairy houses and gnomes can provide this same type of dramatic play and processing opportunity. At our school, we have small acrylic animals (dinosaurs, lizards, snakes) that “live” in the garden to be manipulated by the children. Another idea is to bring small characters into a sandbox or mud kitchen to serve a similar purpose. Sensory and light tables provide indoor opportunities for small world play.

Hunting and Gathering

Go anywhere with young children, and they will start collecting treasures. We have had success using egg cartons as collection trays for our walks in the woods. Cara Mia Duncan (from the Hathaway Brown School in Ohio) suggests giving toddlers some parameters for their collections. For example, a teacher could decide we are going to look for the color white today or things that come from trees. Toddlers particularly love collecting “the smallest objects you can find” in a single plastic egg.

These collections can come inside the classroom for further play or observation. Natural treasure collections are good for sorting, counting, practicing descriptive vocabulary, and careful observation under a microscope. Collection items can also be used in art projects like collages or stick looms or just set on a light table or sensory table for further play.

As with most things in early childhood, the divisions between each style of play are not cut and dried. The principles overlap, and children may be focused on more than one style of play and learning at a time. The role of the adult in any situation is first and foremost to observe what the children are already doing and then to enhance their learning by bringing in new materials or pointing them in a complimentary direction.

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