A different way to play – part 2
SARAH BALDWIN continues her conversation with DEBRA LYNN DADD on non-toxic toys, including storybooks, seasonal toys, play silk, and other organic materials for art and craft that are available on Sarah’s website, www.bellalunatoys.com.
Q: I remember some years ago when I first started discovering these toys, my husband and I bought different toys just because we wanted to have the shapes of different things. At that time he was trading futures for pork bellies, and I bought him a little pig. He just loved it because he loves anything that’s wood. Even though he’s not a child, he still appreciates the smell and touch and feel of wood.
I was looking at your website, and there are so many different and interesting things. I’d like us to talk about some of these different toys, how children play with them, and how they give children a different view of the world. The page I’m on right now is about children’s books, and I see that they revolve around the seasons. The book talks about children engaged in springtime activities, like playing with new-born lambs, planting a garden, decorating Easter eggs, watching baby birds, and things like that.
SB: Yes, the series you’re looking at is a set of four board books for toddlers. Just as I was talking before about the simplicity of toys, there is simplicity in these books too. They have no words, just as Waldorf dolls have no faces. A child and parent can look together at these pictures of children doing seasonal things, like dyeing Easter eggs in spring, and walking through a mud puddle or jumping in leaves in the autumn book. So this will help children with their own language. As a toddler is developing his or her vocabulary they can make up the words; they can make up their own stories as they go through these books.
Q: And the stories could be different every time they are told, whether the parent is telling the story or the child is telling the story.
Q: Again it’s use of imagination; they can see different things in the pictures. It’s just another way I see of connecting the children and parents, too, to the natural world as the basis of life, rather than having the industrial world as the basis of life. This takes you into that bigger world, whether it’s a toy or book.
SB: Exactly. Storytelling is such a big part of Waldorf Education throughout all the grades, starting in early childhood and going through eighth grade and even through high school. In the early years we tell stories by heart; we don’t use a lot of picture books. In kindergarten we tell a lot of fairy tales, and the teacher repeats them over and over again. Sometimes we tell the same story every day for a week until it really becomes a part of the child, and those children then start telling the stories themselves and you hear it in their play. It’s a very different thing to tell a story by heart than to read it from a book.
And for parents to make up stories with their children is the best gift of all. A lot of parents think, “Oh, I can’t do that. I can’t think of anything.” Well, it’s so easy once you start. Children love to hear stories about, “When I was a little girl,” or “When daddy was a little boy and did this.” A great thing to do at bedtime is to review the day with your child. You can make up a story about a little squirrel or a mouse that did all the same things your child did that day.
Young children love
to imitate the world
they see around them,
and to imitate the work of adults.
So as teachers we are very conscious
that what we say needs
to be worthy of imitation.
Q: I also want to mention that some of the other toy categories are art supplies, so that children learn drawing, writing, painting, modeling and crafts, to help them learn skills like knitting and sewing. Some of the other toys have to do with playing things, like cooking, and so there are a lot of skills that children learn while they are playing.
SB: Yeah, exactly. Another thing that is unique about Waldorf Education is the emphasis on handwork. All children in the early years learn to work with their fingers. Kindergarten children learn what we call finger knitting, like making a crochet chain by hand with their fingers.
What all the recent research shows is how directly connected the finger tips are with the brain. And so by developing fine motor skills, children are actually developing their brains and increasing their capacity for learning. When children get to first grade in a Waldrof School, all the boys and girls learn to knit with knitting needles. They later learn to crochet and embroider, and by sixth grade they are sewing and learning to use the sewing machine. But these just aren’t artistic activities, these are learning activities that really help in brain development as well as producing beautiful things with their hands: things they can give as gifts or use themselves.
Q: And it’s a useful skill in life; people should know how to do things like sew a button on their shirt at least.
Q: So it’s giving children basic life skills while they are playing, instead of sitting them down with a book and saying, “Now read this.” It’s that actual hands-on activity, and a lot of these toys are things like a stove or a cash register that is a toy for a real life skill.
Q: And they can play going to the store and learn how to count money and things like that. That’s just one of the things I love.
SB: Exactly. You bring up a good point: young children love to imitate the world they see around them, and to imitate the work of adults. So as teachers we are very conscious that what we say needs to be worthy of imitation. What are our actions? What are the children seeing us do and how are we doing them? Are we hurried and stressed as we do our daily work, or can we remain calm and relaxed as we are preparing meals or cleaning and doing mundane tasks? Are we doing them consciously and with intention, knowing that the children around us will be imitating not just our actions but our mood as well?
Q: Yes. So, tell us about play silks. What do children do with play silks?
SB: They’re just large squares of dyed silk in different colors, about one yard by one yard square, and they are played with in so many ways. Most Waldorf kindergarten classes will have a big basket of colored silk. The children use them as dress-ups, they will tie them on as a cape or a skirt or a veil, or they become wings, or tie it around their waist as a belt for a pirate sword, and they also use them as landscapes in their play. They’ll take a green silk and it will become green grass for little wooden horses, and a blue silk will become a pond or a lake, and a brown silk draped over some blocks becomes a mountain. We talked earlier about materials that are nourishing to the senses, and silk just feels so lovely to the skin and really fulfills that need of toys that are nourishing to the senses.
Q: Yes, silk does feel so different than polyester. Tell us about some of the seasonal toys.
SB: I always try to have a collection of things for the season because, again, in Waldorf Education the seasons are very important, and we talk a lot about rhythm. Having a rhythm of the day, a rhythm of the week, a rhythm of the year. And the rhythm of the year is the season. A lot of it is how children in the early years are learning about the world and nature, which is kind of their science study.
Celebrating festivals throughout the year, too, is really healthy for children. Just think back to your own childhood; holidays through the year not only give us a reference for the frame of the year but also bring reverence and meaning to the seasons and to whatever holidays and whatever culture we’re from.
Children love ritual and celebration, and so at this time of the year we have some German wooden advent figures, a spiral where you can light candles whether you celebrate the Solstice or Advent or Christmas or Hanukkah. They’re all celebrations to light into the darkest time of the year, with the short days and the long nights, and lighting candles. So all these different festivals from different traditions have to do with light this year. We have this lovely wooden spiral that holds 24 candles that you can either count off leading up to Christmas or whatever festival you celebrate. At Easter we’ll have lots of springtime grass planting kits and natural egg dyeing kits, and we’ll have gardening things in the summer, and so on.
Q: Wonderful! And in addition to all these unusual things there also are the usual things, like wooden blocks, push/pull toys, puzzles and stuffed toys.
Well, Sarah, I so appreciate you being here as a guest. Is there anything else that you would like to say before we end?
SB: I just want to thank you so much Debra for your interest. I’m glad you discovered Bella Luna Toys, and I really appreciate your enthusiasm and everything you are doing to promote green and healthy living.