Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Bottom Of The Toy Box

While standing in our new playground last week watching the kids wallow in our new, fragrant coffee bean pea gravel . . .

. . . dig in the new sandbox . . .

. . . and play with our new water station . . .

. . . parent educator Elizabeth said, "You've got so much sensory play going on out here now, I wonder if you even need an indoor sensory table any more," and then suggested a number of other things we could replace it with, such as a permanent clay station.

(This is just one example of how Woodland Park's recent physical transformation has clearly stimulated the creative juices of our entire community. Every conversation I've had with an adult this week has, at some level, been about this ongoing process of change and renewal, which I intend to write more about tomorrow.)

While I'm very intrigued by the idea of every day clay play, I'm also not ready to give up on our sensory table, which is a magnificent piece of preschool furniture. It predates my arrival at the school by who knows how many years and appears to be a one-of-a-kind apparatus, made by a craftsman familiar with the manufacture of wooden boats. It's constructed from (I think) either maple or oak, held together with long brass screws, and holds a pair of side-by-side 2.5' square galvanized steel basins that are nearly 12 inches deep. And while we now have daily water, sand, and coffee bean play outdoors, we still need a place for things like warm water, ice, grinding wheat berries into flour, and rubber bands, as well as for our various concoctions featuring borax, cornstarch, school glue and other ooey-gooey substances.

I also find our huge sensory table a great host for activities that aren't proper "sensory" activities. For instance the large, deep, flat-bottomed basins are a perfect place for setting up our marble runs. The galvanized steel makes it a perfect home for playing with magnets, including our Magna Tiles. And I can think of no better place than our sensory table for breaking out what is by far our most popular sensory table installation: "The Bottom Of The Toy Box."

This is our massive collection of cheap, junky, broken, out-of-date, and out-grown toys, tchotchkes, parts and pieces. These are things that I've decided have just a little too much play value left in them to be tossed into the free-form glue collage box, although that is their ultimate destiny. This is where birthday party favors, fast-food kid's meal toys, and playful merchandising/advertising items wind up. There are Magic 8 Balls, Etch-A-Sketches, and View Masters in here. You'll find empty stick deodorant containers, door knobs, shoe trees and light switches mixed in with plastic jewelry, multiple iterations of Hello Kitty, tops, yo yos, and containers of every conceivable form and fashion.

As parents arrive to drop off their kids, comments range from, "This looks like our house," to "We should have something like this at our house," to "I'm sure glad this is happening in preschool and not at my house."

It's a place to explore and discover to be sure. It's a place to make strange and wonderful connections between dissimilar objects. It's a place for playing hide-and-seek and "I spy with my little eye." On Monday, we scavenged for items we thought would be good additions to Little World.

When this is in the sensory table, there are always children playing there, even when the balloon cage is operating right next door. And the best part is that at the end of the week, this self-contained collection of junk can be tidily confined to a large plastic tub and stored away until the next time we want to visit "The Bottom Of The Toy Box."

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Juliet Robertson said...

Hey Tom

What an inspirational post! I've been changing outdoor areas in schools for 17 years and this is the first time I've ever seen coffee beans used as a surface. Fantastic! May I have your permission to use a photo from your blog in a forthcoming presentation to tell Scottish pre-school staff in Edinburgh?

How are the children enjoying the changing space?

Best wishes

Deborah Stewart said...

I love the bottom of the toy box idea. I would imagine the items in such a box would be very intriguing to the children when brought out. I don't have a toy box at all because the clutter drives me nuts. I guess I need to rethink this a bit.

jenny said...

I think our kids would go nuts for this idea.

Your playground looks even better with every picture you take. I'm just trying to imagine the coffee bean mulch, it sounds intriguing. I think it would send my senses into caffeine craving overdrive though :)

I've been thinking of a permanent clay station as well (because, you know, we can't seem to have an original thought!). I've just reread Ursula Kolbe's book "Clay and Children: More than Making Pots" which has inspired me.

We only have clay out maybe once or twice a week, and the kids don't engage with it nearly as much as they do with playdough which we have out daily. I think this is partly because its not out all the time and partly because we don't support them enough.

I'm going to start a bit of a clay quest to see how we can do this better.

Kat said...

I love love love this idea!!! The little kid in me loves this idea. The collector in me loves this idea. The lover of all things small in me loves this idea. One thing: I just wish I would have known about it a few years ago before I gave away all of my daughter's bottom of the toy box stuff!

Eternal Lizdom said...

The pictures remind me of the I Spy books!

Scott said...

What a great way to use all that little "stuff." Tom, you keep me thinking and wondering....

Thomas said...

In my new preschool I have an office where I keep toys like this, which i inherited from my oldest son (when we cleaned up his room). I had the feeling this could come in handy in my preschool so I keep them in jars away in the office, and at afternoons when i want the kids to get some calmness they can play with Thomas' toys for some time; a lot of the most active kids suddenly (and to the surprise of the parents who come to fetch them) sit down, intensly playing