Tuesday, October 11, 2016


Many years ago, a girl named Luna introduced me to a type of play of which I was formerly unaware. Almost every day, she and two or three friends would collect big piles of things -- plastic food, stuffed animals, and other indoor loose parts -- then spend most of their time, it seemed, just sitting on their pile. Usually, they chose the area under our loft and most often they simply called it their home, although sometimes it was a castle or a fort.

To my thinking as a fairly new teacher, it wasn't a particularly "productive" type of play. It was sedentary, isolating, and messy. It was perhaps the messiness that bugged me the most because the girls -- and it was mostly girls -- would not leave their nest of stuff until it was time to tidy up. Then they would make themselves scarce, leaving the rest of us with a huge sorting project. I never said or did anything to scuttle their game, even as I often wished it away.

Indeed, even after Luna moved on to kindergarten, this type of play continued. It seemed that there was always at least one four-year-old with this instinct. Sometimes I would join the kids in their nesting play, finding a spot amongst their maddening clutter, trying to better understand what was going on. I never lasted long, however, because we mostly just sat on our stuff, minutely arranged our stuff, quibbled over our stuff, and conspired to get more stuff. In other words, I found it rather dull even if the children were fully engaged.

That's okay, of course, I don't need to understand everything the children do, so I simply parked it in my brain as "nesting play" and left it there.

When we moved to our current location some six years ago, the nesting play didn't move with us. Although the physical layout of the classroom, including the loft and other furniture, remained virtually the same, the children simply stopped doing it. Sure, there were still times when kids would make big piles of random materials, but it never took on the day-after-day regularity that it had in previous eras. And honestly, I've not really thought about it since: good riddance and all that, I suppose.

The reason I'm reminded of Luna and her nesting game this morning is that after a long hiatus it appears to be back. Pretty much since the beginning of the school year, a small group of four-year-old boys has been nesting in the top of our loft, emptying boxes and bags and shelves of stuff into piles, then essentially sitting on it, calling it their home or their hideout, sometimes keeping others out, but mostly arranging, quibbling and conspiring.

I'm a different teacher today than I was back then. I no longer judge any type of play as being superior or more productive, even if I still detect an itch of irritation over it. I've learned that when children are free to pursue their own interests in their own time, they are invariably preparing for what they perceive to be in their future. When they wear costume gowns and play princess, they are, in part at least, working on societal notions of gender and beauty; when they play hero games they are exploring concepts of masculinity, threat and protection; when they build or create or explore or experiment they are seeking to understand the social, physical and scientific ideas that underpin our world. That is the reason play exists as an instinct: it is how our urge to understand naturally expresses itself. It is through our play that we ask and answer their own questions about the world.

Of course, I can never really know what motivates another human, but in thinking about this nesting play, I can't help but make connections to how too many of us live, sitting in our homes, collecting and curating our stuff, arranging, quibbling, and conspiring to get more. I'm not saying that any individual family is more stuff oriented than another, but rather that the idea, like the stereotypes of femininity and masculinity, are a part of our world and each of us, including our children, must come to terms with it. The children, it seems, are seeking to understand this obviously important connection we have with our piles of stuff. Some will grow up to accept it, others will reject it, and most will carve out some sort of middle ground.

In the meantime, the children are nesting in their pile of what we adults see as worthless stuff, asking and answering their own questions, while at the same time holding up a mirror in which we see our own reflection.

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Laura said...

The level of respect you show children (and older people) in this particular reflection is stunning, and it makes my eyes water. Thank you. I want to know more about how you have come to this place of understanding. Why do you see such young children as such competent beings...?

Anonymous said...

This post left me feeling fascinated. "Nesting" is so common within our crew right now. One day I actually heard myself criticizing the children and limiting the amount of things they could bring into their nest...because as you mentioned...sometimes it can feel overwhelming knowing that the other kids and myself will have a lot of work to do come clean-up time.

Over the course of even a few weeks, I've learned to let it go. And instead turning on my task as an observer to really watch and learn from them of what they are gaining from this type of play. The amount of negotiating and planning that goes on in this type of "nesting" play is incredible. They gather, build boundaries with stools and chair and baskets that hold toys. If you fight the urge to interrupt this process, what happens beyond the collection of materials is also interesting..and important for their development.

Thank you for your sharing your insight. I am so passionate about this work and to read your perspective always hits home with me. We're excited to have you in MN in February! ....dress warm!
Roz Addler -

Lucy Gooserton said...

I'm fascinated to read this! My almost two year old frequently sits on a low stool, her rocking chair, or the pile of pillows in her reading corner. Then she takes all manner of things - clothes, books, animals, paper, etc - and stuffs it all behind her and sits there on them. She takes great delight in doing this and I'm excited to have a name for it now - nesting! Thank you for always being so generous with your perspective and experience :)

Ms.Nomer said...

I've actually always connected this sort of play with dragon hoarding! I see it as the children grappling with control and ownership of items,and an extension on understanding sharing as much as anything. (But yes, I also get the twitch of messiness, and WHY is it always the ones who make the messes who are not to be found, come pack away time?)

Unknown said...

Thanks for this post. I currently have several children who transport materials and accumulate them. I am curious as to the temperment of the children who engage in this form of play. Some of our children just like to accumulate the items that are popular to the rest of the group. Their little lockers are very cluttered. Interestingly some do have challenges with their social development and will also struggle with transitions.

Thanks for your honesty. some of my children like to just dump baskets of loose parts or toys. when that begins, I pull out a small wading pool and that is where they can dump and sit. There is clean up of course but the nest of materials is a clearly defined area and it is very obvious what has to be done. Sincerely, Melya....Edmonton NW Childcare.

bethbrowning said...

We may have just been odd kids, but we used to pile baby dolls, blankets, play food, and the like into the bathroom and stay there with them. I'm not sure we were old enough to explain it and I'm not sure the play would have been clear to adults, but we were pretending to be in some sort of disaster and were caring for our "babies" in a shelter/cave/other safe place. I think it was our way of processing things we saw on tv or heard about in some other way that we were just beginning to know were part of life.