Hi, I’m Beck, and I’m the mum behind @learning_in_colour. I have a two year old son and love sharing our play and learning ideas.
We are big fans of open-ended resources. The concept appealed to me before I had even heard there was a term for it. I try to limit the number of items we bring into our home, so our purchases should meet a need and be able to be used in more than one way (there are exceptions, but that’s for another post!). For this reason, I choose quality items because I hope to minimise waste as well as to get a long life out of the resources we use.
Although it’s really important to provide children with opportunities for free play, many studies in educational and developmental psychology have shown that children benefit from some degree of facilitation, or invitations to play, every now and then (Nicholson 1971; Siraj-Blatchford 2007; Hallett 2016, Marsden 2018). Invitations to play can encourage children to see new possibilities for play, understand new ways of using resources and help them to relate new experiences to past experiences. I try to offer a balance between setting up planned activities for my son, and allowing him to explore and play with things in his own way. I have also witnessed how our “organised” play has influenced his free play - which is a beautiful thing for me to witness. He loves to enact social scenes with his toys, to set out certain items on his table for a play session, and to match objects to pictures; all of which are things we have done through play invitations that I’ve set up.
I’m often asked what is a good open-ended resource to start with. One thing that we have enjoyed for well over 18 months now is peg dolls! They are such a versatile addition to any playroom and can play the part of anything from someone at the shops to a fireman on duty! Their plain appearance means the only limit to their use is the imagination.
I love this set of 7 earth gnomes by Papoose. The colours of their felt suits are rich and earthy, meaning they would look amazing in any neutral play space. They’re a perfect size for little hands and the felt and wood combination offers two wonderful, natural textures for children to explore and enjoy. Here are 10 ideas for how they could be used for play and learning.
- Colour matching - use coloured bowls, cups, loose parts, flashcards or even coloured circles you have drawn yourself and ask your child to match the gnomes to the corresponding coloured item.
- Small worlds - create a little scene using whatever items you have on hand. My son loves when I set up a park scene. If you don’t have tree props, you can easily improvise by collecting rocks and greenery from your garden, or by making your own trees using recycled cardboard (toilet roll stump with painted cardboard foliage). We recently made a little house out of an old cardboard box for our peg dolls, which gets a lot of love. We also regularly build our peg people houses from blocks.
- Waldorf days of the week - now the colours of this set don’t perfectly align with Waldorf colours, but it’s the concept that’s more important. Waldorf schools use a colour for each day of the week (Monday is purple, Tuesday is red, etc). As part of a Waldorf morning ritual, a child chooses the peg doll with the daily colour to stand on a prominent place on a tray or calendar table. As well as learning the days of the week, this is a great strategy to promote daily routine, understand concepts of symbolism and for children to learn your weekly schedule.
- Bookish play - choose a favourite book and have the gnomes represent different characters. The beauty of their plain appearance is that the imagination can take over and the peg dolls can fill almost any role.
- Sorting game - add other objects to make the sorting trickier. You can have the child sort items by any category you wish, from colours to size or material. Older children can even identify possible categories to sort objects by, as an added challenge.
- Tinker tray - now this is verging into free play here. Place the gnomes and any other items/loose parts on a tray and allow your child to explore and play with them in their own way! They might create their own small world, line up the items, group them in certain ways, or just make a mess. It’s up to the child and however they decide to play is absolutely fine (just bear in mind the developmental stage of the child and avoid using objects that could be choking hazards or cause harm).
- Use them in counting games - they are a perfect size for these sorts of activities.
- Use them to make patterns or mandalas - pair them with other loose parts to create beautiful patterns, or have your child complete a pattern that you start.
- Use them as counters in a board game! You could even make your own boardgame on the back of an old cardboard box.
- Make a little car by cutting a hole in a toilet roll and adding bottle caps for wheels. Your little gnomes can sit inside and be driven around for hours.
As I mentioned, there is no limit to how these toys can be used. These suggestions are the limits of my own imagination. You will be surprised just how imaginative your children can be if given the opportunity.