Dinosaur Investigation Table

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Invite your child to explore the world of dinosaurs (or any other of their interests) by setting up this simple Investigation Table.

I don’t know if I have mentioned this before, but my T has a serious obsession with Thomas The Tank Engine. I cannot stress enough how passionate he is about Thomas. We now own ALL the Thomas dvds, books and puzzles that are on the market, as well as a ridiculous number of trains and track pieces. We have had oodles of fun playing trains. I really could probably write an entire blog JUST on train play, but this amazing lady has already done that. I stumbled across her blog a while back and it is truly mind-blowing how many brilliant ideas she has come up with to play with trains and track.  It’s well worth a look if your little one is into trains – she has some fantastic ideas for getting all sorts of learning into your train play.

Anyway, I have reached the point where I feel we (well, mostly I) need to expand our horizons a bit with just *some* non-train play (is that too much to ask?). Of course there is no point in trying to push a child into anything – they will follow their own interests. Luckily, thanks to a new Thomas film that involves fossils, T has now begun to show an interest in dinosaurs. Hooray! This is a very exciting moment for me. I love dinosaur stuff!

When I taught in a Nursery, we always had what we called the Project Table. Here we displayed objects, books, words and pictures related to our half-termly Theme, and the children loved exploring the stuff on the table. I have been thinking about setting one of these up for a while, to encourage him to explore his interests even further. With only one table, which we use for pretty much everything – painting, messy play, drawing, sticking, play-dough, reading, doing puzzles – I need to be able to set it out and tidy it away easily. I also want it to change a bit so there are different activities and play invitations on different days.

Here is how I set it up: I covered the table with a length of green felt and put up a dinosaur poster I picked up for £1 at the library.  Then I added an upturned basket, some toy dinosaurs, shiny blue card for a lake and some brown felt for a muddy swamp.  I used some magnetic letters to write the word dinosaur, as a simple letter matching activity, and added some dinosaur information books.  When I need to clear the table away, all I do is scoop the objects into the basket and fold up the felt.  Here is how it looks right now:

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I just thought I would share this as you could easily set up your own investigation table on any subject really, with a basket, some felt, a poster and some books.  My big plan is to have a sort of dinosaur “play box” to keep all this stuff in, and to create different play boxes for different themes.  As T gets older, I know that he will have more input into how the table is set up, and what goes into it. Right now, I cannot predict how this table will evolve, as it all depends on where his interests and ideas take us…but that’s all part of the fun, isn’t it?

Now that we have it all set up…watch this space for more dinosaur stuff..! And thank you for stopping by, as always :-).

Marianne x

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Play Zones: Setting Up An Effective Learning Environment

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“The Environment is the third teacher” (Loris Malaguzzi, founder of the Reggio Emilia Approach to early education)

Freedom! And the open road!  This is how I translate the gleeful look in T’s eyes when he is released from his cot in the morning.   He has now mastered crawling – commando-style!  This marks the end of the let’s-sit-here-and-play-with-this-toy era and the beginning of the self-choosing, free-play era.

This means rethinking his play space.  Previously, I had all of his toys in vague categories in baskets and would get the toys out myself.  But there were still some areas that became dumping grounds for non-easily-categorised items such teethers and soft toys.  It was all looking a bit messy.

So I decided to manage the layout of his learning environment in the same way that I would plan my classroom (oh yes!): by creating different play “zones”.  This way, I can make sure he is accessing all the different areas he should be, in preparation for school.  In schools, teachers spend a great deal of time planning the layout of their classrooms to make the resources orderly and accessible.   As parents, we are our children’s first teachers, and so I think it is just as important for us to think carefully about how the play space at home is laid out.

The Environment as Teacher

The above quote is taken from the Reggio Emilia educational approach.  You have all probably heard of the Montessori method, which bears many similarities to Reggio Emilia.  In both these approaches, the setting up of The Learning Environment is seen as a vital part of educating young children.   Both of these approaches are now seen as “best practice” by early education professionals.  I truly believe in these methods of education and my absolute dream is to work in a school that follows the Reggio Emilia way. In essence, for your learning environment to be an effective educator, it should be:

  • FLEXIBLE – to adapt to the changing educational needs of your child, (and so it is not a major chore for you to update)
  • ATTRACTIVE – to excite the senses and to invite curiosity and discovery
  • CLEARLY LAID OUT – so her toys are easy to find and to tidy away, encouraging independence and free choice

With these three things in mind, I have reorganised T’s play space into the following  ZONES:

1.  READING/QUIET ZONE

 This was relatively easy for me, as we already had a big storage box that was full of unused items that I rehoused.  I just put the books in there with a sheepskin rug and his play mat and his old v cushion.  I get this all out in the morning and put a few books out for him – it takes less than a minute to do this and to tidy it away again.  T has already learned to crawl over here when he wants to read, and climb up to the book box to find what he wants if he is not impressed with my selection!

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This area can also double up as a role-play/home corner for exploring roles when he gets older.  I can’t wait to start setting this up!!

2.  MAIN PLAY ZONE.

This is the main playing space in our house.  This is where I have stored the bulk of T’s toys such as construction toys, puzzles and games, musical instruments, puppets and vehicles.   I highly recommend some sort of system that involves boxes and baskets if you plan to do this too.  But you have to have a system that suits your taste and your living space and this will be different for everyone.  Whatever system you decide on, you should aim for the toys to be:

  • AT YOUR CHILD’S LEVEL so that she can reach them all independently
  • IN SOME SORT OF ORDER (ie divided into categories) so that she can find all her toys quickly and easily and also tidy them away
  • EASILY SWAPPED AROUND to match your child’s changing interests and needs
  • EASY TO CLEAN!  This last point is optional I suppose…but for my piece of mind, I need a storage system that is easily wiped down with some Dettol every week!

I had this old IKEA Expedit and bought some brightly-coloured plastic boxes to fit inside. I have then put clear plastic boxes on top which I change around regularly.  Expedit’s are a great low-cost solution as you can use such a large range of baskets and boxes to complement them, that they will suit almost every style of house.  Ikea’s Trofast system is especially designed for storing toys and is robust.

My storage system is in the photo at the top of this post.  It certainly isn’t the most beautiful storage system, but it is practical!  The contents, from left to right are: puzzles (ie shape sorters, stacking rings etc.), train set, cars and vehicles and two boxes of picture and peg puzzles.  The pink box next to that contains a variety of sensory toys, including musical instruments.

3.  FINE MOTOR ZONE. 

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On top of my storage unit I have placed toys and activities that I know will interest T at the moment.  In a sense, the entire house and almost every toy or indeed book he plays with will develop his fine motor skills, so there isn’t really a zone for this.  But these baskets give me the chance to have some control over what is on offer to him, whilst still giving him the independence to choose, as they are on his level.  I generally change the toys whenever I can see he is getting bored of them, to hold his interest and to make sure he is getting use out of everything.

5. CREATIVE/MARK-MAKING ZONE.

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This will be where T can experiment with messy art and craft and mark-making materials. At the moment, I just have an old (very cheap!) side table that I have covered with pvc to protect it but I am on the hunt for a sturdy plastic table and chairs.   I also have a box for storing all his art, craft, and messy play materials, and a plastic pvc mat to protect the carpet when we are doing messy things.  This table also doubles up as a mark-making table, which will evolve into a writing and drawing table as he gets older.

6.  OUTDOOR ZONE.  I have not done this yet myself (time and money constraints) but when I do, I think the key word here will be: STORAGE! I hope to have a shed for storing sand and water equipment and any outdoor physical toys such as bikes, slides, slides swings and footballs.

When he wants to do messy play or mark-making outside, we can just transport the boxes out there and I will have a table and chair out there too.  I do not plan to do much else as, with the outdoors, really it is just a case of having good storage, getting all the resources out  when they are needed, and planning how to set out the resources.

How will YOU plan your space?

Everyone’s home and taste is different so you will not necessarily want or be able to have everything laid out in the way I have here.  But that is the beauty of planning a learning environment – it is unique to you and your child and the only limit really is your own imagination!  The size or layout of your rooms shouldn’t prevent you from creating  little zones that your child will want to play in and explore.  Your reading zone may be on the sofa with some cuddly cushions.  Your mark-making zone may be at the kitchen table.  The important thing is that your child gets to know where everything is.  Then, even if he or she can’t reach the resources he needs, he will know where to go to indicate to you what he wants.

Have fun planning your space and look out for my next post – Play Zones: Collecting Resources For A Balanced Learning Environment.

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Make A Baby Book Corner For Next-to-nothing…TODAY!

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Ah. Beautiful, beautiful book corners. They hold such appeal for me, for two reasons really:

1  Children need a quiet, thinking space.

Every child needs a place where they can go and curl up and be drawn into their own little world where anything is possible. Children have such powerful imaginations and they need places to let their imaginations run free.  Of course, children will always end up finding their own ways of creating dens, but it is nice to start them off by marking out a little designated area.  Then, as they get older, they can customize it to their own taste – whether that is dinosaur, mermaid, princess or rocket ship themed – it is their space.

2  A book corner keeps the books organised and tidy.

I am a big fan of order and organisation (mainly because I am so disorganised that I cannot cope without my little systems!).   I believe in teaching children about order, right from the beginning.  So I have tried, where possible, to give all of T’s toys a place.  That way, he is learning early how to keep his toys and books organised, so that he can easily find them.  Having a book corner in his nursery means T knows that, if he wants to read, the book corner is where he needs to go.  And when he is older – that is where he will learn to tidy them away when he has finished reading (wishful thinking, I know!).

What I used for my book corner

  • Two spice racks from Ikea that I painted white – £6.  These things are seriously amazing.  For me, the most important feature of any book corner is that the books are VISIBLE and ACCESSIBLE to the child.  Books can easily get lost in baskets and boxes, and they look so much more inviting when you can see the entire front cover.  Who wants to delve into a dusty old pile of books?  It is also easier for the child to make an informed choice if they can see clearly what is on offer. So I knew I wanted some wall-mounted shelves, that would hold the books in place and when I found these spice racks, I got very over-excited!  I love cheap and simple solutions, and it is not often I come across them.  So very happy to be sharing this one with all of you book-loving playful parents!
  • A Moses Basket – free! We have already accumulated quite a few books and I know we will be accumulating more.  So I had to have somewhere to put the majority of T’s little library, to keep them contained.  I chose this in the end, purely because I had no other boxes to put the books in.  I started using a small box, but the books quickly outgrew it, and it looked a bit harsh there, instead of soft, comfy and inviting.
  • A pyramid-style bean-bag (made from an old blue bed throw and stuffed with an old single duvet) – free.  At first, I wanted a little chair for him to curl up in or crawl around, but I can’t find or afford one at the moment and I don’t think he needs it yet (if ever).  This was a good substitute!
  • A baby pram blanket for a little rugfree.  I think a rug is actually quite an important part of a book corner, because it instantly marks out the area clearly.  We didn’t have one so I chose this blanket instead.  T does tend to crumple it up clambering over it to get to the books, so I think in hindsight (for the sake of practicality and safety) that a larger rug would work better, with the baskets on top to hold it in place.
  • A basket for cuddly toys – £8 from Homebase.  Actually, I bought this for the books originally, but it is already too small!  So I thought I’d house the toys there instead.

I had always envisaged creating a tent-like affair, with net curtains hanging from the ceiling, giving the area a roof.  But this would be unsafe for T while he is still a baby, so it will have to wait until he’s a bit older.  I am sure there will come a day where he outgrows this one and we have to update it – then I can have another think about curtains.  I will be sure to post that up here too!

For now, this one seems to work very well and we both love it.  It was a nice little project for me: I like to do creative things, but, since T’s arrival, I have often found I just don’t have the time.  This was quick, easy and cheap and so I felt pleased to have actually achieved something at the end of a long and busy day.

I hope you enjoyed reading – now off you go and make your beautiful baby a perfect little book corner!  It’s a productive way to spend a rainy afternoon :).

What do you think of my little book corner?  Have you made a book corner yourself that you would like to share with other creative parents?  Just LIKE my Facebook page and then you can easily post your pictures and thoughts up there.