Baby bathing tub is really a toy bin to collect backyard toys at night. Fishy scrubber is from the bathroom upstairs. Bowl is from my kitchen, glass stones are from the fairy house and inside the bowl is a knick-knack in stone from my shelf in the livingroom. Robe is from the bedroom. In the next photo...chairs are from the garage and are usually used for emergency seating at large parties, the wooden table is for homeschooling work & art, the cloth is a headscarf from the dress-up bin, the plate is a garden tray of terracotta and the "food" in it is weeds from the garden. Cups are from the picnic basket. The spray bottle is supposed to be near the worm bin to keep it moist.
I have been thinking about this idea for a long time. I had this friend ten years ago who's mom used to buy her kids all these plastic toys from Goodwill (it was her mom's form of entertainment) and she would just toss them all down in the basement playroom and let the kids play with them when they wanted. I was attending the Four Winds Waldorf School at that time and when I watched these children play it struck me how they played with these toys in such a "Waldorf Way" even though they were plastic, some broken, and some really odd toys! In fact, their style of play was more "Waldorf" than many of the kids at the school I knew.
Why was this? Well first, I need to define what I mean by "Waldorf Play". Waldorf toys seek to cultivate a bond with nature, a respect for nature and to nurture creativity in children by providing toys that they can be creative with. Rather than providing a toy that does only "one thing" a Waldorf toy is a toy that can be "many things". Children are encouraged to play creatively. When a child plays they are encouraged to connect with nature, to model what the environment around them is doing, and to use their body & voices to experience the imaginary world that they see as real. Of course, this is not a comprehensive description, but it is a start.
What I saw with these children was everything above. I saw them creating spaces by organizing the toys in certain ways. They never played with the toys the way they were meant to be played with. Instead (perhaps this was because there were so many and they were more like objects at that point rather than toys?) they would create new things with these toys, imaginary scenes, imaginary worlds and much more. They would often bring the toys outside or make the toys into "trees", 'Animals" or "plants". I was amazed at this because most children I saw playing with toy rooms filled with plastic toys were not having this kind of play. I did see a lot of creative play. However, the extent of creative play was not the same as with these two children. There was SOMETHING ELSE there. What was it?
I started to observe the family. Well, not really, they were my friends, so I just noticed things while I was hanging out with them! What I noticed was that the mother was very nature centered herself. Every day she took the children out to the local nature center or would walk on the trails near their home. She took them fishing and spent a lot of time outdoors with them in the garden or playing with their backyard fishpond. When they played they often spent time modeling her work by helping prepare a healthy snack or by weeding the garden with her.
So when it came time to play with the ole plastic toys in the basement...these toys became PART of their natural environment instead of the other way around. Because their minds and lives were filled with nature and mother energies everything around them became imbued with that flavor - even the plastic toys.
This led me to become convinced - not that plastic toys are OK in Waldorf or that they are better - but that there is something more to Waldorf Play than just what toys a child has. I had another friend who was very well off at the time and had a basement filled with a virtual Waldorf School. It was amazing and I was envious I admit! She had everything from the Waldorf Catalogs. However, her children were often in front of the TV and when they did play in their Waldorf paradise, they often had a very orderly way of doing it, the creativity and joy were not there. It was almost as if their creativity had been smothered by too many toys. The mother had placed them in such a wonderful and orderly way, they were so pretty! One was almost scared to play with them!
These are two extreme examples. Everyone I know now is someone in-between these two examples and I do have to say that I have not met anyone like these two women since. I have sense lost track of them. However, they did provide a good lesson for me in Waldorf play.
So what brought this topic into my head again today? Two things. Someone asked me about how to set up a playroom for their child and yesterday Sofi and her friend spent FOUR HOURS creating a paradise outside from plastic and wooden toys and nature.
I could make this post so much longer but for now I will just share what I have learned (and some pictures):
1. Waldorf toys are wonderful but more important is letting children choose their own toys from their environment and modeling after the parent. Perhaps flowers in the garden, some rocks and acorns become a toy, perhaps some pots and pans and a wooden spoon from the kitchen, or perhaps they love the plastic cups in your picnic basket. Whatever it is - the fact that the child discovered it and decided they wanted to play with it is very important.
2. If you want a child to play with more natural toys make sure that more things around your house are natural - not just the toys. And make sure they get out into nature more so they can gather treasures from the natural world around them.
3. Playing in a "Waldorf Way" needs to have an element of freedom (time to play), creativity (not restricted to one use for the toy) and nature (playing outdoors frequently).
4. Toddlers often play by modeling what a parent is doing - not necessarily by playing with their toys. This is the best way for a toddler to play.
5. Children will play in the world they know. If you spend all your time at the mall, in front of the TV and are surrounded by electronics and plastic your child will often create electronic plastic worlds from their nice wooden Waldorf toys (I've seen kids make a wooden block into a TV more than once!). If a child is surrounded by nature and nurture then they will be able to create this from any toy they have.
6. Ideally toys should be handmade and natural. This is important. But you can't feel guilty or bad or disqualify the value of a child's play just because they are not. Waldorf play is only partially about what toy the child is playing WITH.
Blessings & Health.