“Mummy, I need paint,” my daughter announced on a recent cold late Sunday afternoon. We had just rearranged our studio so I showed her where the paints now reside.
I then watched from my layers of woollies, including my woolly boots, as she flitted onto the lawn in her thin cotton top with a stick, paints and brushes, and began mixing colours in her paint tray.
We lost our girl to her deeply focused stick musings for an hour. We were busy around her, cleaning up from a weekend of renovating. She didn’t notice. She was too engrossed in looking at, contemplating and painting her stick with the colours she had mixed.
Here are six things that make sticks valuable for children’s learning:
1. Sticks engage children’s senses.
Children learn primarily through their senses. Treasures from the natural world allow children multi sensory experiences. There is a lovely sound underfoot as you collect sticks. They make interesting sounds together as you carry them in a bundle. The touch, scent, sound and visual experiences of playing with sticks allow children to internalise information about the properties of the natural world.
Deep engagement in play also develops concentration. When a child is using more than one of their senses at once, they are often deeply engaged, as my daughter was in her stick painting. When children concentrate and follow a thought to complete an action, they are learning to use their hands according to their will. Intentional action is surely the basis of fulfillment in any personal, creative, professional or academic pursuit.
2. Sticks are multi purpose.
We have toasted marshmallows on sticks, made the Christmas tree for our holiday house from sticks, counted with sticks, made fairy gardens with sticks, made lightsabers, homes for lizards, practised our writing with sticks, drawn patterns in dirt with sticks and when I have not been looking, had sword fights with sticks. These little treasures, in children’s hands, are tools for lateral thinking.
3. Sticks allow children to connect with nature, and with their whole being.
Children are increasingly disconnected from the natural world. On this beautiful planet, everything is connected. When children do not experience this connection, they do not understand their identity or their place in this world. The wonderful organisation, Nature Play, sites nature itself as an incredibly valuable resource in children’s early development. It is no accident that one of the outcomes of the Early Years Learning Framework is: “Children are connected with and contribute to their world,” and “show respect for the environment”. This is important developmentally, socially and ethically.
Everything in an ideal learning environment is connected and alive too (which is why a natural, rich life is the best possible learning environment).
Development of the intellect is connected to movement. Through movement of the hand and body, connections form in the brain. Many folk, far more learned than me, have explained this in wonderful ways. Basically, intelligence, be it spatial, logical, mathematical, musical or linguistic, literally ‘grows’ through movement. As Montessori put it,
‘the hands are the instruments of intelligence’. 1
Sticks inspire children to play that involves movement of their whole bodies, and particularly their hands.
4. Sticks are a natural material.
A stick is a unique, all natural material. No two sticks are exactly alike, so in playing with sticks children experience a wealth of textures, shape, form and dimension. They experience the scents of different trees and plants, and sometimes the tiny creatures that reside in the vegetation. Older children can whittle sharp bits off, or handle the stick so that any loose splinters or sharp protrusions don’t hurt them. And guess what, younger children can too. Any ‘pointy bits’ a stick might have are manageable risks, and it is important for children to experience manageable risks in their play. When it comes to learning of any kind, and particularly to learning about the properties of the natural world, sticks are apples that fall straight from the tree.
5. Sticks are free.
Did I mention the low cost of sticks? You can pay valuable dollars for a finely crafted, all natural with no chemical pollutants toy, or you can pick up a stick from a clean environment. If I want to count in tens to one hundred with young children, it is pretty easy to find one hundred small sticks for grouping into tens, which makes for a meaningful experience. Stick construction, stick patterns, stick technology (making levers, tools, weaving frames), are all very affordable learning experiences.
6. Children like them.
This ‘sixth’ benefit is the most important. Children won’t engage fully in sensory play or investigations unless they are compelled to connect with an object, environment or person. Many children naturally want to touch, observe and manipulate sticks. When children are intrinsically driven to investigate, they educate themselves. This makes the humble stick a highly valuable leaning material. It doesn’t really matter where the learning begins, as long as it begins with the child’s interest. The stronger the interest, the stronger the learning. Children’s fascination with sticks will lead them to inspired investigations.
“Wisdom begins in wonder.”
What other wisdom can be found in sticks?
1 ‘The hands are the instruments of man’s intelligence.’ Dr Maria Montessori. The Absorbent Mind. I acknowledge that I omitted the man’s in this quote in the above post. Maria Montessori was the first female doctor in Italy, so definitely an advocate for gender equality.