Homage to Tom Lindhardt and Kompan

The Jigsaw Became My Destiny

This article can be found here: https://fyens.dk/artikel/stiksaven-blev-min-sk%C3%A6bne

38 years. The workshop in Sødinge, where Kompan had three employees. From the memoir

The designer and artist Tom Lindhardt is the father of five and of many play equipment – but also many paintings. Now he shows 200 of them in his own warehouse at the Port of Odense

Sep 15, 2006 at 07:45

By Marianne Koch

– I have been painting since I was little and continued when I grew up. But it was only when an architect gave me a jigsaw in my hand and asked me to make a wall decoration of 10 meters that I found my form – and my destiny, says multi-artist Tom Lindhardt, 71.

Still, there is no jigsaw for many miles around, as I cycle right into his giant hall at the head of the Finnish Quay at Odense Harbor. Surrounded by water to three sides.

Here sits Tom Lindhardt with his wife and faithful helper Anne-Marie Bagger. In the middle of his own warehouse, comfortably located in some very teddy bear and very untrendy leather furniture, profits from a now sold country house.

On the walls around hang own paintings. In 200s and everywhere.

Large, medium and small.

– And in fact, it is possible not just to cycle in here. You can also drive in here by car. Yes, maybe you could call it a drive-in exhibition, it sounds thoughtful and increasingly enthusiastic from the man, whose life has taken on color and shape and eventually a lot of money, because he has always followed his intuition and worked on the motto that it one does, one must do of desire.

What also the many colorful memory, landscape, debate and writing pictures on the walls are talking about.

The play equipment company Kompan, which Tom Lindhardt created from scratch with boards, jigsaws and spray paint and whose first world hit was the rocking swing Spilophønen, was sold to Lego in 1995. And two years ago, the founder also left the board in his own life’s work.

Now life had to be concentrated on a completely different work of life – namely to stay alive and well and happy.

With the memory intact.

– I got a blood clot in my brain and lost both sight and memory. Fortunately, the sight came back quickly, but it struggled with memory, says Tom Lindhardt.

Therefore, he decided to write his memoirs. And since he is better at painting than at writing, it became the book “66 years in the service of form” – a very different memoir.

Here is a short text about something memorable in each of Tom Lienhardt’s first 66 years. Next to an image illustrating the text.

– First, I wrote the minimal text for each year. Later I painted it. And you can also see all 66 paintings here in the warehouse, says Tom Lindhardt and points to the 66 paintings from the memoir.

25 years: “In the United States, I learned that anything is possible”. from the memoir

Art a necessity

– Yes, but the large paintings on the other walls are actually excerpts from the small ones. Tom paints all the time and every day. I do not have numbers on how many paintings we have. The ones we have now exhibited are only a fraction, says Anne-Marie Bagger, who has composed the exhibition.

For Tom Lindhardt, painting is a way of living well. He does not paint to sell. He does not have to.

– When I was young and poor, I dreamed of one day being able to buy all the paint and all the canvases I wanted. I could not then, but I can now. And I do, because I can not do without painting.

– I lock myself in my studio every day. That is why I also have a studio in all the places we live – here in Odense, on Avernakø or on Mallorca. Painting is a happy state to be in. You are deeply concentrated and forget everything else, says Tom Lindhardt, whose memory painting has also helped to recreate the memory that the blood clot put a stop to.

– What I do not remember myself, Anne-Marie remembers, says Tom Lindhardt with a voice where the self-irony gets a soft edge when he mentions his wife.

Four years and on three wheels from the memoir

A book – a life

If you flip through the 66 pages of the memoir for 66 years, you are led in words and pictures into a long and in every way rich life.

It started in an apartment in the Skibhus district, led to an education as a watchmaker, a scholarship for an epoch-making US stay, the design of Gallery EXI in his and Amdi Petersen’s jointly purchased house on Hunderupvej in Odense, the abandonment of a good position in the Odense company Micro Matic, the invention of Spilophønen, design for and operation of Kompan in Ringe – and the quiet enjoyment of recent years.

“The rest of my life I intend to spend in the future and can therefore with this book for the future let the past rest in the present” as the introductory words to the memoir read – in the characteristic Tom Lindhardt way who loves to play with words and concepts.

Tom Lindhardt calls his gallery on Findlandskaj in Odense Lindhouse A / S. The man behind Kompan is now back as an artist.

The teachings of the United States

A PS reads: “I must for my life true thesis that only reality surpasses the imagination”.

One could also formulate Tom Lindhardt’s life with the words that last week’s culture award recipient, landowner Jørgen Langkilde, Bramstrup, used here in Stiftstidende about the importance of culture:

“Artists are good at finding the breaking point in a society and formulating the future. Therefore, they are helping to create the new forms of solution that we as a nation and as the world cannot be without”.

A Tom Lindhardt had also managed without the jigsaw.

He himself says that today he is a multimillionaire:

– In the United States, I learned that anything is possible. I have no particular nose for where money and art go up in a larger unit. No. That’s luck it all. It’s intuition. It is not the result of a thought process.

Adverse Childhood Experiences, COVID-19, and Play

One year ago this month, California Senator Mike McGuire and State Surgeon General Nadine Burke Harris, M.D., brought the message about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to Mendocino County. Dr. Harris had recently been appointed as California’s first Surgeon General, following her ground-breaking work on ACEs’ impact on children and their health outlooks. Her message made it clear that adverse childhood experiences affect 34.8 million children across socio-economic lines, putting them at higher risk for health, behavioral, and learning problems.

I became aware of Dr. Harris’s work after hearing her NPR interview and reading her book The Deepest Well. She wrote the book based on her experiences at the Center for Youth Wellness that she established in the poorest sector of San Francisco. The impact of learning statistics and the success of her program had on my thinking was profound. To list just one example, the studies on which this program is based identified 10 ACEs. They also found that as little as three ACEs can lead to profound biologic changes, reducing life expectancy by 20 years.

So, what do ACEs have to do with COVID-19?  The pandemic has introduced many changes that exacerbate the impact of ACEs. One of the most profound and least recognized effects has been on normal play interactions by kids. For example, we have written several blogs on the critical role of rough and tumble play on children’s development of executive function, on which social competency is based. It was hard enough to allow for R&T play before the pandemic. Now? Fuhgeddaboudit.

It has become increasingly clear that our society will not be able to transition into a healthy and robust new normal until the issue of COVID safe childcare is addressed. The fact that children are asymptomatic vectors for the disease presents a huge challenge. Just the current practice of isolation of children from their grandparents alone is a daunting problem. The economic impact on daycare providers to reduce capacity and increased teacher ratios make the current situation unsustainable.

Tom Hobson has written extensively in his blog and books about early childhood’s essential physical intimacy on healthy development. The Play First Summit that Tom helped organize occurred over four days in July and reached more than 75,000 early childhood practitioners and experts. The outpouring of interest in COVID during the summit is evidence that there is real energy on this issue. It is past time that Tom and other child development thought leaders are brought into the discussion on solutions for the impact on COVID-19.

What is needed now is to combine the event that Mike and Dr. Harris held with the support of First Five California and the Play First Summit attendees. Such a gathering will bring both the expertise and scale to begin to develop and execute new protocols and programming with the potential to mitigate the impact of COVID-19. Such a COVID Safe Play Summit will also help spread the awareness of ACEs in general to the places where parents, children, and teachers can effect change.

Play Systems Designers – Part 2

A play product deconstructed into a system – Photo True Play Foundation

I’ve gotten some interesting feedback on the last post that helps me see that I’ve not been clear about what differentiates a play product from a play system. Let’s look at why I chose the four candidates in the last blog. I will also include my work in this discussion as it is germane.

Here are the criteria I used in my definition:

  • Child-directed learning through play
  • Appropriate materials
  • Advocacy
  • Attention to detail
  • Innovative path to distribution
Tom and Me at a BigToys new product launch

Tom Lindhart qualifies as a system designer because of his singular vision about the role of art in urban communities. He was appalled by the sterility of the public housing Denmark erected in the early ’70s. In his work, he drew deeply on the Danish sensibility for elegant simplicity and love of wood. Over the years, he took his passion and insight to create a full range of truly innovative pieces. His attention to his products’ details and every aspect of the enterprise from the factory floor to office décor was always in evidence. Over the years, he employed pedagogues and consultants with cutting edge knowledge of play. He made it something of a crusade to transfer this store of knowledge to his employees. He created one of the first and most extensive worldwide distribution systems of which I was a member. I was also a consultant with Kompan, during which we developed the 10 Plus system for older children, which set the stage for many subsequent developments. Kompan representatives were renowned for the knowledge of play that they shared with customers. Under Tom’s direction, Kompan established its own preschool and directly connected the design process with teachers and children.  

My development of Schoolyard BigToys and PlayBoosters occurred during this time frame. As a consultant to small companies, I did not have the control that Tom enjoyed as an owner. However, I did manage to create these two very successful systems. In both systems, we paid a lot of attention to the distribution chain and provided them with pedagogical information. I went so far as to develop a curriculum for BigToys that allowed the kids to place game activities on the structures. Rather than the sublime qualities of Kompan, my aesthetic at this period of my work was much more rough-and-tumble.

Since the last post, I’ve gotten some pushback from readers on including Maria Montessori as a play systems designer. This criticism is fair since The Montessori system does not include active play. However, her approach was as a systems designer is bolstered by the fact that today the Montessori community has gone on to fill this gap with a plethora of active play products. Also, think about what she accomplished and how she fits the criteria. She invented a whole new approach to education. Her core insight was to trust child-directed learning through play and used hands-on learning instead of didactic instruction. The devices she invented are sublime and still growing in preschool practice. Rather than creating a distribution system, she used founding schools and teacher training as the primary way of getting her inventions into children’s hands.

Cheng Xueqin is another example of this education-first approach. Ms. Cheng came to both her pedagogy and play apparatus solutions by devilling into recollections of her childhood. What did she learn through play? What gave her joy as a child? From this seemingly simple starting point, she has created a revolutionary approach to early childhood education. The AnjiPlay environments, especially outdoors, are unique. The AnjiPlay approach is now available throughout China and is beginning to branch out to several other countries.

Ms Cheng and Cas Holman – Photo True Play Foundation

It is not surprising that Ms. Cheng and Cas Holman have become collaborators. I’ve included Cas as a systems designer for her work with AnjiPlay and her creation of Rigamajig. A case could be made that Rigamajig is just a construction toy. While it certainly doesn’t have the reach or scale of the other examples cited here, it is still in its infancy, and it has lots of room to grow. In the short time that it has been available, it has already evolved significantly. This growth has come about due to Cas’s commitment to its use as an educational tool. One need only watch a video of Cas talking about the meticulous attention to detail she has given the system from inception to distribution to see how she goes far beyond what most designers would invest in a product. Because Cas is conducting her approach to play products as systems, I fully expect Cas to go on to far bigger things in the near future.

Finally, I’d like to talk a bit about developing the Gymboree Play and Music systems. I did their first system 20 years ago, and it is still in use worldwide. Four years ago, I was invited to create a new system. Together with my collaborators, Hap Parker and Dawn Sagorski, we created the only instantly reconfigurable play system for young children. We thought that this new system would replace the original, but it turned out that the two are quite complementary. Deployed in forty countries and nearly 700 sites, the systems provide a unique environment for child development and parent-child interaction. The Play and Music educational team constantly refines the curriculum and expands the teacher’s educational use of the apparatus. I am citing these products because they represent an important aspect of a successful design that meets today’s needs and expectations. The Play and Music system shares with Montessori, AnjiPlay, and Rigamajig support for play-based learning and the capacity for dynamic reconfiguration by users. As an approach to play systems design, these examples fit between playground apparatus and toys and represent a distinct discipline worthy of recognition. I contend that such user control of the environmental elements will become increasingly embraced by educators and parents alike as the value of play-based learning is further supported by research and educational outcomes.

I hope this expanded explanation helps the reader better understand the difference between designing a play product and a comprehensive play system that includes the whole ecosystem in which it is embedded. As we increasingly understand the role of play in child development, especially as we incorporate the new findings in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, we will develop a better definition of Play Systems Design and its practice. Only then will we be able to ensure the best learning environments for all children.

Where are the Play Systems Designers?

There are play systems in nearly every park and schoolyard. All children in the developed world use these systems throughout their early years. They are ubiquitous because it is universally accepted that the experiences playgrounds provide are critical to healthy development.

Given the importance we place on children’s development and their play, isn’t it odd that so little is invested in creating the optimal play environments? Of course, there are bright spots, but the vast majority of playscapes are very low in developmental challenges or features that support long duration play episodes. Pick any playground equipment catalog, and you will find essentially the same experience packaged in various colors with a few flourishes to add brand recognition. This is how we, for the most part, select cars. We distinguish them by color, how many doors, and the grill.

I have nothing bad to say about the talented and dedicated industrial designers who have created these products to be clear. They bring a wealth of skills and creativity to their work. In the end, however, they end up simply creating products. That’s not a bad thing. It’s simply old-school and just not enough for our children.

What do I mean by “old-school”? Compare Tesla with all the other automakers. The industry makes cars, sure. For Tesla, the car is just the first part of an enterprise that includes battery production, disruptive sales techniques, and software development, all wraped in an integrated system. What if this concept is applied to play?

Play Systems Designers

Fortunately, we have some examples to look to. Here’s my list:

Before we get into wresting about who should be added to this list, let me outline my selection criteria. Remember, I’m not talking here about the products. The core criterion is that these folks created play systems. Such a system should include these elements

  • Child-directed learning through play
  • Appropriate materials
  • Advocacy
  • Attention to detail
  • Innovative path for distribution

I won’t go into details about the why and how each of these innovators came to the result of creating play systems and will leave that exploration to you, dear reader. My goal in this post is very simple. I want to elevate our idea of playgrounds, think more deeply into today’s children’s needs and our worldwide highly integrated society.

Children’s playspaces for this century must be ecologies. They should not be static but evolve at the same pace as children grow. These environments need to be informed by the latest findings in neuroscience and evolutionary biology. Above all, places to play need to be controlled, created, and changed by their communities and children through play.

Fantasy? If I told you ten years ago that your next car would be powered by electricity that you generate from your rooftop and that it would be self-driving, you would say I’m totally mad. But rather than being a pipedream, it is inevitable if humans are to remain viable on this planet.

The same can be said for the future of play systems.

Diaphanous Kid’s Play

I did the painting above in my senior year in art school. It is a self-portrait that reproduced one I did on my bedroom wall when I was ten years old. The metaphor of flying is a consistent feature of most children’s dreams. Often, dream flight starts with sheer terror as you are flung from a great height. It may take a few panic awakenings to learn to hold your arms out and fly. This is the moment that many kids realize that they can control their dreams.

Because we tend to create play spaces to be durable and low maintenance, the inclusion of loose parts tends to, for the most part, follow this paradigm as well. Whatever the reason, the primary fabrics found in early childhood centers tend to be in butterfly wings and capes. This is a shame because diaphanous materials add a unique and very valuable element to children’s play. To demonstrate this, I’d like to introduce you to three educator-artists who will take you on a journey of imagination and fantasy. To learn more about these incredible women, visit their social media sites.

Penny Wilson

At the Kings Cross Adventure Play program fabrics are a big deal.

You can go to http://www.Instagram @playkx or http://www.Medium.com/@playkxto to our work in Kings Cross. Similarly Instagram @pennywilsonspictures. A way to get a sense of Penny’s professional and art work is to visit: https://www.instagram.com/playkx/?hl=en or
takes you to  a big collection of writing and free to download books.

This is the entrance to the Fairy Castle

Suzanne Axelsson

Suzanne’s website is chock full of great stuff, https://www.interactionimagination.com/. Her close-up nature photography is particularly impressive. The best place to get a sense of her work with diaphanous materials is her Instagram page https://www.instagram.com/interactionimagination/?hl=en

Sarah Lee

The presntation of fabric is as important as the material itself.

While not an educator per se, Sarah started doing play silks for her son’s Waldorf School. Twenty-five years later, she is a successful entrepreneur marketing her silks and toys in many parts of the world. Her website is https://www.sarahssilks.com/collections/playsilks. And Facebook is https://www.facebook.com/sarahssilks

I hope you’ve taken the time to peruse the sites as this will prepare you for where I am going with this discussion.

Here’s the deal. Life is at the core, ephemral and transitory. The decades I’ve spent creating play settings for kids have been way too much about rocks and blocks. Children also need to experience the soft and fragile things in life. As playspaces incorporate more nature, this will get easier to do. Until then, we need to do the work of making such experiences part of our children’s experience. Yes, this can be challenging these days with the pandemic as it means, at a minimum, being able to sterilize materials. And then there is the cost of replacement when we don’t have enough support to provide the basics. My point is softness is just as basic as rocks and blocks.

As a kid, my dreams about flight were all about going fast. I loved the idea of a huge engine. Looking back, I should have paid more attention to the scarf in the wind.

Bath-Less Kids

Image: Pixabay

While I have paused writing about play environments and am deferring to authors who produce new and comprehensive works on the subject, I will continue to explore subjects about child development I find interesting.

Those who follow this blog, or my personal Facebook page, know that I am very interested in the body’s microbiome. It seems that there are discoveries almost weekly about the role of bacteria in the gut on general health. The recent findings are astounding on how our gut profoundly influences our moods and child development.

Listening to one of my favorite programs, Science Friday on NPR a week ago, they had a segment on a book titled Clean: The New Science of Skin by James Hamblin in which he makes a case for fewer baths and much less soap. A part of his thesis is that the skin has its own microbiome that mirrors the gut’s.

Here are my previous observations about mud play:

I would argue that during the early years, we should consider the skin and gut as essentially one system with the skin being an essential pathway for creating a robust and complex microbiome. I also suspect that the skin acts as an ecology where bacteria and the body’s immune system interact in beneficial ways.

Hamblin’s discussion was compelling in his explanation of the negative impact of too much bathing. He made it clear that hyper-cleanliness has a negative impact on the health of our skin. This is especially true for young children who’s system is working hard to adapt to the world.

Thinking about this, I recalled hearing that, when asked what Elizabeth Warren uses to keep her skin so radiant, she replied, “water.” Warren’s skin success suggests that both doing fewer baths or just using no soap is a good idea.

I also remember the common new mothers’ exclamation, “I could just eat my baby up.” The science on this is fascinating. It turns out that the baby’s body odor creates neurotransmitters in new mothers that are very pleasurable and are an important part of forming a strong parental bond and promote caring. This bonding smell is produced primarily by the infant’s skin, so washing this away may not be a great idea.

For more information, check out:

My Last Post About Play

In my twenties, I fancied myself an artist. My work was always playful, so naturally, I spent some time learning about kids. What a mistake! I was horrified to discover that kids are so much better painters than I might ever be. Of course, this is a secret that they keep form grownups by scrubbing the heck out of their masterpieces so we can’t see them. I used to trick my students by pulling their work off their easel after a few minutes and giving them fresh paper. Parents loved seeing the work of their little geniuses rather than the typical big dark mess.

I’ve been blogging about play for nearly a decade, and I’ve come to the same place as I did with painting. It’s time for me to stop blogging about play environments as there are better information sources than I can possibly create. Oh, I will still write about what interests me about kids, but if you want to know what sort of environment kids need or how best to support their development, check out the resources I will list below.

I’m only going to list books here as I want you to be changed by what you read. I will list the best online sources in another post as, while these are great, I find that the short form of blogs is less transformative. While these authors are early childhood experts and much of what they discuss takes place in preschools, their advice and insights apply equally to backyards. So, let’s dive in.

Teacher Tom’s First and Second Books.

To prove my point about the value of books over blogs, let me share this experience. I am a loyal reader of Tom Hobson’s blog, and so I didn’t buy his first book as I thought it to be just a collection of his posts. Circumstances caused me to miss some of his posts last year, so I bought his Second Book. Being able to read the posts chapters carefully curated into a narrative allowed me to embrace his perspective fully.

Why should you read his books? Tom sees kids as fully formed and perfect human beings. He has an insatiable curiosity about each child he encounters as a fully formed person with their own logic and goals. He helps us understand that the best way to know kids is by standing back and observing, intervening only when absolutely necessary, and only then at the very last moment.

The following books focus on the play environment, which those of us in early childhood consider being the third teacher. Note that the first teacher is the parent, and to do that job, you will be vastly better at that responsibility by reading and incorporating the practice that Tom so compellingly sets forth.

Buy direct from the source:


Nature Play at Home

Nancy Striniste has written the definitive work on small scale outdoor learning spaces. What I love most about the book is that it combines the knowledge of an expert in child development, and the spirit of a gardener, with a how-to manual. She doesn’t just give you the background on why kids love hiding places but also shows you how to create a living willow structure or a mud hut.

The book is copiously illustrated and comprehensive. Need to know what to plant? Is it here? Want to add a bit of drama? How about a stage and the loose part props as well?

Buy direct from the source:

Adventures in Risky Play

The title of Rusty Keeler’s book is a bit of a bait and switch. The real risk in the book is not for the kids so much is it is to our adult propensity to be wildly overprotective. He makes this message work by sharing stories and powerful images that allow us to remember our own experiences growing up. In this way, he opens our hearts and minds to the fun and developmentally essential experiences of risky play. 

While Rusty’s book covers many of the same subjects as Nancy’s, his perspective is that of a dad. This comes out in such ways as the section on rough and tumble play. Rough and tumble play is a subject that is getting increased attention as early childhood experts have focused on emotional intelligence and the importance of children testing each other. In his discussion, he shares the same perspective as Tom Hobson in that we tend to suppress these challenging moments to the detriment of our child’s ability to function socially.

Buy direct from the source:

Playing with Intention

My Rotary Club recently had a presentation on implicit bias that was fascinating. The discussion resonated with a lesson I got from Professor Sinclair Kirby Miller, which I have mentioned in previous posts; “We create, order, and project, our reality moment by moment.” This simple dictum applies to everything from what we think is real that our eyes see to what quantum physics tells us about the cosmos. This same phenomenon applies to we what adults think children’s play is all about.

For example, there have been centuries of debates about human development and the respective roles of nature and nurture. Modern research tells us quite conclusively that during the first five years, children’s behavior is motivated by irresistible biological drives. The experience with the environment these drives produce the content of what children learn. This process of motivation and action is play.

When adults see a child playing with a fire truck or a doll, they project that they are exploring becoming a firefighter or a parent. In other words, the object is the content of the play. Nothing could be further from the truth. What is going on is that the child is engaged in an internal story. The “firetruck” could just as well be a block of wood. The doll could be a stick and a scrap of cloth. For the child, the specificity of the play object is immaterial. The story content of the play need not be and often is not related to fires or parenting.

The pandemic prevents me from being with children while they play. These sad days I rely on Tom Hobson to keep me in touch with their reality. Links to Tom’s books and blogs are posted below, and I encourage you to join me in feasting on their wisdom. You will quickly find that Tom is very candid about the bias he has to overcome daily to understand what the children are actually doing. He has learned that what we project onto children’s play is generally not correct. In his interactions with kids, he has to become very neutral in his comments, or he will hear the dreaded rebuke, “No silly, what we are doing is …”

Tom has learned that a main pillar of his practice is to stand back and observe. This is also the cornerstone of the Anjiplay method of early childhood education. The results of Anjiplay pedagogy is so demonstrably positive that it is beginning to be implemented throughout China.

That children’s learning is primarily play-based is nothing new. This awareness goes as far back as Aristotle, with stops along the way with Vygotsky, Singer, and Hirsh-Pasek and many, many others. What is new is the studies that establish the neurological process by which we construct inaccurate world models.

In an earlier blog, Play is Good Trouble, I wrote about the relationship between play and democracy in the struggle for social justice. The issue of racial inequity is another example of unconscious bias. As a society, we must all commit to work constantly to build the mental tools to reveal the errors in our assumptions. This starts with coming into situations with the knowledge that you know nothing about what is actually before you and preparing your mind to be open. What is required is allowing the time for hearing and observing. We need this practice to be good parents. We need this practice to be a good community.

Playing During Pandemic – Part Seven – Pets

The requirements of social distancing are raising havoc with children’s mental health. Researchers are concerned that this may have lifelong damage.

SummarySocial isolation experienced during childhood has an impact on adult brain function and behavior. Following two weeks of social isolation immediately following weaning in male mice, researchers noticed a failure in activation of medial prefrontal cortex neurons projecting to the posterior paraventricular thalamus during social exposure in adulthood. Findings suggest medial prefrontal cortex neurons required for sociability are profoundly affected by social isolation at a young age.

While the best remedy for this is for kids to be able to play in close contact again, that opportunity is still in the future and will be slow becoming anywhere close to pre-COVID normalcy. What can a parent do?

Pets have always been a part of children’s social and emotional life. During the pandemic there has been a surge in adoptions and shelters are finding that animals that would have certainly been euthanized are now finding homes. This means that if you are looking for a pet your choices are limited. While dogs and cats are the go-to option, I will argue that they may in some respects not be best suited for the current situation.  Why?

Dogs and cats are traditionally seen as members of the family and their care is a family responsibility. When kids choose alternative pets, those animals are generally considered the responsibility of the child. This change in status has life and death consequence which has profound impact on the relationship between the child and their pet. Put in the bluntest terms, if the child does not care for their pet, the pet will die.

Homes often have these alternative pets, ranging from goldfish to rats. Because of their shorter lifespans and more fragile nature, all of these animals will die during their caregiver’s childhood.  While tragic at the time, these deaths are a good thing, as the experience is profound and illuminates one of life’s deepest experiences. How you handle this inevitability will be a real test of your parenting skills. I suspect that this is one reason that parents are often reluctant to take on one of these alternative pets because they know that a difficult day of reconning is sure to follow.

The existential relationship between the child and alternative pet is therefore substantially different than it is with a dog or cat because of the inherent responsibility of the child that is a fundamental condition. The pet will die, hopefully of old age, but it is more often because of neglect, which in itself is a deep life lesson. Less often but more instructive are those deaths that come from a lack of knowledge about the needs of the animal.

From the standpoint of learning, one of the best pets for kids are fish. Fish require a balanced environment in which nutrition, air, light and temperature have to be balanced in a very narrow set of parameters. A fish tank is a dynamic lesson in ecology that helps children get a deep and person understanding of the larger world around them. The problem with fish is that they are not at all cuddly. That shortcoming can be mitigated to some extent by choosing an assortment fish species that have an active social life or will reproduce and thereby increase the child’s engagement.

The best choice for a cuddly pet, other than a dog or cat, is a rat. While many have an aversion to rats, they are incredibly smart, playful and robust. Rabbits and guinea pigs can be good pets as they will play with cats and dogs but are not nearly as smart or trainable as rats. Hamsters and mice have the benefit of breeding well but don’t have much in the way of play value to offer. Parakeets and budgies are fun and, with training and proper handling, can be good choices.

The main goal here is that the child must make the selection and do the work to keep the animal alive and thriving. Whichever animal selected be sure that it has been bred in captivity. This means exotic animals such as saltwater fish are out as are many reptiles and amphibians.

Playing During Pandemic – Part Six – Fire


In this post, I will be somewhat provocative to illustrate some of my key points of this series. You may think that it is crazy to advocate for kids playing with fire, especially in the backyard, but I think that you will see that it is actually a great idea. Your concern is safety, and rightfully so. What’s one of the main skills you hope your children will learn? Safety, right? The other ability that they may gain during sheltering in place is learning to be self-motivated and deeply engaged. Playing with fire is a hot ticket to achieve both goals. Here’s how.

First, the preparation. Your shopping list should include; marshmallows – both sizes, gram crackers, toothpicks, and wooden matches. Oh, and a pocketknife.  What? Now you want my kid to cut herself in addition to setting the house on fire! No! That’s not going to happen; you’ve got this.

I’m going to design this program for those kids who are at least a mature four-year-old. This project illustrates what we, in the early childhood education field, call “scaffolding,” where the core lesson is added to as children master the challenge presented. Following the “less is more rule,” start by giving out only a handful of marshmallows and some toothpicks. This will trigger the construction phase. Wait until this has run its course and then bring out some color markers. Wait for boredom to set in and add some paper, cardstock or cardboard. If the kids haven’t got the idea yet that this is fun, they can add what they want, suggest string, and let them know they are on their own.

Hopefully, you will have saved some of the large marshmallows because here’s where we introduce fire. Your parenting goal here is to provide as little help as possible. The first step is to permit the children to roast some marshmallows while not providing specific directions other than it has to be outside, and you have to approve the plan for how they will do it safely. That task should take at least a day. More if you can point out the possible hazards that need to be considered. Here’s where you can use some of the wasted marshmallows from the construction project by setting up an experiment to see how combustible these little sugar bombs really are. If you want to use the drama, this creates to get in some STEM learning, and you can talk about calories and sugar in foods and how their body burns them.

We have now set the stage for building a fire. This allows for more STEM with an exploration of combustion and the ratio of oxygen to fuel. You can illustrate this by having them drop a lighted match in a glass jar, covering it, and watching the flame go out. The next insight is to have them discover the concept of kindling temperature. This can be done by holding a burning match to a large piece of wood and seeing that it doesn’t catch fire before the match burns out. Now you can present the knife. The children can use the knife to whittle off small slivers from the wood to act as kindling is a fundamental life skill.

I prefer a Swiss Army knife, but there are many websites with other types suggested and good rules for using a knife. This is a great time to talk about maintenance and sharpening, and I recommend adding a multi-grit diamond sharpening tool to the kit.

I think you can see where I’m going with this post. Each step in the program has a trigger, an experiment, and a product that leads to the next challenge. If you follow this approach, you should have had a month’s worth of engaging activities with a minimum of your time and almost no cost. It’s up to you and your child where you want to take this. I suggest that you can go next to making Smores and then to hotdogs on a stick. From here, the whole area of cooking opens up. There’s a whole world of doing solar oven backing that can be down with almost no supervision.

What this plan sets in place is a relationship between you and your child where you are the facilitator, and the child is the explorer. Once this dynamic is set in place, your child’s confidence and competence will blossom, and level of trust and mutual respect will become the norm.

Who knows, perhaps this one exercise will turn your child on to cooking, and you will have real help in the kitchen. See? Playing with fire can be a good thing.