Playful Learning: Q & A with Author Mariah Bruehl

Playful Learning: Q & A with Author Mariah Bruehl

Jackie Boucher
Aug 19, 2011

As parents, we know that our children come into this world little scientists, artists, and authors — it can be a little overwhelming at times taking this precious opportunity to harness their natural curiosity and channel it into life long passion for learning. It's resources like Mariah Bruehl's book, Playful Learning, that can help us do it. Mariah is a passionate educator. She has taught in the classroom, developed curriculum, trained teachers and implemented programs across many grade levels for the past decade. We were thrilled when she agreed to answer some of our questions about what playful learning is and how to create inspiring learning spaces in our homes (even small ones).

Let me start by saying that when I first got my hands on the book, I could not wait to crack it open. Neither could my 7-year-old son. I found it full of inventive ideas for teaching and inspiring children at home (and parents at the same time). It didn't take long before the little guy spotted the heart mapping activity which he insisted we do right away. Luckily we had the watercolor paper, paints, and Sharpie markers on hand so away we went drawing out our hearts and filling them with our passions, memories, and loves (and, to my surprise, arteries too! See below.).

Not only was it a fun project to do together, I loved how it documented a moment in time that we can keep forever. It occurred to me it would be fun to do the same project every year, for a few years, to compare how his heart map changes. I'm kicking myself for not cutting down the paper to a standard frame size (read cheap and IKEA) before handing it over to my little artist. Let this be my little tip for you (I don't know how I'm going to trim those crazy arteries to fit it in a frame). Needless to say, I can't wait to hit the book again for another creative, hands-on activity. But first, let's ask Mariah more about what playful learning is and how to make it part of a family's everyday culture.

We are very excited to explore the many subjects covered in the book, such as math, art, science, writing, geography, emotional literacy etc. How do you recommend families use this book? Should they systematically try out every category or stick with the ones that are closest to the child's interest?

Mariah Bruehl: The learning experiences that I share in Playful Learning are meant to be used organically as interest arises from your children. I would recommend skimming this book first so that you have a collection of possible experiences in the back of your mind. You will be amazed at how they come back to you at just the right moment. I would also encourage you to let your children look through this book and place sticky notes on pages featuring the activities that appeal to them. Nothing makes for a better experience than if the idea or desire comes from your child. Once you and your child have skimmed through the book, you can refer back to it as a reference when your child takes interest in a particular subject. For example, if your child starts to show an interest in collecting leaves, you may want to stock up on the supplies for making wire leaves. The goal of this book is not to complete each activity one by one; it is to take your child's questions and interests to the next level through meaningful experiences. My hope is that parents make these projects their own and adapt them to meet the needs and interests of their children.

Sometimes it's hard to get the kids excited about taking on a new a project. What's the one tip you give parents to help them engage their children in playful learning?

Mariah Bruehl: My number one tip for parents is to slow down and just spend time listening to your children. Listen to them play, listen to their questions, listen to the way they interact with other children; just listen. I have to remind myself of this on a regular basis. When children feel listened to, they are far more apt to be responsive to your invitations to engage in playful learning. You will also be better equipped to follow their lead and suggest activities that speak to your children's current interests and passions. The result is a relationship with your child that is built on mutual respect. When I first stopped working and decided to try out some of my favorite classroom lessons with my daughters, they were not very responsive to my ideas. Although my intentions were good, I was trying to move forward my own agenda without taking their needs into consideration. After a few too many failures, I let go of my preconceived ideas and spent time simply being with them. It was not until then that I started to pick up on their cues and propose experiences and investigations based on their current passions. Now we have gotten to know each other as learners, and they take delight in my excitement about particular discoveries as much as I relish in theirs. Learning together playfully has become a part of our family culture.

As a mom of two, have your children taught anything about education that you didn't know before?

Mariah Bruehl: My children have taught me so much about teaching and learning. First and foremost, they have shown me that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to educating children. Every child has his or her own learning style that needs to be taken into consideration. What works beautifully for one child may not work for another. My daughters have completely different ways of approaching new information and experiences. My oldest needs to understand the larger picture or gestalt before she is ready to learn about the specifics of any given topic. My youngest daughter needs to understand the details and how they all fit together before she can see the big picture. These differences have big implications for how they learn to read, solve math problems, approach science, and so on. The same is true for parenting. I strongly believe that there is not only one right way to raise children. Different children need to be approached in different ways when it comes to motivation, discipline, and learning how to find their place in the world.

What is the difference between free, independent play and playful learning at home and at school?

Mariah Bruehl: I encourage parents to provide plenty of free time for their children where they are able to play independently, make decisions on how to spend their time, and engage in creative and dramatic play. My philosophy is that if parents set up an interesting environment for their children with well-chosen materials and toys, kids will take full advantage of the opportunities for productive play that are before them.

Some wonderful characteristics that develop during these times of independent play are:
• The ability to focus and become engaged for longer periods of time
• The ability to self-regulate and make positive decisions on how to spend time
• Development of the imagination and creative thinking
• Learning how to share, take turns, and resolve conflicts when siblings or other friends are involved.

I believe that all schools, regardless of the age group they are working with, should engage in playful learning. While it is beneficial at home to engage in free play often, I feel that schools have a responsibility to skillfully guide children's play experiences. Yet to do this well, it takes much more thought, preparation, insight, and creativity on the part of teachers than traditional methods of teaching. When well-trained teachers act as facilitators who set up a variety of environments and provocations (depending on what they are studying) and then observe the children as they are playing and engaging with the materials to listen for questions that arise, discussions that are had, and sparks of interest that occur, they are creating guided play scenarios that inform their teaching. Then they are able to follow up with dynamic hands-on investigations and projects. When teachers take their students' lead to build a dynamic and playful curriculum, magic occurs in the classroom. Children view both scenarios (free and guided) as "play," yet the latter is what takes a child's understanding of academic concepts and skills to another level.

How do you know if your child is getting a balance of free versus guided play in those early school years?

Mariah Bruehl: This is not simple to answer but here are some things that parents can watch and listen for:
• Your child comes home excited about what he or she is doing and learning in school.
• The work being done in the classroom involves hands-on projects where children are building, drawing, sculpting, or creating work that demonstrates their understanding of any given subject.
• Your child has a positive attitude toward reading, writing, and learning in general.
• Your child is eager to investigate, explore, and pursue questions outside of school.
• Teachers are in touch with parents about what is happening in the class through newsletters or others forms of communication. This information can be used by parents to spark conversations at home about what is happening in school.

If you are not seeing these things from your child, it is worthwhile to have a conversation with his or her teacher to come up with some strategies on how to achieve these goals with your child.

We were excited to see a whole section in the book on creating playful learning spaces for children. Can families living in small spaces realistically have a space dedicated to playful learning?

Mariah Bruehl: Yes! I love to figure out ways to make the most out of what space I do have to work with. One of my favorite things we use in our house is the writing caddy. I started out using an old utensil caddy and filled it with a variety of fun pencils, pens, papers, and blank books. Simply leave it out where your child can access it, and you will be amazed at the writing and art that will start popping up around your house. Thinking creatively about wall space is also helpful. Today there are so many fun and inexpensive wall pieces that can be used to organize art, science, and writing supplies. Here is link to a writing center that I created for a friend who had space constraints. Within hours of setting up this space, I received a photograph of her young writer busy at work in the new space. My philosophy about creating interesting spaces for children is: Create it and they will come. Try experimenting with leaving out little activities and supplies in well-placed baskets or bins, and you will be amazed at how your children utilize what is before them!

Thanks Mariah!

Learn more about Playful Learning: Develop Your Child's Sense of Joy and Wonder, published by Shambhala Publications, on the Playful Learning website. Look for the book at your local bookstore or purchase it online. Mariah is also the owner of Playful Learning, a retail space and educational studio in Sag Harbor, New York. She runs classes and e-courses including one 6 week course on creating inspiring spaces for children. You can follow her blog here.

The book is making the rounds — follow along on Mariah's blog tour.
Previous stops:
AUG 15: Let's Explore (activity)
AUG 16: Two Straight Lines (activity)
AUG 17: Sew Liberated (collaborative post)
AUG 18: The Artful Parent (activity)

Upcoming stops:
AUG 22: Let the Children Play (guest post)
AUG 23: Simple Kids (guest post)
AUG 24: Spell Outloud (interview)
AUG 25: Not Just Cute (activity)
AUG 26: Make and Takes (giveaway)
AUG 29: ABC 123 (guest post)
AUG 30: Modern Parents Messy Kids (activity)
AUG 31: A Bit of This and a Bit of That (interview)
SEPT 1: Adventures in Mommydom (interview)
SEPT 2: Inspiration Surrounds, Creativity Abounds (guest post)
SEPT 5: Happy Healthy Hip Parenting (activity)
SEPT 6: Tinker Lab (interview)
SEPT 7: Helping Little Hands (activity)

(Images 1, 3, 4, and 5: Mariah Bruel / Shambhala Publications. Image 2: Jackie Boucher)

Apartment Therapy Media makes every effort to test and review products fairly and transparently. The views expressed in this review are the personal views of the reviewer and this particular product review was not sponsored or paid for in any way by the manufacturer or an agent working on their behalf. However, the manufacturer did give us the product for testing and review purposes.

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