Inside the mind of a toddler

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut

Spending time with my grandsons is No. 1 on both my priority and my “most fun” lists. The new year started off in full Gigi mode with a week in Colorado with the whole family.

Families from Seattle and Nashville joined us for a mini-vacation in Aspen. The moms and dads skied, as did grandson Cohen, who is now a very grown-up 12-years-old. Granddaddy and I got to babysit Gardner, who is 16 months old, and King, who is just days away from celebrating his third birthday.

King and his “baby Gardner” cousin were instant friends. He took to the protector role immediately, chastising all around if Gardner cried. Cohen kept them all busy with a couch-cushion fort, hide-and-seek and many games of chase.

The Seattle family had to leave mid-week because of school and work commitments. That’s when Gigi discovered that packing for three for a ski week leaves very little room for mommy and daddy to bring a lot of toys.

Turns out, it wasn’t a problem, and I began to remember some wise words from old newspaper sources.

Back when my beat at the News Sentinel included early childhood education, I covered a lot of preschool programs. Some of the programs that are considered mainstays now were brand new in Knoxville, like the Montessori method. The University of Tennessee Early Childhood Education program was doing some amazing things. It was a great beat to cover for a young reporter and young mother.

“Free play” or “unstructured play” were the phrases of the time. Educators and parents were being encouraged to give children time to just let their imaginations go, creating “toys” out of the air or anything handy.

I was a believer then, and King has reconfirmed my belief this week. Free play has been an every-minute activity, and his imagination has been thrilling.

Bar stools and ottomans have become trains, his current love. The belt to my robe has been a scary snake one minute and a train the next.  The structure made of blankets and cushions in the family room has been a fort, a house for his stuffed wolf and, most often, a train tunnel.

Two chairs pulled side-by-side have become a race car and then a car to drive to work. Later, the “car” was used to drive Aspen, the stuffed wolf pup, to the grocery store to buy juice.

Here’s the most amazing part of free play, however. King makes up elaborate stories to go along with what he is doing. The train has had major problems, and Gigi has been instructed to call the “Train Doctor” on numerous occasions. King turns from engineer to train doctor in a matter of seconds, pulling tools out of the air and getting money to pay for a new whistle and new train light from Granddaddy.

And, since he is almost 3, we play the same game 100 times.

Which is just fine with Gigi.



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