• Paper as Provocation – An Encounter Between an 18 month old and His Kitchen Cubby

    by Sonya Shoptaugh ON February 14, 2013

    This is a short story about Anders, an 18 month old boy, and his caregiver, Maija. It is a story about inviting the unexpected into our lives with a sense of eager anticipation. And it is a story about taking a common material – paper – and making it compelling, inviting, full of humor and whimsy.

    Maija is interested in the Reggio Emilia Approach. I am supporting her engagement with the philosophy and we meet once a month to discuss all things great and small pertaining to her learning process. The following experience is told through the words and photographs of Maija.

    “While Anders napped, I prepared my first full on, intentional environment for him. The cubby space in the kitchen, under the counter, is an area Anders would go into occasionally when we were playing.


    I decided to cover the walls in white paper that had “fish scale” shapes / flaps cut into it, adding tactile, visual interest point to the space; white paper on the floor; a two layer (one longer, one shorter) “curtain” in front of cubby entrance; wadded paper “balls” on floor in cubby. The final addition was a battery powered closet light to illuminate the dark cubby space and for LR to push on and off (an activity he likes to do around the house with light switches.)


    Before Anders awoke and discovered the transformed cubby space, Suki the cat began exploring it and made herself at home. She seemed very curious and interested in all aspects of the new space.

    lars paper day 013 (600x800) copy

    I was prepared with my camera (still and video) to capture Anders discovering the new cubby. He noticed immediately upon stepping into the kitchen and went right over.

    lars paper day 022 (800x600) copy

    He became a little shy of the paper-strip curtain. It seemed to create an impediment to his movement. I reached in and turned on the light to see if it would embolden him to come back or enter the space. This peeked his interest …cubby2

    By late afternoon, the inside of the cubby was fairly paper-less, and new paper games were being invented.”

    lars paper day 084 (800x600) copy

    Sonya’s reflections: Children are born with a sophisticated capacity for perceiving their environment, and for engaging intimately with what is around them. When we care for the environment children live in, we care for children’s capacities for building new relationships, new meanings, and new discoveries to occur in their lives.

    Maija and I decided she would explore paper with Anders, giving him opportunities to experience the pleasure of this every day material, and develop his abilities to use paper as an expressive language. One of the challenges I gave Maija was to capture the story visually so it could be shared with Anders, his parents and me, allowing all of us to gain meaning from what took place. Thank you Maija, and Anders’ parents for giving me the chance to share this moment from your daily lives more broadly. And Anders, I look forward to seeing what further discoveries you make …

  • Time for Wonderment

    by Sonya Shoptaugh ON January 17, 2013

    Bath time. It is a part of most family’s daily routine. For some, it is fun. For others, a chore. For most, it’s a blend of both, with the common intention for children to get clean, wash the day off, and afterward, climb into fresh pjs, ready for sleep. Often this is the moment when parents exhale a sigh of relief, ‘day is almost done.’ (I know that feeling well.)

    And, it is also one of those ordinary times of day that has extraordinary potential for wonderment.


    One day awhile back, I was considering how I wanted to savor bath time more with my daughter, to slow it down rather than rush through it. This led me to think about luxurious bubble baths, and then I began to ponder what it might be like to have bubbles not only on the water, but in the air too. And what if we didn’t have regular lighting, but something more playful? And, maybe some balloons, for a festive feel…

    While AC was napping, I pulled out a few items (bubble machine, bubbles, towels, various lighting options – including a black light, more towels, balloons) and began to set up the room for her evening bath.

    Our bathroom is your basic American family bathroom. It has a tub, a toilet, some tile and a bucket of toys. That night, however, it transformed into a island of imagination.


    Children naturally approach life with a sense of humor and awe. We are born with curiosity woven into the fabric of our being – this is how we begin to make sense of the world. Too often, wonderment is seen as secondary and tangential to learning, when in fact, it is primary and at the heart of what propels us to explore and discover. And, every moment has the potential for robust wonderment, if we slow down enough and invite it in.


    As bubbles began to flow into the bath and all around her (and over the side of the tub…), my daughter was mesmerized. She watched her surroundings become iridescent as balls of rainbows wafted around her. More and more bubbles filled the air. With millions of bubbles landing all around her and on her body, she began to talk about what it might be like to be inside of one of them. She has a strong desire to fly, and perhaps she thought this would be a way for her to finally get into the air, once and for all. She bounded out of the bath.


    AC examined the bubble blowing machine to see where she could climb in.

    “Mama. If I step in back here where the liquid is, will the machine blow me out in a bubble?”
    “Ah, love, that tray looks a little small for you … perhaps we need to think of another way for you to get into a bubble…”

    She got back into the tub and we talked more about how she might be able to inhabit a bubble. Bath time ended with a lingering question and the ordinary space took on a new identity – it became a place of wonderment where time can expand and new worlds can be imagined. Now, when AC asks to take a bubble bath, I know this is what she means.

    (I would love to hear your thoughts about how you have made wonderment come alive in your daily life. Please feel free to comment below, or find me on Facebook at Creative Childhood to continue the conversation. I look forward to hearing from you!)

  • The Communication Center – Messages of Love, part 2

    by Sonya Shoptaugh ON December 4, 2012

    When my daughter was almost two years old and toddling about, chatting non-stop, I felt it was time to create a communication center for her, something to have as part of her daily life at home.

    The space started out simple – a table, a chair, a lamp and a few implements for making messages. She gravitated towards the area immediately and our daily enjoyment of making and exchanging messages had begun.

    Over time the area has evolved and now it he place we all go to find tape, scissors, paper, envelopes, stickers – anything we might need to make notes for each other, something we like doing regularly.

    Mailboxes were put up in her studio in order to have a place to put the messages – offering both the sender and receiver a location for enthusiasm. AC has her own mailbox, and my husband and I share a box. There is a certain smile AC has when she delivers a message to our box and is waiting for me to go get it. She knows I will dance around with joy having gotten something from her. (I love getting mail.)

    Recently, we added a family member to our household – Emma, the fish.

    One evening while AC was feeding her, she said, “Wait! Emma needs a mailbox!”

    To be a part of our family means you need to have a place to receive cards, made with cheerful expectation of giving someone joy.
    Now that Emma was a beloved, she too needed a place to receive expressions of love in written form.

    I asked, “Where would you like her mailbox to be located?” AC looked at me as if I had asked a dumb question, but she responded nonetheless. “Downstairs where the mailboxes are.”

    Mama: How is Emma going to get her mail?
    AC: We’ll carry her downstairs. Would she like that?
    Mama: Well, probably not.
    AC: Then we’ll make her a mailbox for her up here, right by her home so she won’t have to move to get her mail.

    She paused, many thoughts appearing to arrive at the same time. Then she continued.

    AC: How will she get her mail if she can’t leave her tank? I know! I’ll give it to her. But she probably won’t like getting WET mail, will she? No. She wouldn’t like that. I’ll hold it up for her. Does she know how to read yet? It’s okay if she doesn’t. I’ll read it to her.

    And with that, AC went to her communication center and began to make Emma a mailbox. She thought about what colors Emma would like, aesthetics being an important component for her in showing she cares. She thought about the right size to make it – “not too big, not too small, just the right size for a Betta fish.” After she completed the mailbox, she ran upstairs to show it to Emma, saying, “I hope she likes it. I hope she likes it. Do you think she will like it?”

    AC showed Emma her new mailbox and explained to her that if she needed help retrieving her mail, and reading it, she was there to assist her. Emma swam over and seemed to listen intently as AC talked to her about the kinds of messages she would be receiving.

    “And it is okay if you don’t know what it says because I will read it to you.” As I heard her talk to her fish with such kindness, I thought about the children at the school in DC where I worked and how they also had come up with the strategy of reading their messages to Coco, the cat, when they realized he might not know how to read. There is a beauty inherent in children’s ways of understanding communication, something profound and deeply empathetic. I smile as my daughter races back downstairs to make Emma a birthday card.

    “And we need to make her a cake, too, Mama, to go with the card!” Of course we do…

  • The Communication Center – Messages of Love, part 1

    by Sonya Shoptaugh ON November 8, 2012

    Joy, tenderness, connection, optimism, surprises to be given and received … our communication center at the Model Early Learning Center (the school where I worked for many years) was born out of our desire to give children opportunities to build and strengthen friendships with one another. It was a place of discussion and debate, a place of making marks and messages, and a place where you could always find children busy writing letters to each other, and to Coco, our school cat.

    Coco the Cat lived on the fifth floor of the Capital Children’s Museum where the school was located. He worked and played alongside our 36 young children who adored him immensely.

    First thing when the children would arrive, they would search for Coco in order to say “good morning” and give him a treasure they had found on their way to school (a leaf, a rock, a rubber band) they were sure he would like.

    Coco, in turn, would sit on their drawings and purr, or eat their strips of paper as they attempted to make a weaving.

    The children would gently tell him, “No no Coco,” and usually end up in fits of laughter as he continued to bat at their hands when they tried to keep weaving.

    The collaboration between the children and Coco was both humorous and deeply beautiful. The love they felt for each other permeated the school. He was a large, warm presence in our daily lives.

    And for many of children, Coco was the center of their world. Their desire to show him love knew no bounds, especially when it came to putting things in his mailbox.

    As part of our communication center, we had a collection of mailboxes nearby. Each child, teacher and cat in our school had their own box where messages could be delivered. This area frequently had a lot of activity as sender and receiver often met together to make sure the letter (made with much care) was received in a timely manner, and enjoyed.

    The children seemed to take great pleasure in their power and ability to communicate, to express their love in written form, and to invite connection by giving something made with their hands and their heart.

    Except, that is, when they put notes in Coco’s box. You see, Coco never wrote back, and this was a source of much conversation and consternation.

    “Why don’t Coco write back? I gave him all those notes!” (RS, age 3.5)
    “Coco is a cat, he don’t know how to read and write.” (MK, age 5)
    “But he should learn! Maybe we should teach him.” (RS, age 3.5)

    Despite Coco’s apparent disinterest in responding to messages he had gotten, or his lack of letter writing ability, the children continued to stuff his mailbox with letters. Out of the 40 mailboxes on the wall, Coco’s was the most overflowing. Always. He received – by far – the most messages.

    I believe there is an innate desire to communicate, to relate and to express love. The notes the children continued to write, even though he wouldn’t write back, illustrated the extraordinary power writing messages hold, and how compelled we are to connect in this way.

    Then one day a child came up with a solution for the ‘Coco and his mail’ problem. “Well, if he can’t read yet, then I will just have to read it to him.”

    And from that day forward, Coco not only got letters in his mailbox, but he had children searching for him, finding where he was, then sitting down to read him their messages of love.

  • Stepping into Infinity – An Encounter with a Mirror

    by Sonya Shoptaugh ON October 26, 2012

    For AC’s first birthday, I worked with a furniture builder to construct a triangular prism with mirrors on all three interior sides. (The concept was invented in Reggio Emilia, Italy.) When you climb in, you see yourself multiplied and the world made fantastical. I could barely wait see her expressions of glee when climbing into this human-sized kaleidoscope.

    The day finally arrived when it was completed and we brought AC up to my studio for the big unveiling. She took one look at it and toddled the opposite direction. Odd. What are you doing, I thought. The excitement is inside the prism. You are going the wrong direction.

    So, I gently lifted her next to the prism. I could feel her little body begin to tremble. She was alarmed. At this moment I realized she may not know the mirror was okay to step on. I had never thought about a one year old’s perception of mirrors. What I considered thrilling could in fact be downright terrifying. To her, it looked like infinity, and I was asking her to take a step into a never-ending abyss. Some gift. Thanks Ma.

    I assured her it was safe to walk on, however she did not have to go in it until she was ready. We sat there together for some time as she considered what to do. Then she went to get her trusted companion and tossed him in the prism… you first.

    She watched as he didn’t fall through space. We stared at him for awhile. He seemed okay. She wasn’t convinced.

    She cautiously retrieved him, making sure to keep her weight on the floor, and then headed for the stairs.

    The next day when we went to the studio, the prism was still there, yet long gone were my expectations of a joy filled child receiving the best gift of her young life. Instead, I embraced the fact we’d given her something to confront. In some profound way, the prism had become a right of passage. A monumental discovery. A test of courage, faith, trust. She had to learn for herself that some times our perceptions are not reality.

    I positioned myself on the other side of infinity, and smiled. You can do it, my love. Whenever you are ready. You are totally safe to take that big step. I’m right here.

    And then something inside of her clicked, an internal impulse said go. She grabbed hold of her courage and took a huge risk. She stepped into perceived infinity and discovered she was standing on her own reflection. The first thing she did was give herself a kiss, and I burst into tears.

    It took awhile for AC to enjoy the mirror house as I had originally intended. But those beginning encounters with the prism are precious to me, as they serve as a continual reminder – often what seems ordinary to us, such as a mirror, is quite extraordinary for young children.