• 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…

  • 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 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.

  • How Leaves Get Their Colors – A Child’s Perspective

    by Sonya Shoptaugh ON October 16, 2012

    Autumn has arrived in the Hudson Valley and we are surrounded by astounding and ever changing beauty. Walking through a tapestry of color is a daily occurrence for us. Our feet crunch leaves that once were above us, and now fascinate us on the ground.

    One morning while on a walk with my daughter, I found myself curious to know her thinking about why the leaves change color. I asked her a question to begin the conversation, and felt the excitement of anticipation — I knew I was going to learn something interesting.

    Mama: So, how do you think these leaves change colors?

    AC: All these ones were healthy, but the greens ones weren’t healthy so the healthy ones change colors and the not healthy ones don’t change colors.

    Mama: I see. If the not healthy ones wanted to change colors, what would they do?

    AC: Because they are not taking vitamins every single day. They want them to take 12 a day. They are only taking 3 a day. They take the minerals kind of, of the air, minerals of the air.

    Mama: Oh! They take their minerals of the air vitamins. I understand. But where do these colors come from?

    AC: That is the color that the air is! The air’s color, we can’t see the air’s color so, they come on the leaves. The vitamins are different colors. The vitamins are what the colors the air, and then the air falls onto the leaves and that is what makes the leaves change colors. The air takes their vitamins every day and that changes the air and the air falls on the leaves, and that is what makes the leaves turn colors. The leaves fall because it is just Fall. Happy Fall!

    She began to dance in the leaves and I joined her, both of us taking delight in the crisp air and our conversation. After we got back from our walk, I invited her to draw her ideas, keeping cognitive and expressive languages as close and constant companions.

    How children construct theories is deeply intriguing. They weave together their observations, impressions, lived experiences, and their imagination, intelligence, ingenuity, and what they value. The process of developing hypotheses is most important, not the “accuracy” of them. By asking my daughter what she thinks, and taking her ideas seriously, she is learning her thoughts are valued, and her theories are worthy of being heard and merit consideration.

    If I had told her how leaves change color, the conversation would have been short lived and would not have been as welcoming for her participation and her perspective. The more we can give young children the chance to jump into questions, keeping the sense of wonder alive, the more we allow them to hold onto their love of discovery – a quality that connects them to their own learning and ways of knowing for a life time.

  • Home as a Place of Research – Honoring the Unexpected

    by Sonya Shoptaugh ON October 10, 2012


    One morning while on a walk in our forest, AC wanted to climb a tree.  We looked for a long time and couldn’t find any with branches low enough for her to reach.  “We could bring a ladder out and put up a board for me to climb on,” she suggested.  “And, maybe we can put a bed on it!”  “What a compelling idea!” I said, and in that moment, the tree house project was born.

    After numerous conversations about her ideas, and opportunities for AC to draw her thoughts, I sensed it was important to give her the opportunity to think 3-dimensionally, as this would surface some of the design elements that needed to be worked out – such as, would there be walls and windows, if so, how many.   She had mainly been focused on the interior.  There was definitely going to be a bed and a rug.  Everything else was an open question.


    I set up the table with clay, clay tools, paper, pens, twine, scissors, sticks, and a platform in the “trees.”  Each item I thought about carefully, as I knew they were strong elements that would influence the direction of her thinking, I just didn’t know how.

    When she came up to the studio the next morning, she pulled up a chair, surveyed the landscape of possibilities and said, “You know how I’m going to get up to my tree house?”  I replied, “No, I don’t!  How?” To myself I thought, This is going to be great, yes, fabulous, steps, rope ladder, new ideas here we come. And then she said,

    “By roller coaster!”

    “By roller coaster?” I gulped, and prayed my eyes were not too wide.

    “Yes, a roller coaster.  I need to make that first.”  She got right to work and I had a mini melt down in my brain, which meant I couldn’t say much – a good thing.  A roller coaster?!  You’ve got to be kidding! My mind froze and raced simultaneously, an odd sensation.


    Children are brilliant.  Often, their ideas do not conform to our overly-pragmatic adult ways.  If we stand aside and allow their genius to have room to romp, we will continually be amazed by where they will invite us to go.  Honoring the unexpected means giving children the right to explore the vast unknown with unabashed curiosity – something they do naturally.

    It also means being prepared to be thrown off balance again and again, requiring us to listen with fresh ears and be attentive to surprises.

    I never could have guessed this was where she was going to take us that morning.  I had anticipated windows and walls.  She invented a thrilling way to access her tree house. Fortunately, the provided materials received her ideas readily, and helped her give voice to her enthusiasm and creativity.

    After a good stretch of time making track and cars, AC got tired and went to her “mirror house” to roll around and dream of roller coasters, and I took a few minutes to make notes about the things I wanted to remember from the morning.   It is a big responsibility to care for children’s ideas well – and I was feeling the weight.

    I’m still not sure how I am going to support her in making her roller coaster entrance come to life, a rather large design challenge to consider and research.  However, I feel the future awaiting us with a big smile.   To be continued …



  • The Identities of Yellow

    by Sonya Shoptaugh ON October 2, 2012

    Yellow. It is way more than one color. It is a field of colors, a symphony, it smells like fruit or summertime turning into fall. Each broad category of color has within it a multitude of identities — and this was what I was hoping to offer my daughter — the chance to experience ‘yellowness’ more intimately, more expansively.

    After AC went to sleep, I set up empty jars, paints (yellow, white, black) and paper with the intention for her to make different yellows. I cut squares of paper so she could paint them and keep track of the different yellows that joined us on our journey.

    The next morning when AC came into the studio, the first thing she said was, “Oooh! This is BEAUTIFUL!” She sat down and immediately began to hold yellow in her hands, and in her heart. I could feel her engagement. She accepted, with full participation, the invitation to explore yellow-ness.

    Children approach things with a strong sense of perception and empathy – my daughter reminds me of this fact daily. She got right to work making yellows, giving them their right to be vast, complex, extraordinary. While she worked, she narrated how she was bringing to life the colors she was creating. “Let me tell you what this one needs. It needs a little more vanilla white.”

    With great pleasure, she would squeeze or pour color into the jar, and begin to stir – and then, with the expectancy of a great alchemist waiting to see what might emerge, she would lift her brush, analyze the color, consider what next, then begin again.

    If she liked the color, and deemed it finished, she would paint a square and then give the color a name. Near the end of our morning, she said with much emotion and wonder, “These colors belong in a museum!” She was in awe.

    The paints will now take on a life of their own, offering their bold or quiet statements of yellow through her paintings, or sculptures or other avenues we have yet to think of…

  • A Table of Clowns: Accepting the Premise of the Play

    by Sonya Shoptaugh ON September 26, 2012

    The last time my daughter and I were in California visiting my parents, I realized something noteworthy. This was the realization:

    Every time a child does something imaginative, we have a choice as to how we respond, and over time, our responses have long lasting effects on how children view their own inventiveness. The more we accept the premise of children’s play, the more likely they are to believe in their own creative abilities.

    This insight came while my family was at one of our favorite cafés in Oakland. We go there every day, and this morning, like all other mornings, I pull out various things for my daughter to play with so I might be able to sip my coffee for a moment or two and maybe say hi to my folks.

    I get to talking with my mom, while my daughter digs into the toy bag. The next thing I know, she puts a blob of play dough on her nose and goes to visit with my father, who then put blobs of play dough on his nose. I laugh. My mom laughs. Then she puts a blob of play dough on her nose, and I do the same. We are a table of clowns.

    This was when I realized that I am among the fortunate to have grown up with parents who know how to play, who accept invitations to be imaginative, and join in with gusto. I have a strong sense of my own creative abilities, and putting play dough on my nose comes naturally. I give my parents credit for this.

    That morning, the message we gave my daughter was, ‘Your inventiveness is not only valued but encouraged.’ As a result, she is more likely to believe her creativity is welcome.

    Other responses that could have happened:

    1. I notice the blob of play dough on her nose and say, “Please take that off. You are supposed to use that stuff on the table.”

    2. I laugh, and say, “Aren’t you cute, now why don’t you make a car or something.”

    3. I don’t say anything or do anything, but pray other people around the café don’t notice my child has a blob of pink stuff on her nose.

    Now, there are times when is it completely appropriate to redirect what is going on, for whatever reason. I do believe, though, the vast majority of the time, it is not only fine to accept the premise of the play, but advantageous to all involved. Young children live effortlessly in the world of imagination. If we join them there, not only do we bring more joy into our lives, we honor them for who they are – incredibly inventive human beings.

  • Discovery by the Light Table

    by Sonya Shoptaugh ON July 22, 2012

    I was excited.  I had grand plans for an exceptional experience with my 9 month old.  The light table was ready with things that were translucent, mouth-able, and able to manipulated by little hands.  Despite being massively sleep deprived, I had gone up to my studio the night before and arranged these things in what I thought was an attractive way.

    Read full article »