When decluttering goes too far

Minimalism and decluttering are topics which seem to be popping up more and more frequently. There’s lots of advice out there about rolling your tshirts or giving away things that you don’t need. Sure, making sure everything has its place is important; and many people will find less toys means more play, because they’re accessible. But there’s one way in which decluttering can go too far . . . and that’s with books.

A recent study found that when controlling for every factor, almost all reading ability in children came down to genetics. If parents were good readers, their children would be too; and vice versa. There was only one environmental factor that made a difference; the number of books present in the house.

(nb: bears no resemblance to state of bookshelves in my own home)

Children who lived in houses with lots of books were better readers, even if they didn’t win the genetic lottery. Not only were they better readers, but they ended up better educated, too.

So whatever you do, don’t decide to throw out the books in order to make your house seem less cluttered, or more minimalist. They need those books!

Here are some links to the research; there are a few studies out there, if you look for them.



Child-led Writing at Kids Build Together

Do you  ever think about reading and writing going alongside building blocks? If it seems strange, think about real life – if there was a real building or building site, would we expect to see some form of writing? What about signs, forms for checking in, safety instructions? If you haven’t noticed – be sure, the children have!

Writing tends to happen organically at Kids Build Together. By that I mean there is no need for an adult to request the child to write anything – they will naturally create signs, invitations, displays and other forms of writing. Sometimes they’ll ask help with spelling, other times they’ll work it out themselves. Sometimes it’ll be pseudo-writing (scribble) and sometimes it will be upper case mixed in with lower case.

What is our role? To provide the paper, pens and tape for the signs; to obey the instructions they put down; to help with spelling, if asked, and to leave it alone, if unasked; to read their messages, if they’re made public.

I might suggest, if a child is becoming frustrated when solving a problem, that they draw a diagram; if they decide against it, fine, but it’s another tool that they can use if necessary. Putting the pens and paper out for children is another suggestion in itself, which they can take or leave.

Unscripted, unforced writing is an insight into a child’s mind and is precious. Giving them the opportunity to do so is important for their own learning. And paying attention without judgement is essential.

Here are some forms of writing we’ve seen at Kids Build Together:


Chalked Sign





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Marker-written Sign










Self Directed Learning at Kids Build Together

Have you heard the quote (attributed to Plutarch) “the mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled”?

It’s talking about two different ways of seeing learning.  One way is viewed as pouring something into an empty container; the container itself doesn’t matter, and the matter itself being poured has already been decided (by whoever is doing the pouring!)

The other way views the learner more dynamically; something small sparks a flame, and from there the learner is the one creating and maintaining the fire.



Self directed learning is, of course, the second way. It doesn’t rely on ‘a pourer’ to provide ready made facts; it doesn’t discount the uniqueness of learner, or the uniqueness of the outcome, either. All a fire needs is the right environment – the oxygen, the fuel, and off you go!

How do we provide “the oxygen and the fuel” at Kids Build Together?

1. Time

Providing a time when children aren’t being told to something, and are given free reign is important. It’s not scheduled for listening or for following set directions – it’s their time.

2. Space

Giving children a space which is aimed right where they are – equipment their size, table their height – where children and child-like behaviour is expected, not tolerated.

3. Resources

Kids Build Together has a supply of great resources, from books to building blocks, playdough to paint, where children can explore what lights their fires.

4. A supportive, non-judgmental, listening ear.

We don’t like it when kids roll their eyes or shrug at the things important to us – so even if we don’t get why Frozen or Thomas the Tank Engine are important to them, we need to value their interests and pay attention by listening and being present.

We have seen all sorts of interests being played out, from dinosaurs to Pokemon, mermaids to monster trucks. We happily display whatever the child feels is important!


Time for self-directed learning is never wasted – not only are the children enjoying themselves, they’re often building, making, talking, writing, drawing, and most of all thinking. And that’s why play is so valuable.



Building Robots at Kids Build Together


What kid doesn’t like playing with robots – being a robot – building a robot? There have been a lot of opportunities to build your own robot at Kids Build Together, and kids and adults alike have loved it.

The first robot we played with is called a “buzz bot”. It’s basically an electric toothbrush on a nail brush . . .


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. . . decorated with monster eyes, of course. Very easy for a little kid to assemble – masking tape the brush to the brush, and then decorate. When you turn it on, the vibration will go through the little brush hairs, making it move. It will even move around obstacles, such as Duplo mazes.

You can see slightly more complicated versions of the buzzbot which involve removing the motor from the brush (we removed the head of the toothbrush only), but I felt that was a choking hazard for the little ones. Look it up for older kids, though.

The next robot was the Drawbot . . .



. . . which draws! It’s a milk frother (a few dollars from ebay), with pens taped to it. Again, the vibration travels through to make it whirl around, making beautiful patterns. (You need to put a bit of masking tape on the frother bit, so the vibration travels through the body).


Recently we have been able to play with two “real” robots, in that they can be programmed. Thanks nephew Sam for the loan!

Dot and Dash are two lovely robots who can move, make sounds, change colour and sense movement. They can be programmed using an ipad (or similar), so that the children can learn basic coding – for example, putting commands in order, ‘trouble-shooting’ errors, planning and problem-solving.

Here’s Dash . . .                           and Dot . . .

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. . . who are decorated beautifully with some Duplo. The lovely thing about these robots is that they can come with brick adaptors for Lego or Duplo. Not only can they wear different ‘outfits’, but the blocks can connect the two robots or turn into a bulldozer blade or an arm! Best of all, it’s a way for kids to really ‘build’ their robot, to make it their own.

Why don’t you try building a robot of your own – or visiting us one day for some robot fun at Kids Build Together!



Craft with Kids – let them do it!

We have done a wide range of art activities with kids at Kids Build Together, from playdough to painting, papercraft and printing.



A lot of parents dread craft time, and the most frequently heard comment is “I spent half an hour putting an activity together for them – and they spend thirty seconds on it!”

My answer to that is – don’t. Don’t look on pinterest for cute seasonal craft ideas. Don’t think about what you want your child to make at all – it should be entirely up to them.

You have probably heard “process, not product”.

We have a display cabinet at Kids Build Together where the children can display the artwork or building creations they are proud of. Sometimes a screwed up piece of paper is in that display cabinet. It may not mean much at all to you – but it might be the very proud product of a very complex process in a child’s mind.

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So what is your role in the crafting process?

– Materials

Over time, give them access to a wide range of materials such as clay, playdough, paper of different kinds, art pastels, pencils, textas, different kinds of paint, glue,  sticky tape, collage materials like feathers or sparkles, pipe cleaners, large beads.

– Space

Find a space that isn’t too stressful to clean up. Outdoors is often the best space for this.

 – Boundaries

Show them some basic techniques and make the boundaries clear, from “don’t eat the playdough” to “wash your brush between colours”. Be firm, calm, and prepared to repeat until it sinks in. More detailed techniques as they get older might be how to observe something they are drawing, eg “you’re drawing the flower with one leaf, how many does it actually have?”

– Craft with them

Paint your own picture, create your own sculpture. Enjoy yourself.

– Record

Take photos of the process of crafting not just the product – pay attention to the hard work, the thoughtfulness, not the outcome.

In the early days, make a regular crafting time where you introduce techniques and materials (without saying what you want them to make). As the children get older, let them have access to the materials (or at least know where they are and try to say ‘yes’ to their requests), so that they can use these materials to explore ideas and learn about the world. You will find that children will work longest when it is something they are deeply interested in, where it is their own agenda and not yours driving the craft.

Exploring Spirals

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Books for Builders

My kids love to build – not only with blocks, but with whatever they can find! Recently, my daughter made a key hanger for Daddy by painting a piece of wood then screwing in some hooks. My boy made a robot from boxes and bottles out of the recycling bin.

Here are a few books we’ve read lately which are great for little builders.


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Eddie’s Toolbox

This story about learning to make things has some practical tips for parents, too.


The Most Magnificent Thing

Sometimes your project doesn’t work out so well the first time. And that’s ok.


Wendel’s Workshop

Throwing things out, or reusing? Wendel works it out!



We’ve also discovered a wonderful Australian magazine “for children and artists” called BIG KIDS MAGAZINE. It is simply beautiful, full of artwork from both artists and children, and really inspirational to little artists.


Don’t forget we have a lovely book corner at Kids Build Together with lots of block-themed books (and heaps of Thomas books, too!) Come along and join in the fun!




Schemas in Children’s Block Play

I’ve been reading recently about the concept of schemas, an idea originating from Piaget and developed further by  early childhood specialists.

A schema is a framework for thinking about things. Children explore big ideas like “some things connect” by repeating them again and again.

Some things you  may see children do include lining up or ordering objects, putting objects into containers,  spinning objects or themselves, or mixing different things together. These sort of activities sometimes seem odd or meaningless or even irritating to adults, especially when they are repeated many, many times! But they are natural urges which help children develop big ideas about the world, and many of them lead children into deeper understanding of mathematics, science, and language.

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Here are some schemas (from Susan Harper, 2008);

Rotation: rotating objects, drawing circles, spinning around and around!

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Trajectory: dropping, throwing, jumping – discovering where does it go?

Orientation: Seeing things from different angles  – even if it’s  from  a dangerous  height!

Positioning: Placing objects in patterns-  where does it fit?

Connection: Connecting and disconnecting objects.

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Enclosure and Enveloping: putting oneself or objects inside a container or entirely enveloping oneself or objects in fabric etc.

Transporting: Moving objects or oneself from one place to another – and back again!

Transformation: What does it turn into,  if I add – mud, water, food, and so  on?

When you  provide  blocks to your child, you  will see many  of these schemas in  progress.  Your child might spend time ordering the blocks, connecting and disconnecting, placing them in patterns. Allow them  the time to explore without your  direction and allow them the time to repeat patterns and activities, rather than moving on each day.

If you need to redirect dangerous play, consider the schema and offer something which still provides the same experimentation-  eg replacing throwing blocks with a different trajectory such as posting down a chute or rolling across the floor. Remember that children who spend time  with  blocks  end  up with a stronger mathematical sense,  and  part of  that is the time spent developing these  mental frameworks.

Block Play, Everyday, at Kids Build Together

Holiday time can mean a chance to enjoy interesting one-off experiences with our children. Travelling, enjoying a theatre experience, going to a special museum exhibit. You may have to save up to enjoy these experiences as a family, and they might require extra time or energy, but they often inspire ideas, conversations, play.

But a one-off experience, however intense, just can’t compare with the experiences of every single day.

Compare the child who visits the zoo once a year to the child whose parent works at the zoo. Imagine the depth of knowledge the second child would have, the behind-the-scenes realities, the details he or she would be aware of.

What about the child who visits a farm compared with a child who lives on one? Knowing what it means to have to take care of the animals every single day, being aware of the changing seasons, the seasons of an animal’s life, too . . . quite different from petting a chick or a pony.

Watching my own children play in the bush near our home inspired this post – the awareness they show of the different species of birds, plants, and insects, the comfort around dirt, thorns, sticks and stones.

While we can’t all choose to raise our children on a farm – or a zoo! – we can all think about the experiences we want our children to have every day. These might include

– having books in our lives, every single day.

– having music in our lives, every single day.

– having outdoor play in our lives, every single day.

I’d add another one to that list – building with blocks every day.

Building with a set of blocks on occasion with give a child pleasure, but building with blocks regularly gives them knowledge, experience and confidence. I’m often surprised at the number of children who visit Kids Build Together and are not comfortable with building without instructions or adult guidance. Learning to experiment, being comfortable with the possibility of failure and the opportunities of variation are all so important for little children. Research has shown that playing regularly with blocks has benefits for language, spatial development and problem-solving abilities – all essential abilities.

Put thought into the one-off experiences, but even more thought into the everyday experiences, because the latter will shape the way your children think and play, every single day.




Making is part of learning . . .

Here’s a great quote from Natural Math (www.naturalmath.com):


Making is the main part of learning. Why? Here are a few reasons:

  • As children act on physical objects, they develop relationships with ideas. If children make objects, they see themselves as makers of ideas as well. Children then believe they are making their own mathematics, because they very obviously, very physically do so.
  • There are details of the structure you only notice if you take things apart or put them together. How the parts fit, what the length and the angles mean, which details are significant – you notice these aspects and more when you make things.
  • Making tools feels like a super-power in any field. Who makes tools? Cutting-edge scientists, hottest startup entrepreneurs, visionary social innovators… If you not only create paintings, but also mix some of your own special paint, you level up to new mastery.

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That’s why making is such an important part of Kids Build Together – when you build a pyramid yourself, you notice how many sides it needs and what shape forms the base. And you feel pretty powerful doing it, too!

Baby Play Today! New book now on Amazon

There are a lot of books about caring for your baby – changing nappies, feeding, dealing with small illnesses. But what do you do with your baby once those things are sorted – how do you play with your baby?

When my daughter was born, I spent lots of time flipping between books and going online to get ideas for play. Some of the ideas were unrealistic (threading cereal necklaces, aged 12 months?) and some were expensive. I wanted to put together all the useful, fun, practical and realistic ideas for playing with babies – and so this book was created.




Each chapter, from newborn to older toddler,  is full of easy to use ideas, from quick to hand ‘boredom busters’ to developmental information and special features.  There are games, art & craft, cooking, rough & tumble play and more!

This is a practical and fun book for any parent – grab it today!