For children, there is something very empowering about carrying something twice the length of his body, collecting two dozen twigs to make a bouquet, or using sticks as props in play to bring a sense of completion. Carrying around stepping stones challenges the strength, just as carrying long or bulky pieces of tree challenges the coordination and spatial awareness.
I can imagine our Neolithic ancestors hunting and gathering, using the same skills that the children are practicing in their play with sticks and stones. For the stone age people, hauling heavy carcasses and tree trunks and gathering seeds and vegetation for food was part of their survival. Could our ancestry be rooted in the type of play that I see in the yard, creating with it an inherent sense of gratification?
I used to have a hard and fast rule about sticks, which I viewed as dangerous in their ability to impale or poke out eyes or be used as a whip. “You can use sticks if you are sitting down,” I would declare, never realizing that what I was actually saying was, “I don’t trust that you can walk around with that safely.” I mean, it’s not like I’m handing over a chainsaw (although one day a child found the perfect branch with an appendage that made a perfectly shaped handle—he couldn’t have been happier--it really did look like a real chainsaw!).
One day after discussing the sitting down rule with the other teachers, we decided to change it. For one thing, it was really hard to constantly remind the kids to sit down while using sticks. It wasn’t fun that way. So we decided that as long as the children’s feet were on the ground (e.g. not on a climber or slide or bike) then they could use sticks.
At first, I watched very carefully how children handled these long dangerous spears. For the most part, they understood the inherent danger in the sticks and seemed to use them carefully. But what was impressive was the length of time spent using the sticks. They would literally have their sticks for the entire outside time, only taking breaks to eat.
With supervision, sticks and stones can offer tools for open-ended play and also challenge children on a physical level. The birthday cake in the sandbox isn’t complete until there is a twig candle in it. The workers in the yard cannot carry out there business without their saws and hammers and large planks. The child trying to explore her own strength wants to carry heavy and dangerous objects to feel a real sense of power. Sticks create an extension of the body that allow for spatial awareness and also bring a sense of being bigger.
We have these two saplings that grew from a mother tree. The kids used the branches, leaves and all, like long palm fronds, and asked the teachers to pull them off until there were none left. Now that the trees have no branches left, I feel kind of bad. But they make for a great large motor area. Kids go to these twin tree trunks often to show off their "cool tricks" and "exercise".
Beyond the children using sticks is Ta using the tree trunks to get some exercise.
Rocks make the perfect open-ended prop and bring with them an aesthetic property only found in nature.