Today’s kids are surrounded by electronics from an early age, with strollers being outfitted with iPad holders and schools working to incorporate new technology into their curriculum.
But on Family Day, kids at the Stettler Recreation Centre had the chance to play the old-fashioned way — getting up to their elbows in slime, for instance, or learning how to catapult foam blocks across the room.
Jeff Johnson, an Iowa-based expert in early childhood education, said these hands-on experiences have much more to offer kids than an hour or two spent with a video game or a tablet.
“When you fingerpaint, you feel purple running off and dripping on your elbows,” he explained. “It’s a much deeper and richer sensory experience.”
Jeff and his wife, Tasha, were featured guests at an event cohosted by the Town of Stettler and the Evergreen Parent Link Centre on Monday, Feb. 16.
In the morning, Jeff gave a presentation targeted at teachers and other caregivers, based around the following theme: “Play is in the child, not the toy.”
During his talk, he discussed the benefits of child-led play, in which kids are encouraged to pursue their own interests and learn through playing, rather than pushing academics on them at an early age.
In the afternoon, kids were invited to do just that, as the Johnsons set up several rooms filled with activities.
There was the messy room, in which kids could play with mixtures of different materials — like canisters filled with Alka-Seltzer and water, which would burst open when combined together — or make a painting with a variety of brushes, including a cordless drill with a paint-soaked rubber glove wrapped around the end.
In another room, kids were invited to explore and play with different machines and loose parts, including a small wooden catapult. There was duct tape, cardboard rolls, PVC pipe, pool noodles — all kinds of ingredients for what Jeff called “hands-on, child-led play.”
“Every kid that walks in here does something different with them,” said Jeff. “They’re also learning all kinds of skills that they’re going to need later on.”
He explained that part of his philosophy is to encourage adults to “step back and let the kids do the leading.”
The Johnsons spent decades working as child care providers in both centre and home-based settings.
They have written several books about early childhood education and now tour as speakers, toymakers and advocates for both children and caregivers.
Jeff said last fall they were “on the road for 11 weeks straight,” logging 25,000 miles, while this fall they are scheduled to tour Australia and New Zealand.
In addition to the Johnsons’ activities, most of the Rec Centre was open for families to enjoy, beginning with bouncy castles set up in the lobby.
Both rinks were open for skating, shinny and painting on the ice, while multiple tables of crafts and a photo booth were available on the second floor. Families could have their pictures taken and then decorate a custom frame to hold the photo.
Tish Tunney, manager of community programming for the Evergreen Parent Link Centre, said they had co-sponsored the event in part to raise awareness of the services they offer.
The centre is part of a provincial network designed to offer accessible, affordable programs and resources for families with children under the age of six.
“We’re really happy to see the turnout,” said Tunney, noting that they saw in excess of 250 people attend the event, and that the centre hopes to continue cosponsoring such activities in the future.