Starting With the Ordinary

Hedda SharapanHere we are in mid-August, and I wonder if you’re asking, as a lot of people are, “Where did the summer go?!” I also wonder if you’re asking, as a lot of people are, “Where did my budget go?!” Especially now when you’re planning for the year and looking for a variety of materials to provide the children with engaging learning experiences.

While you’re searching for meaningful materials, I hope you can appreciate how much you’re giving children when you create a learning experience out of simple, everyday things. Think of the times you’ve offered an engaging activity that turns a paper plate into a mask, a paper bag into a puppet, an egg carton into a sorting box, or a gutter into a ramp. When you’re resourceful, you’re showing children that just by using ideas, we can turn something ordinary into something extraordinary.

Fred, too, was resourceful. He was that way personally, and he was especially intentional about that on the Neighborhood series. He wanted to help children know that we can do a lot with a little – with our imagination and open-ended materials, everyday things, and natural things around us. 

Here’s one of those resourceful ideas from a Neighborhood episode. Watch what Fred does with a simple piece of string.

Here are some other ideas that start with simple things:

Encouraging resourcefulness

A few years ago in a workshop I attended, we all stood in a circle and passed around a paper towel tube. As the tube was handed to us one at a time, we had to call out a different way we might use it. What can you do with a paper towel tube? Some of us had trouble thinking of a new idea at first, but fueled by each other’s creativity, we ended up with a wealth of ideas. You might want to suggest this for a staff meeting. Try it with a paper plate, too…or with an egg carton.

Doing an activity like that with adults can remind us there are all kinds of ways to offer those everyday items to the children. In fact, you might be surprised to see what they do with simple things like paper plates, paper towel tubes, shoe boxes or cereal boxes. Here’s another idea – why not set these things out (with some craft materials) in the block corner, the science table, or the housekeeping area, etc. where children might be motivated to make them into something they can use as a tool or a prop in their play.

Working with natural things

Last year I went to a fascinating workshop at the NAEYC conference about all the ways we can use rocks or stones to help children learn STEM/STEAM concepts (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Math). Think about how much children can learn when they spend time observing different kinds of rocks or stones with a magnifying glass, describing their similarities and differences, sorting them by color and then by texture, or lining them up by size, seeing which float and which sink, which roll down ramps faster, etc. All those learning experiences from something as ordinary rocks or stones!

Before the children start working with rocks or stones, I would suggest that you read to them Everybody Needs a Rock by Byrd Baylor. It’s a great way to help children think of rocks or stones as treasures and handle them respectfully. 


With all the elaborate and colorful learning materials calling out to you from catalogs, it’s easy to forget that you can bring amazing and engaging learning experiences to children with ordinary things. You’ll also be giving them something that is extraordinary – an appreciation for their own resourcefulness. That’s something that will help them all through their lives.

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