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by Karen Legge

Attempting an 'Invitation to Play' the Reggio way

Capturing a toddler’s attention is not hard.

From a hail storm to a frozen pea – they are generally enthralled by the world and the sensory experiences it has to offer. Keeping their attention? That’s a whole different matter.

Harry will sit through a book at bedtime and demand more (delay tactics at their finest). He will happily watch four episodes of Thomas back-to-back if I let him. But when I want him to sustain attention, frankly it’s like herding cats.

Inspired by some of my favourite mammas on Instagram I’ve begun to brave the ‘invitation to play!’ The concept, inspired by Reggio Emilia, encourages children to learn through exploration. Move your whizz-bang, plastic, all-singing, all-dancing, button-pressing Argos toys to one side. The philosophy is based around using natural, recycled and handmade objects, presented in ways to entice little learners to explore and creatively play in a sensory way (to explain it in its simplest terms).

When all your kit contains is some bubble wrap, paints and buttons – a little help is needed. Gathering and storing all of these ‘bits’ is a logistical nightmare but why worry – problem-solving is only a click away these days. I purchased a construction themed set from ‘Ginger Buttons Loose Parts‘ to inspire my little wrecking ball.

I’ve learned my lesson the hard way: a tray within a tuff tray was the way to go in setting up. Small grains of rice, with my expert in destruction; containment was key but with the space to investigate. Harry has been loving a set of Hodder Children’s books at the moment. ‘Ready, Steady Dig’ by Smriti Prasadam-Halls and Ed Eaves is his favourite. It tells the story of the Construction Crew who come to life through the imagination of a little boy. With this as my basis I set up our Ginger Buttons invitation whilst Harry napped.

It even enticed the cat – winner!


I’ll be honest, I didn’t stick wholly to the philosophy. To offer opportunities for play outside of this experience, I placed some of his plastic megablocks and diggers around. It wasn’t full Reggio but it was a start!

His reaction on waking? “What’s this Mummy? I LOVE it!” You can’t say fairer than that!

Now – this is where you needs to manage your expectations. In your head you may have very clear ideas about how pieces could be used or what the outcome could be. But keep in mind the ‘could‘. You are inviting the child to explore and they will inevitably see, hear or feel something in quite a different way to you. When I first attempted this with a robot-themed tuff tray, I thought we were going to create a wonderful robotic model together. I didn’t envisage the meltdown and battle that ensued when he wanted to do something quite different. I wanted perfection. He wanted destruction.

So this time I came to it with a far more open, ‘non-directive‘ approach, as is the Reggio way. I’d just let him get stuck in and do with the pieces what he wanted. My only caveat – it had to stay in the tuff-tray. I’m all for creativity but with my new cleaning regime in my attempt to become the next Mrs Hinch, I’m not one for finding grains of rice for the next millennium.

The other expectation I needed to manage was time. It may have taken a while to set up but that did not dictate that time it kept his interest for. Time in the baking tray: about two minutes. As soon as Harry started to explore the materials it was clear that they were not going to remain contained. No planning permission was necessary for this site expansion.

Of all the materials we had on offer, the rice was by far his favourite. He clearly loved the feel of it through his hands. He loved the sound it made as it hit the plastic of the tuff tray. He loved sprinkling, shaking and flicking it. The little scoop that came with the kit was a winner and he actively piled rice on rice on rice!

The rice was swiftly excavated from the baking tray. It found its way in to most pieces of Harry’s clothing – but the sensory experience and fine motor skills necessary to pick it up made it worthwhile. We gave up trying to count the grains – we’re still getting there with 1-10 – manage your expectations mumma!

Flogging a dead horse is my other learning from the robot fiasco. You’ve got to make a judgement call – you’ll know when they’ve had enough. With my metal meltdown, I was trying to push for too long. I’d been under the illusion it was going to grab him for an entire afternoon… Who was I kidding! Today we managed twenty minutes before I could tell he was losing attention and inspiration. Before I was left with a basmati carpet we called it a day and I packed him off to play trains whilst I picked up my pilau and tidied away.

That didn’t let him off the hook. Once the bulk of it was done I asked for his help in hoovering. I want him to learn responsibility for the clean-up operation so he doesn’t drive me quite as mental as his father. The dust buster was revved up and the remainders of our fun were sucked up by the newest member of the construction crew.

Effort versus outcome? It was short-lived but I feel the opportunities for talk, physical development and imagination were worth the input. Storage of bits and pieces is my next challenge but I know there are a mass of play-based mammas out there offering ideas and inspiration for how to create and manage these type of experiences. If you haven’t already check out two of my favourite: @simply_play_with_mummy and @create_make_and_play on Instagram. Lindsey and Molly who run the accounts come from an early years education background and have built quite a network of like-minded creatives.

I’m at the very beginning of this journey and I am keen to develop my skills in providing exciting and inspiring learning opportunities for my little man. If you have any ideas, resources or experiences you’d like to share please comment or jump on to my instagram @theunyoungmum to post pictures.

Written by Karen Legge for her blog, The Unyoung Mum. Follow her on FacebookInstagram and Twitter.
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