When Tools are Toys, Work is Play by Judith Frizlen

May 2024


Today’s article is by Judith Frizlen, sharing a chapter from her book, Where Wisdom Meets Wonder, Forty Stories of Grandma Love.


When Tools are Toys, Work is Play

It doesn’t take a lot of space to experience the outdoor world. Our urban yard is small but big enough. There’s a an old curly willow tree, a row of bamboo, a flower garden, and a shed. The shed is packed with stuff. There are rakes, shovels, screwdrivers, buckets, and more. Whenever we go outside with the boys, Opi opens the shed door, revealing an array of tools and possibilities.

When Opi takes out a rake, the little guys want one, too. Any substitute will do as long as they can imitate Opi’s gesture. It can get tricky when little ones are wielding large tools, but the yard is small, and Opi’s attention holds them. An adult focused on a task creates a kind of bubble that engages children. Within that bubble, there’s gardening, cleaning, and repairing to do in the warmer months.

In the winter, there is snow removal and sometimes a snowman to build. In between, there’s putting away watering cans and cushions. The children find all of it a lot of fun. It’s the spirit of the activity that matters. It’s the joy of being together and having a little piece of earth to cultivate and relax in.

Children love to participate in outdoor work; they do not have to be coaxed to join in. Even in our little yard, the wonder of nature’s seasons offers so much opportunity to engage the children’s interest in outdoor chores. The work, in turn, aligns with their developmental need to move their bodies and focus their will.

Instead of a virtual reality, children need to become grounded in the physical one, with its myriad of tools and activities. When children use their bodies, especially limbs, they build strength and stamina that serves them lifelong. Early childhood is the time for gross motor development. Practicing small, fine motor movements can come later.

I wonder when outdoor activities stop being fun and become chores. When do they become something we must do, not something we want to do? When do our toys become tools?

That’s the magic of childhood. There is no distinction between work and play, and that spirit is contagious.

I have never seen Opi so industrious as when he is in the yard with the boys. Together, my three boys find the play in work and the work in play. Opi’s tools, usually picked up only when he must (sometimes at my request), become toys that they all enjoy playing with.

There is so much work to be done in the adult realm. And so much play in the child’s realm. Together, we find a sweet spot where the yard is tended, and everyone has fun! Unlike desk work, physical work gives our boys something to imitate. As grandparents, we have the luxury of choosing the tasks we do when the children visit.

The devices can wait. When the children are with us, we engage in physical tasks. When we do, the boys imitate our gestures—sweeping, raking, planting, or weeding. Opi and Omi share the spirit of play that the boys bring. Imagine a life in which work and play are woven together, and joy carries the day!

In that world, tools are as much fun as toys. While the children are imitating us, we also learn from imitating them!

Judith will be facilitating her online course with LifeWays in just a couple of weeks!

A course for care providers, early childhood teachers and families!

For three weeks beginning June 12th
“Get to Know You” Zoom session June 12th 6:30- 7:30pm Central

In this three-week course, we will explore play which is nature’s way to support child development. Understanding the important role of play in child development helps us become champions of play!

Click the image above to hop over to our website to learn more about this online course with Judith!