The Magic of Upcycled Play
Updated: Jul 6, 2020
Today my hole-ridden socks became one of our favorite new toys. And we made them ourselves! Best of all, my toddler completed each step alongside me, and many times completely by herself. I'm talking sewing, filling, stitching, the whole shabang. She did so with concentration, patience, and confidence.
**we made beanbags, bracelets and hair-ties with just an old sock!**
That didn't just happen by accident.
The secret? Trust.
Another secret? Pre-exposure.
But the real secret? I let it unfold.
Read on to see what I mean (and also on how to make a DIY Beanbag Sock). But first, an ode to sustainability, upcycled crafts, saying YES and the art of celebrating the skills (like allowing ourselves time to see what happens) that for many of us might have been antiquated to the past.
I have never been a crafty person. An artist, yes, I feel joy and satisfaction when working on a new oil painting. But I've already joked many a time that I will never be that mama who sews her kid's costumes. No, not me. But I will use what I have to make something new. I've used a Katan carrier, an eye pencil, headbands and some felt to transform my infant into a baby joey and myself and my husband into the mama and papa kangaroos. I've turned a tutu into a wig and regular clothes in my closet into many a whimsical thing. But during a time of quarantine, where we might not want or can't physically to go shopping for a new sock or are hesitant to receive a package, where we have time and time and more time and long days, where I am hearing many parents want ways to entertain or occupy their children and are expressing worry that their children are feeling bored or anxiety set in as we stare into another long day, I want to tell you that it doesn't have to be like this. It truly doesn't. Children are not an audience to occupy. They are an open sponge of wonder, curiosity, and imagination just waiting to make their next amazing discovery. If we let them. And we stop them all too often.
So some tips:
First of all, boredom is good. In fact, boredom is wonderful! When a child, or person, for that matter, is left to their own devices, that is exactly when new things happen. We start to notice things. We start to wonder. We start to ask questions. And then, if we're ready and given the space and freedom to do so, we begin to explore. That is how our ancestors discovered fire, invented the wheel, discovered the first asteroid, you name it! And that is how our children will naturally take in new information that they are passionate about. By leading themselves there.
Secondly, when a child is given an open-ended material, there is no end to the possibilities. Consider the difference between a packaged butterfly craft kit where the butterfly might come out "ugly" or "wrong" and a pile of beautiful wooden blocks that can be transformed into a cocoon once, into a whole forest the next, and maybe a city another time. When we allow our children to test things out and be their own guides, so many interesting play opportunities emerge.
Thirdly, we don't need fancy toys to make our kids "smart" or keep them "on track." We honestly just need a stick. Or a box. Or in my case today a sock, an embroidery needle, some yarn, dry beans, and most importantly, the courage to try something new out even if it doesn't work out. Vulnerability with a sprinkle of imagination. The experience of transforming a sock into a beanbag that has led to hours of unabashed tossing joy, and making it ourselves, and not knowing what in the world we're doing but doing it anyway, and using materials we already have... oh, yes, THIS is where the magic happens.
And think of the values we are instilling in our children. Some, among them:
1. We don't have to waste or buy or have more, more, more because we have everything we need!
2. We can make something new out of something old and in this way we care for our mother earth.
3. We can create a new game so easily and have so much fun doing it!
4. You, my child, you are capable of doing anything that you have been exposed to and allowed to try.
I cannot emphasize this last point enough. Children are miraculous! Any person who has trusted a first grade a hand saw and a wooden block will know that kids are THE safest and most careful woodworkers that there are. They just need to be shown how to use the tools first. And shown how not to use them. That's it.
This is why my 15mo old already cut with a knife and my 22mo old would already play with small loose parts - because I knew that she knew what not and what to do with them and trusted her to be smart, safe, and focused. Because she was always allowed to. And because I was there by her side modeling, asking questions, making small open-ended suggestions like "what would happen if we did this?", that sort of thing. And that is how my 3 year old was able to sew her own bean bag sock today.
The message: We are capable of filling these strange but amazing days with the skills and experiences that only happen when we give them the time to unfold. In fact, I would even go as far to say that we have the responsibility to try. Not only for our children, but for ourselves. I am not suggesting that all of us have to transform into crafters, gardeners, chefs, and weavers overnight. I certainly support you if that's what fits your fancy. But I am more proposing that we simply allow ourselves the time to be curious observers of our lives and of our children and create opportunities for new, delicious little moments to unfold.
These moments-- whether they are cuddling up on the sofa in a cycle of endless oral storytelling (because we wish we could go to the library but can't) or learning to plant your own square inch balcony garden in reused recycled containers (because we want to try to grow our own food instead of risking the weekly shopping run plus we have a lot of things we would have just thrown out) or in today's case transforming my favorite worn out sock into a beanbag (because I don't want to order packages or go shopping right now so why not make use of what we have?)-- these are the memories our children, we all, will have from this time. And this is the time to try things we've always wanted, like say, testing out what would happen if you told your kids, "sure, let's try this (sewing, cooking, wood carving, mud play) together and see how it goes" instead of jumping to the no-that's-not-safe-that's-too-messy-no-stop-that paradigm.
Because these moments sure don't come around that often in our fast-paced lives. In fact, they might not come around at all again somewhere in the near or not so near future. But right now with this moment of stillness we have an opportunity. One that no school day or work deadline can provide: we get to be creative. We get to try. We get to explore together. We get to say yes and see how to make that yes feel good and even amazing. In fact, we get to lean into creativity, be resourceful, and try entirely new things. Maybe because some of us even have to right now. But also maybe because what would the world be like if taking the time to be together and create something new out of the old and ordinary were our norm?
DIY Beanbag Sock Sewing Activity
For 2.5yrs & up
Since E was about 12mo, she has enjoyed many pre-sewing activities that gave her the concentration, dexterity, interest and skills to tackle a real sewing project.
I planned ahead, building her ability with (from top left, counter-clockwise) a Montessori weaving cheese block followed by large wooden beading, then on to lacing cards, jewelry making with pipe cleaners, and then we tried out twine with various smaller beads, knot bracelets and pre-sewing cards made with large, dull embroidery needles, yarn and some rug hooking mesh canvas. Then finally came today, where I showed her how to hand sew an overstitch to close a seam. I was able to do this because I knew what different materials and skills I could set in place and I understood how to plan a developing of a larger skill through exposure to precursors and foundational skills first.
Each activity is presented as an open provocation: for example, E might wake up from a nap to discover the materials and I would watch as she explored them. Every possible use is celebrated and encouraged during open exploration (sometimes with a few guidelines like "beads stay out of our mouth"). Then, at some point I join in with her play and enjoy my own exploration. This is a chance to model something new like beading in an ABB-ABB pattern (math skill!) or tying a knot. I also ask a lot of open ended questions like "what might happen if" or "ooh, I wonder" or "what do you think about this idea?" and more. I can geek out on all of that probably for hours, but that's another blog post.
For today, I want to emphasize simply allowing.
Allowing our children to try.
Allowing our children to mess up.
Allowing our children not to have a plan.
Allowing ourselves to mess up and not have a plan.
Allowing ourselves to explore alongside our children.
So do that and see what happens!
And oh, here's how you sew a DIY Beanbag Sock: