Stimulate Your Child’s Curiosity

International Play Iceland

Posted by on Nov 3, 2015 in Blog | 0 comments

International Play Iceland, October 11-16, 2015, Debbie Ellman








Recently I found myself on a volcanic island in the far North Sea.  An island so unique and remote that when the Vikings arrived a thousand years ago the only mammals they found on land were the Arctic fox and some Irish Monks.

In general I could say that islands were a large part of my growing up.  A childhood spent in nature: running through rice paddies or barefoot on West Indian lava rock.  Even today, decades later, I often make the trek from home in the Colorado Rockies to my childhood home in those warm turquoise waters.

But never to the volcanic country of Iceland, which straddles the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet.  At Thingvellir National Park you can actually stand on the edge of the continent!  The two plates are pulling apart, moving away from each other which is why Iceland is highly volcanic with volcanoes (like Eyjafallojokall in 2012), earthquakes, hot springs like The Blue Lagoon, geysers, and a well developed geothermal industry.

I was in Iceland to attend the International Play Iceland Conference.  At Sunflower Preschool Boulder we are accredited by Nature Explore and to remain a certified Nature Explore classroom we needed nature credit for the 2014-2015 school year.  Lucky for me, I was the one who ‘volunteered’ and had the privilege of attending International Play Iceland 2015.

Aside from needed credit for Nature Explore I was intrigued by what I had learned about Forest Schools and hoped to be able to experience something similar in Iceland.  What I did experience was more grand and inspiring than what I didn’t realize I was looking for.

From my perspective as a well-seasoned early childhood teacher, owner, found and ‘originator’ (thank you, Tom Shea) of Sunflower Preschool Boulder, I could not have been happier with the philosophy and ethos of International Play Iceland.  Finally, I was hearing quotes and conversation on brain research, play, nature, democracy, respect, trust, adventure, and freedom.  “We know how difficult it is for those working with young children to grasp the importance of free thinking, free flowing and self chosen actions (what we call play) and to make sure it happens in a society that demands order and structure and achievement,” International Play Iceland.

The conference struck a fine balance by providing us with a wealth of experiences.  We were taken to Icelandic nursery schools to play with the children and taken along the Golden Circle to play tourist.  We were wined and dined at many fine restaurants in Reykjavik and spent days together discussing the similarities and differences in our many settings (Play Iceland attendees were mostly from the U.K., Canada, the U.S. and Iceland).  It was an absolute pleasure to be with a group of like-minded individuals.  We were all passionate about play and nature play specifically.  There was a real richness in our sharing while in Iceland that continues online with the Rewild Play and  International Play Iceland groups on Facebook.

For me, the highlight of the Iceland experience was they day we took the bus all the way to the end of the road to Kaldarsel.

Kaldarsel is an Icelandic nature school that had me grinning from ear to ear before setting foot off the bus.  The only building in site was the unusual school building.  Nothing else except other-worldly looking lava rock covered in various, vibrant shades of thick green moss.  Best of all there was a stream surrounding the school with it’s own miniature class V rapids! Beautiful mountains in the 360° view rounded it all out.  This is what I had come to see.

Birna Dís Bjarnadóttir, the head teacher in charge quickly got through her obligatory notes on Kardarsel’s philosophy and invited us to join her and a group of 12-14 children on a walk.  The children led the way and what I soon observed is that Birna and her assistant teacher allowed the children to explore and be free.  No holding hands, no shouting to be careful, no paths to follow, no mud puddles to avoid, no counting heads, no fences, no traffic, no washing hands, and most of all no FEAR.  The children led us up and down the soft mossy lava rock.  The landscape was filled with caves, fissures, cracks and all kinds of holes where you could easily lose a sheep or a child.  The children popped in and out of caves like the carnival game, ‘whack-a-mole.   The teachers near by but not hovering or squelching the children’s joy of discovery as we made our way across the volcanic landscape.

After our walk and an Icelandic lunch of fish and potatoes the children were free to play in the frigid stream.  They made bridges out of wooden  boards throwing them over the miniature classic V rapids.  Other children played with old pots and pans on a makeshift raft in the stream. (The teachers watched from the sidelines as the children directed their own play). The temperature was about 40°, windy, and a bit rainy, but the children were all suited up in total rain gear playing in the middle of a stream.  I saw one little girl step into the stream to rescue her floating pot.  She stepped into that glacial water, retrieved her pot and continued to play, no tears and no whining.  I loved seeing the independence of the Icelandic children.  Iceland is a country that is known for it’s Independent People, democracy, strong Icelandic women and gender equality.

International Play Iceland felt more like a passionate movement to Rewild Play than an ECE conference one might attend to obtain missing credits.  The ideas were vast and I came away from the experience feeling hopeful and energized.

“Early childhood is the most important time for brain development.  It is the time in children’s lives when they start building their brain connections and ultimately the work we will do will shape their forevers,” Tom Shea, International Play Iceland.

Many of my ideas were challenged and I came away from the conference with new ways of thinking about the early years.  Basically I learned to trust children’s innate abilities more, to allow more time for the children to make their own rules and follow their lead and trust the process of play, #playmatters.  Elkind’s philosophy in The Power of Play shows that play is what matters the most.  We need to allow our children the freedom to make choices, the freedom to play.  What I learned as well is that as an ECE teacher who is passionate about play, I now want to “work hard to ensure that children are submerged into nature, independence, and choice,” Tom Shea, International Play Iceland.  My first step is to share with the Sunflower teachers but we also want to share our ideas about the power of play more with the parents.  Reaching the whole family is what works.

I am grateful that Sunflower Preschool is a certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.  We have benefited from our association with Nature Explore.  We have developed a nature-rich outdoor space, where nature based learning takes place throughout the year.  Nature Explore classrooms help children use the natural world as an integral part of their learning. Nature Explore requires a well-designed outdoor space, family involvement, and staff development relating to nature education.

Happily, International Play Iceland was the Nature Education I chose this year!  Both Nature Explore and International Play Iceland are excellent organizations that have much in common.  At Sunflower Preschool we look forward to working with both Nature Explore and International Play Iceland now and into the future.

Thank you to Teacher Tom, Tom Shea Linda Fare, and Peyton Miles for making International Play Iceland a unique and powerful experience. Thank you to Nature Explore, which features Sunflower Preschool here.

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