Cherishing Children’s Treasures Can Create Many Opportunities to Learn

When you read the word treasure, what images come to mind? Oftentimes, something is considered a treasure if it has some sort of monetary value. Perhaps you think of diamonds, gold coins, or a delicate china doll. Family photographs, letters, or quilts may also be considered treasures. As adults, we may have our notions of what makes something a treasure. In addition to being a noun, treasure is also a verb. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb treasure as “to hold or keep as precious; to cherish; to prize.”

Adult definitions of what makes something a treasure may differ from what a child would consider a treasure. Children find treasures everywhere. Some treasures that excite children are sparkly sequins for a craft project, pebbles, pinecones, seeds, beloved toys, or a tattered blanket. The items that capture the attention of children may be different than those adults may focus upon.

We can capitalize on children’s natural motivation and desire to learn when we as adults choose to follow the lead of children as they explore. With found materials, children have a natural desire to sort, classify, talk, and write about their discoveries. These found objects are sometimes referred to as “loose parts” that can be incorporated with more traditional classroom materials, such as blocks or items in the dramatic play areas, and they can spur children’s creativity.

I was fortunate in the spring of 2014 to travel to Pistoia and Reggio Emilia, Italy, with other early childhood educators. There, we visited the municipal early childhood centers. In these centers, I saw examples of how teachers capitalized upon the treasures children had discovered and encouraged children to incorporate their treasures into their play and learning. One school I visited was La Coccinella, a program for children ages 3–6.

My fellow travelers and I noticed that in each classroom there was a shelf filled with small cardboard boxes labeled with children’s names. In the classroom for 4-year-olds, the teachers allowed us to peek into a few of the boxes, and we were delighted to see that the children used these boxes to collect items they treasured. The boxes were filled with natural objects such as stones, seashells, and pinecones. We also saw tiny dolls, toy cars, and other small treasured objects such as coins and marbles.

When we looked at some classroom displays of children’s work, we saw similar materials. For example, we saw a display the children had created that sorted stones and shells by type, shade, and size. Through this creation, the children developed several early math skills such as counting, creating and recognizing sets, and comparing the attributes of objects.

Another impressive display was an entire fairytale village that had been built by the children out of clay, recycled materials, and many treasures such as figurines and little toys similar those we had seen in the children’s treasure boxes. The fairytale village provided an opportunity for storytelling and dictation of stories, and the children used their emergent writing skills to label their creations.

I wonder what kinds of opportunities we can create for children to learn with treasures in our classrooms, family child care programs, and homes. Our first challenge is to “treasure” or cherish children’s perspectives. We can tune into what they find fascinating. We can provide containers and spaces for collecting items, write down children’s words, and encourage children to use their emergent writing skills to label their collections. We can let them play with these items and bring various objects for children to explore in small group activities rather than using “boxed” manipulatives.

Even older infants and toddlers can join in joyful exploration of treasures, provided we plan for their safety. Boxes, containers, large plastic lids, scarves, measuring cups, and spoons can be left for discovery in special treasure baskets or boxes in their play areas. You could even encourage older children to create a treasure basket for infants and toddlers. With your guidance, they can help classify items first as safe for a baby (e.g., smooth edges, large enough not to choke on) or unsafe for a baby (e.g., sharp edges, very small items) and then by other attributes such as the material the objects are created from or their color.

Rebecca Swartz

Dr. Rebecca Swartz, an early learning specialist for IEL, completed her doctorate in human development and family studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Rebecca’s research and outreach work focuses on infant-toddler care, home-based child care, and the social-emotional development of young children. Her goal is to help parents and early educators by providing evidence-based resources on child development and early learning.