The Simple Things – A Little Bit of Whittling and the Importance of Play

I’ve been a parent for a very long time now and I’ve seen all the fads and phases come and go. We’ve weathered the storm of playground ‘must haves’, we’ve given in to a few and said no to most but, when I look back on my children’s childhoods, it is not the primary colour plastics which have stood the test of time. Those Beyblades, Bumpies and Barbies are languishing on a charity shop shelf, Buzz Lightyear has gone to infinity and beyond – so what has  stood that test? Which things have provided endless hours of fun? Which things still get played with?

Lego, Playmobil, K’Nex and Mario/Super Smash Brothers all still have a strong pull. If Bonus Boy gets the Lego or the K’Nex out he soon has a team of ‘advisers’ on hand and they are often to be found, curled up with DSs playing a multiplayer game where they can all join in regardless of the huge difference in age.

But the very best things of all have been things which in no way dictate or direct play. Cardboard boxes, packaging material, blankets, pots and pans, pens, pencils and paint, the washing baskets and sticks seem to mark out the whorls and eddies in the current of their lives.

Give him a stick and he’s a happy boy, give him a knife and he’s in heaven

Learning through play

He whittles a bow and some arrows

He is Robin Hood

Imaginary Play

His Swiss Army Penknife has a saw, sticks with noses have to be sawn and carved until their personalities emerge

making stick people

stick people

We now have a whole handful of stick people who make excellent travelling companions.

Of course, once he starts, it’s not long before someone else comes to join in. This old broomstick was clearly crying out to be turned into a magical staff.

making a wooden staff

Play for the sake of it, play with or without apparent purpose, play which develops skills, encourages questions, allows them to experiment, adapt and create – this is what childhood is all about. So it was with dismay that I read of the government’s plans for nursery education this week. As they shift towards the mechanics of learning, as the emphasis is heavily placed on producing workplace fodder rather than on nurturing a desire to learn, as they remove the need for nursery workers to learn anything about the importance of play so they are doing a disservice to our children and storing up problems in the long-term. My children are the creative, intelligent, thoughtful people they are because playing to learn was encouraged – they learn because they want to not because they have been told to. They question, they wonder, they observe, they find out – it’s not rocket science.


  1. Each time the current government talk about the education of small people I want to weep. Play is the MOST important learning tool they have.

    • It is Sonya. Their interference in education, their evident ignorance and their heartlessness makes me scream.

  2. Unstructured, child led play is so important that I believe without it children miss vital stages of development. Skills such as improvisation, creativity, sharing, and simply being able to enjoy your own company.

    • Play is vital, absolutely crucial and must not be sidelined. We are in danger of creating a generation of unhappy, unsatisfied people and we need to stand up and be counted on this one.

  3. My son’s favourite sentence is “Let’s go play mummy” I never want that to change. I love how simple things become a game and he is usually learning at the same time.

    On a side note I love the way your son just wittles up a bow!

    • Perfect, bless him! My youngest has had very good teachers in his older siblings, he’s a lucky boy! :-)

  4. What an important post.

    Such beautiful images and powerful messages.


    • Thank so much Liz, that means a lot coming from you! :-) x

  5. After seeing how hard my 6 year old works in school, I no longer do any structured learning at home with him, but just let him play, whether it be climbing outside, imaginative play with his sisters or LEGO building by himself.

    We’ve also noticed that he now writes for fun, I am always finding little books full of short stories and drawings around the house. I love it.

    You’ve also inspired me to try some whittling with him :-) x

    • My eldest is VERY miffed that BB got a knife at 7 when he had to wait much longer but, I now realise, they need whittling in their lives ASAP! BB has taken to writing little poems and posting them under the kitchen door when he’s supposed to be in bed, I can’t get cross about it, his brain is on overdrive!

      • Awww, that is lovely. Do you keep them all somewhere special?

  6. What a brilliant post!

    I love that you let the carve and whittle with penknives.

    I was in the guides (oh yes I was!) And I loved my penknife! I carved sticks, and even made a super stick (it was a carved walking stick with plasters attached incase of injury, a bell incase I got lost (stop laughing) and string for, well anything really!

    Posts and photos like these make me all warm and glowy inside!

  7. Love this post!

    The way things are going I worry the government will soon be imposing SATS at 6months old, with a full curriculum to prepare for them delivered by the health visitor within the first week after birth. The focus is very much on preparing children for the work force from the earliest point possible and I can’t think of a better way to take the joy out of learning than that! So here, here for shouting about the virtues of unstructured playing – or ‘playing’ as it used to be called back in the day!!

  8. Your kids are beautiful Chris, and as always you raise very strong points. x

  9. Chris, this is a good thought-provoking piece! I love the stick people. So many uses for them. :-)

  10. This is a fabulous post :) as a mum and someone who works for an Early Years Consultant I am constantly both enraged and disheartened by the government’s plans for childcare and education that seem to ignore years of research, advice from the industry and even plain old common sense!! I worry for our children and will do all I can to encourage play in our life as a family. We were lucky to find a nursery where free play and small groups are encouraged as the basis for the day…

  11. I used to climb up our sycamore tree and sit on the top of a high wall to make clothes pegs from bits of wood. I was only allowed an old butter knife though. Thank you for reminding me of that.

    I feel quite helpless with Piran starting school this year and the thought that these decisions will be made and we will have no say in what they do and learn at school.

  12. Wonderful post. I would much rather spend an afternoon in the woods with my little one climbing, exploring and questioning and not only do they then learn but they also build relationships too. How old were your children when you gave them a pen knife? I think I got mine when I was 10?

    • My older ones were 10 and 11 I think, this one was 7! You’re right about it building relationships not only with family and friends but with nature itself.

  13. Lovely gem of a post, photos included. Love your phrase ‘playing to learn’ which i’ll be using i think! Agree with all you’re saying. My heart sank when I saw the govt’s plans for nursery education: adds to my list of deep concerns about the government’s approach to education and my latest blog posts on the subject, ‘Education, Education, Education’ ( and ‘Schools Not Out – but it darned well should be’ ( You might also like to pop over to Secrets of the Sandpit where Judith is doing a series on re-imagining education called A Clean Slate. She’d probably like to add this post to the series. Enjoy the hols – where we can enjoy lots of Kairos time to play and daydream and Mr Chronos clock gets tossed aside for 6 weeks…..



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  2. Drink Carton Crafts - How to Make Bird Feeders and Plant Pots - - […] his skills.  He loves to whittle sticks with his swiss army penknife, making endless numbers of stick people, bows, …

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