By Emily J. Weitz
For Mariah Bruehl, it’s always been about how best to save the world. That’s why she started out as a political science major in college. But she quickly came to the realization that education was the key to solving many of society’s ills.
“The more we grappled with different societal issues,” Bruehl says, “the more I realized the way to make a difference is to start with the children.”
Thus began Bruehl’s path towards the classroom, where she encouraged students to have an appetite for learning. But since then, Bruehl’s impact has grown beyond the walls of the classroom. After her children were born, she decided to leave work and devote herself full-time to parenting. That’s when Playful Learning, her award-winning blog, started up. And now this month, her book by the same name will come out.
“I started the web site as a way to document my time with the girls and to benefit other families,” she says. Apparently, it had a major impact, because Bruehl was contacted by a publisher who wanted her to write a book based on the ideas in the blog. “I realized I had a lot of material,” she says. “I had had a lot of experience with children, and I had identified certain patterns and methods that worked really well for me, and developed over time.”
The first method that Bruehl addresses in her book is organization. How do you set up a Playful Learning space?
“When I was in the classroom,” she says, “I saw directly how environment and setup affects a child’s behavior… When I was at home I was able to get creative and use things not typically used for organization, like a drape rod for hanging art or a utensil organizer to hold scissors and rulers.”
When you walk into her store on Main Street, which has a back room where kids are invited to come and play, you can see how her organization inspires creativity. There are little tables and chairs with all sorts of art supplies and toys, arranged in inviting ways that make starting a new project completely unintimidating. Part of the book is devoted to helping parents and teachers create this type of a space on their own.
The rest of the book is broken down into sections like “The Joy of Reading,” “Scientific Investigations” and “Raising the Citizens of Tomorrow.” Each section has an overview and then has eight to 10 activities to do together. At the end of the book are printables, which are also available on the web site, to help with the activities.
“I want to teach children to be critical thinkers, problem solvers, to have an appetite for learning, and to be kind,” she said.
Well, doesn’t everybody?
But the difference is, with her creativity and organizational skills, she is able to develop an environment that facilitates this kind of learning. The book is basically a manual for parents to create situations that inspire this kind of growth.
“My goal was to create meaningful moments between children and their parents,” she says.
Just as the blog started out as a way to document what she was doing with her girls, the book is a project she and her daughters have undertaken together.
“I have done every activity in this book with my daughters,” she says. “It feels personal to me because I have shared all these experiences with the girls. It was like looking through a photo album.”
Because she went through each activity, Bruehl was able to think about what might have improved the activity, and she tried to provide that for parents in the book. With each activity, she lists recommended materials and “Books to Inspire” in addition to printables.
“I tried to provide resources for everything a parent would need to engage in the experience,” she said. “A lot of parents feel they need to be experts, but I always say just be one step ahead. It might mean the difference between engaging in the activity or not if a parent doesn’t feel prepared.”
The activities in Playful Learning are basically really fun lesson plans. What the book does is empower the parent to be the child’s best teacher. With materials, recommended reading, and creative ideas, the parent is able to bring the child on adventures that are too often left to over-obligated teachers.
“I wanted to take back some of the responsibility,” Bruehl says of her initial drive to bring these kinds of lessons home. “Schools are becoming more responsible for giving children everything they need and I wanted to take that back.”
This is not to say that Bruehl is all about home schooling. Her daughters attend Sag Harbor Elementary, and Bruehl herself is interested in getting back in the classroom, though not in the same way. She just finished her first online course, in which she taught photo journaling to a group of 60 students from all over the world.
She’d love to create “an online school that can be used in classrooms, or with parents, for enrichment. You might be choosing a hero, or learning about the history of your name, or other things you might never have experienced on your own.”
It comes back to creating those meaningful learning experiences, whether in the classroom or at home. With her book as a resource, Bruehl hopes parents will feel empowered to allow the learning to extend from the classroom to every aspect of their children’s lives.