I'm Laura, and I'm the founder and owner of Alder & Alouette. I have a Master’s Degree in Teaching and spent my professional educator career developing and refining my skills and understanding how children learn and develop.
My Bachelor Degree years were spent studying a combination of Early Childhood Development, Environmental Science (and a smattering of World History, Music and Art). You would often find me out in the field during my early years working on habitat, environmental and wildlife issues with my own young children running around and playing alongside me as I worked.
HOW MY CHILDREN'S BACKGROUND INFLUENCES ME
Wading across mountain streams, collecting plant and water quality samples, hiking through forests and mountains, observing wildlife and inferring information about wildlife tracks and other evidence of their activities were just a normal day of play during my work week for my children, especially for my youngest.
And then upon arriving home, more time spent by them climbing trees, building forts, playing games in the field behind our house and having imaginary worlds. This was their childhood. Lots of play. As a family, we had set seasonal rythms and traditions that bonded us and established an anticipation for my children of things they knew would happen next. Their toys were special too. They often used toys from nature or handmade by me as natural toys were harder to find then.
I wanted this life for them to continue forever, but they do grow up, and I'm so very proud of them as grown-ups too. I made it my goal to provide natural toys for their children, my grandchildren, and to encourage other parents to provide their children with opportunities full of outside time, nature time and natural toys, open-ended toys and imaginary worlds. And here we are at Alder & Alouette.
Excerpt From an Interview by Julia Bessette, the founder of Coniferous Conundrums
HOW DO YOU DESCRIBE YOURSELF?
When asked once to describe myself, I realized how many hats I wear, as do all mothers!
I finally decided on the following:
I am a professional educator, childhood expert, environmental scientist, author, blogger, entrepreneur, hobby farmer, novice toymaker, arts and crafts lover, avid traveler, organic gardener, life-long learner, reader of many genres, lover of challenges, wife, mother and grandmama (and not necessarily in that order!).
And I have so many more descriptions floating around in my mind, but that's where I’ll stop.
WHAT DO YOU DO AT ALDER AND ALOUETTE?
I curate and offer the highest quality toys, art supplies and other products for families and children that I can that are natural and encourage developmental phases in children from birth and beyond. I also have a hand in all things needed to run a store and website! I know. That's a lot.
But my job is complex and challenging and evolving.
I could say, I sell toys, games and art supplies, but that leaves out so much important information that I just can't!
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY 'NATURAL' TOYS?
To me, natural means the products I select must be made of eco-friendly, sustainable materials provided by Mother Nature, not by humans. But they must also be responsibly and ethically sourced in all aspects from start to finish. So I guess I really mean that the products I choose must also be natural materials that are eco and socially responsible. That alone requires a lot of work, research and reaching out to makers, shippers and their supply chains!
WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY OPEN-ENDED TOYS?
I'll give you an example of an open-ended toy. A wooden toy that was a pretend cutting board and then a cookie sheet yesterday, is used as a roof over blocks today to make a stable and later as bridge and will be a pretend ironing board tomorrow. This is a toy created by imagination. It's not locked into one function only. The more natural and less detailed the toy, the more likely it will be used in many ways involving the imagination.
WHY DO YOU OPT OUT OF PLASTIC?
So many reasons…but I’ll give a few earth-centered and child-centered reasons here.
FOR THE EARTH
Plastic is terrible for the environment. I think we all know this now. I understand there are some necessary applications. I think life-saving medical applications with no other alternatives at this point are pretty important, for example.
But why do we need to create more plastic every day, especially for consumable, disposable items, that produce toxins, can leach toxins, and never biodegrade or disappear, only adding to landfill issues, ocean issues, micro-plastic issues and health problems for people and animals…especially when we have better alternatives.
It’s also been my experience, at least, that plastic breaks easier and gets discarded by children quicker than natural toys do, circling back around to the whole discarded plastic problems and their impacts that I just discussed.
Plastic toys just don’t get passed down to future children the same way natural toys do, like a wooden doll bed would, for instance. Plastic toys fade, bend, break, get tossed away and get replaced by more plastic toys. This is not a good option for the planet. I don't think it's a good message for our children either that we live in a throw-away culture.
Electronic toys for young children also tend to be enveloped in plastics and tend to not require as much imagination or be as open-ended as natural toys.
In my experience, a three-year-old will be less cognitively stimulated and have much less fine and gross motor practice when they spend their day pushing a bunch of buttons on electronic toys to hear tinny songs or make silly sounds, only to repeat the same experience the following day than when they experience playing with open-ended toys.
Natural toys when left unfinished or finished with safe, plant-based stains and paints and polished with plant-based or natural beeswax are safe for the planet and safe for our children!
Natural toys can be made to last a long time. When well made and cared for, they can be passed along to more children. Natural toys tend to be more sturdy and last longer than plastic toys. When their end-of-life comes, they can be composted and returned to nature without producing or leaching toxins.
Children are sensory beings. They are using their senses to absorb and learn about everything around them. Natural toys have wonderful smells, textures, organic shapes and varying weights that you don’t find in mass produced plastic toys.
Natural toys don’t need batteries! Children who start playing with natural toys from early on use their imaginations more to ‘run’ the toys. This is a good thing! I’ve actually observed children who have not had many opportunities with open-ended toys struggle to use their imaginations. That is not a good thing. The earlier they start using their imaginations to play the better; however, it’s never too late to start.
WHAT HELPS YOU DECIDE WHICH TOYS TO CHOOSE BESIDES BEING FROM NATURAL MATERIALS AND THEIR IMPACT ON THE ENVIRONMENT?
When asked how I choose natural toys beyond their environmental impact, I find that hard to break down to a short sentence too. But this one is a good sentence, I think: The toys offered at Alder & Alouette must be the type that come alive with imagination.
Based on my own observations as an educator, as well as the additional primary sources I’ve pored over for decades, encouraging the development of the imagination in children, especially between the ages of 3 to 5 years old, and then extending those opportunities for that imagination as long as possible throughout childhood beyond age 5 is the key to creative thinking and problem-solving abilities later in life. Creative problem-solving is a must for the present and future of our children's lives and for this planet's health.
In my career as a professional educator, I've seen first-hand the benefits of open-ended play in a child’s later ability to be adaptive, creative problem-solvers. I've also seen first-hand the opposite of that: children who did not have the opportunities to engage in imaginative play and how that impacted their problem-solving abilities and creativeness later in life. I hope to help support a new generation of future creative problem-solvers with my curated toys and educate more parents about why that is so very important.
WHY NATURAL ARTS AND CRAFTS?
Developmentally appropriate arts and crafts have a soft spot in my heart. Not only do they provide opportunities for children to develop fine motor, observational and problem-solving skills, they provide quality bonding time with family and pride in a child’s work and self-confidence as their artistic abilities grow in different art and craft areas. Why natural? That's a safety issue mostly. I want to make sure any art supplies a child uses is non-toxic and safe. And there is something endearing to me about using natural earth clays, pigments from plant roots, bark, flowers and seeds. It's like a connection to history and a forgotten way of life, and I find that both charming and educational.
ALDER AND ALOUETTE IS A PRETTY NAME. WHERE DID THIS NAME COME FROM?
Thanks. Well, one of the first classes I enrolled in upon moving to Washington state over 20 years ago was a nature class to learn about the local flora and fauna. My husband was career military and every time we moved to a different location, it's just something I did. The Red Alder tree was the first one I learned to definitively identify here in Washington state.
My youngest daughter was fascinated with their tiny clusters of cones (strobiles) and long clusters of catkins on our hikes, and so are my grandchildren today. The cone-like strobiles have become a common toy in their loose parts play. We are surrounded by a forest where we live now that is a mixture of evergreens and deciduous trees. The predominant deciduous tree is the Red Alder, and once their leaves come in each spring, they are just gorgeous fluttering in the wind.
Alouette is a French word for lark, which is a type of bird. The horned lark was the first lark I ever encountered in the United States, and I was fascinated with this bird. It nests on the ground. My young 10-year-old self was intrigued at why a bird would nest on the ground, and I remember laying there--on the ground on my belly, hands folded under my chin at a small distance--just watching this devoted mother sitting on her eggs and just trying to figure it out.
Fast forward to Washington state and where we live, and we love being woken up each morning by all the bird song. It's just beautiful. We actually don't have any larks where we live, but many of the bird songs we hear remind me of the lark song so it reminds me frequently of my childhood. So that's where it came from. Two things that really stick out to me as being associated with my life in Washington.
HOW WOULD YOU STATE YOUR MISSION AT ALDER AND ALOUETTE?
Alder and Alouette Mission Statement
My mission at Alder and Alouette Toys in a nutshell is to provide the tools to help promote and prolong childhood. To explain, I made it my goal to provide natural toys for children and to encourage other parents to provide their children with opportunities full of outside time, nature time and natural toys, open-ended toys and imaginary worlds as early and as long as possible, especially between the ages of birth to ages 7 or 8 years.
How do you do this?
At Alder and Alouette, we provide the tools (toys, songs, stories, games, arts and craft, music and information) for children to have rich and special experiences, imagination-inspired opportunities and ways to enhance outdoor play.
Why do you think we should promote and extend childhood through play, especially in nature?
Play and observing the millions of patterns found in nature is integral to how a child learns and grows cognitively. Extending that play as long as we can is critical to this. Children who never see nature will still grow and learn, but based on nature deficit research, not in the same ways and not with as full of a “tool box” to pull from.
What are Alder & Alouette Values in a nutshell?
To provide the types of eco-friendly, natural toys and opportunities needed so that:
- learn about the world through play
- spend as much time in nature as possible
- use their imagination frequently and fully
- Experience a rich childhood with family bonding
What are some ways parents can help their children learn through play?
- Give children opportunities to play outdoors in all seasons
- Give children a designated play space indoors
- Spend as much time in nature with their children as possible
- Provide open-ended, natural texture toys to encourage imagination
- Provide other opportunities to use the imagination (high-quality books, storytelling, puppets, songs, props, dress up)
- Follow a daily and seasonal rhythm to provide children with predictability, family bonding and other rich experiences (Once it's habit, you should notice a decrease in stressful or anxious behaviors, and you will find more quality time moments and excitement about upcoming seasonal changes and events)
- Consider delaying formal education during the preschool and kindergarten years until first grade to allow children to be children and learn through play to encourage imagination; the long-term potential benefits are higher problem-solving and creativity abilities