Sunday, April 8, 2018

Solving the Problem

“If all I did was solve problems all day, I wouldn’t get anything done.”

“Children need to learn to solve their own problems.”

“My job is to teach, not solve everyone’s problems for them.”

Comments like these come up quite often in conversations about classroom management and children’s behavior. When I hear comments like this, my first reaction is usually to say that, actually, solving problems is our job. Fostering social-emotional competence and supporting children as they learn to negotiate the social world is at the heart of teaching. But there’s something more.

Why are there so many problems in the first place?

“Behavior problems” are often less about a child’s actual behavior, and more about the teacher’s perception of and reaction to it. Sometimes what defines the behavior as a problem isn’t how it makes the child feel, but how it makes the teacher feel. And sometimes, these behaviors don’t originate in the child, but in the child’s response to something a teacher said or did, or a situation that the teacher created.

Several years ago, a teacher approached me for help with a classroom management problem. Every day at free play, the same group of children were fighting over the toy police car. No matter how much she talked to them or what consequences she gave them, they still yelled at each other and grabbed the car out of each others’ hands. What should she do? My suggestion – get more police cars. Obviously the police car was a very popular play choice. By choosing to have only one of a highly desired toy in the room, the teacher was unintentionally creating the problem that occurred. And the teacher was the one with the power to solve it.

When we set up the environment and decide how to approach and respond to children, we are the ones choosing whether there will be problems. And when problems occur, we are the ones who have the power to change the situation.

When a child exhibits a behavior that’s a “problem” or expresses to the teacher that they’re having a “problem” with another child, the first step is to determine whether there’s something in the classroom environment or routine that the teacher could change. There might not be – but if there is a chance that one small change could better support that child, meet that child where they are developmentally, or make the day easier for everyone, then it’s worth a try.

Some things to consider:

1. Are there enough materials for several children to use them at the same time, or to play easily together in a small group?

2. Are there a variety of engaging activities available so children can choose something else they’d enjoy doing while waiting for a turn for a preferred activity?

3. Do children have the ability to choose whether they want to participate in an activity, or to decline to do something that a teacher asks them to?

4. Does the teacher have reasonable, developmentally appropriate expectations for children’s behavior, including children’s ability to share, wait, take turns, and verbally express their thoughts and feelings?

And most of all:

5. When a situation isn’t working well, what can I change to make it work better?

That last one is sometimes the hardest for teachers to consider. We get so caught up in “I want the children to….” and “I expect the children to be able to…..” that we forget that the children aren’t here to do what we want or what we expect. We can want and expect all sorts of things, but in the end we need to meet the children where the children are right now. No amount of adult expectations are going to change children’s behavior. The process of social and emotional development takes a long time and a lot of practice. And while the children are developing these skills, we need to give them all the support that they need.  

Instead of only asking the child “What could you do differently next time?” the teacher should also ask themselves “What could I do differently so there isn’t a next time?” We can’t change the children, but we might have the power to change what’s causing the problem in the first place. Which will leave us all with fewer problems for anyone to have to solve.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Point of Play

I spend a lot of time on online early childhood sites, reading blogs, commenting and discussing topics on Facebook groups, and scrolling through curriculum ideas on Pinterest. Over the past few years I’ve noticed a huge growing interest in things having to do with “Reggio Inspired” “Loose Parts” and “Nature Play”, which is really exciting to me as a teacher who has spent years encouraging children to come up with their own ideas, use materials the way they want and take the lead in deciding what they want to do and how they’re going to do it. At the heart of this is my core belief that children learn through play: through activities that focus on children’s process and that allow children to have control over the planning, decision making, and interactions during these activities.

But somehow, adults keep missing this.

It’s hard to be a “teacher”. I sometimes feel that title is like a heavy backpack of expectations each of us carries, never letting us forget that our “real job” is to be teaching children something. No matter how many times we say that “children learn through play” or “process is more important than product”, there’s that pesky “teacher” baggage weighing down and whispering in our ears that what we should really be doing is making sure the kids know their numbers and ABCs.

I see this over and over again in the conversations about classroom materials. The concept of using “loose parts” is about providing open-ended materials that can be used in many different ways, encouraging creativity, discovery, and exploration. There’s also attention to design elements, so many of these materials are truly beautiful, and their color, shape, and texture add to the overall environment of classroom space. But I’ve noticed more and more, adults getting caught up in simply having the materials to use for their own “teacher” purposes and less on letting children use them the way the children want to.

Every experience doesn’t need to involve an adult teaching an academic skill. Every time a child sits down with a pile of colored beads or blocks, they shouldn’t be expected to sort them or create patterns. Every time a child lines up a row of rocks, they shouldn’t be asked to count them. Teachers shouldn’t be focused on what the adults can make out of bottlecaps and rocks, they should be focused on creating an environment where the children will figure out what to do with them. Instead of spending time writing letters and numbers on tree circles and seashells, teachers should be embracing these materials for what they are – opportunities for children to be creative and expressive and the leaders of their own play. That’s what the materials are for – to play with. Not to find one more surface to write numbers and letters on, or to “teach” a concept or skill, but to create a space and opportunity for children to play. Play itself is the point of play.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Frozen Paint

During winter, sensory experiences involving things that are frozen or cold are a natural fit. When there’s snow, that can lead to days of exploration in the sensory table. And there are all sorts of other materials to freeze, including paint.

Freezing paint is easy – just fill small paper or plastic cups with tempera paint (Biocolor brand works well -, put in a craft stick (large ones work best), and put in the freezer. Even better, if the outdoor temperature is below freezing, put it outdoors in a safe place, to give the children the opportunity to observe what happens as paint freezes.

When I first started using frozen paint in my classroom, I thought of it mostly as an art activity. As the children move the paint popsicles across the paper, it leaves creamy, crayon-like marks. As the paint warms, it starts to melt into a thick gooey paint.

Over time, as I introduced this activity to different groups of children, I noticed that the children’s interest in frozen paint focused more on the sensory aspects than the art ones. The most interesting feature of the paint wasn’t how it looked on paper, but what happened when it melted. I started putting the paint out on trays, not just for easier clean up, but so children could fully experience the tactile sensations of moving the goopy paint around as it melted.

The paint swirled and layered on the paper, and began to soak through, transforming paint and paper alike. 

And before too long, the paint “popsicles” transformed and fell off their sticks, melting into the familiar texture of paint, to spread on paper with sticks and hands, or to simply enjoy the sensation and feeling of paint on fingers and hands.

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Monday, January 29, 2018

It's More Than Just Fun

The kids love it!

They have so much fun with this!

In conversations with teachers and reading online blogs and comments, these phrases come up over and over again, as the reason for planning a classroom activity, or the evaluation of how it went? “Oh, you tried that art activity on Pinterest, how did it go?” “The kids loved it – it was so much fun!”
Of course it was fun, they’re kids. They’re naturally wired to have fun. If we give them an activity and they don’t have fun, that’s what we need to worry about. The bigger issue of planning and evaluating classroom activities shouldn’t be whether they’re “fun” or whether the kids “love it”. It should be how we observe the learning and development taking place. We shouldn’t be planning for “fun”, we should be planning to meet developmental objectives and to engage the children’s interests.

“I don’t have to plan. I just put the materials out and see what they do with them.”

Every time we enter a classroom, choose a material, place it in a certain way on a table, floor, or shelf, we’re planning. Teachers in play-based, discovery learning environments sometimes shy away from this, out of fear of imposing their own ideas on the children’s play. But the social interaction that happens between any group of people, especially adults and children involves planning. Which materials did you choose to put on your classroom shelves? Are they stored in baskets, boxes, or something else? How many are there of each? When you saw that art activity on Pinterest, or in a neighboring classroom, it sparked an idea for you that was probably more than just “this is fun”. What did you think/hope/wonder that your kids would do with these same materials?

Planning a play based curriculum can sometimes feel overwhelming, as we balance what it means to “teach” and what it means for children to explore and discover. It’s true that in a play-based program, we aren’t teaching children to do specific tasks according to our directions. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t teaching. Our jobs as teachers are to observe where the children’s play is going and facilitate it, scaffold interactions between children and the materials and between children and each other, and to provide the opportunities for learning to take place.

Intentional teaching involves teachers having planning and purpose in the environment, activities, and interactions that we create, nurture, and encourage. When we choose activities, we need to ask ourselves, “What will the children do with this? That doesn’t mean we’re requiring or expecting them to do one specific thing, but we’re considering all the possibilities of what might happen. And how that ties back to learning and development?  We need to ask ourselves what experiences am I giving children that will spark problem solving? Collaboration? Innovation? Creativity?

And yes, it will still be fun, and the kids will love it. But it will be much more than that too.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Making Space For Blocks

I’ve written before about the mixed feelings some teachers have about block play – especially “big blocks.” They worry about safety, or about the play “getting out of control.” They aren’t comfortable with active play indoors, or with the themes that large block building evokes, like spaceships and superhero hideaways. They want to avoid the inevitable social conflict that comes as children discuss, collaborate, and sometimes argue about what they’re going to build. 

Block play is messy and complicated - but it needs to be. Children need the experience of lifting, moving, stacking and arranging these heavy objects into something that they've planned and designed. They need to plan, discuss, argue and negoiate their ideas with each other. They need the freedom to carry out their ideas and enact pretend themes - including superheroes and alients. And they need to feel the power, self-fulfillment, and personal efficacy of the simple grandness of block construction - the power of building something bigger than themselves.. The same innate drive that led ancient humans to build towers of rocks and stone draws children to build - higher, wider, and bigger, to create something that in its sheer scope, suggests power and a feeling of "wow, look what I made!"

And, this grandness takes space.

When we make decisions about how to use the space we have, we can make a decision to create space that will allow these block constructions to happen.

It might be a large space, big enough for several groups of children to each build their own structure.

 It might be a small space, where children are given the freedom to fill that space with their block creation.

It might not be a particular space at all, but a flexibility on the part of the teacher to allow block building to happen wherever it is that the children find a way to make room.

 And wherever it happens, when we make space for blocks, we’ve made space for children to express their competency, their power, their imagination, and all of the skills and development that comes with.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Snow and Colors

I filled the sensory table with snow, and set out small bowls of colored water. I handed children paintbrushes, thinking that they would paint the snow with the colored water.

It turned out that wasn’t what they were interested in at all.

Some of the children used the paintbrushes to stir or scoop up the snow, but otherwise abandoned them while they explored the more enticing items – the containers of colored water.

They poured the water from one container to the next, then dripped the water into a steady stream onto the white snow, watching as the colors spread. Once the water was all used up, they asked for more.

Seeing that the focus of the activity had changed, I quickly filled two small bins with colored water and put them on either side of the sensory table. The children raced to scoop out the water and pour it into colorful puddles in the snow.

Soon the snow was a multicolor patchwork, and later as it melted, a mass of brownish ice.

The next day, now that I knew what the children’s plans were for using the materials, I set up the area differently. I abandoned my idea of paintbrushes and provided craft sticks, which would be easier to stir the snow with. I added scoops that were easier to manipulate and pour from. And of course, bins of colored water at either end of the table, since the children had made it clear that pouring water and mixing were the most important aspects of this experience.

Through the morning the snow changed from white to yellow and blue, and eventually to shades of foamy sea green. Giving up my original idea in favor of following the children’s lead brought a whole new dimension to their play, in a beautiful way.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Keeping "Art" in Arts and Crafts

It’s that time of year when teachers start to focus on children making things – holiday and seasonal decorations and gifts to display or to take home. Often the goal of these activities isn’t about children’s ideas or children’s experiences, it’s about requiring children to make a product that can be displayed to or given to adults. These products usually involve some template or design chosen by a teacher, with clear directions so what the children will produce will look “nice”. “I know this isn’t very process oriented, but the parents love it,” I heard a teacher say.

Is that the purpose of early childhood education, for children to follow teacher directions to make something the teacher thinks parents will “love”?

The purpose of art activities is for children to explore different materials, and experiment with their own creative expressions. What they make should be their own, not a reproduction of something a teacher was captivated by on Pinterest, or that the teacher has decided she wants children to make. We need to value children’s art as art – not as a means to create a product for adults.

One way to do this is to make a variety of art materials open and available to children daily. With toddlers and twos, it’s best to introduce one or two materials at a time, to allow them to explore their properties and give them a scaffolded experience in making choices of what to select. Children this age also need repeated experiences in figuring out how to use a material. Gluing paper seems easy to an adult, but it requires many steps that take time to figure out and practice. How do I get glue onto the paper? How much glue should I use? How do I make the thing I want to stick hold onto the paper? How many things can I stick on to this amount of glue?

Once children have had the opportunity to explore and understand basic materials like glue, paint, paper, and scissors, they’re ready for more choices. Setting up a table or art area with a small variety of materials can help them consider choices and continue to develop an understanding of the physical properties of different materials and objects.

And then when they’re ready, they can choose what materials they need, and how they’re going to use them. This is Art. They don’t need directions or templates or an example printed out from a webpage – they just need room to create.