Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Making Space For Play

“It’s not your turn.”
“Stay in your own space.”
“Stop taking friend’s toys.”
“You have to share.”

So much of teacher’s time in preschool is spent policing: telling children what they can and cannot do. And a lot of that policing focuses on turn taking, sharing, and deciding who can play with what, when they can play with it, and for how long. Many of the decisions are arbitrary and exist simply because the teacher said so. Others may be rules that the children supposedly decided on together – after much prompting and guidance from the teacher to lead the children to create the rules that the teacher wanted in the first place. A common theme in classroom rules that govern sharing and turn taking is that they don’t involve children’s control or self-regulation, and rely on a teacher, wielding the power and authority of adulthood, to enforce them. 

Sometimes so much time and energy is involved in enforcing rules about sharing and turns, that it interferes with the activity itself. There’s value to social negotiation (when the children are old enough to engage in it), but when more time is spent waiting for turns or negotiating space than actually playing, I sometimes wonder if this is the best use of the child’s time, or the teacher’s time.

When there are multiple conflicts over materials and space, instead of focusing on how to force children to change their behavior, it can be helpful to re-examine your classroom environment to determine what the causes are of the conflict, and what possible solutions there might be.

1. Is there enough room?

Very often physical classroom space isn’t something we have control over. The room is too small, or is designed in a way that makes it hard to have functional classroom design. But within the space you have, how do you use it? If the block area is the most popular area of the room, is there a way to make it bigger? When you put out materials on a table, is there room for several children to play without bumping into each other? When we tell children to “stay in your own space” or “keep your hands by your own body” are we giving them the space they need so they can do this?

2. Are there enough materials? 

So many classroom conflicts, just like conflicts in the adult world, happen because there aren’t enough materials, or there aren’t enough of the specific item that multiple children always want. If you notice that day after day children are arguing over who gets to use the pink marker, you might need more pink markers. If there aren’t enough magnet tiles to build a tower, or enough sand for two children to each fill a bowl at the sensory table, then the children’s time will be spent resolving the conflict, instead of using the materials. There should be enough materials for several children to use them, and multiples of popular items (like pink markers, lego wheels, or whatever the children in your class tend to need a lot of).

3. How can you define space?

Knowing how to “stay in your own space” isn’t automatic – it’s a developmental skill that takes time to learn. Creating individual spaces where a child can easily see what materials they’re using, and know that their space is protected, can help lessen conflict, especially for toddlers and young preschoolers. Putting materials on individual trays or in individual bins, and dividing up manipulatives and art supplies into individual stations can help children find the materials they need and focus on their work.

4. How can you be more flexible?

Sometimes teachers are the ones who create the problems without realizing it. When a teacher decides that only four children can play at the playdough table, or that pretend food from the house corner can’t be moved into the block area, that moves the teacher into the role of “traffic cop”, monitoring the classroom to make sure that children and materials aren’t moving out of their designated areas. And it increases conflict when following the inflexible rule becomes more important than encouraging and facilitating play. If more children want to play with playdough, is there a way to put some on another table? If one child wants to join her four friends in the house area, is there a way to be inclusive instead of leaving her out because “the rule is four people”? Can materials be used in different areas of the room based on children’s interests, to encourage the development of rich play and ideas?

Making space isn't only about physical space, it's about creating learning environments where children have the space to explore, create, and have ownership over their own spaces. Yes, there need to be rules and limits, but its the teacher's job to balance those rules and limits with what the children need to be able to play, learn, and grow.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

Recipes and Experiments in Intentional Teaching

Over the past few weeks I’ve been baking a lot of cookies. I’ve been adjusting recipes, trying to figure out how little changes in the ingredients can change the texture or taste? How much brown sugar or white sugar? What can I use instead of flour to make the recipe gluten free? Does it make a difference whether I use baking soda or baking powder?

None of this was random experimentation. Knowing what ingredients can be substituted, how a recipe can be “tweaked” stems from an underlying understanding of how to bake. Using brown sugar instead of white sugar is one thing, using salt instead of sugar would be something else entirely. I know that I can’t simply leave out the flour, or the eggs, I have to replace them with something else that has similar properties. Baking isn’t just a random combination of trial and error, it’s a science that’s based on knowing what and how different materials interact when combined and heated.

A few weeks ago I wrote about play and learning – that children learn through play, but just because they’re playing, doesn’t automatically mean that they’re learning. Simply having an experience doesn’t mean that learning, development, or growth will automatically follow. 

 It’s the content of that play experience – the materials that children use, the investigations they pursue, the interactions and conversations they have – that lead to learning. That’s where teachers come in. With our knowledge and experience about how learning happens through play, we can play alongside the children, interacting with them and scaffolding their explorations. We can provide materials and present them in ways that encourage children to think “What can I do with this?” Yes, there are some times when adult interaction interferes with children’s activity or navigates it away from the child’s agenda to the adult’s. But finding that perfect point where we can both follow the child’s lead and use our own experience and expertise to co-construct with the child is the core of intentional teaching. We aren't planning what the children should do. We're planning in consideration of all the possibilities of what the children could do, and based on our knowledge of these children and of development, what they likely would do.

Teaching isn’t all that different than baking. Following a curriculum guide word for word, just like following a recipe word for word, interferes with creativity and limits innovation. But at the same time, curriculum, just like a recipe, has some scientific basic for what works and how it works. If you put in a cup of white sugar instead of brown sugar, the consistency might change a little, but you’d still have a cookie. If you put in a cup of salt instead of sugar, your cookies would taste unrecognizable. If you left out the dry ingredients all together, you’d have a puddle that wouldn’t bake into anything. Teaching follows the same principles – just like random materials from our kitchen shelves wouldn’t necessarily bake into a cookie, children’s random activities don’t necessarily lead to learning. Curriculum objectives and standards and teachers’ experiences and professional knowledge are all pieces that contribute to the interactions of intentional teaching.  Adults need to be careful not to overwhelm children with our own agendas, but we also need to be confident in our abilities and experience to be true teachers in partnership with children. That’s where the magic of learning happens - when we strike that balance between our sharing our knowledge and helping the children to build theirs.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Learning Through Play - But All Play Isn't Learning

“Children learn through play.”

“Play is children’s work.”

 When we say “children learn through play”, we’re recognizing and acknowledging the important process that play, as a self-directed, intrinsically motivated activity has for providing opportunities for learning and development. When we say, “play is children’s work”, we’re demonstrating value for play as an essential aspect of children’s learning, and validating its role as a centerpiece in early childhood programs.

But even though children learn through play, is all play learning?

When I mentored student teachers, their lesson plan assignments always ended with a section for them to self-evaluate the activity they had planned. Often, the student teacher would simply write, “The children had fun.” I see and hear this same evaluation in online forums, in product reviews of classroom materials, and in discussions with teachers of all levels of experience. “The kids loved it!” “They had so much fun!” “They were really interested in what they were doing!”

Is fun – or interest – or enjoyment – the same thing as learning?

Play can have many purposes – some of them involve the sheer enjoyment of the activity, or the total engagement in the moment – the “flow” as referred to in psychology. Finding joy, fun, and flow in what we do are essential to who we are as human beings, and we want to provide those opportunities for children. But just because an activity was fun, doesn’t mean that learning happened.

“Learning”, by definition involves change. It involves development and growth. Children learn through play when those play experiences lead them to do something new, or think about things in a new way. It isn’t enough for children to “just play” - teachers need to provide classroom environments, materials, and interactions that encourage children to share ideas, negotiate, experiment, hypothesize, and evaluate. Teachers need to encourage children to say “What can I do with this?” and provide them scaffolding to extend their thinking and encourage them not only to play, but reflect on what they are doing. Teachers need to ask open ended questions, provide feedback, and help children think about their own thinking

Play is the starting point, not the finish line. Play can - and should - be learning, but there are many steps along the way. And many things that teachers can – and should – do to help children get there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

It's Not A Mess

She pulled the large blocks off the shelf, one by one, dropping them randomly into a pile on the floor.

After the first five or six blocks, I started to speak. “Now that you’ve taken some blocks out, you can start building.” She didn’t respond and continued pulling blocks off the shelf – the long double-unit blocks, making an ever bigger pile on the floor. I started to say something else – a reminder not to take out all the blocks, or an observation she didn’t look like she was building, but I didn’t.

I stopped talking and watched her work.

After taking out every long block – about twenty – and dropping them into a pile, she started to build.

First a foundation, and then walls. She first spaced out the tall blocks evenly to form columns, then filled in the space to create a solid wall.

“Look at this!” she exclaimed. She gathered up cars from a basket and lined them up inside. 

“There’s a lot of cars in there”, another child said. He counted them, pointing to each as he counted. Several other children came over to watch, and to count too.

When they were done counting, she returned to the block pile, picking up blocks to make a roof.

The finished structure bore no resemblance to the pile of randomly dumped blocks that had been on the rug fifteen minutes before. But the structure might not have existed if I hadn’t let her create that pile. As she took block after block of the shelf and dropped it in the pile, the teacher voice in the back of my head kept whispering to me to stop her. She was making a mess, not working. “Okay, you’ve taken enough blocks off the shelf, now it’s time to build”, was on the tip of my tongue.

But it’s not my decision that “it’s time to build”. It’s hers.

What looked like a mess to my teacher eyes at the beginning was her process. Her organization, and her plan. If I used my adult power to stop her process, and put my process in its place, what would I be teaching? That my ideas and my plans are more important than hers? That her concepts and problem solving aren’t valued? Or maybe, that she shouldn’t even seek solutions in the first place, because a person in power will simply direct her.

It wasn’t a mess. It was valuable work. It’s our job to learn to see the difference.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Where Do You Keep Your Loose Parts?

I see lots of posts on education discussion groups asking “Where do you keep your loose parts?” Or “What does your loose parts area look like?” In my classroom, I don’t have any specific area designated for “loose parts.” Loose parts are just another type of classroom material, which children are free to use where and how they want. However, I do put some on shelves in intentional ways, with the purpose of sparking the child to think “What can I do with this?” 

I set up a small table near the door to have some interesting materials, not necessarily as a provocation to play, but an invitation to come in the door. Entering the classroom in the morning and separating from parents and caregivers can be the most stressful part of a child’s day. Having material to explore as soon as you walk in the door can ease the transition.

I also have a shelf close to the door, but not too far away from tables, with loose parts, containers, and other materials, ready for children who want to explore but might not want to be right in the midst of the play area with other children.

The materials on the shelf are set up in a way to encourage children to think about different ways to use them together. A container asks “What will fit inside?” A tray of beads calls out “Touch me and see how I feel.” 

Sometimes the children choose to play with the materials right where they are.

Sometimes they take them to tables or other areas of the room.

The magic of this space isn’t about what the children will do in this area, or even with particular objects, but what ideas will be sparked, and where they will lead.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Figuring It Out

One of the children was building with the set of transluscent connecting tubes, building a long line of tubes. He stretched them across the table, and the stood the line of tubes on its end, before putting it back down, and getting ready to walk away. 

I asked, “I wonder what would fit inside?”

He looked at me curiously, not knowing where to start. I suggested we look in the baskets of math manipulatives and see what might fit inside. He examined each basket, and selected several objects to try – a rubber car, a small plastic cat, and a counting bear. None of them fit.

I brought over a basket of art materials. He searched through it, and chose some pompoms, which to his excitement, fit inside. He pushed pompom after pompom into the tubes.

But then, the question became how to get them out?

He tried pushing them with his finger, and then with a popsicle stick. Then he tried a pipe cleaner, which easily pushed the pompoms out to the other side.

But then his attention shifted to a new question – how to make the pipe cleaners travel through the tunnel of pipes. He pushed in one after the other, lifting and angling the pipes until the pipe cleaners fell out the other side. Soon another child came over to watch, and eagerly gathered the pipe cleaners as they slid through. The pompoms were forgotten, as the children discovered this new material that fit inside, and slid through, much  more easily.

A simple prompt of “I wonder…..” sparked these series of experiments and discoveries. Building a tunnel of pipes was an easy task, one he did every day. But the right question, at the right moment, initiated his drive to search for new problems to solve, and to figure out the answers for himself.

Friday, April 27, 2018

All The Blocks

“But they’ll take out all the blocks.”

Yes, they sometimes will. Sometimes they’ll take out all the big blocks, and then the little ones. And the animals, and the cars. Sometimes they’ll fit the little blocks inside of the big ones, and line up animals and cars in every empty space they see. 

That’s what the blocks are there for. That’s what all the toys are there for – for the children to use, to play with and to bring their ideas to reality.

I’ve always wondered about teachers’ hesitancy to let children play with all of something.  Teachers choose to limit children’s block play for so many reasons – concerns about safety, about activity level, about sharing. The limits are usually less about the children’s abilities than about the teacher’s feelings of control. And sometimes having all the blocks being used at once seems overwhelming to teachers, as teachers imagine every possible scenario of what could go wrong. Will the children really clean them up? How much space are they using? What happens if they get knocked down?

But instead of worrying about what could go wrong, take moment to consider what is going right.

Yes, they’ll take out all the blocks. And they’ll work together to build some amazing structures. They’ll add details and figure out mathematical relationships and engineering concepts that they can visualize years before they can explain them. They’ll create a space that is theirs. They feel a sense of ownership and pride as they develop the setting for their play, and create something that has the awesome grandness of being big and complicated. They’ll take out all the blocks, and it can be wonderful.