Sunday, August 25, 2019

Letting Them Learn For Themselves




I was visiting a preschool, and spending time with the children outside on the playground. An orange butterfly fluttered by, then landed on a small tree branch, just at the children’s eye level. Several children clustered around watching the butterfly as it first sat motionless on the branch, then fluttered to another branch, then settled on a yellow flower.

“What do you think the butterfly is doing?” I asked.

The children looked thoughtfully at the butterfly, then at me, then at their teacher.

“You know all about butterflies!” the teacher said, smiling. “Tell Shelli what you know about butterflies.”

One of the children broke into an excited smile. “Butterflies come from caterpillars. They’re caterpillars and the caterpillars turn into butterflies. There’s four stages. She held up her hand and  pointed to each finger as she spoke. “There’s an egg, then its a larvae and a pupa and then a butterfly.”

“And a larvae is another name for what?” prompted her teacher.

“A caterpillar!” the child exclaimed, beaming.

Meanwhile, the butterfly had flown away. And none of the children had answered the question “What do you think the butterfly is doing?” It was a simple question, one that each of them could have answered through their own observations, based on their own thoughts, conclusions, and ideas. But the opportunity to observe, evaluate, predict, and imagine was passed over in favor of reciting facts. Unfortunately, this is how science is so often taught – by teaching discrete pieces of knowledge or factoids for children to repeat back, or to represent in art projects where they carefully follow teacher’s directions to create a chart or diagram that shows what they “know” about butterflies, or trees, or the water cycle, or any other natural phenomenon.


Of course there’s room for teaching facts, even though many of those facts can wait until children are older, and have had the chance to first observe, predict, analyze and evaluate on their own. When we introduce facts, we’re taking away opportunities for children to develop their own ideas, because once you know the “right” answer, there’s no more room for your own theories. When we substitute teaching facts for observation, we’re teaching children to trust what they’ve been told, not what they see for themselves. The well intentioned teaching act of giving background knowledge also teaches them to trust other opinions, especially authority opinions, before considering their own. In a world filled with competing narratives and an ever-increasing difficulty in determining what is true and what is not, children need to develop critical thinking skills that they can use to process information, not only based on their trust of the source, but based on their own experiences, thoughts and observations. We need curriculum and schools that don’t just teach children to say the correct answer, but that give them an opportunity to discover why that answer is correct, and to evaluate any other possible answers as well.

One October in my 2-year-old classroom, we examined a pumpkin. I told the children we were going to cut it open, and asked what they thought would be inside. One of the children exclaimed, “A beautiful butterfly!” I didn’t tell him whether he was wrong or right. The only way to know for sure would be to open the pumpkin and see what was there for ourselves.



**Note: The butterfly anecdote described in this blog was not a verbatim exchange between me, a child, and teacher. This blog post is a composite of many similar conversations I’ve had with children, and that I’ve observed other teachers have with children, in which science “facts” replace personal experiences and reflections in conversation.

The pumpkin anecdote did happen as described. And much to the child’s disappointment, when we opened the pumpkin, a beautiful butterfly did not appear.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The First Days of School


As I’m getting my room ready for the first days of school, my first thought is, “How will the children feel when they enter my classroom?”

Starting school is a mix of emotions for children and their adults. Excitement and anticipation, and also anxiety and fear of the unknown. For children attending preschool for the first time, separation from their familiar caregiver and learning to trust a new adult to take care of them is often the only thing on the child’s (and parent’s) mind. For children who have been to school before, walking in the door of the new classroom is still a separation. They may do this better than they did the first time, but the newness of a different classroom, different teachers, and once again saying goodbye to their parents and caregivers after having some days, weeks, or even months at home brings up all the feelings of uncomfortable newness and anxiety that they experienced on their very first day of school.

Knowing that this is what’s going through their heads, my goal is to make my classroom as welcoming, comforting, familiar, and easy to be in as possible.


When children walk in the door, I want them to see a space that says, “Welcome, I’m ready for you”. I want them to see interesting things that invite them to touch, play, and explore. If I know what a child’s favorite toy or book is, that toy or book is going to be in the classroom on the first day. If I don’t, I’ll choose a variety of toys and books that over the years, have been common favorites: playdough, water or sand, paint, blocks, and cars, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See.” I’ll have multiples of popular toys, because the goal of these first days isn’t waiting, taking turns, or forcing sharing with strangers. The goal is creating an environment that tells the child, “I am here for you. I will take care of you and give you what you need.” Sharing and taking turns can come later. Building the connection and trust that I will take care of you comes first.


In those early days, especially with toddlers or children at school for the first time, the toys, books, and songs in my classroom focus on separation and the feelings that come with being at school. We’ll read about saying goodbye, about your grown-up coming back, about what it feels like to be at school for the first time. The toys in the room lend themselves to children acting out their emotions about separation, whether it’s pushing a car through a tunnel and watching it come back, or hiding an animal in a box and being able to control when that animals comes back out again. We have a predictable routine, with frequent reminders of what will happen next, and when their grown-ups will come back to get them. And most of all, I am there as a warm, safe, presence for the children. My job is to teach them that they can trust me to take care of them after their grown-ups leave, and that I can – and will – meet their needs.


Some teachers start the year will a list of expectations and procedures that they want children to get used to from the beginning. In those classrooms, the first days are endless lists of reminders, rules and procedures. Telling children what you expect them to do doesn’t build connection. But, once that connection is built – once they trust you and know that you will take care of them – then, they’re much more likely to follow the rules and expectations that you present to them. The reason I don’t emphasize rules in the first days of school isn’t because there will never be rules, it’s that at that point in time, rules aren’t what’s most important. What’s important is building relationships, establishing trust and positive connections, and creating an environment where children will follow expectations because they want to, not because their told to. Creating the place that welcomes children comes first. The rest can come later.



Sunday, June 23, 2019

Helping Them to Put Ideas Into Action




A frequent topic on discussion boards is for someone to post a picture of an interesting loose part or material they’ve found and say, “What should I do with this?” There are always some people who respond with craft ideas - that the adult should take the wood circle or rock or cork and paint letters, numbers, faces, or attach objects together in a way that the adult is using the materials to create a toy for the child. Then there are always others who respond that that the adult shouldn’t do anything and “Just put it out and see what the children do.”

Intentional teaching and scaffolding creativity are somewhere between those two points.


Wooden circles with letters written on them aren’t as open ended as plain wooden circles. Writing a letter, or number, or design on a piece of wood or a rock changes that object into something more specific. Objects painted with faces and costumes are dolls, just like any factory made doll that could be ordered from a catalog. There’s still plenty of ways that these materials can be used creatively,  constructively, and interestingly, in classrooms - but as soon as the adult permanently makes the material into something else, some of the open ended possibilities disappear.


 At the other end of discussion, “just put it out” doesn’t give children the tools they need to do “something” with the material. Children - and adults - view objects in context, and form ideas or action not based on the object alone, but on the other objects and materials in the environment. Even the classic open ended activity of using a stick to make designs in the dirt or sand requires both a stick and dirt or sand. Banging a spoon on a pot requires a spoon and a pot. Give a baby just a spoon, or just a pot, without the other object, and their play will be very different. If we want to spark and provoke innovative and creative play, when we choose materials and objects to share with children, we need to consider “What could they do with this” and structure the environment in ways that allow children to figure out ways to use the materials together, and to have the tools that they need to accomplish their ideas.


We humans respond to objects by their context. If you’re served a bowl of liquid with spoon, you’d probably assume it’s soup. If that same liquid was served in a glass, you’d assume it’s a beverage. If that same liquid were poured in a tray with a brush, next to a piece of paper, you might think of painting with it. If it were in a pitcher, you might think of pouring it. The same process of examining contextual cues is what guides children’s planning and decision process. If I see a container with a spout, I think of pouring. If I see a ramp, I think of rolling. If I see a tube, I think of what could go inside. More important, is what I don’t see, because if the materials I need aren’t in my environment, I can’t put my ideas into action. We’ve all seen children struggling to gather pebbles or shells when they don’t have pockets, and as adults we’ve usually stepped in to find some container. The goal shouldn’t only be for children to figure out what to do on their own. The goal should be for us to be partners with them in their discovery. Our job is to listen, observe, and when needed and welcomed, to help. 



Tuesday, May 7, 2019

When Talking Gets in the Way


It’s sometimes hard to know when to talk to a child who is deeply engaged in an activity, and it’s hard to know what to say. We’ve been trained as teachers to ask questions, comment, narrate, and reflect. There are times when the right question at the right time can extend a child’s thinking and provide the spark for the next phase of their activity.

There are other times when talking just gets in the way of what they’re doing.

Even as we say that “children learn through play” and that we value “process over product” so much of teacher speech interrupts the child’s process and trying to lead the child to a tangible product. Often when a teacher says, “Tell me about what you’re doing” or “What’s your plan?”, it’s less about meeting the child where they are in the moment, and more about the teacher wanting information for themselves. Or just wanting to connect with the child who is at play, which is a wonderful goal, but requiring children who are immersed in process to answer adult questions isn’t always the best way to connect.
  
I watched while one of the three-year-olds explored wood pieces and nuts and bolts. The wood pieces had holes drilled in them, with the intention that children would discover how to fit a bolt inside, and how to connect two or more pieces with a single bolt. She worked lining up the pieces, examining the shapes they were making. She put two pieces over each other, the holes lining up almost exactly.


“I wonder what would fit inside those holes?” I asked.

She completely ignored me, and I felt a sense of discontent, that I had encroached on her process. The bolts were right there – she had been using them a moment before. If she wanted to put a bolt in the hole, she would have. She didn’t need me to tell her how to do it. Prompting her to “fit something” inside the holes was about me and my need to “teach” – not about her need to explore the materials through her own process.

Later, she put in a bolt, but didn’t push it down to connect the pieces. This time, I stayed silent, and allowed her to experience the process her way, without my interruptions.


 She added more pieces, some with bolts, some without. I wondered if she had a plan, or was just seeing how the pieces worked together as she went along. But I didn’t say anything. Just because the teacher is wondering, doesn’t mean it’s useful to the child to be asked. My wondering about her plan should not take over her process. 


Eventually, after putting together many pieces, moving them around, and taking some apart, she announced, “It’s a clock!” and showed me how two of the wooden pieces moved like hands. She added small metal pieces and said they were the numbers. After observing her entire process, I don’t think she had a “plan” to build a clock, or to build anything. For young children, the representational “product” often comes at the end of the process. After completing the process of building, or drawing, or painting, the child decides what their creation looks like, and labels it. The true learning takes place in the process, and through the play of getting there. Sometimes there are questions or comments adults have that can help them in their process, but often, we just need to get out of the way.






Friday, March 22, 2019

How Can I Teach Self-Control?


Teaching children “self-control” or “self-regulation” skills are often top on teacher’s lists. It’s often one of the most challenging group of skills, and one that teachers feel most frustrated by. Why is it so hard? Because in essence, “teaching self-control” usually means “teaching children not to express the emotions that they’re feeling.”

Of course, self-regulation is important. And of course, we all, as we mature, need to learn what feelings to share, with whom, and when. As we all know, even as adults that can be very hard. The same teacher who has an angry outburst at a staff meeting, or who shares a list of frustrations and complaints with a co-worker on her lunch break, might expect a 3-year-old child to somehow develop the skills to not get upset – or if they do get upset, not to show it, because showing it disrupts the classroom and her lesson plan.



Yes, children need to learn self-regulation skills. But, like any other skill, these skills are developmental, and adults need to be aware of what situations and emotions young children can realistically be expected to handle.


So many of the “self-regulation” issues that challenge teachers aren’t actually about children’s own self-regulation. They’re about children’s ability and willingness to comply with what adults what them to do.  There are some things that children do need to follow adult directions for, especially situations involving health and safety. But there’s also a lot of situations where adults could give children more flexibility and choice. When adults choose to demand that children follow directions and rules that come from adult perspective, or that don’t consider children’s perspectives and needs, children become frustrated. And the adults then expect the children to demonstrate the “self-control” of not expressing that frustration.


But don’t children need to learn to handle frustration?

Yes they do. But we also need to consider the reasons that they’re frustrated to begin with. When we expect children to share a limited amount of materials, or sit in the same spot for twenty minutes, or play with children who they don’t want to be with, we’re creating problems – usually without even realizing it. As adults, when we’re frustrated, we want to find solutions to the problem. We don’t want someone to just tell us to not be upset. Self-regulation is more than behaving well and not being disruptive. True self-regulation is part of a complex set of skills for managing our inner selves as we interact with the people around us. Like any other skill set, it takes time and practice to learn and develop. And that’s what the adults should expect – and should support. 





Monday, February 18, 2019

The Power of Provocation



Early childhood education can sometimes get caught between two extremes. On one side there are teachers armed with lists of standards and objectives, tailoring every experience to instruct children in a specific skill. On the other side there are teachers who say they just sit back and watch while the children learn all they need to without adult interference.


The reality of learning is someplace in between. Children learn through meaningful experiences and interactions that allow them to construct their own knowledge and build understandings about their environments through play. But adults are the ones who control that environment. Whatever materials are there for children to play with are there because an adult provided them.


“Just put out the materials and let the children decide what to do with them.” Statements like this reflect the wonderful power of child-directed play and exploration, but they also ignore the adult’s role. What does “just put out the materials” mean? Are they on a table or on the floor? In a basket, on a tray, or in a pile? What are the materials, and how did they get into the classroom? What is the teacher doing or saying while the child explores? While trying to value and embrace child-led learning, teachers sometimes sell themselves short, and forget that every aspect of the classroom involves some decision making by the adult. The key to creating environments where children can direct their own learning is for the adults to make these decisions in an intentional way.


Objects can have social meaning and visible physical properties that impact how we think of them. We approach objects based on our previous experiences and knowledge. Containers can be filled and emptied. Rounded objects roll. Shaking and banging create sounds. Colors change their appearance in shadows and light. Children aren’t blank slates. Every interaction they have is built on the history of all the interactions that came before, as they experiment, explore, and build understandings of their world through play.

 

This is where adults can come in. Not by telling children what they should do with the materials, but provoking the spark of what they could do with them. By making intentional choices of what materials to have in a classroom, and how to present them to children, teachers can provoke children to think “What can I do with this?”  We can plan classroom environments and present materials that spark children’s creativity, initiative, and innovation, not by giving direction, but by presenting provocation. Intentional teaching is partnership with children. It’s collaboration and communication. Intentional teaching is the adult saying. “I see your wonderful idea. Let’s travel there together.”



Saturday, January 19, 2019

Themes and Loose Parts


I was thinking about the frequent questions I see from teachers asking what loose parts they could use for one theme or another. My perception of loose parts - or any play based curriculum - is that when the teachers determine a theme for the play, it takes some of the agency away from their play. Even when the theme comes from teacher’s observations of what the children are interested in, the planning sometimes becomes more about the teacher’s interpretation of the children’s activity than of the children’s activity itself. 


I once had a group of 3-year-olds in my classroom who kept playing "going to Hawaii". One of kids had been to Hawaii with their family that summer, and the idea originated with them. They would say "Let's go to Hawaii", and the kids would run around the block area, and then sit down. One child would announce, “It’s time for lunch”, and bring over objects that they pretended were food. When my co-teacher and I observed the kids "going to Hawaii" we this would be a great start to a travel theme. We brought in suitcases, tickets, and beach props, thinking the children would use the materials we were giving them to extend their play.

This all fell flat.


Once the children were surrounded by all the travel related props, they'd still yell, "Let's go to Hawaii", run around, and then sit down to pretend to eat. They weren't interested in pretending to be on an airplane or at the beach. They used the suitcases to fill with their pretend food, which they’d bring to the block area and spread out a picnic. After several days of observing the play, and talking with the child who was leading it, and their parents, we found out that for that particular child the most important part of their trip to Hawaii was the meal his family had the last day there, and that's what they were re-creating through play. Not packing suitcases, going to the airport, or playing at the beach. Their idea of "Hawaii" was sharing a meal with their family. The child’s concept of “Hawaii” was completely different than the one that the teachers were trying to create.


This is why it's so important for teachers to let go of our preconceptions about how to provide a theme for children, and for us to simply let them lead their own play. We can join in, following their lead, but in the end, the ideas are the children’s not ours.  And that's why loose parts are so amazing. A wood circle can be an airplane ticket, or a cookie, or a fish swimming at the beach. If we give children open ended objects that they can use creatively in whatever ways their ideas progress, then they don’t need us to provide props. And if they do need something more from us, or want us to collaborate with them in developing their ideas, they’ll let us know.