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.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Wet on Wet Painting

As the children become more familiar with the process of painting on paper, I introduce different textures and experiences. When it comes to exploration with art materials, color, and texture, the differences between “art” “sensory” and “science” activities are more related to teacher perceptions and categories than how children manipulate and experience the materials.

“Wet-on-Wet” painting involves painting with thinned paint on wet paper. I used watercolor paper, since it absorbs more liquid than construction paper. The paint was tempera with some extra water mixed in.

One child started with a hesitant stroke, then watched as the puddle of blue paint seemed to float above the already wet paper.

Another child stabbed at the paper with her brush, watching as waves of paint splattered out, and then splattered out again.

Soon, the wet, colorful surface gave invitation to touch, and to experience the sensation of water on hands, and to consider the differences in texture of a wet piece of paper and a wet table or tray.

Some children were drawn to use hands, others to use brushes, as paint and water floated, mixed, and swirled, each child choosing their own exploration and process.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Mindset Not Materials

This week, I gave a talk about introducing “risky play” in early childhood classrooms. I talked about the situations and reasons that first spurred me to think about risky play, I talked about some of the reasons risky play is so important to development, and I talked about some of the different play I’ve observed in my classroom, and some ways that children use materials in physically challenging ways.

What I couldn’t answer though, was how to make this happen.

How do you set up indoor and outdoor environments that encourage children to engage in risk-taking play that allows them to explore ideas of safety, control, and self-regulation? How do you choose materials for this? Most of all, how do you plan for this all to happen? The answer – I don’t know. Of course, some materials lend themselves to open ended problem solving more than others. Teachers can present materials and set up spaces that provoke the question “What can I do with that?” But once a child asks that question, it’s the teacher’s reaction that shapes what happens next.

Education catalogs are full of materials to create beautiful outdoor environments. There are countless blogs and websites with tips on how to create a “Reggio-inspired classroom.” I’ve had discussions with teachers who proudly proclaim that they’ve painted their walls beige, thrown out the plastic toys, and brought tree stumps inside for the children to sit on. All of this might be aesthetically pleasing, but there’s no automatic connection between any of these things and children’s learning and exploration. For learning and exploration to happen, the teachers need to let it happen.

Allowing children to engage in risky or challenging play involves risk on the part of the teacher. The teacher needs to trust thatthe children know what they’re doing, and that learning will take place. The teacher needs to trust the children’s ideas, and trust that the children are competent to discover their own questions, seek out answers, and use materials in their own creative and innovative ways – even ways the teacher didn’t expect or imagine.

Creative play is about mindset, not materials.

The most creative and thought-provoking materials will lead nowhere if teachers don’t allow them to. There’s nothing magical about a tree stump or a basket of pebbles and shells. The magic comes when children are given the freedom to test their limits – to test the limits of how high they can climb or how far they can jump, how many small pieces they can pour out and spread across the floor, how many combinations and substances they can mix, dump, and fill.

The magic is in testing the limits of innovation, and discovering ways to use materials in a new way, whether they’re sticking toys into playdough or using tempera paint to trace designs up and down their arms. And the magic is in testing out social relationships, as they discover that their words have power and meaning, and sometimes consequences, and learn to navigate the complicated world of interacting with others, some who may be friends, and some who aren’t. 

The magic is in the mindset of the teacher – the teacher who allows the children’s exploration to unfold, and knows how to guide it, not stop it. The materials mean nothing, without the mindset to let the magic happen, to trust in the children that their play will be okay, and it might even be amazing.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Purposeful Play and Loose Parts

I’ve had a lot of discussions with teachers who are enthused about introducing loose parts to their classroom, but then become frustrated that the children don’t “do” anything with them. Or, they’re frustrated with what the children decide to “do” with them – dump them all out, mix them all together, or other things that don’t match the teacher’s dream of engaged children arranging natural materials into beautiful designs.

Sometimes children dump and mix because they’re interested in dumping and mixing. Loose parts, especially small, uniform, loose parts, are an excellent sensory experience. Pouring, filling, emptying, and mixing are all natural actions for children. Younger children in particular might find pouring and filling to be more meaningful schemas than sorting and patterning. 

But sometimes children dump and mix because they don’t know what else to do with these materials. In the absence of any other cues, they turn to the familiar – dumping out containers, or mixing objects together to make soup, or ice cream, or some type of pretend food. When we’re introducing loose parts to children we need to think not only of the materials, but what we expect the children to do with the materials. We need to set up environments that encourage children to think “What can I do with this?”

Pomp poms in a basket by themselves suggest dumping. But paired with tongs and containers, they suggest lifting, grasping, and filling. Paired with trucks or dollhouses, they suggest filling, transporting, and pretending.

Containers with different size holes provide a physics experiment of what will fit through them.

Containers of different sizes, shapes, and dimensions challenge the children to explore spatial concepts and experiment with how pieces fit next to, inside, over, and under each other, as well as concepts of number, volume, length, and ratio. 

 Small containers and defined space can encourage sorting.

And, once the children start thinking “What can I do with this”, their explorations will lead the way.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Heavy Work

Teachers talk a lot about the value of “heavy work”. Usually those conversations are about helping children with sensory needs or ADHD, or giving children an opportunity to work off extra energy and increase their focus and attention. Framing the conversation this way misses what the true value is of “heavy work”. Children don’t need to work off “extra” energy. Children don’t have extra energy – they have energy, period. Heavy work is a target for energy, a chance for children to take risks, set goals, and see what they can accomplish, putting their greatest energy at work. There isn’t anything magical about heavy work that increases focus. It’s the act of doing a self-selected task that has intrinsic value and that poses a challenge that pushes children to pay attention, because this task is meaningful to the child.

We all seek to challenge ourselves, to push, to pull, to lift, to climb, to reach, to ascend.

For young children, these tasks are often physical, as they test out their developing muscles and coordination, and as they learn to take risks and test out the limits of their developing bodies and abilities.. How high can I reach? How high can I climb? Can I lift this? Can I push this? All these questions have another question at the core: What am I able to do? Or, Can I do things I didn’t even think were possible?

On the playground, we see children doing what is seemingly impossible – trying to pull or push a rock or tree or pole that is immovable. Or is it? Heavy work is more than just pushing something to use up energy and see if it will move. Heavy work is having the opportunity to problem solve and discover whether you can make it move. Or not.

Having the freedom to experiment with trying to move the object is cognitive heavy work, which is just as important as the physical heavy work. The innate drive to go higher, push harder, and to test limits – both our own, and those set for us, is the heavy work that we all have to do.