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.

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?

Animal sensory play in the water table

Individual paint trays

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.