Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"Teacher, You Talk Way Too Much"

An anecdote I frequently go back to happened many years ago, in a school where teachers had been trained to “actively reflect” what the children were doing, based on the idea that verbal narration would help scaffold and extend their learning. One morning I watched a teacher sitting with a four-year-old girl who was very intently building a wall across the block area. As she slowly turned each block on its end, the teacher watched and commented. “Oh, I see you’re balancing the square on top of the block.” The child made a second row on top of the first. “I see you’re making another layer”, the teacher said.  Then, several blocks fell over, and the teacher observed, “Some of the blocks are falling. What do you think made that happen?”

The child turned to the teacher and said, “Teacher, you talk way too much.”**

This situation, and many others like this, started me thinking about how teachers speak to children while they play. Teaching in a play based program changes the traditional role of the teacher. She isn’t there to provide instruction or to directly present information. Her job is to structure the environment, choose materials, observe, and to facilitate play. But I’ve always struggled with exactly what “facilitate” means. On the one hand, in a play based program, children are given the time and space for independent discovery. On the other hand, teachers can provide information, suggestions, and observations that might challenge the children, extend their thinking, or lead them to reframe their explorations.

But there’s a third possibility. Sometimes we’re just talking because we don't know how to not talk while teaching. The quiet, concentrated focus of child-directed play can leave a vacuum of silence. And, even for teachers trained to be facilitators rather than instructors, it’s hard to step away from the baggage of the teacher role. Sitting and watching a child draw, or build with blocks, or dig in the sand leaves us feeling like we should be “doing” something. Especially when there’s a traditional academic objective to reinforce. It’s hard for us to restrain ourselves from counting the blocks that a child lined up, or commenting that their playdough looks like a letter “O”, or repeating “yellow and blue make green” each time a child combines those two colors of paint. But does the child really need to hear us say those words for the learning to happen? Sometimes even open ended questions are more for our benefit than for the child. “Tell me about what you’re making.” “What happened when you mixed the colors together?” Our verbal narration and questioning of their activities shifts the value from their doing to their describing. If we truly believe that children learn through play, through self-directed activity, and through the process of discovery, then we need to respect that process, and allow children to be engaged in the flow of meaningful activity without being interrupted by us. 

That’s not to say that teachers shouldn’t speak, but our words should be meaningful, our questions genuine, and our comments presented with the intent of furthering the child’s activity, not simply narrating it. And sometimes, the best support we can give to a child is to simply be present. Today I sat next to a two-year-old who was drawing with markers. I held back the comments like “That’s a long red line around your whole paper” “I see you’re making lots of purple dots” or the vague “You’re working so hard on that picture.” I didn’t say anything, and just watched her work.

I’m pretty sure she already knew all about her red lines and purple dots.

**from Michelle B, Patt & Artin Göncü, "Talking the Talk: Constructivist Teachers Guiding Children's Problem Solving", in Children in Play, Story, and School, Artin Göncü & Elisa L. Klein, Eds., 2001.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Please Don't Eat The Playdough

Playdough is a regular feature in my classroom. Playdough or a similar material is available every day. It’s one of the best manipulatives out there. It’s easy to manipulate, and is completely open ended. A few squishes, presses, and pulls, and it can be anything you want it to be.
I’ve use several different recipes, but my favorite is a cooked playdough (the recipe is at the bottom of the page) that is soft, and stays good for weeks. The problem is, some kids like the taste of it. I haven’t tasted it myself, but from the ingredients, I imagine that it tastes like a salty bread dough. This isn’t a problem with older children, but toddlers, twos, and even young three-year-olds sometimes put it in their mouths. And occasionally, there are children who repeatedly put it in their mouth through the morning as they’re playing.

So, what should I do if I don’t want the children to eat the playdough?

As I discussed ideas on education blogs and with some teachers I know, several interesting themes came up about young children eating/tasting/mouthing materials, that I wanted to reflect on in terms of how those ideas fit with my teaching philosophy:

If they’re eating the playdough, maybe they’re too young for you to give it to them.

Why not just let them eat the playdough, and look at it as another way of exploring materials?

Find ways to teach them not to eat the playdough, and don’t let them use it if they keep eating it.

I understand all three of these perspectives, but none of them fits with my goals for using playdough in my classroom, and my philosophy of how children learn how to interact with materials at school. Young children often use materials in a ways that need to be redirected by a teacher. Sometimes it’s for health or safety reasons – in this case, fingers and playdough in and out of mouths as the children play presents health concerns. Sometimes it’s about taking care of the materials – in this case, if the children mouth or eat the playdough, we don’t have it to use anymore. And there’s also the central goal of being at preschool – learning how to interact with the materials and environment in a way that is respectful to the other children in the group, and that facilitates learning. I want the children to be able to explore materials freely, but also to explore in ways that allow them to have the experiences that I’ve planned for them, and to reach the learning goals that I’ve set for them. Not giving playdough means they won’t have those experiences. Letting them eat the playdough changes the focus from the original activity to an eating activity. And “teaching” them not to eat the playdough, with negative consequences if they fail to follow my instructions, puts me in the position of policing their play, and takes away some of their ability to play independently.

A better choice is to choose materials that will scaffold the activity without needing my direct intervention. We know young children might rip book pages so we give them sturdy board books that can’t be ripped. We know they might pour out large containers of paint, so we give them small ones that aren’t filled to the top. So, I decided to create a playdough recipe that would send a sensory cue that “this isn’t for eating.” The materials teachers choose, and how they're presented can "tell" children how they can be used (read more here).

So instead of creating my usual playdough that looks and smells like cookie dough, I altered the recipe to make it look less like food, and so it wouldn’t taste good if anyone decided to put it in their mouth. I used green, red, and a little blue food coloring to give it a grayish-greenish color (almost the color of clay). And I added vinegar and lemon juice as I cooked it to give a faint (not overpowering) sour aroma and a strong sour taste if a child decided to eat it. I also put it out with loose parts the children hadn’t used before, instead of the rolling pins, cookie cutters, and plates that suggest food themed play.

There was lots of rich and varied play, but no eating.

 And here are the recipes…. The cream of tartar in cooked playdough acts as a preservative, so the playdough stays fresh for weeks. Vinegar does the same thing, so if you make the “not food” recipe, you don’t need the cream of tartar. Store either dough in a sealed container.
Cooked Playdough Recipe

2 cups flour
½ cup salt
2 cups water
2 tbsp. oil
2 tbsp. cream of tartar
Food coloring (optional)

Mix together in a pot, then cook while stirring until mixture becomes solid.

“Not Food” Cooked Playdough Recipe

2 cups flour
½ cup salt
2 cups water
2 tbsp. oil
2 tbsp. vinegar
2 tbsp. lemon juice
A few drops each green, blue, and red food coloring (to look gray)

Mix together in a pot, then cook while stirring until mixture becomes solid.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Rules and Reasons

Last week, Teacher Tom 
wrote a blog post titled “Eleven Things to Say Instead of Be Careful.” The blog was focused on the issue of “risky play”, better described by Teacher Tom as “challenging play” or “safety play”, and he suggested some more descriptive ways of explaining what we mean to children when teachers say, “Be careful.” His first example was “"That's a skinny branch. If it breaks you'll fall on the concrete."

What struck me about this statement isn’t just the clarity and honesty of it, but that a teacher was giving a child an explanation for why they should or shouldn’t do something. So often teachers tell children to do something or not do something, without giving any reason. “Be careful” falls in that category. So do so many other statements, sometimes given as a direction, sometimes worded in a way that relieves the teacher of direct responsibility, without actually giving the child the reason. “Chairs aren't for standing on.” “We wear hats when we go outside.”  “The blocks can’t be higher than your head.” All might be reasonable expectations for children, but wouldn’t they sound even more reasonable if we explained to the children why we’re saying them?

“That chair isn't sturdy enough for you to stand on.”

“I’d like you to wear your hat to keep your head warm.”

“I’m worried that if the blocks are that high, they might fall on your head and hurt you.”

Of course, when we give the children a reason for what we’re saying, we’re opening the door for them to present a counterargument, but isn’t that part of learning how to interact with others in a democratic society? Children need to understand that there are rules, but not that rules are unilaterally imposed on other people without reason. When teachers revert to “it’s the rule” or some version of “because I say so”, children might follow it, but only because of the teacher’s authority, not because of an inherent sense that it’s the right thing to do. If we want to teach children about morality, decision making, and perspective taking, we need to model democracy in our own speech. Rules don’t spontaneously exist, they’re created by people, and they can be changed by people. Perhaps that’s why teachers are so hesitant to let children into the process, because of a fear that even these very young people will try to change the rules and take some authority away from the teacher. I would argue that if the only way you can maintain authority is to remove dissent, that authority isn’t valid, even over children. If we want our children to grow up to understand fairness and reason, we need to include them in the decision making process, even if it’s only by explaining our reasoning to them.

And maybe some of our rules will need to be changed after all.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

In Praise of Big Blocks

When my son was four, he loved preschool. One of his only complaints was that he hardly ever got to play with the big blocks. His classroom had a long wall lined with hollow blocks (aka “big blocks”) but that area was only occasionally open for play. “What did you do at school today?” I would ask. Sometimes he would say, “The big blocks were open today!” followed by an excited description of what he had built. But much more often, his first words about his day would be, “The big blocks were closed.”

Hollow blocks are a preschool classroom staple, either in their own area, or combined with unit blocks. But often, teachers discourage or ban their use. Teachers sometimes say that the play gets too out of control. Or that the kids argue too much while building. Or that the themes that children use are too violent, scary, or wild. Or that blocks aren’t safe, because they might fall on someone. When children are allowed to play with big blocks, it’s often with a lengthy set of limits and rules: how many children can play at a time, restrictions on what can be built, and limits on the height or size of a structure.

Why are teachers so scared of big blocks?

Yes, the play can get active. But, just like any other activity, whether it gets “out of control” depends on teacher guidance, interaction, and support. Yes, children will argue about what to build and how to build it, but that social interaction should be a goal, not something to avoid. Negotiation about planning, ideas, themes, and roles are crucial social skills that children learn by doing. Eliminating settings for this negotiation might prevent social conflict, but it also eliminates opportunities for children to practice and improve these skills.

Children are drawn to the big blocks simply because they are big blocks. It takes work to move them – challenging, physical work. Children are drawn to the scale of the big blocks because they can make structures that are their own size and that they can fit on, in, and under. They are captivated by concepts of height and risk. The concern that a block could fall on someone’s head might be expressed as fear by the teacher, but for the child, that concern is turned into a challenge of how to prevent it from happening. Figuring out how to build a strong, stable structure, nearly as big as or even bigger than their own bodies, gives children a chance to express competency, confidence, and skill. It involves imagination, creativity, engineering, and design, all in the context of social interaction, as a group – sometimes a large group – of children discuss, debate, argue, and negotiate about their ideas. 

Yes, the big blocks can be risky. And loud. And wild. But they can also be imaginative, inspiring, thought-provoking, and cooperative. They can be the place in the classroom where rich, collaborative, social play happens. They can be the place where children propose and test ideas and evaluate their results.  They can be the place where children learn how to disagree and discuss differences of opinion. They can be the place where children test their limits and abilities, and push themselves to see what they can accomplish. And we, the teachers, can stand beside them and support them each step of the way.


Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Art Was Science, and the Science Was Art

The materials were liquid water color paints, eye droppers, and coffee filters.

The children noticed the paint colors, but their focus quickly shifted to the process of putting the paint on the filters with the droppers, and the mechanism of the droppers themselves.

Can you use one dropper to put paint in another?

Can you fill all the droppers at the same time?

What would happen if you put a new filter on top of one that's already full of paint?


This art activity wasn't all art. But this science activity wasn't all science. This was an exploration of color, of water, of texture, of material. The activity might not have been about creating a product, but the product of color and liquid interacting with solid and diffusion was a product. The art was in the process: the kinetic, changing, evolving process. The art was science, and the science was art.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Planned Environment

What is a planned environment?

It’s a place that invites you in, that calls out “I’m ready for you.” “I’m waiting for you.” “I have what you need.” It’s why we are drawn to closet and storage organization stores, and why we feel more comfortable in a shop where items are organized and displayed carefully than one where items are randomly crowded together. When a space is designed with our needs in mind and invites us in, we feel comfort and serenity. When a space seems disordered and unwelcoming, we feel unhappiness and confusion.

Planned environments give us the support we need to do work in our everyday lives. We often don’t appreciate this until we don’t have it – the moment of reaching into a cluttered drawer to search for a working pen, or buying food at a lunch counter and not seeing a place to sit down. Children need that support too. A planned environment, where the materials they need to work and play are carefully chosen, organized, displayed, and presented helps them do the rich learning of problem solving, planning, inventing, and figuring things out.

Planned environments also help set the emotional stage for separating from parents each day and coming to school. From the first step into the classroom, children can feel a connection with the teachers as people who invited them in, and who made them feel welcome. As adults, we feel this way when we walk into a meeting and there’s a pitcher of water and a bowl of snacks on the table, and enough chairs for everyone who is attending. We get the warm feeling, “They’re expecting me, and they got things ready for me.” That’s the same feeling that children should have when they walk into school. 

A planned environment might involve:

-  Arranging materials in a visually appealing way:

- Choosing materials with thought and intention for how they will be used and how children will interact while using them:

- Arranging areas so multiple children have the space and materials they need to work:

- Storing and displaying items in ways that allow children to easily find what they need.

When teachers anticipate and plan for what children will need to do their work, children are better able to do their work with engagement, purpose, independence, and competence.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Housekeeping Without a Table

Over the years, I’ve started thinking that the “Housekeeping Area” (or “house corner” or “kitchen area”) isn’t the best use of space in my preschool classroom. For starters, I’ve moved away from the idea of interest areas in general. Materials are stored on accessible shelves, and children are free to use them however and wherever in the room they like. The magnifying glasses might be used for looking at fall leaves, or they might be used to stir sand in the sensory table, or put in toy purses for a pretend shopping trip. Children pretend to make and eat food in all areas of the room – why does there need to be one area of the room focusing on that one pretend theme?

There’s also the fact that the historical context of “housekeeping” has changed. Years ago, a classroom area fitted with kitchen appliances and toy food was thought to be the most familiar setting for young children, who presumably spent their days at home watching their mothers prepare meals, wash dishes, clean house, and iron clothing. Today’s children might not actually see much cooking going on, and might not be familiar with any appliance besides a microwave.

My two-year-olds rarely play with the appliances. They make soup by putting objects into a bowl, and don’t bother to put it on the pretend stovetop. They bake cookies by arranging objects on a plate and putting them on any surface. The only appliance they use with any regularity is the toy microwave, and that might be for the attraction of pressing the buttons on the front.

So, I’ve gradually gotten rid of many of the distinct “kitchen” items. The stove/sink combos are still there, but with the doors taken off, so that the materials are easier to see and to take out (without worrying about doors shutting on fingers). I’ve added loose parts like wood circles and pompoms to the plastic food, providing more opportunities for open ended, creative, imaginative play.

The most recent change came when I changed classrooms this year. Our new classroom is short of free wall space, so there isn’t a nook or “corner” to put the housekeeping furniture in. The stove/sinks fit against a wall, but there was no place to put a table in front without blocking the open space we planned to use for block building, active play, and spreading materials out on the rug.

Does a housekeeping area really need a table?

I thought about how the housekeeping table tended to be used in my twos room. Children would take out all of the dishes and food, sometimes entire baskets of materials, and fill the table. Following toddlers’ natural desire to fill empty spaces, the activity focused on more filling the flat surface of an empty table with any available objects, than on thematic pretend play, or any activity involving planning or intentional selection of materials.

We have plenty of tables in the room, so even if a table wasn’t placed as part of a housekeeping area, children could still choose to use one for food and dishes. So we decided not to put a table right in front of the stove/sink.

Instead of carrying kitchen materials over to the table, the children moved their food and dishes onto the floor. The new room arrangement provided a lot of open space in front of the shelves where the materials were kept, and many children chose to play sitting right in front of the shelves, even arranging the materials without taking them off. Being close to the block area meant that children carried objects to the blocks, creating casual tables on stacks of blocks. There was also much more intentional choice of materials. Having the space to spread out the dishes led to children arranging them in lines, across a large part of the rug, and carefully choosing pieces of food to place in each dish. So far there hasn’t been the mad scramble to take out every object and fill up the table top – in fact, so far, no one has even moved the food to a table at all.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Filling and Dumping

One activity that toddlers and young preschoolers never tire of is filling and dumping. A container full of anything – sand, toys, food – is often quickly dumped over, its contents spilling to the ground. An empty container is often filled (even if not what was originally in it), sometimes to the top, as a mix of puzzle pieces, toy food, and playdough reaches the top and spills over, prompting the child to eagerly dump it out again.

This process of dumping and filling, filling and dumping, is one of the ways that young children explore how the physical world works, and experiment with their actions on objects. Filling and dumping involves thinking about size, volume, incline, force, gravity, and cause and effect. What sometimes looks to adults like “making a mess” is actually a complex long-term project of figuring out the relationship between a container and the objects that fit inside.

In my classroom, I provide many activities that give children an opportunity to explore filling and dumping. Some of the best materials for filling and dumping are “loose parts” - open ended, non-representational materials that can be used in a variety of ways. Finding appropriate materials for toddlers and twos can be challenging, since so many “loose parts” are small enough to fit in their mouths, or are easily smashed and crushed.

Pompoms and cotton balls are two wonderful materials for this age group (and older preschoolers too). A simple “fill and dump” activity is to put out empty juice bottles with small plates of cotton balls. 

The children were fascinated watching the cotton ball drop to the bottom of the large bottle, but they cotton balls were hard to dump out through the narrow top. So, the next day I switched to shorter applesauce jars that they could fit their hands into.

Setting up the materials in the sensory table provided more room for dumping, and made it easier for the children to control where the cotton balls went. I combined the cotton balls with pompoms to make it colorful, and added napkin rings – another “loose part”, but with a different shape, weight and texture. I also added tongs as an option for picking the objects up,

The children used the materials in ways that I expected, and in ways that I didn’t.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Painting With Purpose

Paint is often one of those materials that’s available in the classroom, but doesn’t change much during the year, unless it’s being used for a specific project. One of the places paint is usually available is at an easel, where it involves gross motor movements, and the experience of painting on a vertical, instead of a horizontal plane.

Many teachers I know (myself included) have conflicted feelings about easel painting. Even in classrooms that focus on process over product, easel painting seems more like a sensory activity than art. Children fill the paper with paint, paying more attention to the sensory process of putting paint on paper than to planning or thinking about what they are creating. The thin easel paper rips as more and more paint is added to it, and changing the paper is a cumbersome process that’s hard for younger children to do independently.

But painting can be much more than just thick brushes at an easel. The process and sensory experience are important, but so are the creative aspects of painting. By intentionally choosing materials, we can balance process with encouraging children to plan, to think about spatial design, to choose colors, and to experiment with the relationship between physical action and their marks on the paper.

When easel painting involves large thick brushes, and only one or two colors, children paint with large thick strokes, mixing colors to fill the paper. But once this sensory process has been experienced, and repeated, and repeated again, the children are often done with it. By mid-year, teachers often say that their children “just aren’t interested” in paint anymore.

But what if we change the materials, and the presentation?

Substituting thin brushes gives an opportunity for greater control over the brush, so children can better plan where they are going to put the paint on the paper, and make deliberate motions. Adding a variety of colors allows children to be more deliberate and purposeful in their design. Valuing process doesn’t mean ignoring the possibility of making a product. When children create, it is to make a product, even if that product is transient and temporary, like a block tower a sandcastle, or a painting that might be painted over within minutes. When we give children choices of color, with materials that they can easily control, like small brushes and thick paper that doesn’t rip when wet, they are encouraged not only to “do” the action of painting, but to be purposeful and think about what they are doing.

One of my favorite paint tools are these 6-cup trays, that each hold a small amount of paint. I’ve used these at the easel but prefer to introduce them as a table activity. On a table top, it’s easier for children to see inside and make deliberate choices about color. Using color coded brushes helps children replace the brushes in the right place. Some paint will get mixed up, but the amount of paint in the cups is so small that nothing much is wasted even if colors accidentally get mixed.

Watercolor cakes are another way of providing a variety of color choices. For the younger children, I add water to the cakes first. Later, when they’re familiar with the materials, I add the step of providing a water cup to rinse their brushes in.

When given materials that they can easily manipulate, and that challenge them to plan, design, and make choices, even two-year-olds can be purposeful in their painting. As teachers, we can value both the children's process and the product they create.