Friday, June 26, 2015

Taking Sensory Play to the Next Level

I’ve always wondered why older preschoolers tend to ignore the sensory table. Is sand and water play boring? Is it just that there are more exciting things to do in the classroom? Toddlers and young 2’s and 3’s can’t seem to get enough of sand and water play, scooping and pouring it
in and out of containers, watching it flow, mastering the concepts of empty and full.

But in the older classrooms, the sand table, with its scoops, measuring cups, and funnels, slowly gets left behind in favor of other activities. As I watched the children play with the sand less and less as time went on, this thought occurred to me: it’s not that the sand itself isn’t interesting, it’s that the children have mastered the tasks we provided. They learned how to scoop and dump. They figured out what it means for something to be empty and full. What they needed was something new to figure out. They needed to do more than the simple motion of manipulating sand from one container to another. They needed materials that involved more complicated problem solving – materials that said to them “hey, figure this out.”

My inspiration came from an amazing blog: Sand and Water Tables by Tom Bedard. Tom’s blog documents his development and use of different sensory table “apparatus” in his preschool classroom. I was awed by the complexity and limitless problem solving opportunities his materials provided. I decided to start small – with two pegboards supported by wooden dowels, creating a “two-story” platform for the sand table.

Interest in the area increased at once. The children had experienced the process of simply pouring sand, but watching the process of sand flowing through holes was something new. Could the sand be piled up and the holes blocked? Would pushing the sand with hands or a brush make it flow through faster? Was there a way to slow or increase the flow between the two levels? A large group of children gathered around, experimenting, watching, and testing as they poured, brushed, and blocked the sand as it flowed.

This was more than just sensory play and experiencing the sensation of sand on hands. This was engineering, problem solving, and scientific theorizing. This was an opportunity for children to pose questions and figure out the answers for themselves. It was a chance to figure out how things work, and to take their play, literally and figuratively, to the next level.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Cornstarch Goop

Cornstarch goop (aka 'Oobleck") is a perfect medium for scientific exploration. There are only two ingredients – cornstarch and water. As the children mix it together, its properties and texture change, providing opportunities to observe and figure out what has happened, and what might happen next.

I set up the activity on individual trays, so each child can have control over their own exploration process from beginning to end. There’s no exact “recipe”, but I start with giving each child an equal amount of water and cornstarch. They can decide if they need more.

Adding color extends the activity by giving more dimensions to observe and interact with. The color also makes it easier to see the physical changes in the mixture, since the color mixes with the more liquid part of the mixture, floating above the solid goop. I used liquid watercolor, which doesn’t stain the way food coloring can.

 The goop is also a medium for studying color mixtures. Diffused through the thin cornstarch mixture, the colors swirl and combine slowly, allowing the children to control the combinations, and observe the effects of their actions.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Color, Light, Shadow

I sometimes add liquid watercolor paint to the water in the sensory table just to change the visual appearance, but also because the colored water is easier for the children to see as they move it through clear containers and tubes.

One morning, as I filled the sensory table, the eastern light came in at a perfect angle and hit the water just so.

As the children played, the interaction of light and shadow on the colored water added a new dimension to their play. They moved containers and objects back and forth, between the light and the dark, observing changes in appearance.

Some children noticed the light reflected from the water in the table onto the ceiling, and watched as it moved across the ceiling during the morning.

“Look at the light!” “I see it!” “The water is shining!” The children can’t understand why the water is shining, or why the light shines in some places but not others. In fact, they weren’t even curious about why. But this simple moment of wonder in discovery, and opportunity to observe an event that it happens, is as important in the scientific process as the theoretical reasoning, predictions, and conclusions that will happen later.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Wonderful Ideas, Intentional Teaching and Purposeful Play.

Watching the children play in my classroom, I wonder, “What will they do next?” “How will he make that work?” “What’s her plan?” Sometimes I ask these questions out loud, sometimes I simply watch, and wonder, and reflect. Many years ago, at the beginning of my teaching career, I read an essay by Eleanor Duckworth, called “The Having of Wonderful Ideas”. Then, and now, that phrase sums up how I see my classroom. The children are there to have wonderful ideas. I’m there to help them bring these ideas to fruition, and sometimes, to provide the spark that will start that wonderful idea forming.


When I first heard the term “Intentional Teaching”, I was immediately skeptical. Intentional teaching sounded at first like a yet another way to force teachers into the world of data-driven education, framed by objectives, goals, and standards, pushing the children’s “Wonderful Ideas” to the back burner. How wrong I was! As I read about and explored the concept of what Intentional Teaching is, I realized this was actually a description of what I had been doing all along. Children will always have wonderful ideas, but they often need support for those ideas to fully take form. Intentional teachers observe, discuss, plan, evaluate, and provide careful thought in all aspects of their teaching. Interactions with children, classroom materials, and planned activities are carefully thought out, in order to scaffold and extend children’s play.

But, there’s one more facet to helping children have wonderful ideas. That’s teaching the children how to observe, discuss, plan, evaluate, and provide careful thought about their own play. Yes, play is children’s work, but I want children to do more than just use the materials, I want them to play with purpose. I want them to do more than just explore. I want to help them take their explorations to the next level, to a point where they can engage in critical thinking, problem solving, goal setting, planning, and decision making about their own activities. I want each wonderful idea to lead to the next wonderful idea. I want to lead each child to a place where that child can take ownership over his or her learning journey.

If we want the children to act with purpose and intention in their play, then we must act with purpose and intention in our teaching. And that’s what this blog is all about.