Thursday, July 23, 2015

What Can I Do With This?

It’s that time of year again, when teachers spend hours paging through catalogs and websites, scouring stores, and brainstorming ideas for what we want in our classrooms this year. There’s something exciting about a new school year filled with new materials, and a classroom prepared and ready for the next set of children to walk through the door.

As I browse through photos, descriptions, and ads, I’m sometimes reminded of a scene from the movie “Big”, in which Tom Hanks’ character is a toy designer. At a product meeting, as the executives pass around their newest toy design based on their best research, Tom Hanks says “I don’t get it.” After hearing what the toy can do, he says, “But what’s fun about that?” That scene sums up the disconnect that often happens between the best intentioned play materials, and the reality of how children use (or don’t use them) in the classroom. I would alter Hanks’ question slightly. Instead of asking “What’s fun about that?” I’d ask, “What’s interesting about that?” or “What’s engaging about that?”

Or, if I were a child I would ask, “What can I do with this?”

The materials that children are drawn to are ones that they can do something meaningful and interesting with. What’s meaningful and interesting changes over time, as children grow to meet different developmental challenges. Filling and dumping a scoop of sand over and over might be an appropriate challenge for a toddler, but for a three or four-year-old, a table filled with sand and scoops doesn’t always call out “What can I do with this?” Children of every age seek out materials that they can transform, construct, and manipulate. As we choose materials for our classrooms, we should think about what the children will do with the materials, what problems they will discover and solve, and what this material challenges them to do.

The first time I saw a basket of wood circles, or a basket of glass beads, I didn’t see how they could be engaging to children. And perhaps, sitting there in their baskets, they weren’t all that engaging. There is nothing automatically magical about any materials, whether it’s a store bought plastic toy, recycled reusables, or natural objects. The secret is in how we present them to children, how we craft an environment that suggests not what the child should do with the materials, but prompts the child to think what could be done with the materials. Where in the room we place them, what we pair and group together, what we draw attention to.


Our goal is to create an environment that replaces “I don’t get it” with “What can I do with this?"

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Playing With The Rules

In the four-year-old room, several children were using the “hex tiles” – small colored plastic tiles that were originally part of a patterning set, but that the children use mostly as “loose parts”. They sometimes pretend the tiles are food or money, they use them to build and stack, and they often simply arrange them in colorful designs without the constraint of the patterning trays.

Today, that seemed to their activity. After they dumped the basket of tiles onto the rug, they began constructing a winding, curvy line of tiles. Then one of the children brought over a basket of rubber animals – monochromatic, brightly colored animals that were probably designed as counters or math manipulatives. As one child placed tile next to tile, another started to put one animal onto each tile.

Would she match colors? Make patterns?

She announced, “Green on yellow”, and placed a green bear on a yellow tile. Then, “Red on orange”, putting a red frog on an orange tile. “Yellow on yellow.” “Blue on pink”. While one child continued laying out the tiles, first in a line, then in a rectangle, then in an ever growing spread, the other announced the color combination she was creating as she placed each animal on a tile. Eventually, the first child stopped placing tiles and joined her partner. They alternated turns as each child said her color and placed an animal.

Looking at the array of tiles and animals, there was no pattern, no matching, in fact, it seemed like a random arrangement of pieces pushed together into a large group. But having watched the children’s process, it was clear this wasn’t random at all. Working together, two children had devised a game with rules – not the rules of color matching that a teacher would have come up with, but rules nonetheless, as they established a system of placing tiles, pairing a tile with an animal, and announcing their action out loud. And then pausing, so the other child could take her turn.

They weren’t playing a game with rules, they were playing with the rules. They were constructing a concept of what rules are, and inventing a game with very beginning, rudimentary rules. They were playing with and exploring the concept of having rules, and order, and turn taking – all within their control, as they figured out what the rules were, and how the rules worked.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Emotional Risk, Bruised Feelings, Resilient Kids

Lately I’ve been reading a lot about “risky play” – the idea that children need opportunities to engage in play that involves physical risks. Our collective fear of physical injury, however slight, has led parents and schools to limit or ban play that might involve physical risk (or for schools, that might involve liability suits). Recently there has been a push back against the movement to “bubble wrap” our kids, as educators, psychologists, and “free-range” parents extol the virtues of physical play that might involve scrapes and bruises.

But what about play that involves emotional risk?

Even in schools where teachers extol the virtues of climbing trees, stacking rocks, and letting children hang upside down from the monkey bars, teachers are still often vigilant about protecting kids from emotional risk. Rules like “You can’t say you can’t play” and “We use nice words at school”, intentional grouping of children to promote some friendship groups and break up others, and immediate adult intervention if a problem arises (whether it’s a block tower falling down or another child saying they don’t want to sit next to another child) create an environment where children are bubble-wrapped, cushioned, and shielded against sadness, disappointment, or anger.

We’ve confused risk with danger.

As adults, we have a responsibility to protect children from danger. We don’t leave jagged pieces of metal or broken shards of glass within reach. We put guard rails at the top of the slide, and padding under the monkey bars. We use seat belts and car seats. We have a responsibility to try to prevent serious injury, but we can’t prevent every injury. We need to learn, as teachers, parents, and caregivers, to distinguish between a puncture wound and a bruise. Bruises, scrapes, and splinters are unpleasant but non-threatening risks that are part of interacting with the physical world around us. Each bruise or scrape gives a child a chance to assess risk and develop the skill set to avoid a more potentially serious injury the next time around. And each bruise or scrape gives a child a chance to recover.

In The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, psychologist Wendy Mogel writes, “Real protection means teaching children to manage risks on their own, not shielding them from every hazard….If parents rush in to rescue them from distress, children don’t get an opportunity to learn that they can suffer and recover on their own.”

In our drive to keep children from suffering, we’ve forgotten that it’s also our responsibility to teach them how to recover. It’s our responsibility to help them learn that a bruise isn’t the same thing as a puncture.

We need to do this with emotions as well. Our vigilance to keep feelings from being hurt, to keep anyone from feeling excluded, to prevent disappointment at all costs, robs children of the important skill of learning to deal with these emotional bruises. Teachers who jump in to intervene the moment a child says “I don’t want to sit next to you”, parents who carry six different snacks so they’ll always have exactly what their child wants, are shielding their child from normal risk just as much as if they stopped their child from picking up a stick for fear of splinters. Bruised feelings, just like bruised skin, will happen. Our job as adults is to help children develop the emotional resilience to recover from the bruise and move on, and to teach them to recognize the difference between a bruise and a puncture.