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?"