Thursday, August 27, 2015

Seeing Competent Children

Over the past few years, I’ve been learning more about the Reggio Emilia philosophy of education. This summer, I attended an excellent two-day workshop called “Revisiting the Environment for Young Children”, which focused on creating meaningful learning environments in preschools.

One of the things that sometimes disappoints me about discussing “Reggio” with other teachers, or looking for resources online, is how quickly teachers zero in on the aesthetics of the environment and reduce the entire discussion to decorating ideas. “Where did you but those wicker baskets?” “Look at the ideas for paint storage I saw on Pinterest!” “I’m throwing out everything made of plastic and switching to wood!” But Reggio is more than decorating. A child centered, child focused, meaningful classroom environment isn’t just about beautiful baskets, natural light, and the color of the walls. It’s about the essential view that teachers hold about children.

It’s about viewing the child as competent.

Once we get past the beautiful, artistically arranged environment of Reggio-inspired classrooms, we see the messages that the environment is sending. The classroom environment is set up to support children’s choices. The baskets full of items that can be easily spilled, and easily mixed up send a message that the children are trusted to choose what they want to use, how they want to use it, and to be able to put it away again. The fragile fabrics, plants, lamps, and arrangements of natural materials send a message that children can figure out how to move through this environment without causing damage, or, that if things are broken or knocked down, the classroom community is capable of repairing them.

The arrangement of tables, chairs, and materials and the schedule of the day suggests that children are capable of managing their own time, decisions, and movement through the physical space, but also through the daily routine. I’ve so often heard teachers use phrases like “good classroom management is putting out fires before they start”. Reggio-inspired environments don’t view children as potential fire starters, or as objects to “manage”. They assume that children are competent to make decisions, and that the teacher is there to work alongside the children, not to stand above “managing” them.

As I set up my classroom for the new school year, thinking about materials, routines, and rules, I’m well aware of the limitations of young children. But instead of focusing on the many things that young children can’t do, or that aren’t safe, or that might be frustrating to them, I’m creating an environment that supports what they can do, as competent children acting on the world around them.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Circle Time and Distractions

In my classroom, the schedule always includes an additional act between clean-up time and sitting down for circle time. The teachers cover the shelves of toys to indicate that the toys are put away (or “resting” or “closed”) during circle time. I’ve been doing this for years, in different age groups, and in different schools. I always thought of this as helping the children to self-regulate. If free play isn’t an available choice, then the toys shouldn’t look like they’re available. Covering them prevents the problem of having to interrupt circle time to stop a child from fiddling with a toy on a nearby shelf. I always thought of the shelf covers as a useful visual cue to remind children that “the toys are closed.”

I never stopped to wonder why I want the toys to be “closed” in the first place.

I’ve had many discussions with other teachers over the years about what is allowed behavior at and during circle time. All toys in the room must be put away, including loveys and items from home. Sometimes children must put away their hats, bracelets, barrettes. Children must sit on their bottoms and not touch the child next to them, even to hold hands. The common reason behind all of these limits is that those behaviors - holding a toy, holding a friend’s hand, fiddling with one’s bracelet or hat, are “distractions.”

Distractions from what?

Distractions from listening to the teacher. Because that is what circle time is usually about, even in play-based preschools with emergent curriculum and child-directed play throughout the rest of the day. As soon as circle time starts, the power, control, and decision making rest squarely in the teacher. What songs to sing, games to play, books to read (or, more accurately, to listen to) are the teacher’s choice. For years, circle time was when I put on my performance - reading, singing, dancing, all with children’s involvement, but with me leading the show. The children’s job at circle time was to follow my lead and do what I’ve decided they should do. I cover up the toys to hide any distractions that will keep them from doing anything but participate in the activity that I chose.

But if my activity is so engaging, why I am I worried about distractions?

Whenever we worry that something will be a distraction, we’re saying that that object, conversation, or idea will interfere in what the adults have dictated will happen next. Which often is what circle time is. The rationale for a distinct circle time that all the children are present at is usually has to do with “learning to come together as a group” or “being part of the classroom community.” But if a child would rather look at a book independently, or do a puzzle, or draw, and we compel that child to be physically present at circle time, that doesn’t build community.

There are all sorts of times for coming together in my classroom, and I’ve often found the richest are ones that weren’t scripted or planned. When I start reading a book, I usually find half the class or more coming over to hear the story. When I turn on music and start to dance, or take out musical instruments, sometimes the entire class stops building, drawing, or playing with other toys to join in. If I start to sing a rhyming song or ABC’s, I can hear voices singing along with me all over the classroom while they continue their play. If the activity is meaningful to and engaging for the children, I don’t need to compel them to participate, and I don’t need to worry about them being distracted.

If I’m worried that the children could get distracted so easily, perhaps I should consider whether what I’m doing is all that engaging in the first place.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Leaving Room For Wonder

Walking through the park one morning, I noticed a few bricks red bricks peeking up through the grass. Taking a closer look, I noticed a line of bricks. Then, further on, I saw there were actually two rows of red bricks, buried or covered by grass in some places, a brick or two missing in others, stretching through the park.

What were they once a part of?

I had never walked this way before, or at least not in a long time, and couldn’t remember having seen them before. Were they part of an old path? That seemed the most logical answer. But then why were the bricks only in lines, without anything in the middle? Could this be the remnant of some structure? I thought briefly about taking out my smart phone and googling my question – no doubt someone had already asked and answered it before. But it was a beautiful day, and I wanted to enjoy the walk, not stand in the park staring at my phone.

I decided that I’d look up the answer later – maybe there was information on the historical society website, or if not, I could post my question on a “forgotten history” or local architecture forum and get a quick answer. I continued my walk, thinking and wondering about the rows of bricks that continued in uneven and broken rows through the grass. The discovery of the unexpected started my mind wandering, and wondering. What other mysterious objects might I discover? After a while I noticed several half buried bricks in the area around a bench, and then around a tree. Eventually, I found a spot in the park where the bricks clearly formed an intersection of what must have once been paths, now abandoned. But I continued to wonder. Why had these paths been designed this way? And how did they fall into disuse? Why were the bricks so prominent in some places, yet buried in others?

What if I had been on a walk with children when I had noticed these bricks? Perhaps I might have said, “I wonder why these bricks are here?” and used their observations as some starting point for a project or exploration in the classroom. And I might have worked with them to help them discover the answer to their question, in an open-ended, child directed way that allowed the children to take ownership over their own problem solving.

But why does every problem need to be solved?

Problem solving, making observations, forming hypotheses, gathering data, and evaluating the results are important skills. Logical and scientific thinking are essential components of cognitive development and school success. But when we view every question as a vehicle for scientific discovery, or a problem to be solved, we lose a spark of our creativity and imagination. We lose the ability to wonder. “Wonder” becomes just one more step in a science experiment.

But what about wondering for its own sake? Not to generate hypotheses or to find answers. We live in a world where the answers can be at our fingertips at any moment, a world where children are taught that they can discover the answer to any question, whether through their own explorations, or through a few clicks on a screen. We need to help children hold on to some moments of wonder, some moments where children are allowed the experience of wondering for its own sake, to turn questions over and over in their minds without knowing the answer. And perhaps never knowing the answer. The drive to wonder, to think, to pretend, to imagine is as crucial a part of our cognitive make up as the drive to discover. We need to leave room to wonder.

Image by © Robert Llewellyn/Corbis

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Pegboards, Pipe Cleaners, and Emergent Curriculum

Last week I posted a photo of an activity involving pipe cleaners and pegboards. Someone asked me how I came up with the idea to set up those materials in that way. The initial inspiration came from observing the children’s activities and interests. My job was to provide the materials for them to put their ideas into action.

In my two-year-old room, we have sheer fabric pieces hanging from the back of a shelving unit, with the intention that children will use them to hide, play peek-a-boo, or just explore the color and texture of the material. I hung these fabric pieces by cutting small holes in them, stringing pipe cleaners through the holes and attaching them to the pegboard back of the shelves.

One day one of the fabric pieces came loose and fell off. Some of the children watched with interest as I worked to reattach it. They wanted to help, and I gave them pipe cleaners that they could put through the back of the shelving unit, but the depth of the shelves made that hard for them to do. Plus most of the pegboard was covered in fabric, so it was hard for them to find where the holes were. So my co-teacher and I used our observations of the children’s activity to arrange an environment where they could explore these materials.

We had some small pieces of pegboard (that we had used in the sensory table), but we needed a way to stand them up. We taped one pegboard to two large hollow blocks and placed a basket of pipe cleaners nearby. Just as we expected, the children continued the activity they had begun while trying to help me fix the curtain, stringing and pushing the pipe cleaners in and out of the holes in the pegboard. Unfortunately, the tape didn’t hold, and the board fell over. We needed a new plan.

The next day, we didn’t set the pegboard in a standing position, but left it stacked with the other blocks. One of the children tried to stand it up, and it just happened to slide right into the slot along the middle of the block, which kept it firmly in place. Probably without realizing it, she had found a solution to the problem.

Several weeks passed, and we decided to set up the pegboards again in a focal part of the room, to see if any of the children would be interested. This time, we arranged the blocks so we could slide a pegboard into the slots, just as we had observed a child do accidentally before. We placed a basket of pipe cleaners nearby. The children had also recently been exploring flashlights, so we placed those nearby as well, wondering whether children would shine those on and through the pegboards.

 The placement of the peg boards in a prominent area of the room, in a physically stable way, encouraged children to explore the materials. Not only was this activity based on the children’s emergent interests, it also involved a variety of early learning objectives: fine motor coordination, color sorting, comparison of size and length, and social interaction as the children slid the pipe cleaners back and forth to each other through the holes. Through intentional planning, we were able to plan an meaningful activity based on the children's interests.