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.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

5 Things We Say To Preschoolers

Recently I read an article called,"13 Common Sayings To Avoid". The list seemed geared to middle and high school teachers, and most of it seemed pretty obvious. I continued reading smugly until I came across one saying that I once used frequently, but that I’ve worked to eliminate from my teaching vocabulary. The phrase was well intentioned, with a clear rationale for using that particular wording, but as the years went by, I started to realize that those words might impact children’s emotional and social understandings in ways that I didn’t anticipate.

That started me thinking – what other phrases do early childhood teachers use, that, no matter how well-intentioned, might carry messages that we don’t intend?

1. “I like the way that Jenny is sitting”.

This was the phrase that caught my attention in the original article. Teachers use this phrase to call attention to desirable behavior, and it’s often seen as praising the behavior, rather than praising the child. “I like the way that you’re sitting” “I like the way that you’re cleaning up” might be motivating for the child who is performing the behavior that’s being praised, but what about the child who doesn’t hear their name? How does it feel for Amy to hear “I like the way that Jenny is ____” over and over, but not hear her own name?

Even if all the children were praised equally, this saying still focuses on praise to motivate “good” behavior, and to manipulate the other children to behave a certain way. Children shouldn’t do things to get praise from the teacher. As Alfie Kohn has written about extensively, teaching children to respond to praise is a manipulative practice that doesn’t lead to long term results.

Another way: A more emotionally honest approach is to acknowledge children with specific feedback for their behavior. “Jenny, thank you for sitting down so the people behind you can see.” “You’re being responsible by cleaning up the toys that you took out.” These phrases help children understand the effects that their behavior has on those around them, instead of reacting to praise.

2. “I need you to….”

Years ago, I was taught that I should give directions in the form “I need you to…” because this is less directive than a command. After many years of saying this, it doesn’t seem less directive at all. The words may say “I need you to pick up the blocks”, but in my position as the teacher, I’m not actually giving a choice. “I need you to” really means “I want you to” or “I expect you to” or “You have to”, and the children know that. This is another emotionally dishonest and somewhat manipulative phrase. If I say “I need you to pick up your toys”, I’m not being entirely honest, because I don’t actually “need” that. And, this is another example of manipulating children to base their behavior on what will please the teacher, instead of on what should be done out of a sense of community or shared responsibility.

Another way: Be honest and genuine when you talk about your feelings. Adults’ use of terms like “I need” and “I want” are models for children as they learn to talk about their own needs and wants. Give authentic reasons for what you’re asking children to do. “I’m going to ask you to sweep the sand that you spilled on the floor.” “We’re all having snack now, I’ll help you find a place at the table.” Linking directions with reasons for the directions help children develop a sense of responsibility and self-regulation.

3. “We’re all friends at school.”

I struggle with this one a lot – using the word “friend” when I really mean “child.” In our desire to model inclusiveness and friendship, and our fear of bullying, teachers use a lot of language referring to everyone as friends. But saying that everyone is friends diminishes the real meaning of what friendship is. And it prevents children from expressing their feelings about different people. Children can be expected to act politely or civilly to each other, to work together and cooperate, but we should not expect them to be friends with every person in the class. Also, when children say that someone isn’t their friend, there’s usually an underlying issue going on between those children that needs to be addressed, not dismissed.

Another way: Use words like “children” or “everyone” or other inclusive terms that don’t imply a specific relationship between people in the class. Respond to statements like “You’re not my friend” by trying to figure out what the underlying issue is, and help the children to work out the problem, instead of only focusing on the words they’re saying to each other.

4. “The More We Get Together the Happier We’ll Be.”

Many classrooms songs convey messages that we might not actually say to children in conversation. Like the statement about friends in #3, songs like “The More We Get Together” or that have lyrics like “We’re all in our places with bright shiny faces” dictate to children how they are expected to feel at school. The good intention of building classroom community by singing these welcome songs also carries the message that children aren’t allowed to have negative feelings about school, be unhappy there, or not want to be friends with the other children.

Another way: Think about the words of the songs that you use, and choose songs that have authentic messages about feelings and emotions. For example, a song that has the teacher welcoming the children, or the teacher saying “I’m so glad you’re here” sounds more honest than the teacher saying that all the children are happy to be there.

5. “You can’t say you can’t play”.

As a way to prevent bullying and exclusion, we often insist that children play with anyone who wants to play with them. As well meaning as this seems, telling children that they have to play with anyone – or let anyone join in their play – removes their choices about who they spend time with and how they spend their time. If we believe that “play is children’s work”, by dictating children’s play partners, we are interfering with their planning and decision processes about that work. As adults, most of us would resent it if a friend or co-worker insisted on telling us the solutions to crossword puzzle, or walked into our kitchen and started adding ingredients what we’re cooking. A child not allowing others to join in might just be protecting their own work space.

There’s also the issue of how controlling children’s choice of play partners teaches them about consent. When we tell children that they have to play with someone, we could be preventing them from bullying, but we’re also teaching them not to say no to bullies in the future. If we want to raise children who have the confidence to express their opinions and choices, especially when exposed to social pressure, we need to respect their choices of who to play with.

Another way: Respect children’s choices, but also model positive social interactions. Teachers can model inclusiveness by inviting children who don’t usually play with each other to join in an activity initiated by the teacher. If a child seems to be avoiding or excluding a peer, try to figure out the reason behind it, and find ways to alter the environment or materials to encourage these children to be more comfortable playing with each other.

If our goal is for children to develop social and emotional competency, and to be able to honestly express their feelings in a constructive way, then we need to provide environments that encourage children to do this. Teachers should say what we mean, and respect children’s rights to express their emotions in the classroom.