Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Art Was Science, and the Science Was Art

The materials were liquid water color paints, eye droppers, and coffee filters.

The children noticed the paint colors, but their focus quickly shifted to the process of putting the paint on the filters with the droppers, and the mechanism of the droppers themselves.

Can you use one dropper to put paint in another?

Can you fill all the droppers at the same time?

What would happen if you put a new filter on top of one that's already full of paint?


This art activity wasn't all art. But this science activity wasn't all science. This was an exploration of color, of water, of texture, of material. The activity might not have been about creating a product, but the product of color and liquid interacting with solid and diffusion was a product. The art was in the process: the kinetic, changing, evolving process. The art was science, and the science was art.

Thursday, October 22, 2015

A Planned Environment

What is a planned environment?

It’s a place that invites you in, that calls out “I’m ready for you.” “I’m waiting for you.” “I have what you need.” It’s why we are drawn to closet and storage organization stores, and why we feel more comfortable in a shop where items are organized and displayed carefully than one where items are randomly crowded together. When a space is designed with our needs in mind and invites us in, we feel comfort and serenity. When a space seems disordered and unwelcoming, we feel unhappiness and confusion.

Planned environments give us the support we need to do work in our everyday lives. We often don’t appreciate this until we don’t have it – the moment of reaching into a cluttered drawer to search for a working pen, or buying food at a lunch counter and not seeing a place to sit down. Children need that support too. A planned environment, where the materials they need to work and play are carefully chosen, organized, displayed, and presented helps them do the rich learning of problem solving, planning, inventing, and figuring things out.

Planned environments also help set the emotional stage for separating from parents each day and coming to school. From the first step into the classroom, children can feel a connection with the teachers as people who invited them in, and who made them feel welcome. As adults, we feel this way when we walk into a meeting and there’s a pitcher of water and a bowl of snacks on the table, and enough chairs for everyone who is attending. We get the warm feeling, “They’re expecting me, and they got things ready for me.” That’s the same feeling that children should have when they walk into school. 

A planned environment might involve:

-  Arranging materials in a visually appealing way:

- Choosing materials with thought and intention for how they will be used and how children will interact while using them:

- Arranging areas so multiple children have the space and materials they need to work:

- Storing and displaying items in ways that allow children to easily find what they need.

When teachers anticipate and plan for what children will need to do their work, children are better able to do their work with engagement, purpose, independence, and competence.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Housekeeping Without a Table

Over the years, I’ve started thinking that the “Housekeeping Area” (or “house corner” or “kitchen area”) isn’t the best use of space in my preschool classroom. For starters, I’ve moved away from the idea of interest areas in general. Materials are stored on accessible shelves, and children are free to use them however and wherever in the room they like. The magnifying glasses might be used for looking at fall leaves, or they might be used to stir sand in the sensory table, or put in toy purses for a pretend shopping trip. Children pretend to make and eat food in all areas of the room – why does there need to be one area of the room focusing on that one pretend theme?

There’s also the fact that the historical context of “housekeeping” has changed. Years ago, a classroom area fitted with kitchen appliances and toy food was thought to be the most familiar setting for young children, who presumably spent their days at home watching their mothers prepare meals, wash dishes, clean house, and iron clothing. Today’s children might not actually see much cooking going on, and might not be familiar with any appliance besides a microwave.

My two-year-olds rarely play with the appliances. They make soup by putting objects into a bowl, and don’t bother to put it on the pretend stovetop. They bake cookies by arranging objects on a plate and putting them on any surface. The only appliance they use with any regularity is the toy microwave, and that might be for the attraction of pressing the buttons on the front.

So, I’ve gradually gotten rid of many of the distinct “kitchen” items. The stove/sink combos are still there, but with the doors taken off, so that the materials are easier to see and to take out (without worrying about doors shutting on fingers). I’ve added loose parts like wood circles and pompoms to the plastic food, providing more opportunities for open ended, creative, imaginative play.

The most recent change came when I changed classrooms this year. Our new classroom is short of free wall space, so there isn’t a nook or “corner” to put the housekeeping furniture in. The stove/sinks fit against a wall, but there was no place to put a table in front without blocking the open space we planned to use for block building, active play, and spreading materials out on the rug.

Does a housekeeping area really need a table?

I thought about how the housekeeping table tended to be used in my twos room. Children would take out all of the dishes and food, sometimes entire baskets of materials, and fill the table. Following toddlers’ natural desire to fill empty spaces, the activity focused on more filling the flat surface of an empty table with any available objects, than on thematic pretend play, or any activity involving planning or intentional selection of materials.

We have plenty of tables in the room, so even if a table wasn’t placed as part of a housekeeping area, children could still choose to use one for food and dishes. So we decided not to put a table right in front of the stove/sink.

Instead of carrying kitchen materials over to the table, the children moved their food and dishes onto the floor. The new room arrangement provided a lot of open space in front of the shelves where the materials were kept, and many children chose to play sitting right in front of the shelves, even arranging the materials without taking them off. Being close to the block area meant that children carried objects to the blocks, creating casual tables on stacks of blocks. There was also much more intentional choice of materials. Having the space to spread out the dishes led to children arranging them in lines, across a large part of the rug, and carefully choosing pieces of food to place in each dish. So far there hasn’t been the mad scramble to take out every object and fill up the table top – in fact, so far, no one has even moved the food to a table at all.