Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"Teacher, You Talk Way Too Much"

An anecdote I frequently go back to happened many years ago, in a school where teachers had been trained to “actively reflect” what the children were doing, based on the idea that verbal narration would help scaffold and extend their learning. One morning I watched a teacher sitting with a four-year-old girl who was very intently building a wall across the block area. As she slowly turned each block on its end, the teacher watched and commented. “Oh, I see you’re balancing the square on top of the block.” The child made a second row on top of the first. “I see you’re making another layer”, the teacher said.  Then, several blocks fell over, and the teacher observed, “Some of the blocks are falling. What do you think made that happen?”

The child turned to the teacher and said, “Teacher, you talk way too much.”**

This situation, and many others like this, started me thinking about how teachers speak to children while they play. Teaching in a play based program changes the traditional role of the teacher. She isn’t there to provide instruction or to directly present information. Her job is to structure the environment, choose materials, observe, and to facilitate play. But I’ve always struggled with exactly what “facilitate” means. On the one hand, in a play based program, children are given the time and space for independent discovery. On the other hand, teachers can provide information, suggestions, and observations that might challenge the children, extend their thinking, or lead them to reframe their explorations.

But there’s a third possibility. Sometimes we’re just talking because we don't know how to not talk while teaching. The quiet, concentrated focus of child-directed play can leave a vacuum of silence. And, even for teachers trained to be facilitators rather than instructors, it’s hard to step away from the baggage of the teacher role. Sitting and watching a child draw, or build with blocks, or dig in the sand leaves us feeling like we should be “doing” something. Especially when there’s a traditional academic objective to reinforce. It’s hard for us to restrain ourselves from counting the blocks that a child lined up, or commenting that their playdough looks like a letter “O”, or repeating “yellow and blue make green” each time a child combines those two colors of paint. But does the child really need to hear us say those words for the learning to happen? Sometimes even open ended questions are more for our benefit than for the child. “Tell me about what you’re making.” “What happened when you mixed the colors together?” Our verbal narration and questioning of their activities shifts the value from their doing to their describing. If we truly believe that children learn through play, through self-directed activity, and through the process of discovery, then we need to respect that process, and allow children to be engaged in the flow of meaningful activity without being interrupted by us. 

That’s not to say that teachers shouldn’t speak, but our words should be meaningful, our questions genuine, and our comments presented with the intent of furthering the child’s activity, not simply narrating it. And sometimes, the best support we can give to a child is to simply be present. Today I sat next to a two-year-old who was drawing with markers. I held back the comments like “That’s a long red line around your whole paper” “I see you’re making lots of purple dots” or the vague “You’re working so hard on that picture.” I didn’t say anything, and just watched her work.

I’m pretty sure she already knew all about her red lines and purple dots.

**from Michelle B, Patt & Artin Göncü, "Talking the Talk: Constructivist Teachers Guiding Children's Problem Solving", in Children in Play, Story, and School, Artin Göncü & Elisa L. Klein, Eds., 2001.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Please Don't Eat The Playdough

Playdough is a regular feature in my classroom. Playdough or a similar material is available every day. It’s one of the best manipulatives out there. It’s easy to manipulate, and is completely open ended. A few squishes, presses, and pulls, and it can be anything you want it to be.
I’ve use several different recipes, but my favorite is a cooked playdough (the recipe is at the bottom of the page) that is soft, and stays good for weeks. The problem is, some kids like the taste of it. I haven’t tasted it myself, but from the ingredients, I imagine that it tastes like a salty bread dough. This isn’t a problem with older children, but toddlers, twos, and even young three-year-olds sometimes put it in their mouths. And occasionally, there are children who repeatedly put it in their mouth through the morning as they’re playing.

So, what should I do if I don’t want the children to eat the playdough?

As I discussed ideas on education blogs and with some teachers I know, several interesting themes came up about young children eating/tasting/mouthing materials, that I wanted to reflect on in terms of how those ideas fit with my teaching philosophy:

If they’re eating the playdough, maybe they’re too young for you to give it to them.

Why not just let them eat the playdough, and look at it as another way of exploring materials?

Find ways to teach them not to eat the playdough, and don’t let them use it if they keep eating it.

I understand all three of these perspectives, but none of them fits with my goals for using playdough in my classroom, and my philosophy of how children learn how to interact with materials at school. Young children often use materials in a ways that need to be redirected by a teacher. Sometimes it’s for health or safety reasons – in this case, fingers and playdough in and out of mouths as the children play presents health concerns. Sometimes it’s about taking care of the materials – in this case, if the children mouth or eat the playdough, we don’t have it to use anymore. And there’s also the central goal of being at preschool – learning how to interact with the materials and environment in a way that is respectful to the other children in the group, and that facilitates learning. I want the children to be able to explore materials freely, but also to explore in ways that allow them to have the experiences that I’ve planned for them, and to reach the learning goals that I’ve set for them. Not giving playdough means they won’t have those experiences. Letting them eat the playdough changes the focus from the original activity to an eating activity. And “teaching” them not to eat the playdough, with negative consequences if they fail to follow my instructions, puts me in the position of policing their play, and takes away some of their ability to play independently.

A better choice is to choose materials that will scaffold the activity without needing my direct intervention. We know young children might rip book pages so we give them sturdy board books that can’t be ripped. We know they might pour out large containers of paint, so we give them small ones that aren’t filled to the top. So, I decided to create a playdough recipe that would send a sensory cue that “this isn’t for eating.” The materials teachers choose, and how they're presented can "tell" children how they can be used (read more here).

So instead of creating my usual playdough that looks and smells like cookie dough, I altered the recipe to make it look less like food, and so it wouldn’t taste good if anyone decided to put it in their mouth. I used green, red, and a little blue food coloring to give it a grayish-greenish color (almost the color of clay). And I added vinegar and lemon juice as I cooked it to give a faint (not overpowering) sour aroma and a strong sour taste if a child decided to eat it. I also put it out with loose parts the children hadn’t used before, instead of the rolling pins, cookie cutters, and plates that suggest food themed play.

There was lots of rich and varied play, but no eating.

 And here are the recipes…. The cream of tartar in cooked playdough acts as a preservative, so the playdough stays fresh for weeks. Vinegar does the same thing, so if you make the “not food” recipe, you don’t need the cream of tartar. Store either dough in a sealed container.
Cooked Playdough Recipe

2 cups flour
½ cup salt
2 cups water
2 tbsp. oil
2 tbsp. cream of tartar
Food coloring (optional)

Mix together in a pot, then cook while stirring until mixture becomes solid.

“Not Food” Cooked Playdough Recipe

2 cups flour
½ cup salt
2 cups water
2 tbsp. oil
2 tbsp. vinegar
2 tbsp. lemon juice
A few drops each green, blue, and red food coloring (to look gray)

Mix together in a pot, then cook while stirring until mixture becomes solid.