Saturday, December 17, 2016

Painting Their Way - Pouring Paint

It started as a simple watercolor paint activity. Two colors of liquid watercolor paint in spill proof cups, and sheet of watercolor paper.

The children started to paint with the brushes, but soon one child picked up the cup and began to pour out the paint. “Spill proof” doesn’t mean “pour proof”, and soon drips of paint were puddling on the paper.

I suggested, “Why don’t you try using your brush?” which she did, as she poured, and then let her brush fall to the paper. Obviously, this particular artist wasn’t interested in brushwork today. Another child, observing her neighbor's work, put down her brush and turned to pouring and shaking the paint cups instead.

The paint tumbled into in blue and purple pools on the paper and the surrounding table. I brought out some paper towels to wipe the table. The children took the towels, but instead of wiping the table, wiped their paintings instead, watching as the color soaked through the towel and the paint swirled on their papers.

In the end, their paintings were beautiful blobs of muted color.

The paper towels too were works of art, and the children examined the shapes and designs they had created as they soaked and wiped them through the paint.

Watching this process, I kept thinking of the contrast between how we teach child artists, and how we value adult artists’ work. Even as I watched the intent with which a child was determined to pour paint onto the paper, I still felt a need to encourage her to use her brush. How many other teachers would have put a complete stop to pouring out paint, because “that’s not what the paint is for” or “we’re using brushes today?”

These children were in complete control of their artistic process and were completely engaged in the exploration of how liquids move and are absorbed. Teaching is more than instructing the children what to do, it’s knowing when they don’t need instruction. We look at works by Jackson Pollack, Helen Frankenthaler, and Morris Louis, and are mesmerized by their technique, and by those artists' ability to think outside the limits of conventional art. We need to be able to look at children’s art the same way, and trust that they know what they are creating, and how to create it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

One Size Lesson Does Not Fit All

After observing how engaged my two-year-olds were while filling containers and exploring the concepts of empty space and fullness, I decided to introduce some other materials that involved filling spaces.

I set up a pegboard and pipe cleaner activity that a previous group of two-year-olds had used extensively, lacing the pipe cleaners through the holes, passing them back and forth through front and back of the board, working intently both alone and alongside others. I thought the children in my current class would have the same experience.

Several children did put the pipe cleaners through the holes. One child even laughed happily each time he pushed a pipe cleaner through and it disappeared as it fell through the hole. But within minutes, the pegboards were forgotten, and the activity turned to gathering up the pipe cleaners, each child grabbing for as many as they could hold.

My attempts to redirect the children to the pegboards were completely ignored, as the game became to pick up as many pipe cleaners as possible and hold them tightly so no one else could take them.

Then I said to one of the children, “I don’t have any. Could you please share some with me?” She handed me one, to which I said, “Thank you.” Then I pointed out another child who didn’t have any. Could she give some to her? She did, and that child smiled and said, “Thank you.”

Soon the gatherers were handing pipe cleaners to each other, exclaiming, “Thank you!” and then laughing as they handed them back for a “Thank you!” in return. The pegboards and filling activity was completely forgotten (not that there was a lot of interest to begin with). Their play was about passing materials back and forth, not about filling holes or fine motor development or any of the tasks I had considered.

While I was a little disappointed, I wasn’t surprised. The original pegboard activity that was so enticing had been planned based on observations of those children’s activities. Not just on my guesses of what they might be interested in, but by introducing materials for play that they had shown interest in before. Those children weren’t just interested in the concept of filling holes, they had helped teachers hang curtains on pegboards, and came up with the idea of threading pipe cleaners through holes on their own. Their participation in the planning of the activity (even if they didn’t realize it), is what made it interesting to them. But another group of children, with a different set of interests and experiences, focused on another aspect of the activity, simply gathering the pipe cleaners into bunches and passing them to each other. 

As teachers, we’re so often pulled in by Pinterest pages and curriculum guides that show us perfect activities for every concept, every theme, and every topic. Sometimes those activities are just as interesting to the kids as we hoped they’d be, and sometimes, they inexplicably fall flat. The best teaching is an interaction between what we as teachers know, and how children see the world. There is no one activity, no one size fits all curriculum plan that will work for every child or every class. Our job is figuring out what fits.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Loose Parts and Schemas: Enclosing and Transporting

I’m always fascinated by young children’s drive to fill and empty containers, and how a simple collection of containers and things to put inside can engage children endlessly, as they fill and dump, arrange and rearrange, and carry their collections from place to place. Teachers sometimes try to label these activities in curriculum terms like “sorting” “identifying” and “classifying”, but so often, what engages the children is the simple act of combining materials together and exploring the relationship between empty spaces and objects, between containers and what can fill them.

 One way to describe this play is through schemas. Enclosure (putting objects in containers, or creating containers for objects) and transporting (moving objects from place to place) are more than simple motions. They’re the ways that children experience and create understandings about the world around them.

I watched this play develop in my two-year-old classroom recently, first as children began to scoop loose parts from large baskets into smaller cups and bowls.

First, the movement was from one basket to one bowl, but soon, they lined up rows of containers, distributing rocks, shells, and poker chips into all. They weren’t interested in sorting or counting, just moving the objects from one container to others.

 Next, they sought out containers with tops to fill just slightly or to the brim.

And carried objects to different areas, seeking out anything that could be used as a container.

I don’t know what the children’s criteria were for choosing materials, or deciding where to put them. I don’t know what connections were being formed in their heads, and I couldn’t label the specific“science” or “math” or even “problem solving” skills that would satisfy a prescribed list of early learning standards. But anyone could watch these children at play and see without a doubt that they were engaged, they were curious, and that they were processing the environment around them. This is how meaningful learning takes place.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Painting With (and on) Fingers and Hands

“Paint goes on the paper.”
“Use your brush, not your hands.”
“We’re not finger painting today.”

I’ve heard these phrases over and over, as teachers try to guide the children to use whatever painting tool and surface that had been provided, and not stick their fingers into the paint. Or not trace the brush up their hands and arms, or not finish their work by swiping their hands across and around the paper.

The fact that each time a paint is provided, children are drawn to use their hands and fingers means that there’s something compelling to them about using those tools rather than a brush or whatever object the teacher had planned. If this is how the materials are speaking to the children, and we truly believe that art should be focused on process, not product, then why do teachers spend so much time trying to redirect children from their innate drive to create art in the most tactile way?

Last week I put out the paint trays with q-tips (cotton swabs). For the younger children, the small q-tips are easier to manipulate than large brushes. Also, knowing that it’s likely some children will abandon the brush, or use all the brushes at once, q-tips are more manageable for me and are easier to clean up.

The work started with children using the q-tips to make designs and blocks of color on their paper.

But then, the exploration shifted. A finger, and then a hand, became the palette to apply paint to.

 And then, the rainbow striped finger became the tool to apply paint to the paper.

 None of this was random. The children concentrated as they applied paint, layer by layer, observing as the colors blended or not, noticing stripes and dots and waves across their hands. They noticed the shades mixing together, as red and yellow became orange and blue and green and red became black. 

As they moved the paint with precision across their hands, I wondered, why would we value the art created on the palm of a hand any less than the art created on paper?

Why stop the fingers dipped in paint, why send the children off to wash the masterpiece off their hands before it’s completed? Instead, why not move into the child’s world, and appreciate the work before us – even if it’s on a hand instead of paper.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

“Teachers, Step Away From Your Tables”

I’m a big fan of the Food Network show Chopped. In this show, chefs compete to create unique dishes using strange combinations of assigned foods, in a matter of minutes. After rushing around the kitchen to find additional ingredients and necessary utensils, preparing the food, and finally, plating it to serve attractively, the voice of the host rings out: “Chefs, step away from your stations.” The chefs step back, and their creations are frozen in time – whatever they were able to create in 20 minutes will face the judges.

This routine flows through my head in the morning as I rush to set up my classroom. Some of the tasks are mundane: set out seating mats for circle time, fetch snack from the kitchen, check that diapers are stocked and chairs pulled up to the tables. But then there’s the artistry – choosing materials and setting them out just so, attractive and engaging. My preschoolers can be as discerning about a tray of paint as a celebrity chef is judging an elaborate dessert. Racing against the clock, will I have enough time to set things out the way I want the children to see them when they enter the room?

Sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. After all, children come ready to play, no matter which paintbrushes I chose or how the blocks are stacked against the wall. In a way, the materials, the arrangement, the environment doesn’t matter all that much. But in many other ways, it does. Some arrangements of materials draw children in, others send a message to go somewhere else. Some spark ideas and imagination. Some provide space to do individual work, others create tension and conflict between children. I’ve watched a child break down in tears because she couldn’t find a purple marker in the crowded basket, I’ve seen children focused more on grabbing the lone wheeled Lego from their neighbor than on building anything themselves. The chef who spills sauce sloppily over the side of the dish has made an unattractive mess. The preschool teacher who does the same with paint has created an invitation for the children to make an even bigger mess.

So I rush, glancing furtively at the clock. I have my bag of organizational tricks so I can try to easily pull out the paint, the blocks, the trays that I need. I have a back-up plan for the morning that happens all too often, when with 5 minutes left on the clock, the watercolor cakes are crumbled and the sensory table scoops are missing. Because the children will play, and my job is to do the best I can. Not the best there is, day after day, but the best I can for the children at that moment. The clock is ticking and I hear the children’s voices in the hall. It’s time to step away from my station and let the play begin. 

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Planning With Verbs

On the surface, “Emergent Curriculum” sounds easy enough. Observe the children, listen to their comments and questions, and find ways to extend what they’re interested in. Emergent curriculum often takes the shape of thematic curriculum, with the notable feature that the theme is something that the children introduced, not simply something the teacher decided on. A child brings in handful of leaves collected from the playground, another child brings in leaves from her backyard, and the emergent theme becomes “Fall” or “Fall leaves.” Several children choose to play with toy construction vehicles in the block corner day after day, so the emergent theme becomes “Construction”. Teachers plan art activities and select books, plan field trips, and choose materials for every area of the classroom to support children’s interest in the emergent theme.

But how do we know that what we as teachers perceive as the children’s interest is what the actual interest is?

One of the problems I find with planning thematic units is that they focus on a topic – on a noun adults assign to the category of objects that children express interest in. Leaves, trucks, colors, doctors, bakeries, etc. etc. As adults we zoom in on the “thing” that the children are interested in, and sometimes miss the reason that they’re interested in it.

We focus our planning on nouns when we should focus our planning on verbs.

When the children gather buckets full of leaves, are they really interested in the leaves themselves – their shapes and colors, the life cycle of trees, and their symbolic significance to regional seasonal weather? Or are they mesmerized by the texture and the sound of things that crumple and crinkle? Is it even important to the children that those are leaves in their bucket, or are they seeking out any available material that they can enclose in a container and transport across the playground? The things that they are interested in are important, but equally important, and often overlooked, is what they are doing with things that they are interested in. Our planning needs to involve verbs as much as nouns.

One way to do this is to view children’s interests in terms of schemas - the ways that children interact with, conceptualize, and construct knowledge about the world. Rolling a toy truck across the rug might not be an interest in trucks, or construction workers, or building sites – it might be an interest in motion, rolling, or speed. The bucket full of leaves might just as easily be a bucket full of rocks, or pompoms, or crumpled pieces of paper, and the interest is in transporting them from place to place. It’s easy for teachers to name the objects that the child shows interest in, it’s more challenging to observe what the child is doing with those objects.

But that’s what we have to do. To facilitate truly emergent curriculum, our observations and conversations need to hone in on children’s understandings and the concepts that children are grappling with. We need to look past the theme and discover the meaning through the child’s eyes. Sometimes a pile of leaves is about the leaves, but sometimes it’s a different thing entirely.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

"I'm Using It!"

“I’m using it!” I don’t know how many times a day I hear this phrase – yelled, called out loudly, emphatically, repeatedly. The four year-olds sometimes run to teachers with a complaint: “But I was using it!” Some of the two-year-olds know this phrase, but more often than not, they say it without words, by clutching the desired toy as tightly as possible.

Sometimes “I’m using it” means, “Don’t take it away from me.” Sometimes it means “Leave me alone.” Sometimes it means, “I want what you have.” But too often, instead of addressing the emotional meaning of the child’s words, teachers respond to any of these situations with lectures and rituals for sharing. 

Sharing isn’t an activity that comes naturally to very young children.  Being able to share objects, materials, and physical space comes later in early childhood, when children have the cognitive skills to consider another person’s point of view. Sharing also comes from relationships. Children who feel secure that their needs will be met, their feelings will be validated, and that they can trust other children and teachers to treat them with respect
will share when they are ready. 

But even knowing this, teachers still push sharing rules on children who are not ready, not interested, and even adamantly opposed to sharing. “We all share at school.” “You can use it for two more minutes.” “Do you want to use it for two minutes or three minutes?” “We have to share with our friends.” Forcing children to share doesn’t make them more altruistic or more empathetic – it makes them feel a loss of control and increased stress about their surroundings. Imagine that you are at a meeting and the person next to you forgot their pen. They ask you to borrow your pen – but you need your pen for taking notes. How focused on the meeting can you be while wondering when you’ll get your pen back, or whether you’ll get it back in time to write down the things you need to. Imagine if at work, you were using the computer and were told, “Someone else wants to use it, you need to give it to them in two minutes” – even if you weren’t finished with your work? If we adults would feel stressed or uncomfortable in these situations, why do we expect children to feel any differently?
Instead of forcing sharing on children, we can create environments in which children feel secure that they have what they need and that their feelings are respected:

1. Provide enough materials.

A common situation that causes children to argue over materials or hesitate to share is that there aren’t enough to begin with. When there is only one of a certain toy, especially a desirable toy, conflict will often follow. Depending on the toy, the size of the group, the personalities of the children, and what other activities are available, even two might not be enough. If there’s an object that always seems to spark “sharing” discussions, consider ways to provide similar items in the classroom, and if that’s not possible, consider whether that one single item is really all that necessary to begin with.

2. Provide alternatives.

Even with the best intentions, it’s not always possible to actually provide “enough”, especially since what is “enough” changes so often based on the situation. One way to work around not having enough of a particular material is to have multiple attractive materials or activities available at the same time. Asking, “What do you want to do while you wait for a turn?”, and being able to provide suggestions (e.g. “While you’re waiting for a bike, you can go on the swings or dig in the sandbox”) can help the child focus on something other than the discomfort of waiting.

3.  Allow children to use something until they are done.

We spend so much of our time trying to “teach” children the language of turn taking by expecting them to say a number of minutes until they’ll be done, or by telling them that they have to be done in a certain number of minutes that the teacher chooses. Linking turns to “how many minutes” doesn’t make much developmental sense, since young children have a very fluid sense of time, and can’t accurately judge how much time has passed. A three-year-old answering “When will you be done?” with “Five minutes” is repeating a phrase, not making a logical assessment of time. In most cases, telling a child, “Let her know when you’re done” or “When you’re done it’s his turn” leads to the child finishing their turn even sooner. Removing the stress that there’s someone waiting in the wings to take their toy frees children up to be able to offer the toy, instead of waiting for the allotted time to be up.

4. Make time reminders visible and concrete.

If you choose to give children a specific amount of time to finish their turn, use a timer or other concrete way that they can see when their turn is over. Knowing that “when the timer goes off, it’s her turn” is easier for children to accept than an adult simply announcing, “it’s time to give her a turn.” If many children are waiting for a turn, writing their names on a list can help them feel control over the process (as adults, we like to know that our names are on a waiting list too!) The more that the children feel the turns are following a natural process, instead of being controlled by the teacher, the more willing they will be to accept the process.

5. Follow through.

Whatever method you use for taking turns, make sure that every child gets the turn that they expect or that they were promised. If you tell a child that they can paint at the easel in five minutes, but five minutes later announce it’s clean up time, that child’s needs and feelings are not being respected. It’s also important to measure time accurately. If the child has five minutes to finish their turn, then give that child the full five minutes. Even though they can’t tell time yet, children are starting to recognize the environmental and personal cues that are related to time. If we want the children to trust that their needs will be met, then we need to be sure to meet their needs.

In the end, sharing will come from respect and relationships. It will come when they are ready. Until then, we have to accept “I’m using it.”

Sunday, August 21, 2016

A Monument to Risky Play

Last week my family visited The City Museum
in St. Louis, Missouri. The City Museum isn’t so much a museum in the traditional sense (although they have a great display of architectural artifacts). In the words of its website, the City Museum is “an eclectic mixture of children’s playground, funhouse, surrealistic pavilion, and architectural marvel made out of unique, found objects.” From a child’s perspective, it’s a huge, challenging playground made out of really cool stuff.

The cool stuff is salvaged and “found” materials, welded together to make extraordinary climbing apparatus. Indoors, there are multiple levels of artificial caves including child size tunnels to disappear into out of adult reach. Outdoors there are spiral cage like tunnels and slides connecting junked airplanes, cranes, and buses, all dozens of feet in the air. On the roof, ten stories up, are even more of these spiral tunnels and huge slides, suspending you literally a hundred feet over the city.

On first look, this seems like the very definition of risky play, as children explore, discover, and push themselves to figure out ways to complete physical challenges of their own making. But as I watched children wind through the tunnels, it occurred to me that much of the risk is perceived risk not actual risk. Much like an amusement park, it’s thrilling to be a hundred feet off the ground. But completely surrounded by a steel cage, there isn’t any actual risk or danger. The environment is created to challenge children physically and imaginatively, while protecting them from getting hurt.

Not that no one will get hurt. I saw children spill over and bump heads and elbows coming down the slide, or scratch a knee on the edge of a ladder, or get hit in the face by a rubber ball in the ball pit. But part of the nature of risky play is learning to distinguish between levels of risk. Physical challenges involve the risk of a scrape or a bruise, but to raise resilient, competent children, we need to teach them the difference between a puncture wound and a bruise. We need to teach children that exploring challenges and new situations is worth the risk of a minor hurt, whether physical or emotional. And we need to teach children how to respond appropriately to that hurt. A bumped knee, a scratched elbow are something we can recover from, and the play is often worth the risk.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

To Smock or Not To Smock

This week I presented a workshop called “Planning Purposeful Play”, all about how to set up classroom environments and present materials in ways that encourage children's engagement in intentional, purposeful activities. My presentation included a slide show of different materials and play scenes from my classroom, and in both sessions, participants mentioned that they noticed that most of the children in the photos weren’t wearing smocks.

I hadn’t really thought about this until they pointed it out. I’ve worked at programs that require smocks and ones that don’t. I’ve worked with teachers who require smocks for any art or sensory activity, and ones who only require smocks for things that can wet or stain clothing. I’ve visited schools where there are no smocks at all, so whether or not to wear them isn’t even an option. In my own classroom, I’ve tended to lean toward encouraging smocks but not requiring them. So, what do I say to workshop participants who want to know my view on smocks?

It depends.

It depends on your own personal comfort level as a teacher. It depends on the policy of your school, and your relationship with parents. It depends on the culture of the classroom and of the communities you serve. It depends on the children – not everyone wants to wear a smock, and not everyone is willing to get messy.

But, since “it depends” doesn’t sound like a satisfying answer, I’m trying to flesh out what that actually means in practice. Whether or not to require/encourage/provide smocks is as important a planning decision as how to choose materials or how to set up an area of the room. Here are some things I consider when making the smock decision:

1) What are the expectations of the parents? In most schools where I’ve taught, parents are told that their children will get messy and stained, and to send them in clothes that can get dirty. However, not all parents are comfortable with this. Schedule and transportation routines after school, access to laundry facilities, and personal preference all play a role in parents’ attitudes. I wouldn’t say that all children must wear smocks just in case some parents don’t want mess, but if a parent requests I put a smock on their child, I will try to.

2) What is the child’s comfort level of wearing/not wearing a smock? One of my basic beliefs in planning is to set up an environment where children can be successful doing the play based learning that I want them to do. A child who doesn’t want to get wet or messy might feel more comfortable wearing a smock. A child who doesn’t want to wear a smock might avoid wet or messy activities to avoid wearing a smock. In the end, my goal is for the child to be able to play where they want to – if a smock is helping them or keeping them from playing, I’m going to make the decision that best helps the child engage in play.

3) How messy is the activity? Looking at my photos, I saw the children were wearing smocks while playing with shaving cream and tempera painting, but weren’t while playing with water, sand, or watercolor paints. If a material is likely to get all over clothing, I’m more likely to encourage smocks. And if a material is more likely to stain, I’m more likely to encourage smocks. Wet clothes will dry, painted clothes will need to be washed. But still, if having to wear a smock means a child will refuse to paint, I’d rather see the child painting.

4) Can they wear the smocks comfortably and do the activity? Do smocks impact classroom management issues? I realized I’m less likely to require twos to wear smocks than older preschoolers. It’s very hard to find smocks small enough to fit toddlers and twos, and many of those small smocks are designed in ways the younger children find uncomfortable or hard to put on – they have sleeves or snap closures, or other features they can’t do by themselves. Which creates a classroom management issue. If they can’t put them on or take them off by themselves, a teacher needs to help. Or, if they do take them off themselves, whatever paint is on the smock is likely to get all over their clothes anyway.

That last statement is probably the biggest reason I don’t worry much about smocks, because no matter what I do, the paint or water will get on their clothes anyway. We’ve all seen kids reach under their smocks to wipe their hands on their clothes, or pour a bucket of water on their pants and shoes. We can do the best we can, and we can tell the parents we’re doing the best we can, but in the end, play can be messy. Smocks or no smocks.