Wednesday, April 27, 2016

It's Just Playing

Even in play based programs, sometimes it feels like the children should be doing more than “just playing.” Recently I read an excellent post on the Happiness Is Here blog titled “Why I Don’t Like Play Based Learning.” The author talked about how the term “play based” is often used to describe adult led activity, instead of genuine child-led play, which she describes play as: “self chosen, enjoyable, inherently valuable, and unstructured.” In a child focused view of "play based" the emphasis should be on the process of play, not the product.

One of the key aspects of true play based learning is the opportunity for children to engage in social interaction and negotiation, and to have opportunities to develop self-regulation, planning and other skills that we often refer to as “executive functioning”. Teachers sometimes have a hard time noticing that these skills are being used and practiced, because their development isn’t as obvious as a discrete academic skill. It’s easy to see a child sorting blocks by size, it’s a lot harder to see a child using non-verbal cues to negotiate a place to sit on a block structure. And much of what is learned through “just playing” can’t be quantified or classified. It’s the experience and the process itself through which the learning happens.

I see this happen every day in my classroom, most often in the “block area”, which isn’t a block area so much as an area that, among many other things, happens to have blocks in it. The main attraction of this space is its space – a large rug where there’s room to build with large blocks, spread out rows or piles of loose parts, or to just move around.

The other day, one of the children carried a basket full of small plastic animals over to a large hollow block that was balanced on its side, and slowly poured the animals into it. This soon attracted a larger crowd, as children huddled around to peer into the colorful pool of animals.

“I think I can reach it”, someone said, and put their hand in to pull out just one piece. Then the next person had to try it, as they each took a turn reaching into the block and excitedly examining the animal in their grasp.

I think it needs to be higher,” one of the children said, and another came quickly to join him in lifting a block onto the first block. Looking at the two-story block, the builders attempted to reach in and discovered that it was too high, so they took down the block.

Their audience remained huddled around the animal filled block, gazing inside. Suddenly one child sat down and swung her foot into the hollow space. “I think I fit in here,” she said. The conversation turned to who wanted to try putting their foot into the space to see if it would fit.

Meanwhile, around them, construction had begun. Turning their attention away from the block that a foot could fit into, the children who had started the structure joined in with the construction crew who had just joined them.

Eventually, they all left their building and pushed some blocks back against the wall. They sat on them, and stood on them, and smiled and laughed at each other as they lay down and slid down slanted blocks to the bottom.

I wouldn’t have been able to observe their play and document skills by marking them off on a checklist. Maybe if I was pushed to describe what they were learning I’d say something about spatial skills and cognitive reasoning. But the real learning was in their ongoing interactions as they were “just playing” – from reaching into the blocks and sticking their feet inside, to sitting and relaxing while smiling and giggling. There’s no way we as teachers can force that learning to occur. We just need to create spaces where it can just happen.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Spools Knobs and Wheels

Walking through a craft store, I noticed how many of the little bags of wooden craft parts looked just like the parts of the expensive wooden toys in educational supply catalogs. We found a website that sold these parts in bulk and bought bags of various spools, beads, knobs, and wheels. After checking to make sure none of these were too small, I put the larger spools, knobs, and wheels out for the two and three-year-olds.

There was some interest in building from the younger children, but that task was mastered quickly and the children moved on.

The next day, I looked for some materials to add that would make the wooden pieces more interesting, and suggest an activity besides stacking. All the pieces have holes, which means you can stick something inside. And for two and three year olds, filling holes is one of the most engaging activities there is. Searching for what would fit inside, I chose pipe cleaners and wooden dowels.

The pipe cleaners fit in the holes easily, and the children fit as many as they could into one hole, making flowers and rainbows.

The dowels were a tighter fit. The children soon discovered that they could use a dowel to support the spools as they stacked them. And that the dowels fit snugly inside the wheels to serve as connectors as they built makeshift tinkertoys as long as the tabletop and as that were as tall as they were.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Arranging Materials to Spark Exploration

Materials are only as good as the ideas they inspire.

We’ve all had the experience of bringing a new toy or material into the classroom, and it falling flat. The children showed no interest, even after repeated introductions, so that material was moved to the back storage shelf and written off as uninteresting.

I’d argue that there’s nothing inherently interesting or uninteresting about most materials. The key is how they’re presented: the location in the room, their positioning in relation to other materials, and visual cues for possible ways to use them.  In the Reggio Emilia approach, this is thought of as providing provocations: presenting materials in an intentional, thoughtful way meant to provoke exploration and inquiry. It’s not always enough to just have the materials available, the materials need to “speak” to the children and lead children to ask the question “What can I do with this?” 

This week I introduced waffle blocks to my two and three year olds. These are interlocking flat toys that can be kind of tricky to put together. They interlock like puzzle pieces, but usually require more advanced visual motor skills to assemble into three dimensional shapes. I put them out on the rug, thinking that at least the children would fit them together to make long horizontal shapes. I assembled several open cubes, thinking that would inspire the children to figure out how to complete them. Through the morning a few children gave a try at snapping the pieces together, or picked up a cube to examine it, but there wasn’t much interest. Looking at the pile of waffle blocks on the rug, I couldn’t blame them for their lack of engagement. What’s so interesting about snapping pieces together?

The next day, I tried something different. Instead of putting the waffle blocks on the rug, I moved them to a table, placing an unfinished cube in front of each chair, and a small tray of extra pieces in the middle. That way, the visually defined work space would be less overwhelming than a pile of materials in the middle of the floor. But the question remained – what’s interesting about an empty cube?

An empty cube is interesting because you can fill it. So I placed a small dish of rubber animals at each place.

It was the combination of waffle blocks and animals that engaged the children’s interest. Two and three year olds are naturally drawn to fill containers
 and to fill holes. The openings in the waffle blocks provided an invitation to drop rubber animals through, and the open cubes encouraged children to fill them up and try to close them. Some of the children lined up waffle blocks across the table, placing animals in a line across them.

Sometimes we need to make sure the materials are asking “What can you do with me?”

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Texture Brushes

A new material I’ve introduced to my two and three-year old class is texture brushes. I’m sometimes skeptical of the art activities that involve painting with different objects. Paint brushes are designed the way they are for a reason, to be able to control the movement of the painting tool to make marks on paper. If the goal is to make carefully controlled or deliberate markings, paintbrushes or something similar are perfect tools. But if the goal is to experiment with different ways of getting paint onto paper, and to explore the physics of how texture, size, and movement impact the painting process, then using a variety of materials is a great scientific exploration.

I always consider these questions when choosing painting tools:

Can children physically manipulate and control the tool?

Is it sturdy enough to withstand pressure, bending, and physical force?

Will it hold the right amount of paint for children to be successful?

And, for children under 3: Is it clearly something that should be used for painting?

This last question might seem contradictory, if the purpose is to paint with objects not specifically intended for painting. But very young children have trouble distinguishing between using the same object in different contexts. A toddler might not understand that an apple dipped in paint isn’t an apple for eating. And a two-year-old might not understand why they can dip the toy animals in paint today but not tomorrow, or why they can paint with toy animals but not with other toys they pull off the classroom shelves on their own. 

There’s also the sensory component of painting. Brushes have their own textures and tactile sensations, whether the brush is moving across the palm of your hand, or you’re feeling the sensory input from pushing the brush against paper. Different objects in paint each have their own sensory and tactile components too.I decided to make my own texture brushes – each one was a different material taped to a large craft stick. I choose waterproof materials that could be washed and reused: heavy duty shelf liner, bubble wrap, and fabric from a mesh bath sponge. I cut a strip of fabric from each material, and taped it around the stick. First I used masking tape, but realized that wouldn’t be strong enough, so I added a layer of duct tape as well. Plastic spoons would also work as handles instead of craft sticks and would be more waterproof.

I made four sets, each with the three different brushes. I set up the activity as individual stations, each with three colors of paint and three different brushes.

The painting was much less deliberate and intentional than brushes as the focus shifted to the physical properties of the materials: how they felt, how they moved across the paper and across skin. I wouldn’t think of this as an “art” activity as much as a “sensory” or “science” activity that happened to use paint as the medium for exploration.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Getting Out of Their Way

One of the interesting features of full day programs is that there are often times at the beginning and the end of the day when there are only a few children in the room. It’s a perfect time for child directed play. But sometimes during these parts in the day, I wonder what I should be doing while the children play. There’s plenty of child directed play going on during other parts of the day too. But when all the children are at school and the class is spread across the room involved in half a dozen different activities, it’s rare for teachers to have a moment to step back at all. While some of the children might be able and even happy to sustain their own play without teacher involvement, chances are some of the rest will either need or want a teacher playing with or working alongside them. But when it’s only two or three children, deeply engaged in a world they’ve created for themselves, what should the teacher do?

I watched as one child lined up blocks and the other brought over a picnic basket. “Do you want some cookies?” he asked, opening the basket. The block builder accepted a cookie, and then pulled out a stuffed cat from a nearby basket. “But the kitty’s in the middle. The kitty’s gonna come out.” Soon the picnic was being shared by three stuffed cats.

“Here come the zombies,” one of the children announced. “Let’s pretend the kitties are scared. They can also fly. These are like jet packs.” They flew their kitties flew around the room for a bit, then sat down on the couch. And then the conversation took a more somber turn.

“Let’s pretend the mom died. And this kitty is dead. He’s dead. But not really.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the child with the dead kitty look at me slightly, and turn away quickly when my eyes almost met his. I stepped back and turned away, pretending to straighten some paper on the shelves. He pointed to the other cat. “This one is also sad right now because he wanted his mom.”

His friend looked at him thoughtfully, then, carrying the cat, went over to a basket and brought back some snap together gears, reaching out to hand them to him. “But he’s going to find him some toys. It’s a three wheel toy. It’s called a monster car.”

They sat and fiddled with the gears, holding the cats in their laps. They moved the gears around back and forth. There was little conversation, and no invitation for me to join in. I watched, as quiet as they were.

Then the second child, who had brought over a monster car for the sad cat who was missing his mom, spoke up. 

“Is this the mom? Because I’m going to get her back alive.” He carried the cat to the sand table and placed her inside, moving her back and forth in the sand. “I’m going to put her in here because it’s a safe place.”

He glanced sideways at me, then shyly smiled, as if suddenly aware that they were being watched. The two children looked at each other, then at me, and dropped their cats and went to play with something else. Quiet as I was, my presence broke into the world of pretense where dead mommy cats can be brought back to life. And what if I had spoken earlier or had tried to bring myself into their play instead of trying to not intrude?  Would the spell have been broken sooner?

Even harder than teaching is not teaching. Sitting and doing nothing – not even making eye contact – seems the opposite of teaching. But sometimes that’s what children need. Not direction, suggestion, or facilitation, but the teacher being there just in case she’s needed. And if she’s not needed, getting out of the way of their play. I’m reminded of Waldorf teachers sitting in rocking chairs absorbed in handwork, being present but not intrusive, as the world of the child’s mind unfolds around them. Sometimes the best way we can teach is simply by getting out of the way.