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?”