Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Just One Small Planning Decision

I write a lot about intentional teaching, and the importance of setting up activities in a planned and thoughtful way, but there are always those “why didn’t I think of that before” moments.
One of the manipulatives I have in my classroom are “hex boards”. I don’t know what this toy is actually called, but it’s a set of boards that have rows of raised circles along with multi-colored hexagon shaped tiles that fit on top. I assume they were designed for patterning activities. Sometimes the older preschoolers use the boards this way, lining up rows of different colors, or choosing to alternate tiles in a pattern. The younger children usually just fill up the boards in a random way, with the goal being more about filling it up than about selecting colors. Sometimes they try to choose specific colors, but get frustrated digging through all the tiles trying to find just the blue or just the white ones.

Usually I set up the boards on a table with individual containers of tiles, so each child has their own materials. But one of the problems is setting up this activity so each child has enough tiles to fill their board. The boards take up a lot of space, and so do the containers. Now that we’ve reached the point in the year where they children are more comfortable sharing materials, I thought I’d try putting the tiles in a container in the middle of the table.

At first I was going to put them in a shallow basket, but then I noticed a divided container that I usually use for playdough toys or art materials. Seeing the five sections, I wondered what would happen if I sorted the tiles by color.

Of course, their play was immediately more intentional. Some of the children always showed preference for certain colors, but the tasks of simultaneously sorting and arranging were too much. Now that the tiles were neatly arranged into color groups, most of the children could concentrate on choosing the colors they wanted.

At first they each chose a single color and created relatively monochromatic designs.

But as they worked longer, they began to combine different colors. No one made patterns or representational designs, but there was a clear intention in the children’s work, as they chose materials, instead of simply picking up whatever was in reach and randomly putting it down. The arrangement and presentation of the materials matter. One small decision by a teacher to set up the materials in a slightly different way changed how the children were able to use the materials.

Just like many of us would rather choose which pen to write with than randomly reach into a drawer and take the first one we find, children also want – and need – the opportunity to choose, plan, and make decisions about their own work.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Working Together - When They're Ready

There’s a cute humor piece titled “Toddler Rules”. “If I like it, it’s mine. If it’s in my hand, it’s mine. If it looks like mine, it’s mine.” And so on. That sums up much of toddler behavior – and the behavior of two-year-olds, and even some children three-years-old and older. 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. Truly cooperative or play comes even later, once children develop the cognitive, social, and verbal skills needed for engaging in reciprocal social relationships that involve negotiation and collaboration.

Since I know that it’s unlikely that twos and young threes will be able to share or take turns, I set up my classroom with multiple sets of identical items and clearly defined play areas. This is especially important for table activities where children don’t have the same ability to move away from other children, or to spread their materials over a large area without bumping into someone else. My goal is for the children to be able to be engaged with the materials without having to be protective of their space. Knowing that “this is my space, and these are my materials” can help children relax and explore.

I usually set up paint in a way so that each child has a complete set of the same colors, so they can concentrate on painting instead of passing paint back and forth or waiting for turns. It’s hard to be immersed in the creative process if every time you need a color you have to negotiate for it, especially if you’re two-years-old, and don’t have the skills to negotiate successfully.

Last week, something amazing happened. Six children all crowded around a table set up with four spots for painting. I did what I usually do, tell the children that there isn’t more space and suggest a different activity we could do together while they wait. But one of the children looked up and said, “Someone can paint with me.” Then a second child smiled and said, “Someone can paint with me too.” They each moved over and made space for another child to share their tray of paint. They took turns choosing colors, and two of the children even started painting together on the same piece of paper.

We’re nearing the end of the year, and almost all the children in the room have turned three. The two children who offered to share their paints are the oldest in the room, both three and half. When they offered their paints a younger child (who has just turned three) at the table looked concerned, and responded by grabbing her own paint, looking straight at me, and yelling, “Mine!” in no uncertain terms – which she repeated suspiciously several times as she watched the other pairs of children paint together.

Working together is a developmental step that happens when children are ready. We can force them to share materials or take turns, but true cooperation and collaboration has to come from the child, not from adult coercion. No amount of classroom rules, incentives, scolding, or platitudes of “you can’t say you can’t play” or “we all share at school” can push a child to have the cognitive ability to engage in this type of social activity. We can model, and we can look for opportunities to encourage and scaffold prosocial behavior, but just like every other developmental skill, working together will happen – when they’re ready.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Exploration Not Demonstration

For the past few years, there’s been a push to integrate science and technology into early childhood classrooms. But in play based programs, especially those based on Constructivist or Reggio philosophy, scientific exploration has been the core of the curriculum all along. Exploring, observing, questioning, predicting, and testing hypotheses – even if no one calls them “hypotheses” – has always been the essence of what children do when they play.

Still, the push to define play by traditional curricular areas can lead teachers to set aside times to “do science”, often in a way that’s simply a modified science experiment from older grades. Following directions to achieve a specific result isn’t scientific exploration. Watching as the teacher demonstrates a phenomenon isn’t scientific exploration. Even if each child has a turn to add one thing to a mixture, or to turn or press one button, that isn’t scientific exploration. Scientific exploration and logical, mathematical reasoning happen when the child is actively exploring an object, a material, or an idea. In play based programs, exploring, observing, questioning, predicting, and testing hypotheses – even if no one calls them “hypotheses” – has always been the essence of what children do when they play.

One of my favorite science explorations is baking soda and vinegar. Not by “making a volcano”, where children watch in anticipation for the reaction they’ve been told to expect (which isn’t actually a “volcano”, since the physics of lava is very different from the chemistry of baking soda and vinegar). Instead, my goal is for the children to explore the materials and figure out what will happen when they mix baking soda and vinegar together.

I set up the activity for my four-year-olds with bowls of baking soda, small spoons and trays. They filled the trays and instantly noted the similarities between the unnamed “powder” and flour.

When the trays were filled, I put out bowls of vinegar with eyedroppers. I had colored the vinegar with liquid watercolor to make it more visible and easier for the children to observe what happened as they mixed.

Initially, the main interest was using the eyedroppers to mix the colored liquid – or “bubble water”, as one of the children called it. They were so focused on the color mixing, they didn’t notice right away when some of the vinegar touched the baking soda.

But once they noticed that someone had made something happen, their goal became to figure out what happened and make it happen again.

The children used the droppers to move vinegar into the baking soda, and then used spoons to move the baking soda into the vinegar – each time observing the reaction that took place, and when the bubbles subsided, exploring the texture of the wet baking soda and wondering what other things they could mix together. This was science – and was much more meaningful and engaging than a demonstration led by a teacher.