Sunday, June 26, 2016

Playing Their Way – Geometric Shape Sorters

All of us – children, teachers, parents – have some toys we like more than others. I’m personally not a huge fan of math manipulatives that involve sorting for the sake of sorting, or fitting pieces together for the sake of fitting them together. I’m a lot more interested in manipulatives that can be used for creative building, or that can be used in a variety of ways – not the “self correcting” way where if a child doesn’t do what the toy designer planned, they can’t complete the task.

But, materials speak to everyone a variety of ways, so even if a toy isn’t one of my personal favorites, I still have it in my classroom, because one of the children might find it interesting even if I don’t. There’s also the tricky balance of selecting materials that meet the needs of all the children – ones that are challenging enough for older children but not frustrating for younger ones. One of things that’s appealing about open ended and “found” materials is that children can use them in a variety of ways, at whatever developmental level a child is at.

But, even if a toy seems to be close ended, giving children the freedom to explore and find novel ways to use that toy encourages innovation and problem solving. I saw this as my two-and-three year olds explored “Geometric Sorting Boards”. These are puzzle like contraptions that have multi-colored geometric tiles that fit onto pegs. Each geometric shape has a different number of holes, with the presumed goal that the children will line up the correct tile over the correct pegs. According to the manufacturer, this toy teaches “math concepts” “shape recognition” “color and pattern recognition” and “early geometry”. What I notice more often is that this toy is frustrating, because it’s hard to line the holes up over the pegs. And most preschool age children aren’t developmentally able to consider multiple characteristics of an object simultaneously – color, shape, number of holes, number of holes, and most of all, considering number of holes and number of tiles at the same time.

So, what did young preschoolers do with the geometric shape boards?

They took the shapes off the pegs. They stacked the shapes and lined them up. They carried the shapes to other parts of the room and pretended that the circles were cookies.
A few children tried to fit the shapes back on the pegs, but quickly lost interest. The pegs weren’t as interesting as the shapes themselves.

As I wrote in my last post, children will play their way with whatever we give them. We don’t need to “teach” children colors, geometry, and number – those concepts are embedded in the objects all around them. And trying to “teach” a concept they aren’t interested in isn’t going to work. Real learning takes place through self-initiation, exploration, and innovation.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Playing Their Way – Dollhouse Furniture

Sometimes no matter what a toy manufacturer has in mind, children find their own ways to use the toys. The way children use toys is tied to where the child is developmentally, and what schemas they’re using to explore their environment.

In my two and three year old classroom, we brought in a basket of dollhouse furniture and small wooden dolls and put them near the blocks. The children sometimes used toy animals as part of their block play, so we wondered whether they would use the dolls or furniture as well.

Two and three-year-olds generally don’t engage in pretend play where that involves acting out roles using representational objects. At this age, pretend play typically involves object substitution (pretending one object is another). And, interest in the objects themselves and exploration of their physical properties is often more engaging than pretending.

Sure enough, one of the first aspects of the furniture that the children noticed was that there were moving parts: doors and drawers that open and close.

And of course, if it’s empty inside, you have to fill it.

Some of the children used the furniture as building materials, and figured out which ones stacked and which pieces could fit inside other pieces.

One of the children did use the dolls with the furniture, but that also involved just seeing what pieces fit inside each other. And after putting a doll in or on a piece of furniture, she moved on to something else.

The one piece of furniture that evoked pretend play was the toilet, which makes sense, because using the toilet is a theme the children are very personally involved with. But they didn’t use the dolls – it was the small plastic sheep and bears that needed to “go potty”.


And of course, one of the best ways to explore a material – any material – is to line up the pieces on a shelf at eye level.

My starting point for curriculum planning is to plan based on what children might do with the toys, not on what the toys are. Children will play their way with whatever we give them. It’s our job to recognize the value of that play and build on it.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Teaching Take Apart

Recently on a teacher discussion board I follow, some teachers were discussing the new trend of “take apart” or “tinkering” centers and how overwhelmed they felt trying to manage those activities in their classrooms. “Take apart” isn’t actually a new trend, but the current push toward emphasizing STEM (or STEAM or STREAM) activities has pushed the old tools and woodworking activities into the spotlight. The teachers on this board felt pushed to provide science and technology activities, but were struggling with how to do it in a child-directed play based way that ensured children’s safety. They were concerned about physical safety – children using tools like screwdrivers, wrenches, and wirecutters safely. But also about emotional safety – one of the common concerns mentioned was how easily the children got frustrated trying to take out screws or untangle wires. Several teachers said the activity ended with children hitting and banging the materials against the table, or smacking them with the screwdriver.

One of the things we sometimes forget in play-based curriculum, is that teachers are there to teach. We can follow children’s lead, and build curriculum around their ideas, but in our role as experienced adults, we can also provide the scaffolding and guidance they need to develop skills and to learn the steps needed to accomplish tasks independently. “Take apart” (or using tools) doesn’t involve a natural process like gravity or flotation that can be discovered through observation or trial and error. It involves a complex set of visual motor skills and use of human designed tools. Some children can figure some of these skills out independently, but some need scaffolding – adult guidance to help them complete the task successfully with as much independence as possible.

Before embarking on a take-apart project in my four-year-old room, I wanted to give the children an opportunity to explore and practice with the tools they would be using. I bought several different sizes of Phillips and flat-head screwdrivers, and a variety of large screws with wide heads. I put these out on a table with large pieces of Styrofoam, and inserted several of the screws into the Styrofoam. I showed the children the screwdrivers, and asked them if they could figure out how to screw and unscrew the screws.

Some of them had worked with screwdrivers before. Some hadn’t. One of the children noticed the difference between the flat head and Phillips head screws. I suggested they try both types of screwdrivers, and see if the same screwdriver worked on both screws. They figured out right away that they didn’t, but I wonder if they would have noticed this important difference if I hadn’t encouraged them to experiment.

 After a few days of working with screws and Styrofoam, with a teacher participating alongside them, it was time to move on to “take apart.” My co-teacher brought in an old cassette player, and we loosened the outside screws ahead of time, so the children would be able to unscrew them on their own. My co-teacher worked alongside them, to help hold the cassette player, or help turn a screw that they were having trouble with, and to simply manage the area, helping them to negotiate turns and to pass the materials around the table.

When they finally opened the case, figuring out what was inside wasn’t nearly as interesting to them as taking it all out.

The most interesting discovery about the contents was that the speaker was magnetic, and each child tested this by sticking their screwdriver to it. What a speaker is, and why it’s magnetic, wasn’t even a question – they were focused on the process of sticking metal pieces to the magnet

After everything was taken out, I asked if they thought they could put it back together. At that point, several of the take apart crew had left, because when you’re four, taking things apart is usually more interesting than putting it back together. But two of the children stayed with the project, and with my help, figured out how to close the cassette player case and fit the screws back in.

Did they figure this all out independently through play? No. Did they follow step by step directions and learn how cassette players work? No. But someplace in between completely child driven and completely adult led activity, they explored, they observed, they predicted, and they problem solved. Which is what science is all about – with our help.