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.