I’m a big fan of the Food Network show Chopped. In this show, chefs compete to create unique dishes using strange combinations of assigned foods, in a matter of minutes. After rushing around the kitchen to find additional ingredients and necessary utensils, preparing the food, and finally, plating it to serve attractively, the voice of the host rings out: “Chefs, step away from your stations.” The chefs step back, and their creations are frozen in time – whatever they were able to create in 20 minutes will face the judges.
This routine flows through my head in the morning as I rush to set up my classroom. Some of the tasks are mundane: set out seating mats for circle time, fetch snack from the kitchen, check that diapers are stocked and chairs pulled up to the tables. But then there’s the artistry – choosing materials and setting them out just so, attractive and engaging. My preschoolers can be as discerning about a tray of paint as a celebrity chef is judging an elaborate dessert. Racing against the clock, will I have enough time to set things out the way I want the children to see them when they enter the room?
Sometimes I wonder whether it’s worth the trouble. After all, children come ready to play, no matter which paintbrushes I chose or how the blocks are stacked against the wall. In a way, the materials, the arrangement, the environment doesn’t matter all that much. But in many other ways, it does. Some arrangements of materials draw children in, others send a message to go somewhere else. Some spark ideas and imagination. Some provide space to do individual work, others create tension and conflict between children. I’ve watched a child break down in tears because she couldn’t find a purple marker in the crowded basket, I’ve seen children focused more on grabbing the lone wheeled Lego from their neighbor than on building anything themselves. The chef who spills sauce sloppily over the side of the dish has made an unattractive mess. The preschool teacher who does the same with paint has created an invitation for the children to make an even bigger mess.
So I rush, glancing furtively at the clock. I have my bag of organizational tricks so I can try to easily pull out the paint, the blocks, the trays that I need. I have a back-up plan for the morning that happens all too often, when with 5 minutes left on the clock, the watercolor cakes are crumbled and the sensory table scoops are missing. Because the children will play, and my job is to do the best I can. Not the best there is, day after day, but the best I can for the children at that moment. The clock is ticking and I hear the children’s voices in the hall. It’s time to step away from my station and let the play begin.