I’m always fascinated by young children’s drive to fill and empty containers, and how a simple collection of containers and things to put inside can engage children endlessly, as they fill and dump, arrange and rearrange, and carry their collections from place to place. Teachers sometimes try to label these activities in curriculum terms like “sorting” “identifying” and “classifying”, but so often, what engages the children is the simple act of combining materials together and exploring the relationship between empty spaces and objects, between containers and what can fill them.
I watched this play develop in my two-year-old classroom recently, first as children began to scoop loose parts from large baskets into smaller cups and bowls.
First, the movement was from one basket to one bowl, but soon, they lined up rows of containers, distributing rocks, shells, and poker chips into all. They weren’t interested in sorting or counting, just moving the objects from one container to others.
Next, they sought out containers with tops to fill just slightly or to the brim.
And carried objects to different areas, seeking out anything that could be used as a container.
I don’t know what the children’s criteria were for choosing materials, or deciding where to put them. I don’t know what connections were being formed in their heads, and I couldn’t label the specific“science” or “math” or even “problem solving” skills that would satisfy a prescribed list of early learning standards. But anyone could watch these children at play and see without a doubt that they were engaged, they were curious, and that they were processing the environment around them. This is how meaningful learning takes place.