Saturday, December 29, 2018

Recipes and Experiments in Intentional Teaching

Over the past few weeks I’ve been baking a lot of cookies. I’ve been adjusting recipes, trying to figure out how little changes in the ingredients can change the texture or taste? How much brown sugar or white sugar? What can I use instead of flour to make the recipe gluten free? Does it make a difference whether I use baking soda or baking powder?

None of this was random experimentation. Knowing what ingredients can be substituted, how a recipe can be “tweaked” stems from an underlying understanding of how to bake. Using brown sugar instead of white sugar is one thing, using salt instead of sugar would be something else entirely. I know that I can’t simply leave out the flour, or the eggs, I have to replace them with something else that has similar properties. Baking isn’t just a random combination of trial and error, it’s a science that’s based on knowing what and how different materials interact when combined and heated.

A few weeks ago I wrote about play and learning – that children learn through play, but just because they’re playing, doesn’t automatically mean that they’re learning. Simply having an experience doesn’t mean that learning, development, or growth will automatically follow. 

 It’s the content of that play experience – the materials that children use, the investigations they pursue, the interactions and conversations they have – that lead to learning. That’s where teachers come in. With our knowledge and experience about how learning happens through play, we can play alongside the children, interacting with them and scaffolding their explorations. We can provide materials and present them in ways that encourage children to think “What can I do with this?” Yes, there are some times when adult interaction interferes with children’s activity or navigates it away from the child’s agenda to the adult’s. But finding that perfect point where we can both follow the child’s lead and use our own experience and expertise to co-construct with the child is the core of intentional teaching. We aren't planning what the children should do. We're planning in consideration of all the possibilities of what the children could do, and based on our knowledge of these children and of development, what they likely would do.

Teaching isn’t all that different than baking. Following a curriculum guide word for word, just like following a recipe word for word, interferes with creativity and limits innovation. But at the same time, curriculum, just like a recipe, has some scientific basic for what works and how it works. If you put in a cup of white sugar instead of brown sugar, the consistency might change a little, but you’d still have a cookie. If you put in a cup of salt instead of sugar, your cookies would taste unrecognizable. If you left out the dry ingredients all together, you’d have a puddle that wouldn’t bake into anything. Teaching follows the same principles – just like random materials from our kitchen shelves wouldn’t necessarily bake into a cookie, children’s random activities don’t necessarily lead to learning. Curriculum objectives and standards and teachers’ experiences and professional knowledge are all pieces that contribute to the interactions of intentional teaching.  Adults need to be careful not to overwhelm children with our own agendas, but we also need to be confident in our abilities and experience to be true teachers in partnership with children. That’s where the magic of learning happens - when we strike that balance between our sharing our knowledge and helping the children to build theirs.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Learning Through Play - But All Play Isn't Learning

“Children learn through play.”

“Play is children’s work.”

 When we say “children learn through play”, we’re recognizing and acknowledging the important process that play, as a self-directed, intrinsically motivated activity has for providing opportunities for learning and development. When we say, “play is children’s work”, we’re demonstrating value for play as an essential aspect of children’s learning, and validating its role as a centerpiece in early childhood programs.

But even though children learn through play, is all play learning?

When I mentored student teachers, their lesson plan assignments always ended with a section for them to self-evaluate the activity they had planned. Often, the student teacher would simply write, “The children had fun.” I see and hear this same evaluation in online forums, in product reviews of classroom materials, and in discussions with teachers of all levels of experience. “The kids loved it!” “They had so much fun!” “They were really interested in what they were doing!”

Is fun – or interest – or enjoyment – the same thing as learning?

Play can have many purposes – some of them involve the sheer enjoyment of the activity, or the total engagement in the moment – the “flow” as referred to in psychology. Finding joy, fun, and flow in what we do are essential to who we are as human beings, and we want to provide those opportunities for children. But just because an activity was fun, doesn’t mean that learning happened.

“Learning”, by definition involves change. It involves development and growth. Children learn through play when those play experiences lead them to do something new, or think about things in a new way. It isn’t enough for children to “just play” - teachers need to provide classroom environments, materials, and interactions that encourage children to share ideas, negotiate, experiment, hypothesize, and evaluate. Teachers need to encourage children to say “What can I do with this?” and provide them scaffolding to extend their thinking and encourage them not only to play, but reflect on what they are doing. Teachers need to ask open ended questions, provide feedback, and help children think about their own thinking

Play is the starting point, not the finish line. Play can - and should - be learning, but there are many steps along the way. And many things that teachers can – and should – do to help children get there.

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

It's Not A Mess

She pulled the large blocks off the shelf, one by one, dropping them randomly into a pile on the floor.

After the first five or six blocks, I started to speak. “Now that you’ve taken some blocks out, you can start building.” She didn’t respond and continued pulling blocks off the shelf – the long double-unit blocks, making an ever bigger pile on the floor. I started to say something else – a reminder not to take out all the blocks, or an observation she didn’t look like she was building, but I didn’t.

I stopped talking and watched her work.

After taking out every long block – about twenty – and dropping them into a pile, she started to build.

First a foundation, and then walls. She first spaced out the tall blocks evenly to form columns, then filled in the space to create a solid wall.

“Look at this!” she exclaimed. She gathered up cars from a basket and lined them up inside. 

“There’s a lot of cars in there”, another child said. He counted them, pointing to each as he counted. Several other children came over to watch, and to count too.

When they were done counting, she returned to the block pile, picking up blocks to make a roof.

The finished structure bore no resemblance to the pile of randomly dumped blocks that had been on the rug fifteen minutes before. But the structure might not have existed if I hadn’t let her create that pile. As she took block after block of the shelf and dropped it in the pile, the teacher voice in the back of my head kept whispering to me to stop her. She was making a mess, not working. “Okay, you’ve taken enough blocks off the shelf, now it’s time to build”, was on the tip of my tongue.

But it’s not my decision that “it’s time to build”. It’s hers.

What looked like a mess to my teacher eyes at the beginning was her process. Her organization, and her plan. If I used my adult power to stop her process, and put my process in its place, what would I be teaching? That my ideas and my plans are more important than hers? That her concepts and problem solving aren’t valued? Or maybe, that she shouldn’t even seek solutions in the first place, because a person in power will simply direct her.

It wasn’t a mess. It was valuable work. It’s our job to learn to see the difference.


Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Where Do You Keep Your Loose Parts?

I see lots of posts on education discussion groups asking “Where do you keep your loose parts?” Or “What does your loose parts area look like?” In my classroom, I don’t have any specific area designated for “loose parts.” Loose parts are just another type of classroom material, which children are free to use where and how they want. However, I do put some on shelves in intentional ways, with the purpose of sparking the child to think “What can I do with this?” 

I set up a small table near the door to have some interesting materials, not necessarily as a provocation to play, but an invitation to come in the door. Entering the classroom in the morning and separating from parents and caregivers can be the most stressful part of a child’s day. Having material to explore as soon as you walk in the door can ease the transition.

Loose parts provocation with napkin rings and glass beads

I also have a shelf close to the door, but not too far away from tables, with loose parts, containers, and other materials, ready for children who want to explore but might not want to be right in the midst of the play area with other children.

The materials on the shelf are set up in a way to encourage children to think about different ways to use them together. A container asks “What will fit inside?” A tray of beads calls out “Touch me and see how I feel.” 

Sometimes the children choose to play with the materials right where they are.

Sometimes they take them to tables or other areas of the room.

The magic of this space isn’t about what the children will do in this area, or even with particular objects, but what ideas will be sparked, and where they will lead.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Figuring It Out

One of the children was building with the set of transluscent connecting tubes, building a long line of tubes. He stretched them across the table, and the stood the line of tubes on its end, before putting it back down, and getting ready to walk away. 

I asked, “I wonder what would fit inside?”

He looked at me curiously, not knowing where to start. I suggested we look in the baskets of math manipulatives and see what might fit inside. He examined each basket, and selected several objects to try – a rubber car, a small plastic cat, and a counting bear. None of them fit.

I brought over a basket of art materials. He searched through it, and chose some pompoms, which to his excitement, fit inside. He pushed pompom after pompom into the tubes.

But then, the question became how to get them out?

He tried pushing them with his finger, and then with a popsicle stick. Then he tried a pipe cleaner, which easily pushed the pompoms out to the other side.

But then his attention shifted to a new question – how to make the pipe cleaners travel through the tunnel of pipes. He pushed in one after the other, lifting and angling the pipes until the pipe cleaners fell out the other side. Soon another child came over to watch, and eagerly gathered the pipe cleaners as they slid through. The pompoms were forgotten, as the children discovered this new material that fit inside, and slid through, much  more easily.

A simple prompt of “I wonder…..” sparked these series of experiments and discoveries. Building a tunnel of pipes was an easy task, one he did every day. But the right question, at the right moment, initiated his drive to search for new problems to solve, and to figure out the answers for himself.

Friday, April 27, 2018

All The Blocks

“But they’ll take out all the blocks.”

Yes, they sometimes will. Sometimes they’ll take out all the big blocks, and then the little ones. And the animals, and the cars. Sometimes they’ll fit the little blocks inside of the big ones, and line up animals and cars in every empty space they see. 

That’s what the blocks are there for. That’s what all the toys are there for – for the children to use, to play with and to bring their ideas to reality.

I’ve always wondered about teachers’ hesitancy to let children play with all of something.  Teachers choose to limit children’s block play for so many reasons – concerns about safety, about activity level, about sharing. The limits are usually less about the children’s abilities than about the teacher’s feelings of control. And sometimes having all the blocks being used at once seems overwhelming to teachers, as teachers imagine every possible scenario of what could go wrong. Will the children really clean them up? How much space are they using? What happens if they get knocked down?

But instead of worrying about what could go wrong, take moment to consider what is going right.

Yes, they’ll take out all the blocks. And they’ll work together to build some amazing structures. They’ll add details and figure out mathematical relationships and engineering concepts that they can visualize years before they can explain them. They’ll create a space that is theirs. They feel a sense of ownership and pride as they develop the setting for their play, and create something that has the awesome grandness of being big and complicated. They’ll take out all the blocks, and it can be wonderful.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Solving the Problem

“If all I did was solve problems all day, I wouldn’t get anything done.”

“Children need to learn to solve their own problems.”

“My job is to teach, not solve everyone’s problems for them.”

Comments like these come up quite often in conversations about classroom management and children’s behavior. When I hear comments like this, my first reaction is usually to say that, actually, solving problems is our job. Fostering social-emotional competence and supporting children as they learn to negotiate the social world is at the heart of teaching. But there’s something more.

Why are there so many problems in the first place?

“Behavior problems” are often less about a child’s actual behavior, and more about the teacher’s perception of and reaction to it. Sometimes what defines the behavior as a problem isn’t how it makes the child feel, but how it makes the teacher feel. And sometimes, these behaviors don’t originate in the child, but in the child’s response to something a teacher said or did, or a situation that the teacher created.

Several years ago, a teacher approached me for help with a classroom management problem. Every day at free play, the same group of children were fighting over the toy police car. No matter how much she talked to them or what consequences she gave them, they still yelled at each other and grabbed the car out of each others’ hands. What should she do? My suggestion – get more police cars. Obviously the police car was a very popular play choice. By choosing to have only one of a highly desired toy in the room, the teacher was unintentionally creating the problem that occurred. And the teacher was the one with the power to solve it.

When we set up the environment and decide how to approach and respond to children, we are the ones choosing whether there will be problems. And when problems occur, we are the ones who have the power to change the situation.

When a child exhibits a behavior that’s a “problem” or expresses to the teacher that they’re having a “problem” with another child, the first step is to determine whether there’s something in the classroom environment or routine that the teacher could change. There might not be – but if there is a chance that one small change could better support that child, meet that child where they are developmentally, or make the day easier for everyone, then it’s worth a try.

Some things to consider:

1. Are there enough materials for several children to use them at the same time, or to play easily together in a small group?

2. Are there a variety of engaging activities available so children can choose something else they’d enjoy doing while waiting for a turn for a preferred activity?

3. Do children have the ability to choose whether they want to participate in an activity, or to decline to do something that a teacher asks them to?

4. Does the teacher have reasonable, developmentally appropriate expectations for children’s behavior, including children’s ability to share, wait, take turns, and verbally express their thoughts and feelings?

And most of all:

5. When a situation isn’t working well, what can I change to make it work better?

That last one is sometimes the hardest for teachers to consider. We get so caught up in “I want the children to….” and “I expect the children to be able to…..” that we forget that the children aren’t here to do what we want or what we expect. We can want and expect all sorts of things, but in the end we need to meet the children where the children are right now. No amount of adult expectations are going to change children’s behavior. The process of social and emotional development takes a long time and a lot of practice. And while the children are developing these skills, we need to give them all the support that they need.  

Instead of only asking the child “What could you do differently next time?” the teacher should also ask themselves “What could I do differently so there isn’t a next time?” We can’t change the children, but we might have the power to change what’s causing the problem in the first place. Which will leave us all with fewer problems for anyone to have to solve.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The Point of Play

I spend a lot of time on online early childhood sites, reading blogs, commenting and discussing topics on Facebook groups, and scrolling through curriculum ideas on Pinterest. Over the past few years I’ve noticed a huge growing interest in things having to do with “Reggio Inspired” “Loose Parts” and “Nature Play”, which is really exciting to me as a teacher who has spent years encouraging children to come up with their own ideas, use materials the way they want and take the lead in deciding what they want to do and how they’re going to do it. At the heart of this is my core belief that children learn through play: through activities that focus on children’s process and that allow children to have control over the planning, decision making, and interactions during these activities.

But somehow, adults keep missing this.

It’s hard to be a “teacher”. I sometimes feel that title is like a heavy backpack of expectations each of us carries, never letting us forget that our “real job” is to be teaching children something. No matter how many times we say that “children learn through play” or “process is more important than product”, there’s that pesky “teacher” baggage weighing down and whispering in our ears that what we should really be doing is making sure the kids know their numbers and ABCs.

I see this over and over again in the conversations about classroom materials. The concept of using “loose parts” is about providing open-ended materials that can be used in many different ways, encouraging creativity, discovery, and exploration. There’s also attention to design elements, so many of these materials are truly beautiful, and their color, shape, and texture add to the overall environment of classroom space. But I’ve noticed more and more, adults getting caught up in simply having the materials to use for their own “teacher” purposes and less on letting children use them the way the children want to.

Every experience doesn’t need to involve an adult teaching an academic skill. Every time a child sits down with a pile of colored beads or blocks, they shouldn’t be expected to sort them or create patterns. Every time a child lines up a row of rocks, they shouldn’t be asked to count them. Teachers shouldn’t be focused on what the adults can make out of bottlecaps and rocks, they should be focused on creating an environment where the children will figure out what to do with them. Instead of spending time writing letters and numbers on tree circles and seashells, teachers should be embracing these materials for what they are – opportunities for children to be creative and expressive and the leaders of their own play. That’s what the materials are for – to play with. Not to find one more surface to write numbers and letters on, or to “teach” a concept or skill, but to create a space and opportunity for children to play. Play itself is the point of play.