Monday, January 29, 2018

It's More Than Just Fun

The kids love it!

They have so much fun with this!

In conversations with teachers and reading online blogs and comments, these phrases come up over and over again, as the reason for planning a classroom activity, or the evaluation of how it went? “Oh, you tried that art activity on Pinterest, how did it go?” “The kids loved it – it was so much fun!”
Of course it was fun, they’re kids. They’re naturally wired to have fun. If we give them an activity and they don’t have fun, that’s what we need to worry about. The bigger issue of planning and evaluating classroom activities shouldn’t be whether they’re “fun” or whether the kids “love it”. It should be how we observe the learning and development taking place. We shouldn’t be planning for “fun”, we should be planning to meet developmental objectives and to engage the children’s interests.

“I don’t have to plan. I just put the materials out and see what they do with them.”

Every time we enter a classroom, choose a material, place it in a certain way on a table, floor, or shelf, we’re planning. Teachers in play-based, discovery learning environments sometimes shy away from this, out of fear of imposing their own ideas on the children’s play. But the social interaction that happens between any group of people, especially adults and children involves planning. Which materials did you choose to put on your classroom shelves? Are they stored in baskets, boxes, or something else? How many are there of each? When you saw that art activity on Pinterest, or in a neighboring classroom, it sparked an idea for you that was probably more than just “this is fun”. What did you think/hope/wonder that your kids would do with these same materials?

Planning a play based curriculum can sometimes feel overwhelming, as we balance what it means to “teach” and what it means for children to explore and discover. It’s true that in a play-based program, we aren’t teaching children to do specific tasks according to our directions. But that doesn’t mean we aren’t teaching. Our jobs as teachers are to observe where the children’s play is going and facilitate it, scaffold interactions between children and the materials and between children and each other, and to provide the opportunities for learning to take place.

Intentional teaching involves teachers having planning and purpose in the environment, activities, and interactions that we create, nurture, and encourage. When we choose activities, we need to ask ourselves, “What will the children do with this? That doesn’t mean we’re requiring or expecting them to do one specific thing, but we’re considering all the possibilities of what might happen. And how that ties back to learning and development?  We need to ask ourselves what experiences am I giving children that will spark problem solving? Collaboration? Innovation? Creativity?

And yes, it will still be fun, and the kids will love it. But it will be much more than that too.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Making Space For Blocks

I’ve written before about the mixed feelings some teachers have about block play – especially “big blocks.” They worry about safety, or about the play “getting out of control.” They aren’t comfortable with active play indoors, or with the themes that large block building evokes, like spaceships and superhero hideaways. They want to avoid the inevitable social conflict that comes as children discuss, collaborate, and sometimes argue about what they’re going to build. 

Block play is messy and complicated - but it needs to be. Children need the experience of lifting, moving, stacking and arranging these heavy objects into something that they've planned and designed. They need to plan, discuss, argue and negoiate their ideas with each other. They need the freedom to carry out their ideas and enact pretend themes - including superheroes and alients. And they need to feel the power, self-fulfillment, and personal efficacy of the simple grandness of block construction - the power of building something bigger than themselves.. The same innate drive that led ancient humans to build towers of rocks and stone draws children to build - higher, wider, and bigger, to create something that in its sheer scope, suggests power and a feeling of "wow, look what I made!"

And, this grandness takes space.

When we make decisions about how to use the space we have, we can make a decision to create space that will allow these block constructions to happen.

It might be a large space, big enough for several groups of children to each build their own structure.

 It might be a small space, where children are given the freedom to fill that space with their block creation.

It might not be a particular space at all, but a flexibility on the part of the teacher to allow block building to happen wherever it is that the children find a way to make room.

 And wherever it happens, when we make space for blocks, we’ve made space for children to express their competency, their power, their imagination, and all of the skills and development that comes with.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Snow and Colors

I filled the sensory table with snow, and set out small bowls of colored water. I handed children paintbrushes, thinking that they would paint the snow with the colored water.

It turned out that wasn’t what they were interested in at all.

Some of the children used the paintbrushes to stir or scoop up the snow, but otherwise abandoned them while they explored the more enticing items – the containers of colored water.

They poured the water from one container to the next, then dripped the water into a steady stream onto the white snow, watching as the colors spread. Once the water was all used up, they asked for more.

Seeing that the focus of the activity had changed, I quickly filled two small bins with colored water and put them on either side of the sensory table. The children raced to scoop out the water and pour it into colorful puddles in the snow.

Soon the snow was a multicolor patchwork, and later as it melted, a mass of brownish ice.

The next day, now that I knew what the children’s plans were for using the materials, I set up the area differently. I abandoned my idea of paintbrushes and provided craft sticks, which would be easier to stir the snow with. I added scoops that were easier to manipulate and pour from. And of course, bins of colored water at either end of the table, since the children had made it clear that pouring water and mixing were the most important aspects of this experience.

Through the morning the snow changed from white to yellow and blue, and eventually to shades of foamy sea green. Giving up my original idea in favor of following the children’s lead brought a whole new dimension to their play, in a beautiful way.