Saturday, January 19, 2019

Themes and Loose Parts

I was thinking about the frequent questions I see from teachers asking what loose parts they could use for one theme or another. My perception of loose parts - or any play based curriculum - is that when the teachers determine a theme for the play, it takes some of the agency away from their play. Even when the theme comes from teacher’s observations of what the children are interested in, the planning sometimes becomes more about the teacher’s interpretation of the children’s activity than of the children’s activity itself. 

I once had a group of 3-year-olds in my classroom who kept playing "going to Hawaii". One of kids had been to Hawaii with their family that summer, and the idea originated with them. They would say "Let's go to Hawaii", and the kids would run around the block area, and then sit down. One child would announce, “It’s time for lunch”, and bring over objects that they pretended were food. When my co-teacher and I observed the kids "going to Hawaii" we this would be a great start to a travel theme. We brought in suitcases, tickets, and beach props, thinking the children would use the materials we were giving them to extend their play.

This all fell flat.

Once the children were surrounded by all the travel related props, they'd still yell, "Let's go to Hawaii", run around, and then sit down to pretend to eat. They weren't interested in pretending to be on an airplane or at the beach. They used the suitcases to fill with their pretend food, which they’d bring to the block area and spread out a picnic. After several days of observing the play, and talking with the child who was leading it, and their parents, we found out that for that particular child the most important part of their trip to Hawaii was the meal his family had the last day there, and that's what they were re-creating through play. Not packing suitcases, going to the airport, or playing at the beach. Their idea of "Hawaii" was sharing a meal with their family. The child’s concept of “Hawaii” was completely different than the one that the teachers were trying to create.

This is why it's so important for teachers to let go of our preconceptions about how to provide a theme for children, and for us to simply let them lead their own play. We can join in, following their lead, but in the end, the ideas are the children’s not ours.  And that's why loose parts are so amazing. A wood circle can be an airplane ticket, or a cookie, or a fish swimming at the beach. If we give children open ended objects that they can use creatively in whatever ways their ideas progress, then they don’t need us to provide props. And if they do need something more from us, or want us to collaborate with them in developing their ideas, they’ll let us know.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Making Space For Play

“It’s not your turn.”
“Stay in your own space.”
“Stop taking friend’s toys.”
“You have to share.”

So much of teacher’s time in preschool is spent policing: telling children what they can and cannot do. And a lot of that policing focuses on turn taking, sharing, and deciding who can play with what, when they can play with it, and for how long. Many of the decisions are arbitrary and exist simply because the teacher said so. Others may be rules that the children supposedly decided on together – after much prompting and guidance from the teacher to lead the children to create the rules that the teacher wanted in the first place. A common theme in classroom rules that govern sharing and turn taking is that they don’t involve children’s control or self-regulation, and rely on a teacher, wielding the power and authority of adulthood, to enforce them. 

Sometimes so much time and energy is involved in enforcing rules about sharing and turns, that it interferes with the activity itself. There’s value to social negotiation (when the children are old enough to engage in it), but when more time is spent waiting for turns or negotiating space than actually playing, I sometimes wonder if this is the best use of the child’s time, or the teacher’s time.

When there are multiple conflicts over materials and space, instead of focusing on how to force children to change their behavior, it can be helpful to re-examine your classroom environment to determine what the causes are of the conflict, and what possible solutions there might be.

1. Is there enough room?

Very often physical classroom space isn’t something we have control over. The room is too small, or is designed in a way that makes it hard to have functional classroom design. But within the space you have, how do you use it? If the block area is the most popular area of the room, is there a way to make it bigger? When you put out materials on a table, is there room for several children to play without bumping into each other? When we tell children to “stay in your own space” or “keep your hands by your own body” are we giving them the space they need so they can do this?

Animal sensory play in the water table

Individual paint trays

2. Are there enough materials? 

So many classroom conflicts, just like conflicts in the adult world, happen because there aren’t enough materials, or there aren’t enough of the specific item that multiple children always want. If you notice that day after day children are arguing over who gets to use the pink marker, you might need more pink markers. If there aren’t enough magnet tiles to build a tower, or enough sand for two children to each fill a bowl at the sensory table, then the children’s time will be spent resolving the conflict, instead of using the materials. There should be enough materials for several children to use them, and multiples of popular items (like pink markers, lego wheels, or whatever the children in your class tend to need a lot of).

3. How can you define space?

Knowing how to “stay in your own space” isn’t automatic – it’s a developmental skill that takes time to learn. Creating individual spaces where a child can easily see what materials they’re using, and know that their space is protected, can help lessen conflict, especially for toddlers and young preschoolers. Putting materials on individual trays or in individual bins, and dividing up manipulatives and art supplies into individual stations can help children find the materials they need and focus on their work.

4. How can you be more flexible?

Sometimes teachers are the ones who create the problems without realizing it. When a teacher decides that only four children can play at the playdough table, or that pretend food from the house corner can’t be moved into the block area, that moves the teacher into the role of “traffic cop”, monitoring the classroom to make sure that children and materials aren’t moving out of their designated areas. And it increases conflict when following the inflexible rule becomes more important than encouraging and facilitating play. If more children want to play with playdough, is there a way to put some on another table? If one child wants to join her four friends in the house area, is there a way to be inclusive instead of leaving her out because “the rule is four people”? Can materials be used in different areas of the room based on children’s interests, to encourage the development of rich play and ideas?

Making space isn't only about physical space, it's about creating learning environments where children have the space to explore, create, and have ownership over their own spaces. Yes, there need to be rules and limits, but its the teacher's job to balance those rules and limits with what the children need to be able to play, learn, and grow.