Sunday, December 5, 2021

Letting Play Evolve

I've heard so many comments from teachers worrying about children "making a mess", or teachers insisting that children put away one toy before taking out another. Children's play isn't divided into distinct parts. Children don't take out one toy, or one group of objects, stop playing, then put it away to begin anew with something different. Play is fluid and evolving and continues over time. Putting away materials in the middle of playtime stops the possibility of the child returning to and continuing their play, and stops opportunities for other children to extend on another's idea. Leaving the materials out for the entirety of playtime allows play to evolve and collaboration to happen.

Here is a series of pre-pandemic photos from one morning in my 2-3 year old classroom:

Early in the morning, two children took out the big blocks and built a large enclosure.

A few more children arrived, and began to take it apart.

This launched a flurry of building, as the children rearranged the blocks into a new structure, and added all the remaining large blocks. Soon they discovered that the wooden planks made excellent see-saws and bridges.

After a while, a child brought me a book and asked me to read it. The block builders were interested and came over to hear the story. Their block structures stayed where they were, ready for children to return. Some of the blocks turned into seats.

While the builders took a story break, the block area quieted down. A child who had avoided the large group commotion earlier in the morning came over to explore using the large planks as ramps. Soon, some of the original builders returned and joined her.

The block building projects was mostly over as the children moved to other areas of the room, or brought other materials to the rug. Some of the children stayed by the blocks, using them as seats or walking from block to block. One child filled a box with small toys that other children had left on the rug and walked between the blocks, handing them out.

Soon, the morning playtime was over, and it was time to clean up and put away the toys. The children and teachers worked together, putting toys back into baskets and stacking the blocks against the wall all ready to play another day.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Making Room For Play 2020

Like many other preschool educators, I’ve spent these past months wondering and worrying about what preschool will look like when we reopen. How do we maintain the essence of early childhood education - children socially interacting and playing with each other – while trying to maintain some physical distance between children?

There isn’t an easy answer, and what teachers and schools will be able to do will vary widely, depending on local regulations, resources, community values, and school philosophies. As I’m thinking about how to set up classrooms in a way that inspires play but encourages children to keep some distance from each other, I realize this isn’t completely different than things I’ve done before.

The key to setting up a classroom environment is intentional planning  - using the physical environment as a “third teacher” to help guide, inspire, and provoke learning. How we arrange furniture, materials, and toys influences how children will interact with that space and those objects. Sometimes that planning has involved ways to encourage children to space themselves out in the classroom, and make room for play.

In the past, my planning focused on ways to reduce children’s conflict and stress so that they could work and play constructively while building relationships, and eventually be ready to share space and play cooperatively with peers. Now there are new reasons to give children more room to play, but the strategies are still the same.

1. Set up multiple interesting areas

Often teachers plan a single focal activity for the day – an art project, science experiment, or sensory experience that’s so engaging that everyone wants to do it right away! Or teachers put out the new manipulative or fresh batch of playdough and the entire class runs excitedly to play with it. Instead of having a single attractive activity, multiple interesting activities spaced away from each other can help children naturally move apart from each other. If the brand new magnet tiles are on one end of the room, and the fresh playdough is on the other, it’s easier for the children to spread out and not play in the same space.

2. Define space

Some of my favorite teaching tools are individual trays and bins. So much of children’s time in school is spent defending their space and materials from other children.  For some children, worrying about someone taking their toy can become so paralyzing that they can’t relax and play. Trays and individual work stations define space, so that children can feel a sense of ownership, but can also be set up to physically space children apart from each other.

3. Provide multiples of materials

As an adult, you wouldn’t want to have to share a pen with someone else to take notes at a meeting. But we often set up this situation for children – a child wanting to paint a rainbow needs to wait until another child is done with the purple before putting on the final stripe. Having enough materials means children can stay focused on their play, and feel secure that they will have what they need. Having duplicate materials in individual work space also limits the need for passing and sharing objects that might also spread germs.

4. Loose parts

Providing multiples of materials can be challenging. For store-bought materials, it might not be possible to have enough to set up individual spaces. Loose parts especially found and recyclable materials can be an easy way to split up materials. Bottle caps, rocks, sticks, shells, and beads are things there are many of. Sticks, leaves, pebbles, and other natural materials have the added benefit of being renewable – after play, they don’t need to be cleaned, you can just put them back outside and gather more.

5. Rethink your space

The biggest challenge in planning for this coming school year is reinventing how we think of classroom space. Meeting needs for distancing and cleaning might require rearranging traditional centers, removing materials and furniture, and using space flexibly. I’m going to miss the scenes of eight children building together in the block area, but I’m also thinking of the times I separated the blocks into two piles, so children who were struggling with cooperative play could build independently. Having two block areas, or art centers, or a large multi-use space divided into smaller work stations might be an option. Or rethinking how outdoor space or multi-purpose areas could be used to in new and different ways.

There are no easy answers for preparing for this very different school year. But some of the questions might not be as new as we think. Looking at ways that we have helped children make room for each other before can help us think of how to plan their space now, and might even lead to all sorts of growing and learning that we didn’t even anticipate.


Monday, November 18, 2019

Marble Ramps in the Sand Table

I’m always looking for new ways for children to move sand and water in the sensory table. Most of the time, sensory table activities focus on the basic activities of scooping, filling, and pouring. As children get older, and gain more experience with these tasks, they become less interesting. You can only scoop and pour so many times before you’ve mastered it and are ready to move on to exploring and manipulating the materials in a different way. 

I’ve experimented with different ways of setting up “apparatus” (to borrow Tom Bedard’s phrase) in the sensory table, mostly by adding different levels, or tables, or other surfaces with holes. One of my colleagues introduced a set up that provided a new dimension to the children’s sand play. She put the “marble run” pieces in the sand table.

The children were instantly drawn to the familiar experience of building the marble run.
But they discovered that sand doesn’t move the same why that marbles do.

The sand didn’t flow quickly down the ramps. This led to figuring out ways to move the sand more quickly - by pushing with fingers or wiggling the whole tower to get the sand to flow down. Some of the children changed their focus to filling the structure, using scoops and funnels and seeing how much sand they could fill at a time.

They noticed the sand cascading over the top, and in some cases, pouring quietly out of small cracks where the pieces fit together. The focus shifted again to figuring out how to plug up those cracks, or alternatively, how to make the sand flow out faster.

This set up held their interest for weeks. There was so much more to sensory table play than just scooping, filling and pouring.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Letting Them Learn For Themselves

I was visiting a preschool, and spending time with the children outside on the playground. An orange butterfly fluttered by, then landed on a small tree branch, just at the children’s eye level. Several children clustered around watching the butterfly as it first sat motionless on the branch, then fluttered to another branch, then settled on a yellow flower.

“What do you think the butterfly is doing?” I asked.

The children looked thoughtfully at the butterfly, then at me, then at their teacher.

“You know all about butterflies!” the teacher said, smiling. “Tell Shelli what you know about butterflies.”

One of the children broke into an excited smile. “Butterflies come from caterpillars. They’re caterpillars and the caterpillars turn into butterflies. There’s four stages. She held up her hand and  pointed to each finger as she spoke. “There’s an egg, then its a larvae and a pupa and then a butterfly.”

“And a larvae is another name for what?” prompted her teacher.

“A caterpillar!” the child exclaimed, beaming.

Meanwhile, the butterfly had flown away. And none of the children had answered the question “What do you think the butterfly is doing?” It was a simple question, one that each of them could have answered through their own observations, based on their own thoughts, conclusions, and ideas. But the opportunity to observe, evaluate, predict, and imagine was passed over in favor of reciting facts. Unfortunately, this is how science is so often taught – by teaching discrete pieces of knowledge or factoids for children to repeat back, or to represent in art projects where they carefully follow teacher’s directions to create a chart or diagram that shows what they “know” about butterflies, or trees, or the water cycle, or any other natural phenomenon.

Of course there’s room for teaching facts, even though many of those facts can wait until children are older, and have had the chance to first observe, predict, analyze and evaluate on their own. When we introduce facts, we’re taking away opportunities for children to develop their own ideas, because once you know the “right” answer, there’s no more room for your own theories. When we substitute teaching facts for observation, we’re teaching children to trust what they’ve been told, not what they see for themselves. The well intentioned teaching act of giving background knowledge also teaches them to trust other opinions, especially authority opinions, before considering their own. In a world filled with competing narratives and an ever-increasing difficulty in determining what is true and what is not, children need to develop critical thinking skills that they can use to process information, not only based on their trust of the source, but based on their own experiences, thoughts and observations. We need curriculum and schools that don’t just teach children to say the correct answer, but that give them an opportunity to discover why that answer is correct, and to evaluate any other possible answers as well.

One October in my 2-year-old classroom, we examined a pumpkin. I told the children we were going to cut it open, and asked what they thought would be inside. One of the children exclaimed, “A beautiful butterfly!” I didn’t tell him whether he was wrong or right. The only way to know for sure would be to open the pumpkin and see what was there for ourselves.

**Note: The butterfly anecdote described in this blog was not a verbatim exchange between me, a child, and teacher. This blog post is a composite of many similar conversations I’ve had with children, and that I’ve observed other teachers have with children, in which science “facts” replace personal experiences and reflections in conversation.

The pumpkin anecdote did happen as described. And much to the child’s disappointment, when we opened the pumpkin, a beautiful butterfly did not appear.

Monday, August 19, 2019

The First Days of School

As I’m getting my room ready for the first days of school, my first thought is, “How will the children feel when they enter my classroom?”

Starting school is a mix of emotions for children and their adults. Excitement and anticipation, and also anxiety and fear of the unknown. For children attending preschool for the first time, separation from their familiar caregiver and learning to trust a new adult to take care of them is often the only thing on the child’s (and parent’s) mind. For children who have been to school before, walking in the door of the new classroom is still a separation. They may do this better than they did the first time, but the newness of a different classroom, different teachers, and once again saying goodbye to their parents and caregivers after having some days, weeks, or even months at home brings up all the feelings of uncomfortable newness and anxiety that they experienced on their very first day of school.

Knowing that this is what’s going through their heads, my goal is to make my classroom as welcoming, comforting, familiar, and easy to be in as possible.

When children walk in the door, I want them to see a space that says, “Welcome, I’m ready for you”. I want them to see interesting things that invite them to touch, play, and explore. If I know what a child’s favorite toy or book is, that toy or book is going to be in the classroom on the first day. If I don’t, I’ll choose a variety of toys and books that over the years, have been common favorites: playdough, water or sand, paint, blocks, and cars, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” and “Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do You See.” I’ll have multiples of popular toys, because the goal of these first days isn’t waiting, taking turns, or forcing sharing with strangers. The goal is creating an environment that tells the child, “I am here for you. I will take care of you and give you what you need.” Sharing and taking turns can come later. Building the connection and trust that I will take care of you comes first.

In those early days, especially with toddlers or children at school for the first time, the toys, books, and songs in my classroom focus on separation and the feelings that come with being at school. We’ll read about saying goodbye, about your grown-up coming back, about what it feels like to be at school for the first time. The toys in the room lend themselves to children acting out their emotions about separation, whether it’s pushing a car through a tunnel and watching it come back, or hiding an animal in a box and being able to control when that animals comes back out again. We have a predictable routine, with frequent reminders of what will happen next, and when their grown-ups will come back to get them. And most of all, I am there as a warm, safe, presence for the children. My job is to teach them that they can trust me to take care of them after their grown-ups leave, and that I can – and will – meet their needs.

Some teachers start the year will a list of expectations and procedures that they want children to get used to from the beginning. In those classrooms, the first days are endless lists of reminders, rules and procedures. Telling children what you expect them to do doesn’t build connection. But, once that connection is built – once they trust you and know that you will take care of them – then, they’re much more likely to follow the rules and expectations that you present to them. The reason I don’t emphasize rules in the first days of school isn’t because there will never be rules, it’s that at that point in time, rules aren’t what’s most important. What’s important is building relationships, establishing trust and positive connections, and creating an environment where children will follow expectations because they want to, not because their told to. Creating the place that welcomes children comes first. The rest can come later.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

Helping Them to Put Ideas Into Action

A frequent topic on discussion boards is for someone to post a picture of an interesting loose part or material they’ve found and say, “What should I do with this?” There are always some people who respond with craft ideas - that the adult should take the wood circle or rock or cork and paint letters, numbers, faces, or attach objects together in a way that the adult is using the materials to create a toy for the child. Then there are always others who respond that that the adult shouldn’t do anything and “Just put it out and see what the children do.”

Intentional teaching and scaffolding creativity are somewhere between those two points.

Wooden circles with letters written on them aren’t as open ended as plain wooden circles. Writing a letter, or number, or design on a piece of wood or a rock changes that object into something more specific. Objects painted with faces and costumes are dolls, just like any factory made doll that could be ordered from a catalog. There’s still plenty of ways that these materials can be used creatively,  constructively, and interestingly, in classrooms - but as soon as the adult permanently makes the material into something else, some of the open ended possibilities disappear.

 At the other end of discussion, “just put it out” doesn’t give children the tools they need to do “something” with the material. Children - and adults - view objects in context, and form ideas or action not based on the object alone, but on the other objects and materials in the environment. Even the classic open ended activity of using a stick to make designs in the dirt or sand requires both a stick and dirt or sand. Banging a spoon on a pot requires a spoon and a pot. Give a baby just a spoon, or just a pot, without the other object, and their play will be very different. If we want to spark and provoke innovative and creative play, when we choose materials and objects to share with children, we need to consider “What could they do with this” and structure the environment in ways that allow children to figure out ways to use the materials together, and to have the tools that they need to accomplish their ideas.

We humans respond to objects by their context. If you’re served a bowl of liquid with spoon, you’d probably assume it’s soup. If that same liquid was served in a glass, you’d assume it’s a beverage. If that same liquid were poured in a tray with a brush, next to a piece of paper, you might think of painting with it. If it were in a pitcher, you might think of pouring it. The same process of examining contextual cues is what guides children’s planning and decision process. If I see a container with a spout, I think of pouring. If I see a ramp, I think of rolling. If I see a tube, I think of what could go inside. More important, is what I don’t see, because if the materials I need aren’t in my environment, I can’t put my ideas into action. We’ve all seen children struggling to gather pebbles or shells when they don’t have pockets, and as adults we’ve usually stepped in to find some container. The goal shouldn’t only be for children to figure out what to do on their own. The goal should be for us to be partners with them in their discovery. Our job is to listen, observe, and when needed and welcomed, to help. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

When Talking Gets in the Way

It’s sometimes hard to know when to talk to a child who is deeply engaged in an activity, and it’s hard to know what to say. We’ve been trained as teachers to ask questions, comment, narrate, and reflect. There are times when the right question at the right time can extend a child’s thinking and provide the spark for the next phase of their activity.

There are other times when talking just gets in the way of what they’re doing.

Even as we say that “children learn through play” and that we value “process over product” so much of teacher speech interrupts the child’s process and trying to lead the child to a tangible product. Often when a teacher says, “Tell me about what you’re doing” or “What’s your plan?”, it’s less about meeting the child where they are in the moment, and more about the teacher wanting information for themselves. Or just wanting to connect with the child who is at play, which is a wonderful goal, but requiring children who are immersed in process to answer adult questions isn’t always the best way to connect.
I watched while one of the three-year-olds explored wood pieces and nuts and bolts. The wood pieces had holes drilled in them, with the intention that children would discover how to fit a bolt inside, and how to connect two or more pieces with a single bolt. She worked lining up the pieces, examining the shapes they were making. She put two pieces over each other, the holes lining up almost exactly.

“I wonder what would fit inside those holes?” I asked.

She completely ignored me, and I felt a sense of discontent, that I had encroached on her process. The bolts were right there – she had been using them a moment before. If she wanted to put a bolt in the hole, she would have. She didn’t need me to tell her how to do it. Prompting her to “fit something” inside the holes was about me and my need to “teach” – not about her need to explore the materials through her own process.

Later, she put in a bolt, but didn’t push it down to connect the pieces. This time, I stayed silent, and allowed her to experience the process her way, without my interruptions.

 She added more pieces, some with bolts, some without. I wondered if she had a plan, or was just seeing how the pieces worked together as she went along. But I didn’t say anything. Just because the teacher is wondering, doesn’t mean it’s useful to the child to be asked. My wondering about her plan should not take over her process. 

Eventually, after putting together many pieces, moving them around, and taking some apart, she announced, “It’s a clock!” and showed me how two of the wooden pieces moved like hands. She added small metal pieces and said they were the numbers. After observing her entire process, I don’t think she had a “plan” to build a clock, or to build anything. For young children, the representational “product” often comes at the end of the process. After completing the process of building, or drawing, or painting, the child decides what their creation looks like, and labels it. The true learning takes place in the process, and through the play of getting there. Sometimes there are questions or comments adults have that can help them in their process, but often, we just need to get out of the way.