It’s Just a Popsicle Stick

Or is it?

I’ve become very interested in adding different types of loose parts into the classroom, but I am very methodical and intentional about what I add. Most of the time I view my classroom as my laboratory, to experiment with what kids will play with and how. The best part about it is that every set of kids will interact with materials differently. Sure, there are some similarities and some broad themes that will likely be seen, but no two groups of children are the same.

We have been doing a lot with letters lately, and I have been trying to encourage children to write. It hasn’t always been successful. I think I have a lot of anxiety in my classroom when it comes to writing.2015-03-05 15.43.08 So I decided to introduce the concept of making letters out of different materials. The material that we started with was popsicle sticks. I introduced the popsicle sticks during our large group experience so that there would be a lot of sharing of ideas and children could observe the creations of other children. They really seemed to enjoy creating letters (and later, shapes) with the sticks. But what I was really curious about was what would happen after the group experience was over. I left the popsicle sticks out and let the children know that they could play with them if they wanted to. What happened next was pretty spectacular. All sorts of shapes were being created. One boy made a “Y” with a tail that stretched out across the room. Some children were creating houses by making squares out of the sticks and putting people inside the squares. It was really interesting to watch their work. 2015-03-05 15.44.18

I decided to introduce some other materials into the play to see what would happen. I gathered some large glass beads and some small stones and gave them to the children who were experimenting with the materials. Rather than incorporating those into their figures that they created, their play changed entirely. Their focus became filling containers with the beads and the stones and the sticks. They completely forgot about the figures that they had made on the floor and focused instead on filling. I had not anticipated this change in dynamic and tried to encourage them to put some of the materials inside the shapes that they had made, but they were having none of it. They wanted to fill and transfer, and the sticks made new tools, as well as another material to use to fill containers with. This shift has caused me to rethink how I am presenting these materials to the children, but that is a topic for another blog post.

Let Them Be

I had the wonderful opportunity to talk to some of the teachers that I worked with at my old school. We had a great time talking and catching up, since it has been about a month and a half since I have seen any of them. They are all doing well, and I was glad to hear about how their lives have been since I left.

One of the things that we talked about was different types of teachers. “There’s the paper pusher,” said one girl. “And there’s the nurturer. And the by-the-book teacher.”

I really didn’t want to sound like I was fishing, but I wanted to know. “Which one do you think I am? I am definitely not the by-the-book teacher. And I’m not the paper pusher. And I’ve never really felt all that nurturing.”

“Oh, you are definitely the nurturer,” they assured me. “You let the kids be kids. You let them explore and play and enjoy childhood. And you let them experience independence, even if you have to get on the case of other teachers to do it!” One of the girls told a story about how she had attempted to help a child carry a bowl of milk to the sink, saying that he was getting it all over the floor. “Then he will clean it up!” I had snapped at her. That was toward the end of my tenure there, and I was really stressed out at the time. But one of the things that I have always tried to teach children is that messes aren’t a bad thing. We clean them up and we move on. But if that boy hadn’t had the experience carrying his own bowl of milk, he wouldn’t have had that practice balancing objects or developing his hand-eye coordination. A few drops of milk spilled is worth the development of those precious skills.

I had just had a talk with a co-teacher at my new school about children and letting them be. She was worried about how the children in the class were going to be when they got to kindergarten, because they were acting crazy at the time. “You can’t worry about how these children are going to be when they are in kindergarten,” I told her. “They are three years old. Right now we have to let them be three years old. If we worry about how they are going to be in kindergarten, and worry about getting them ready for that, then we are taking away their chance to experience being three.”

I believe in letting children be. I believe that their time is now, and we have to let them be what they are right now. Does that mean that we should not teach them, with an eye toward the future? No, it doesn’t. We can teach them, but not to the detriment of where they are now.

This brings new light to the yoga wisdom ‘be present’. To me it says that we need to be aware of where we are right now. But as a teacher, it also says that we need to be aware of where the children are right now, and we need to remember that, no matter what they have coming in a month, six months, a year, or two years from now, we need to meet them at this present time and enjoy where they are right now, in this moment. We need to bring our present selves to enjoy their present selves.

It also brings to mind the call of emergent curriculum advocates to capitalize on the current interests of the child. Children are interested in exploring different aspects of life, and their interests can take your teaching in unexpected directions. I have always loved the spontaneity of emergent curriculum because I never know what we are going to be learning about. Learning winds down unanticipated roads, and I confess to learning many new things simply by doing research into the areas of interest that the children in my class exhibited. This is ‘being present’ at its finest: paying attention and observing the children to the point that their interests are plain to you, and then planning lessons based on what you have observed.

In both cases of being present, we are being respectful of who the child is and letting them be that person. I believe that teachers should have respect for the unique individuals that come into our classrooms, and should not try to force that uniqueness to conform to our ideas of what is ‘good’ or ‘right’. I am not saying that we should let children get away with hurting others or acting out-of-control. There are respectful ways to teach children how to respect others around them. What I am talking about is not forcing children to constantly do what we want them to do, but let them do and learn the things that they want. They will learn more that way, and they will grow to love learning. We need to let them explore, let them grow, and let them be who they are. And most of all, we need to be present with them through all of that.

Motivation, Play, and Observation

As we have seen in the past few posts, one of the keys to motivation is the welling up inside us of a desire to achieve a certain goal. That was the point of the last post, in which I described my frustration with school. In a classroom, the goals can come from the teacher or from the student. It is the job of the teacher to use observation to discover the desires of the students and develop goals to achieve based on those desires.

This morning I have been doing a little more research into emergent curriculum – research that I have been wanting to do for a while but have not really found the time to do. Because this blog has taken the direction that it has – into the realm of creativity, motivation, and interest – concepts of emergent curriculum are highly relevant.

The concept that I want to address today is that of play. As I pointed out in yesterday’s post, children really don’t need a lot of motivation to play. They do it automatically. When we observe children during their play, we find that they explore many different concepts and ideas during their play. They explore building, going to the doctor, having a birthday party, going to the movies, a restaurant, or any of the other experiences that have been memorable to them. Our job, as teachers, is to pick out the themes of their play and use those themes to develop activities and lessons that can extend their learning through this play into other areas.

A key point about using play to develop learning activities is to make sure that children have enough time to dive deep into their play. Remember that some key points about allowing children to be creative include time, tools, and tolerance. In the book Emergent Curriculum in Early Childhood Settings: From Theory to Practice, Susan Stacey writes:

Emergent curriculum places extremely high value on play as a generator for curriculum. Play provides an opportunity for children’s exploration, problem solving, incubation and development of big ideas, and therefore, learning. It also provides the teacher, as researcher, a prime opportunity to watch and listen carefully in order to generate further understanding of the individual child. All of which means that for children to fully develop their ideas and for the teachers to watch, interact, and write notes, a generous amount of time must be allotted to play.

While children are playing, it is important to write notes about observations that are made and responses that are given as teachers interact to clarify the child’s understanding of what they are doing. This process is talked about more in-depth by Stacey, who gives a few examples of interactions between children and teachers and the way that teachers have used their observations. One key feature about using observations is communication between teachers in the classroom. Teachers should be in sync about the direction they want to take an interest of the children. An example that Stacey gives is of a girl creating a face with eyes made out of buttons. The girl explains that when the buttons are covered with tape, the eyes can’t see. There were several different directions that teachers could have taken this observation, including how the body works, how eyes work, etc. They decided to focus on perspective taking, not just visually, but socially and emotionally as well. The teachers then came up with environment modifications and activities that could be done to extend thinking about perspective taking.

Doing observations and using them to extend ideas such as this are motivating to the teacher and to the student. The teacher gets the opportunity to develop learning activities in the context of what the child is already showing an interest in, which means that the teacher gets the opportunity to think creatively about the direction that the classroom is going. The child is motivated because their own interests and ideas are being used to stimulate learning in the classroom – and they get to play. As teachers, we should all know how motivating it is for children when we become involved in their play. As teachers interact with students, children gather around and play seems to take on a life of its own. Asking children open-ended questions during these times of interaction gives the teacher an unending spring of information with which to plan learning experiences, and keeps the classroom alive.

 

Talking About Emergent Curriculum and Creativity

I recently began putting together the concrete pieces of what a creative classroom looks like. One piece is the curriculum and teaching style. I picked up a book that I have had for awhile: Emergent Curriculum in Early Childhood Settings: From Theory to Practice by Susan Stacey. On page five, Stacey outlines her assumptions about emergent curriculum:

  • While framed by the teacher, it is child initiated, allowing for collaborations between children and teachers, and giving everyone a voice.
  • It is responsive to the child, thereby allowing teachers to build on existing interests.
  • In its practice, the teacher takes on the role of facilitator, taking what she sees and hears, and bringing to children the opportunity to discover more, dig deeper, and construct further knowledge.
  • It is flexible in that curriculum planning, rather than being done well in advance, is constantly developing. Curriculum is dynamic, neither stagnant nor repetitive.
  • It enables children’s learning and teachers’ thinking to be made visible through varied forms of documentation.
  • It builds upon the theories of the recognized theorists in our field: the work of Dewey, Piaget, and Vygotsky supports the philosophy of emergent curriculum. Practices embedded in emergent curriculum make visible the work of these theorists – no longer is it contained only in early childhood texts.

Some of these points have been discussed before on this blog, but  most have not. But the framework of assumptions gives a picture of a classroom that exhibits many of the qualities of creativity that have been discussed on this blog.

curriculum creativity

Observation During Easel Painting

During my research into effective education methods I have read a lot about observation. I have even tried to incorporate it into the classroom, which can sometimes be difficult when you do not have a co-teacher in the classroom. This past week I have been trying to put together developmental portfolios for the children in my classroom, so I was prompted to put together some observations of the children as they painted at the easel.

What an eye-opener that was! I literally stood behind the children as they painted, as inconspicuously as I could. I had notebook and pen in hand, writing vigorously about everything I saw; from the colors used, to the types of brush strokes used, to the words being spoken as the child painted. Not only was it interesting to actually “see” what the child was doing, but I got several ideas for projects that will continue their explorations.

For example, one child used her finger to trace patterns in the paint that she had applied to the paper with her brush. This inspired me to include a printing project for next week in which the children will apply paint to the table top, use their fingers to make patterns in the paint, and make prints of those patterns. Another child concentrated on mixing the colors and observing the affects. This inspired me to come up with more color mixing projects, as well as making cornstarch and water projects available (I have been looking to do these projects for a while; I just don’t have the right materials for them yet). Still another child approached the easel painting with hesitancy and caution, since it was her first time. This inspired me to make easel painting more available on a day-to-day basis so that she will be more comfortable with the creation process.

One child was very vocal while she was painting, and it was interesting and fun hearing what she was thinking about while she was painting. And since I wrote it all down and plan to put it in her developmental folder, it means that I will have a record of it to look back on. Her parents will treasure this observation as well, I’m sure.

This experiment of mine really paid off and allowed me to see how observation can lead to bigger and better experimentation and exploration in the classroom. When we approach observation seriously and think about it in a way in which it inspires new activities, it becomes an indispensable part of our teaching strategy.

My First Day Teaching an Emergent Curriculum – Exploring Ice

Today was an exciting day for my class. Not only did our home living receive a makeover (it looks much more realistic now!) but we started our first child-directed project today!

When I arrive at work, the first thing my class does is go outside. I was somewhat hesitant about taking them outside today because it was pretty cold, but I figured that a little outside time was better than none, so we loaded up with containers to collect items for nature-inspired art and out we went.

Plans changed and gelled quickly once we got outside, though. There was ice at the bottom of the slides! We pondered how that ice got there and came up with some hypotheses (unfortunately our camera isn’t working right now, or I would have pictures!). I was hurriedly scribbling all of the comments down for later documentation, too. Some of the comments were great, like “The ice must have fallen from the sky!”

We took the ice inside and put it in a plastic tub. I told the kids that it was going to change, and asked them how they thought it would change. The dominant opinion was that it was going to change colors. They kept watch over the ice for the majority of the morning, convinced that it would turn brown (there was a LOT of dirt on that ice). It wasn’t until after nap time that most of the ice was melted and we got to see that it had turned into water.

Tomorrow we are going to make our own ice, and I am going to show the kids that the water has to get REALLY cold before it will turn into ice. We will leave one ice tray in the classroom, put one in the refrigerator, and one in the freezer.

Oh, this is so fun!