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.

 

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In A Reframing State of Mind: Finding Leaders

Yes, I got a new idea for a new series, called “In a Reframing State of Mind”. This series is dedicated to looking at children’s behaviors in such a way that we will discover positive intent rather than negative intent. And nine times out of ten, I am sure that they will detail some of my own personal experiences in the classroom. I hope you will enjoy.

Recently I began a new topic of study in my classroom: Houses. The story we are using to facilitate this study is The Three Little Pigs. I began reading the story to the children, but only got halfway through it when one of them suggested that we build a house. So we got up, moved some tables out of the way, and proceeded to build walls for a house.

Building a house with two- and three-year-olds is an interesting process because they haven’t developed the ability to think abstractly. When they think about a house, they visualize the outside of the house. Therefore, most of their building of a house involves the outside of the house. They don’t even think about the inside of a house.

Bear with me here. I am brainstorming as I type because this thought actually never occurred to me before. It occurs to me now because I have wondered how our beautiful house – complete with walls, a bedroom, a kitchen, a front door, and a garage – quickly became a swimming pool. But it makes sense. The square walls totally resemble a swimming pool to a three-year-old mind, especially now that it is June and swimming with families is becoming more frequent.

One child in particular was responsible for this change of direction involving our house building. Granted, it was probably way too early in the house-building process to start discussing rooms and such, but – like most teachers – I had a vision of what I wanted to do with this theme.

Swimming pools was not it. But I let it ride, mostly because I had a parent come to pick up in the middle of the process, and I was discussing with her some of the things I had seen her child do that day. And when I turned back around after the parent left, every child in the room had their shoes off and was wading in the “pool”.

Now, I don’t know about anyone else’s center, but in my center we have a policy that states that shoes must be left on in case we have to leave the building in case of an emergency. In my own space and on my own time, I would not have a problem with the shoes being off as long as we knew who’s shoes and socks were whose and could pair them back up with the appropriate children at the end of the exploration. But I was not in my own space or on my own time, so the long process of putting shoes back on began.

It was actually a pretty sobering experience, because all of the children let me know, with words that I had taught them to use in situations such as this, that they were very mad and did not like it. The child who came up with the idea began to cry, because it was a pool! We don’t wear shoes in the pool! And I totally got it, but rules are rules and we can’t have our shoes off in the classroom.

At the time I was very upset with the child who came up with the idea. At first because it messed up my plan, but when I finally came to terms that swimming in a pool was what we were going to be doing that afternoon, I got over that. But it was harder to get over the fit over the shoes, because this involved rules.

Later, when I got home and was able to reflect on the day, I realized something: this child has consistently shown amazing leadership. The fact that she came up with a plan to dramatize the pool so completely, and got her friends to go along with it when we were intent on building a house, showed leadership. She comes up with games all of the time, or new ways to dramatize ideas. She “bosses” other children constantly, but this can be redirected into constructive feedback and positive coaching. She can be taught how to be a constructive leader by being given leadership responsibilities (appropriate for a three-year-old, of course) that will teach her skills that she needs to be a productive leader. Words that she uses that could be construed as hurtful can be retaught to be constructive so that she learns how to be a leader without being hurtful to others.

I couldn’t believe that I hadn’t seen it before. I had taken so much time being frustrated by her attitude toward others, her use of language toward them, and her disregard for some of the rules of the classroom, that I hadn’t seen how she used her inner creativity and mixed it with her leadership abilities. But these traits only became obvious to me when I took a step back and looked at her in a different context. In the moment, it is sometimes hard for us to see what is right in front of our face, especially when we are so fixated on rules and safety. I thought that I had gotten myself past that by being able to ask myself why I was not allowing a certain behavior in the classroom – and if I wasn’t able to come up with a good enough reason, then allowing the behavior. But that was before some things changed. My intent changed because of outside circumstances. This affected the ability of the children to fully dramatize what they wanted to, the way they wanted to, and get the most out of the experience that they could. It affected their creativity and my sanity. And in the end – as I think back on it now – my little leader’s creativity and leadership may have suffered from it. She isn’t trying to flaunt breaking the rules. She is trying to express her ideas with her friends. And she should be allowed to do that, within reason. It is the “within reason” that I have to discover – what is reasonable? What can I allow? What suggestions can I make that will enhance their game the way that they want to enhance it but not cause a safety issue within the classroom? How can I frame the suggestion in a way that will be acceptable to everyone involved?

How can I allow her to be a leader and still keep everyone safe? That is the question.

Building Positive Relationships: Finding Their Element

Ken Robinson’s book Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creativewas extremely thought-provoking for me. In an age whre most people state that creativity peaks at age 7 (a topic that we will definitely visit at a later date), Robinson states that creativity can be very much alive and well in the adult, provided they find their passion – that element that allows them to experience the joy of working, creating, and discovering. Most people seem to go through life in a haze of dislike for their work but resigned to doing it anyway – and since this seems to be the norm in society, no one questions it. It seems to be the exception rather than the rule that one find fulfillment and happiness through their work.

I find that one of my jobs as a teacher is to provide different avenues for children to express their creativity. It is almost like a treasure hunt, because each child is different and each child likes to express their creativity differently. One may love to color and one may love to paint. One may love to play with sand and one may love to build with blocks. One may love to get messy and one may not like mess so much.

The key to the treasure hunt is to provide as many different experiences as possible, observe during those experiences, and brainstorm new experiences off of those observations. By observing children’s reactions to different experiences, we can help them find avenues for their creativity that they enjoy. If we let others in the child’s life know about the avenues the child seems to enjoy, they can expand and extend the experience for the child. And through their experimentation and expansion, new avenues to express creativity may emerge.

So what does this have to do with building positive relationships? Well, for starters, everyone seems to appreciate being supported in an area of their lives that they enjoy. This is no different in children. In a time when children are told “no” seemingly all the time, it is up to us, the advocates for children, to be the ones to tell them “yes”. There is a woman whose page I follow on Facebook who posts all the time about telling her children “yes”. And the way she phrases it, you can tell that the things she says “yes” to are things that the children have either asked to do, or are things that may have gotten a resounding “no” if not for a pause in which one asks the question, “Well, why shouldn’t they be allowed to do this?” Her children will most likely find their element quicker because they have been allowed to experience and experiment throughout their childhood. And they are also experiencing the respect from their parents that, even though they are kids, they are capable to learn  how to maneuver their way through life. They are also capable to learn from their parents about aspects of life through modeling.

Children are sill learning about their world. In order to gain a full understanding about the way the world works, children should be allowed to experience their world as much as possible. We have all had something in our life that we didn’t fully understand. Usually curiosity will drive us until we gain understanding. But if we feel that our curiosity is being stifled, we will lose our curiosity, and may lose interest in something that may potentially be our element. The same is true of children. One of the worst things we can do to a child is to stifle their inborn curiosity by not letting them experience and experiment with life.

Building Positive Relationships: Allowing Children to Be Creative

Every Thursday we will have a post dedicated to fostering positive relationships between teachers and children. I hope that you enjoy this series.

What does it mean to allow children to be creative? My experience has led me to believe that it means allowing children to be themselves. Take, for example, a circle time activity. A group of three- or four-year-olds, rattling off answers to flashcards, but showing nothing more than their ability to give correct answers. Is that creative? Does doing it day in and day out promote creativity in children? Are there other ways to teach the same skills that allow the children the freedom to answer questions and apply knowledge in creative ways?

I once worked in a classroom of four-year-olds as an assistant teacher. Actually, I had just started the job and was a floater at the time, so technically I was intended to assist her. The lead teacher in the classroom was a huge fan of cookie-cutter crafts. You know the type that I am talking about: the teacher has pre-cut pieces of an object that the children then glued to paper. Except that the teacher dispensed the glue to one child at a time ad directed the children as to where the pieces needed to go. A flower craft took the class 45 minutes to complete, and the entire class was made to sit at the tables during that time. The class was bored. They were hitting, kicking, and messing with one another. The teacher had to constantly admonish the children. Punishments were doled out in the form of outside time taken away. Needless to say, there were no positive relationships being built. And no creativity was being expressed, with the children using items that the teacher cut out, with glue that the teacher gave out. The children definitely were not allowed to be themselves because any child is going to have an extremely hard time sitting still for 45 minutes.

Respecting where children are in their development is one of the keys to building positive relationships with them. Likewise, recognizing that they are capable individuals who can create on their own is key as well. Their creations may not look like a cookie-cutter craft, but when we get down to it we realize that the children’s involvement in the craft is certainly minimal at best. Chances are, the teacher had cut out all of the pieces, and the teacher was the one who was doing all of the gluing. While children of that age may not be able to cut out the shapes needed to make a cookie-cutter flower, what they can cut out is uniquely THEIRS. And if they are given open-ended materials with some tape, glue, an scissors, they may create a flower that surpasses anything a teacher could come up with. Or a robot, or whatever they want to create, because they are allowed to be themselves and be capable.

Imagine for a moment that your boss told you that you needed to make a lesson plan for your classroom, but then they did the lesson plan themselves, gathered the supplies you needed, and stood behind your shoulder and told you exactly how to implement the activities. Wouldn’t that be demoralizing? Why do we do that with children? Why do we tell them where to paint or how to build? Children need opportunities to do things for themselves and to prove to us and themselves how capable they actually are. If they do not get a chance to prove themselves or do things for themselves, they often develop the frame of mind that they can’t do it.

I’ve seen it a few times in my career, usually with children that are three or four years old. They seem to have an attitude of “I can’t” hanging around them, and it almost dictates how they will respond to any new experiences – by an initial attitude of “I can’t do it”. And once they hit the age of four or five, that attitude is very hard to break through. But children begin developing an attitude of independence and of a wanting to do things for themselves at the age of 2. While I have yet to apply this theory (and I do not intend to apply it myself for obvious reasons), it would seem that if the two year old does not have the opportunity to assert his independence and try to do things for himself, he will develop the “I can’t” attitude – because by the time he hits age three, he will really feel that he can’t. He won’t have had the opportunity to prove that he can. This can and will lead to a general lack of confidence when it comes to trying new things, or doing things for himself. And a lack of confidence affects relationships with others, because if he doesn’t have the confidence to do things for himself how will he have the confidence to embark in relationships with others?

I have heard over and over again in my career: “Set them up to succeed.” It took me a couple of years to realize what that meant. Setting children up to succeed means realizing their potential and their limitations, and setting up activities, experiences, and expectations accordingly. When this is done, children blossom and show us skill sets and intents that we would have never known they had otherwise. They become more engaged with us and with others, because they have the confidence in themselves and their surroundings that allows them to be more open and involved in learning new skills and participating in new experiences. We see the joy of discovery and the concentration on a new task in their faces, and each of those sights is something to behold in a child.