Perseverance

Today I watched a child working with some boards to create some ramps. It was quite a system that he set up:

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At one point, he had a really hard time balancing the boards on the different cones and objects that he was using for that purpose. I watched him closely to see if he would get frustrated, but he simply kept right on working and adjusting, trying to get everything to fit and stay the way that he wanted it to. When he was done, the results were very impressive.

I have watched children like this for a while. When they are creating and they are really in that creative zone, they don’t seem to get as frustrated as they would if they were being asked to do something or if they aren’t in that zone. They work harder and smarter and really focus on what they are doing. They don’t really give up until they get so frustrated that they have to walk away – and then they walk away. They don’t fuss or cry or scream, they just simply walk away.

The differences in attitude between the children who get in this zone and the ones who don’t are so astounding to me. I experiment with different materials in the classroom all the time to try to find things that allow children to enter into this state of focus. Open-ended materials, loose parts – these are the materials that guide children into flow. They are much better than the plastic toys that most manufacturers market as the best toys for children. Children don’t need fancy toys to create. They simply need real, found materials, some time, and some patience from us. When they have those things, they have super-focus and the perseverance to build amazing structures, all on their own.

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.

Happiness and Flow

I’ve been thinking a lot today about happiness because of a book that I got yesterday from the bookstore. The book is Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihaly, a psychologist who has spent years studying creativity. I had bought this book before but it hadn’t really done much for me so I sold it at the local used book store. Lately it has been on my mind, so when I saw it at the bookstore last night I bought this copy. This time it is really captivating my interest, especially since flow is such a powerful thing in my life. Flow is the term used to define the phenomenon of perfect focus – when you are so focused on an activity that time doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except the activity that you are doing. I know from my own personal life that flow is an exhilarating experience, one that I look forward to with anticipation and remember fondly when it is over. It is the feeling that motivates me to keep going when I feel like giving up on a project that I have been working so hard on.

One of the things that I have been trying to do is figure out how to bring the phenomenon of flow into the classroom. Children would greatly benefit from flow, and I feel that they probably experience it more than we do as adults. When we are adults we are busy doing all of those things that are expected of us, and not necessarily those things that we want to do. Experiences that involve flow are experiences that are personally satisfying to us, those activities that we are loathe to stop doing in order to do something else. How many times have children told us that they don’t want to clean up, that they want to keep playing? Is that flow? Do they get so involved in their own activities that time seems to stand still and nothing else is important? Probably. Children may experience flow a lot, especially those that are given the opportunity to choose their own work rather than being told what to do all day.

Maria Montessori developed the Theory of Concentrated Attention when she was teaching because she noticed a similar phenomenon. She noticed that when children were involved in a task that was challenging – but not too challenging – it was almost as if they blocked out the world around them and they were completely consumed by the task that they were working on. Montessori judged all of the materials that she used by this phenomenon: if the material led children to this concentrated attention, then it was kept in the classroom. If it didn’t, then it didn’t stay. I have tried to use this same method to determine what types of materials should be present in the classroom. Creating an atmosphere that is conducive to concentrated attention and flow isn’t necessarily hard, but it means that there will be a lot more loose parts in the classroom and not so many manufactured toys. It means that children have more choice, as well.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Mihaly’s assertion that creating a life where flow is more present creates feelings of happiness and productivity. I haven’t read all of the book yet; this is simply his assertion in the first chapter. He says that in order for us to feel that our lives are meaningful, we need to feel that we are in control of our lives. But he isn’t talking about the material aspects of life. He is talking about the mental aspects of life – our mindset and how we view our place in the world.

So far it looks like it is going to be a great read, and I hope to share more of my insights as I continue reading the book.

Building Positive Relationships: How Observing Children Strengthens Relationships

My post yesterday about Six Uses for Observation really got me thinking about how I use observation in the classroom. Observation seriously is one of the foundations of my teaching practice. There are several reasons for this, most of which are outlined in yesterday’s post. But one of the most important reasons is that it can change the way you look at children. Sometimes it isn’t even the way you look at children in general. Sometimes it is the way you look at one specific child.

I recently wrote a post about how we as adults are slow to change our views about something. We think we know it all because we have been around a while and we take that knowledge for granted. We forget that sometimes it is important to slow down and try to see things from a different perspective. This is where observation comes in. If we just take a moment to slow down and observe a child in action, we may see something that is contrary to our previous view of the child. We may begin to attribute positive intent to the child’s actions rather than negative intent. If we open ourselves up to the possibility that there may be more going on with the child than we are presently aware of, we may find that to be the case. And if we find that to be the case, our view of that child can change dramatically.

I know a lot of teachers out there shake their heads and roll their eyes when I say that children don’t do things without a reason. But the reason why I say this frequently and with authority is that I have done enough observing of children to know it to be true. The only way that we will be able to know or try to understand the intent of a young child is to observe for ourselves. And even older children may not tell us their intent because they are more worried about getting in trouble because of their actions related to their intent. Observation has allowed me to truly be able to decipher the intent of children and come up with productive ways to deal with behavior in a non-punitive way.

Let’s put this in context: Let’s pretend that you decided to try a different format for circle time because you felt that it would hold the children’s interest better than your current format. Your administrator walks in and wonders what the heck is going on and tells you in no uncertain terms that she does not like the new format and she doesn’t want to see it again. And doesn’t listen to your explanation of why you did it. How would that make you feel? The administrator paid absolutely no attention to your intent, only to your actions. That is what we do with children when we do not try to figure out their intent.

I have had children display physical behavior simply because they want to play with other children but do not know how to approach them. I have had children hit or even bite others because they have issues with personal space. There are a myriad of reasons why children behave the way they do. And this isn’t just about children’s behavior related to other children. It can be related to the way children use materials, as well. I have had children drag chairs into the block area because they have built a television and want to “watch” it. I have had children bossing other children around, only to find out that one is pretending to be a baby and one is pretending to be a mommy, or – even more amusing – one is pretending to be a dog and the other is pretending to be the owner. I have had a house that the class built in the middle of the floor turn into a swimming pool in an instant, and everyone’s shoes and socks become strewn about in order to wade in the pool. I have had countless scenarios happen in the classroom, and the only way to sort it all out without hurting many feelings and tapping into my punitive side is to slow down and observe what is going on.

So how does this strengthen relationships? Well, as I pointed out at the beginning of the post, it changes the way you look at children. You begin to see what they are thinking about, what they are interested in, what they need to learn on an individual basis (as opposed to what the class is learning as dictated by the lesson plan), and you simply get to know the children in your class on a more personal level. If observation happens frequently enough, it helps to form a direction that the class can take in order to achieve the maximum amount of learning possible, because the ideas of the children are present – because you know what they are. In short, it helps you to get to know the children in your classroom better. And that helps you to deal with the children in your class positively, which strengthens and enhances your relationship with them, and their relationships with each other.

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