What Are They Trying to Say?

Today was a big day in our classroom. We have been incubating eggs for about three weeks, and over the weekend several of the eggs hatched. Today was the day that the children got to meet the chicks.

Incubator with thirty eggs

Incubator with thirty eggs

We had talked to the children about chicks and birds and eggs a little bit, but there wasn’t a whole lot of interest in it. After all, when you look at eggs for twenty-one days, they really don’t do much. There isn’t a lot to get excited about. But when they hatch – oh, when they hatch!

We decided to make a project out of it. We had the children draw pictures of what they thought the chicks were going to look like before we brought the chicks in for them to meet. The pictures were very interesting, but even more interesting were the quotes. One of the things that I usually do when I have children draw pictures of learning opportunities is ask them to tell me about their pictures, and I write down what they say. It gives me a different perspective – the children’s perspective – when it comes to where the project should go and what topics we should explore.

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The first chick

I usually don’t take a lot of time to look at the quotes and really check them out, but this time was different. I’m not sure if it was all of the work that we had already put into this budding project, or the fact that this time I really wanted to try to do this right, but I really took the time to notice where each child was coming from and what they were trying to explore through their pictures. It was amazing. Some children were focused on gender and how to tell if the chick was a boy or a girl. Some were focused on how the chick would move or fly around. Some were focused on the different parts of the bird. There were many different areas of focus, and each one was worthy of its own place in the life of our project. It was amazing to slow down and really look at what the children were trying to say.

I’ve said this a lot lately, but it becomes increasingly true every time I do something involving my classroom: slow down and look. Listen. Find out what the children are saying through everything that they do. Everything that children do has purpose and meaning, but sometimes we get so involved in teaching that we don’t slow down and listen to them. What are they trying to tell us? What are they trying to teach us? Today, they taught me that if I just slow down enough, I can hear wonderful things – not just in their words, but in their pictures as well. After all, children do have a hundred languages.

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A Clash of Philosophies

Today I went to visit a school. I had visited it before, and came away with the feeling that it was a very nice school. This is a school for early childhood students, ages 2 through kindergarten. The directors are very nice and extremely proud of their school. They should be proud. Their school has a reputation for being one of the best early childhood learning facilities in town.

During my visit I asked the director about their educational philosophy. “Oh, we are very academically oriented,” she stated. “Our pre-k is usually reading by the time they move on to kindergarten.” Indeed, a glance around told me that they are very academically oriented. There are very few toys in the classrooms, and a lot of tables and chairs. I recalled that during one of my previous visits the director mentioned that they only get the small amount of centers materials out to play with when their state consultant comes to visit. During our discussion about educational philosophies the director said, “I know that there are a lot of centers out there that are more hands-on…manipulative-based…” She was searching for a word. “Free play. They are more centered on free play. I have found that a lot of chain centers are like that. Are you like that?”

I said, “Yes, I teach through play. Hands-on, project-based learning. I write workshops designed to teach others how to teach that way as well.”

Her demeanor towards me changed almost imperceptibly after that. It was almost as if she felt that I had been contaminated by them. Those play-based educators who have no idea what they were doing because all they do is let the children play all day. Do their children read? Before kindergarten?

When I left the center, I felt disheartened. I understand that the directors of this center have the freedom to have whatever kind of center that they want, and the parents of the children enrolled there have the freedom to have their children in whatever type of program that they want. However, I know from educating myself on developmentally appropriate practices that children who are in a play-based program develop better social skills, creativity, problem-solving skills, and other life skills better than schools that simply focus on academic achievement. The school’s enrollment is quite high; the director said that most of their classes are full, which means that a lot of the parents in this area value the academic approach for their children.

It is all about value, after all. The directors of this school and the parents who enroll their children value academic achievement above all else. And as a culture we have been taught that academic achievement has to be valued in order to have a successful life. But the tides are turning. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are valued more by today’s businesses. Innovation, creativity, and the ability to problem-solve are best learned through playing with ideas, developing strategies through brainstorming with others, and using imagination to create. These skills aren’t built through simple academic instruction.

I remember a boy who was in my class at the age of two. He was bright and precocious, creative and full of fun. He had a wonderful sparkle in his eye and a curiosity that ensured learning. He left my class and enrolled at this school. He came to visit a few months after he left, holding a worksheet that he wanted to show us. The sparkle that I had so loved about his eyes was gone. I have never forgotten the change that I saw in that child from just a few short months in a purely academic environment. His parents were proud. I was shocked.

As I said before, it is all about values. His parents obviously put more value in the academic education than the building of creativity, imagination, and social skills that the play-based environment provided. Some parents do. Perhaps most parents do. Our culture has taught them to.