Archive for August, 2013

An early childhood classroom is filled with toys and resources that can be used to create and to be part of imaginary play. Children will always find ways, old and new, to put the materials to good use.

The other day, at a family get-together, I watched my 2-year-old grandson play with the dried, cut grass that he found on the lawn. Throughout the afternoon he would return to the grass, squishing it, manipulating it, exploring it, and throwing it. Children have creative and curious minds and anything and everything becomes an opportunity to discover and explore.

The classroom teacher, while observing and expanding on what children are doing with the resources available on a daily basis, also introduces new items or creates a vignette of sorts with the regular materials, putting them together in a way that piques the interest of the child and opens the door to further exploration.

This nudging of inquiring minds might look like:

  • a new room arrangement
  • an exchange of toys, putting some away and bringing some old ones back out
  • a table or bulletin board displaying materials to observe and explore
  • a single or mixture of art tools and materials
  • a closed box containing … something
  • a basket of objects
  • something out of place — “what’s that doing there?”
  • these provocations pinned on Pinterest by earlylearning4
  • or these sites pinned by booknblues

In yesterday’s blog I posted the following quote by Dietze and Kashin: “If parents and educators try to label experiences as play, but in reality have specific requirements for the activity, then it becomes work not play.” This means that while we might have ideas about how the children will explore the material and how we might expand on the learning, we must also stay at arm’s length, at least at first, letting the children explore at their own pace and in their own way.

Deborah Stewart’s blog about her grandson’s exploration of paintbrushes is a perfect example of this “arm’s length” observation process. The materials were presented with the expectation of rolling paint but the child’s interest was in the variety of paintbrushes. Rather than re-directing the child’s interest Deborah, instead, shifted her “guidance” to fit with his focus of curiosity.

Check out Deborah Stewart’s paintbrush story here >>>

Everyone has different ways of thinking and different interests which can change in any given moment. Imagine a train going down a track headed to a certain destination. Now imagine the train being shoved off the track and sent, suddenly, in a different direction. That is what we do when we interrupt play, heading it towards the learning that “we” want to see happen.  A jolted redirection.

Now imagine the new track to be made from pebbles and stones – imagine the difficulties of the train as it tries to navigate its way to the destination – stumbling and fumbling, not able to get traction, putting more effort into the movement than the journey itself. This, too, is what we do when we interrupt the discovery process and try to impose our way of thinking and exploring.

Learning through play – discovering and exploring not only the materials available but also how their brains work, how they question, discover, and explore.

The Teacher’s Role
1. Provide the materials or setting to explore.
2. Stand back and observe. (Have a camera ready to document the exploring.)
3. Watch and listen to how the children observe and explore.
4. Make note of what they are interested in, how they use the materials.
5. Be ready to follow their lead and to enhance the exploration.


How have you piqued the interest of the children in your care? We’d love to hear your stories and try them out as well.

Discover & Explore


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In today’s society, our educational system is in the middle, or beginning, of a transformation. Over the past century we have seen the formation of what is being labelled the “factory-model” system, with children sitting at desks, following the directions of the teacher, memorizing facts and regurgitating information.

As our society changes from that of manufacturing to the information age and wherever we head from here, we see that, rather than teaching how to be an efficient factory worker, we need to teach children how to explore and create, putting the learning process into their own hands, guided by, encouraged by, and sharing the learning process with the teacher.

Some of the shift, from what I have observed, seems to be moving to the idea of a “flipped classroom” where students use resources, such as online teaching videos, to learn concepts on their own time, freeing classroom time for application of the concepts with the teacher’s assistance. Although this is a fantastic change in the educational process there is, in my opinion, something greater happening – students learning the concepts during hands-on projects that the students initiate, based on their interests and goals.

To all the early childhood educators out there, “Doesn’t this sound familiar?” The preschool environment is based on learning through play. The educator’s role is to observe the children’s interests, providing the opportunities to play and expand on activities, guiding extended learning and so much more.

The educator, with learning through play, observes, enhances, and builds upon what the children are doing and learning on their own, helping them take their learning to another level. The challenge, perhaps the biggest that an early childhood educator meets, is to find that perfect balance of nudging to another level and pushing too fast and too hard and of teacher-directed interactions and child-initiated activities.

If parents and educators try to label experiences as play, but in reality have specific requirements for the activity, then it becomes work not play. ~Dietze and Kashin link

Let the playing begin!

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I wonder how many times we step in and “do” instead of helping young children be the do-ers.

I think about how teachers bring in a variety of books appropriate for a specific topic and make them available for children to discover and peruse.

And I wonder… “what if …”

  • what if … we interact with children when they are exploring a topic or object and we suggest or they suggest that a library book would provide more information.
  • what if … we make a list of topics that we want to research when we go to the library.
  • what if … the children help write an email for the librarian, asking that he/she gather some related books for the teacher to pick up or to be available when the children go on a library field trip
  • what if … the children help write a thank-you note for the librarian in appreciation for the help
  • “What if” … we teach children how to plan ahead, how to seek out knowledgable supports, how to request things and how to give thanks?

    “What if” … we taught children HOW to do research?

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    Recently, I have participated in many discussions about the transformation of our education system, moving from the “factory model” classroom to that of empowerment, giving students more control of their education and using tools and strategies of the 21st Century.

    Most of the conversation has revolved around the elementary and secondary school systems but all grades, all ages, and all classrooms are connected in educating the next generation. Everything we do, regardless of what age group we are working with, is impacted by what has occurred before we become involved in the student’s education and everything that occurs after.

    This morning, I was thinking about my time with my grandson over the next few months and what I can do to expand his knowledge, experiences, and Wisdom while maintaining that tricky balance between Early Childhood Educator and “GrandMum”. My thoughts went in two directions, well, three actually. First, I was thinking in concrete terms in regards to how I can adapt my home, the learning environment, to inspire curiosity, exploration and learning. Secondly, I expanded on that list (curiosity, etc), thinking about the learning – teaching process; and thirdly, I thought about what the core element is in regards to my personal philosophies.

    Let’s start with that last one, my personal philosophies. Peeling back the layers, looking at all the connections, and finding that one core element that underlies everything, I came up with the word respect.

    I want and I believe it is my responsibility to instil and nurture respect.

    I want the next generation to respect themselves, respect others (human and otherwise) and respect all things (inanimate objects, ideas, words and so on).

    With this in mind, every action, every interaction, and every guiding situation should role-model and encourage respect. I need to respect my role as a teacher as well as a human being. I need to remember that I am human and will not be perfect. Sometimes I will say the wrong thing at the wrong time. I will miss some of those golden teachable moments. I will have times when my mood and my energy level will not be their strongest and will have an impact on others. But these are also teachable moments – teaching by example of how to make things right, how to accept and move beyond the tough moments, how to not judge “me” by individual moments in time.

    I need to respect each and every child AND adult, respecting their personal paths, their way of thinking and acting, their motivators, their stories, their possibilities. I am not them, they are not me, and their path is not supposed to look exactly like mine. I am not here to make them think like me but to provide the opportunities to discover their own path, to enhance their journeys and to explore the possibilities.

    It is my job to expand on the children’s understanding of the world and to see all things and all people as equals, different but equal. It is my job to nurture the belief and the practice to treat all things with respect and to put the “greater good” above our individual desires.

    And all of that means that I need to be engaged. I need to be ready to jump in and guide conversations and actions, to remind the children about respect and how to show it in this moment. I need to have my eyes and ears open all of the time, aware of what is happening in every corner of the room. And I need to be reflective, looking at my own behaviour, checking in to see how I am feeling, what I am thinking and doing, to ensure that I, too, am living respectfully.

    Learning happens all the time, whether it is a structured activity, while playing, during an “oops” moment, or .. well .. any time.
    Teaching also happens all of the time, as we are constantly on stage, role-modelling how to act, how to interact, how to speak to others, and, of course, how to show respect.

    The “old school” classroom, the factory-model classroom, has the authority figure, the teacher, knowing all and presenting the information that the student needs to learn (or memorize). The teacher plans out the activities, the learning goals, the strategies to be used, and the expected outcomes. The teacher also determines how to assess the learning using a variety of “right and wrong” tools. But we have moved beyond this now… or I should say we (or most of us) know that it is time to move on, to respect the children and society of today and how it has changed in the past fifty years.

    The computer age has had a great impact on learning. Everything you want to know is available online. Teachers are no longer needed to provide the “what” – all information is just a few key strokes (or monitor taps) away. But the computer can’t (for the most part) provide hands-on experience and exploration of knowledge in the real world. And there comes the role of the teacher!

    Teachers provide the opportunities for exploration and discovery; they open the door to gathering knowledge and turning it into wisdom; they help students figure out how the world applies to them and how they apply to and impact the world. Teachers take students from “a” and guide, nurture, empower, challenge, and teach that which is beyond “a”, whether that is a+ or b.

    What does this look like, this taking students from “a” to … “b”?

  • Discovery: for a young child, everything is interesting, well, except perhaps the Brussel Sprouts on their plate. So our job is to have available things to discover. This is what we want kids to do, right? Discover things? See the opportunities knocking? To be aware of their surroundings? To live life rather than waiting for someone else to provide it for them? And so we take them places, we bring materials and objects into the classrooms, we set up little pockets of discovery possibilities… and we wait.
  • Curiosity: we don’t want to nurture “sheep” who just move along with the crowd and go where they are told to go. (No disrespect to sheep intended.) We want thinkers. We want them to wonder about things, to ask questions, to seek out more and more information and knowledge. We want them to be creative thinkers, mixing ideas, experimenting, asking “what if”, and exploring the possibilities. And so we need to role-model this; we need to ask them questions, seeking out their questions… and we to to record these questions to encourage exploration.
  • Exploration: some children are born observers and some are the “get your hands dirty” hands-on type. Regardless of their style of exploration, the goal is to find answers to the questions above as well as more questions! Again, we can role-model this, especially at first until they get the hang of finding answers on their own, and then we can nurture this ability by helping them find the tools and materials needed to seek out the answers, by asking questions and making suggestions to guide their thinking. And we need to help them use the tools effectively.
  • Using The Tools: the tools are not just wrenches and telescopes; they are words and paint brushes; they are computers and peers; and each tool comes with its own modes of operation, except that there usually isn’t a manual. I am reminded of one of the main rules of photography: you have to know the rules in order to break the rules and when you break the rules you create the extraordinary. So when we introduce a paint brush, for example, we teach them about respecting it, how to hold it, how to care for the bristles, how to clean it and how to store it after we are done. Once they know the rules then they can explore it, finding the different ways that it can be used for painting and for whatever else their creative minds come up with.
  • Expanding The Knowledge: there comes a point when “the comfort zone” is not enough and it is ready to move on to something new. Children need to explore an object or an idea from many different angles and they will repeat the interactions over and over and over again until they feel totally comfortable with it. This is when it is time to mix things up, introducing something else into the activity, bringing two ideas together for questioning and exploration. This is where our experience of the world and our skills as a teacher take students from the “black and white” world to deeper understanding and application. “How does this information apply to the real world?” “So you know such-and-such, now what are you going to do with this knowledge?” “How can we use this information to help others, to learn more, to do more, to give more?” And the learning process begins all over again!
    Observe … what did you notice a child exploring, thinking about, wondering about, talking about, reading about?
    Inspire … create the opportunity to discover by setting up a display of related items or planning a field trip to a the item of curiosity in the community.
    Listen and Record … record the questions and observations that the children make. Help them gather the information and remember the questions so they can seek out the answers.
    Expand The Learning … use the words respect, curiosity, discovery; teach them how to use the tools to help them explore and create; ask questions to take them beyond their current knowledge, out of the comfort zone, into higher learning
    Document … document the process in text and/or photographs and help the children document their discoveries, building the habit of following through, good work habits, self-awareness, and more.
    Share … share the information about the child with him/her as well as parents and other teachers; and help children share what they have learned with others. Build the “Fire of Truth”, the sharing of knowledge, Wisdom, and perspectives so that we can all benefit from each other.

    And that all takes me back to my first chain of thought — “what I can do with my home to turn it into a world of discover”!

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