It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle
that the modern methods of instruction
have not entirely strangled the holy
curiosity of inquiry.
This week, two lovely new kindergarten teachers and I met to plan their weekly schedule. They gave me a list of all that they were required to cover – math, writing workshop, reading workshop, word study, handwriting, science, social studies, shared reading, read aloud, morning meeting, five ‘prep’ periods, lunch, and time to take the class to the bathroom (there’s no bathroom in the classroom or on their corridor). I said that an hour daily of Choice Time and outdoor playtime were early-childhood priorities.
I could fill a notebook with complaints about the insanity of stuffing so much into a child’s day. I’m actually hearing from many teachers that in some schools administrators expect kindergarten teachers to shorten or actually eliminate any opportunity for explorative, child-directed indoor and outdoor play in their schedule.
The conundrum for me, in my role as a staff developer, is how to be sure that Choice Time and outdoor play are not excluded from the early childhood classroom at a time when there is so much emphasis on early, rigorous academics and quantitative assessment.
I believe that teachers can ‘defend’ the importance of investigative play in their early childhood programs by:
• Setting up interesting, child-directed centers
• Including appropriate materials in each center
• Adding and taking away materials over the course of the year so as to provoke children’s curiosity and creativity
• Developing centers that support an ongoing science and/or social studies inquiry project
• Including materials that allow children to integrate, in a natural way, reading, writing and mathematics
• Observing children at play, conversing with them about their activities, recording observations and using these documents to plan instructional ‘next steps’
To illustrate, here are just a few possible centers:
Many kindergarten classes begin their year with a name study. Every few days, a different child becomes the “Star Name Child” whose name then is the focus of inquiry. A Name Study Center would be a logical place where children could continue this exploration. This center might first open with lists of class names, alphabet stamps and ink pads (don’t forget to first demonstrate how to use this material), small Xeroxed photos of all the children in the class, glue sticks, pencils, markers, different kinds of papers and blank books, perhaps alphabet grids and clip boards so children can go around the room to do ‘name surveys’ (who’s name goes in the A box, the B box, etc.). One day the teacher might join the children at this center and help them make a name concentration game to add to the area. Children very likely will invent their own name games, especially if they are given new materials…perhaps old playing cards covered over with blank paper, maybe an old game board (I always saved these and found new uses for them at one time or another) and dice or spinners with alphabet letters on them. As more and more names are ‘studied’, the teacher could add name puzzles (or children could make these on their own). Adding carbon paper makes writing names and name books even more exciting…almost like magic!
As the year progresses, this Name Center might morph into an ABC center, especially if the teacher presents this change as an exciting class alphabet inquiry project. This might begin by having the entire class discuss all that they know about the alphabet. Chart this and keep adding (and taking away) information as the study progresses. ABC charts and alphabet books could be added to the center. Magnetic letters, too, help children explore the alphabet. I added the overhead projector to this center. How exciting it was to put the magnetic letters on the projector and see letters, names and words swirling around the room!
This investigation could spread to the classroom library. Children who pick the Reading Center could be given some empty book baskets and lots of ABC books. Their challenge might be to sort out the books by different categories that they come up with…ABC label books? ABC animal books? Silly ABC Books? ABC Pop-up books? Children might come up with their own totally surprising categories! After they have looked at the books together and sorted them, they could make labels for the baskets and add these new book bins to the classroom library. They might even want to make ABC posters or pictures and decorate the library.
I’m suggesting some center possibilities, and I’ll add more about other centers on upcoming blog entries, but I would not be surprised if children, with their own sense of playfulness and inventiveness, add their own ideas to enhance, improvise and extend these centers if the teacher enjoys and encourages innovation and creative thinking. The classroom becomes a learning partnership between the children and the teacher, who has become an active researcher, constantly learning more about the children in the classroom and about the exciting art of teaching.
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