Improvisation


We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T.S. Eliot (“Little Gidding” from Four Quartets

My kindergarten class was studying bridges and because of their interest in the topic and the multitude of questions that kept coming up in class, this became, surprisingly, a yearlong project. We visited many bridges, returning to sites to answer questions and get more information.

As the study progressed, the construction of bridges in the block center became more and more elaborate. It seemed as though the space allotted in the classroom for block building was becoming too limited for their elaborate suspension bridges and often-collapsing moveable bridges. I began to notice that the “Pretend” center, abutting the block center, was empty each day. Nobody was picking this once very popular activity at Choice Time. I thought that this might be a time to pack up that center and extend the space of the block center, allowing for bigger constructions and for more children to work together in this center at one time.

I presented my observations the idea for eliminating the dramatic play center to the children at our next class meeting fully expecting a unanimous agreement. No! The children were unanimously AGAINST this plan! “What about making the Pretend Center smaller and the block center bigger?” Sarah asked. “But” I wondered out loud, “What could you play in a small pretend center?” “A store, “ Zeke suggested and excitement broke out. “Yes, yes, yes, let’s make a store!” What had I unleashed? I hadn’t anticipated this turn of events!

What ensued was two days of discussion at our class meetings about what kind of store could work in a small space. One child suggested that it could be the kind of store that the neighborhood has on the streets in the weekend. A stoop sale! At last, the decision was made to have a small bookstore. I said that if we were going to turn the pretend center into a bookstore, then we needed to do some research, so we arranged to visit a local bookstore.zeke-at-bookstore

On our field trip the children drew the inside and outside of the store and interviewed the workers and storeowner. We bought an ABC book to add to our class library. What followed were a few weeks of bookstore preparations. (Connie Norgren, a colleague, came into our classroom during one of our class discussions and she jokingly said to the children, “If it’s a little bookstore, maybe you should only have little books.” The idea caught fire immediately and hence K-239 Community Little Bookstore was born.

book-store-awningDuring the following exciting and busy time, many of the Choice Time centers became places where children were involved with bookstore preparations.

Block Center In the block center, the children switched from building bridges to building a bookstore. It was, at first, almost as though they were using the blocks to create a map of the Community Bookstore. I supported this work by taping up photos of the bookstore from our trip and also hanging up some of the children’s observational drawings. The store that we visited had recently added a small café and so a basket filled with cups, plates, utensils and fabric was added for the café. Paper, index cards, post-its, tape, pencils and markers were also available in this center so that signs, labels, menus and other print and pictures might be created. Although the Pretend Center was not in use, the addition of the café seemed to create a dramatic play environment in the block-building center.

Book-making Center: Because the children decided to only have little books in the bookstore, we set up a center where they could make small books to add to the bookstore collection. We had recently been looking at ABC books in our reading centers and the children seemed particularly interested in writing tiny ABC books for their store. I asked them what they might need at this center and they came up with this list: little blank books with enough pages for the whole alphabet (I prepared these), some ABC books for them to look at, dictionaries (we had a nice collection of picture dictionaries in class and the children loved looking through these) and abc charts. I also added paper and a small stapler in case they wanted to make their own booklets.

Sign Center: Children in this center made signs and labels for the store. They made labels for different sections (they decided on the categories after looking through the books that had been collected and sorted), made a sign with the hours of operation, and they made a big, colorful sign with the name of the store. On our trip, the noticed that the store had an awning and so they constructed one using fabric from the art center and a wooden structure that previously served as a puppet theater. I didn’t need to provide a lot of materials for this center. I left some photographs from our field trip, some trip papers where children had recorded some of the store signs, paper, blank index cards, markers and crayons. At the start of center time, I met with this group to review what signs had been made the previous day and to generate ideas for signs that were still needed. This was a very popular center!

Store Poster and Advertising Center: In the classroom art studio, children made posters to hang in the store and also bookstore signs to post around our school. (As a result of these school signs, parents, children and teachers from the school community began dropping in to donate tiny books for our store!)

Library: Children looked through our classroom library for ‘little books’, which they then sorted into different categories. I provided small plastic baskets that they could use to sort the books. The children at the bookmaking center brought their books to these children so that they could be added to the collections.

Construction Center: A cash register was constructed and paper dollars and tin foil coins were cut out and ready for the opening of our new business. First I joined the children to look at photos of cash registers and together (shared drawing!) we made a design for one that they could build. I provided an empty carton along with the photos. The children worked near the art center so that they could get materials that they needed.

During choice time, there were some centers that did not have anything to do with our bookshop preparations. The sand table was still open as was the math and science centers. But for the few weeks of bookstore excitement, many children chose to pick centers connected with the bookshop, whether it was building, constructing, writing, drawing and painting, determining prices for books that were for sale (nothing more that 25 cents) or sorting books in the library.

There was a definite “bookstore buzz” in the room during Choice Time. When the store finally opened, we invited another kindergarten class to visit and buy books. Our 4th grade buddies came and we also opened the store to families on Family Friday morning. The children were all excited to talk about all of the different parts of the store and how they built it. However, after about a week of ‘playing bookstore’, interest waned and the bookstore was closed.

We returned to the bridge study. Interestingly, there was now a renewed interest in the Pretend Center, which reopened in its original space. Although it looked just as it did before the bookstore study, it became a choice time center where children were able to play and explore with a new and fresh perspective and with invigorated interest.

The teacher’s role is important in allowing this type of exploration to unfold. The teacher almost becomes an improviser, who can listen carefully to children and understand how to use their questions and comments as an impetus for introducing new projects and investigations. It’s important, however, not to jump quickly into a curriculum detour, but rather to give time for children’s’ ideas ‘percolate’. This will help the teacher determine if the enthusiasms are momentary or if they are interests that will withstand an in-depth exploration.

I’ve only described one example of how Choice Time and inquiry study can overlap, opportunities for using literacy skills can be integrated into children’s play, and how the interest, energy and enthusiasm of the children can unexpectedly ignite an interesting class inquiry project that works its way into Choice Time exploration and play.

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