In previous blog post, Julie Cavanagh, principal of P.S. 15 in Brooklyn, said that children have made their hopes for returning to school very clear. She said that they are craving “play, play, play.” They need to play so that they can socially and emotionally heal from the isolation and fears of the past 15 pandemic months.
In this conversation, Richard Lewis and Kristin Eno make a second visit with me to talk about how observing our students at play allows us to pose questions that will build on their natural curiosity and take children on a journey of exploration, conversation, questioning and magical thinking. Richard and Kristin’s ideas will be so helpful for teachers and parents in creating a return to school this fall that will be filled with gentle joy and healing for children and for teachers.
Everyone understands that this is a stressful time for parents and for children. Parents are thrown into a new role. Now they are responsible for taking care of their families such as cooking, cleaning and caring for children, suddenly being a home-teacher and in many instances also working a day job from home. It’s exhausting just to think about it.
I’m going to concentrate on how families can support the learning that kindergarten children are doing now that they are confined to home. Here is the truly important idea about the education of young children that parents can hold onto. Children learn through their play! If they’re pretending to have a restaurant they might be making menus, using important literacy skills. If they’re building a tower with blocks or a fort with couch pillows, they’re learning about balance and also, most important, they’re learning to problem solve.
Let’s create a situation where you can find some cardboard boxes , you’ve had deliveries in boxes or you get some when you go out for groceries., Rather than throwing them in the recycle bin, you hold onto them. ( If you don’t have any, you might ask neighbors if they can leave one or two outside your door.) You have a true treasure to give to your child. Empty boxes can get the wheels of the child’s mind spinning. If you have a big box, that opens up so many possibilities. All you need to do is “gift” the box to the child and say, almost to the room, “I wonder what this box will become.” Then leave the child alone with it. It’s helpful if crayons or markers, paper, glue, maybe even cardboard strips and empty paper towel dowels are nearby. Now the fun begins. Just to warn you, it doesn’t begin quickly. Children need, what I call, mess around time. They need time to think and to consider. Maybe it’s necessary to step away from the box, but just leave it in place because he/she will, I’m sure, come back to it. Perhaps at dinner it could be the topic of a family discussion. You, or grandpa, your partner or an older child might think aloud about what you might be doing with the box. “I always wanted to go to outer space. Wouldn’t that be a great rocket ship?”, you might say. Then another adult might disagree. “I would make a big fire truck that I could ride in.” If your child doesn’t say anything, then just drop the subject and go on to something else. Be assured that he/she is starting to think about what will happen.
Perhaps the next day you might casually give your child a big piece of paper and say, “I found this paper, just in case you want to make a plan for your box.” You don’t have to say anything else. You’ve planted seeds.
There’s a nice YouTube video of the author reading her book “It’s Not a Box” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMCKXaFsmCA&t=45s0 ) and you might want to look at it together as a family. It’s a lovely story.
I want to assure you that an activity like this, which is very open-ended and leaves so much to the child’s imagination, is important play. It’s actually so much more powerful in terms of a young child’s learning than practicing with worksheets. When a child is playing he is learning to make a plan and follow through (such as if a child decides to draw a picture of his family and has to plan who is to be included in the drawing); he learns through trial and error and uses his imagination, such as building a tower or a fort with pillows. (Oops, it fell. Now I have to figure out a new way to build it so it won’t fall.); makes scientific and mathematical observations when cooking or making play dough with a parent and seeing how the addition of each ingredient creates changes and how important it is to measure just the right amount of flour, salt and water. uses reason and analytical thinking if she’s doing a puzzle and has to figure out where the pieces go; derives feeling of satisfaction when a puzzle or a rocket ship is completed; and thinks creatively such as when she is figuring out how to mix paint or crayon colors to make a new color.
Think of these learning categories and how they are important skills for success in life– creating a plan, following through, trial and error, imagination, making mathematical and scientific observations, using analytical reasoning, and thinking creatively.
One way that you can help support children with their play is to step back and give the child time and space, as I mentioned before. But you also can ask meaningful questions and make important observations to provoke children’s thinking. As strange as it may seem, these are questions that have no right or wrong answer. For example, if you’re looking at your child’s drawing, instead of asking, “What is this color called?” you might say, “You’ve made such an interesting choice of colors here.” and then wait a moment to see if your child wants to talk about the colors. Sometimes though, the child is deep into the creative process and that might be a time for the parent to just step back and give some space.
Here are some examples of questions that you might ask your child during and after play: • Can you tell me how this works? • Could you tell me what you were thinking…? (When you decided to do this? When you added this part to the drawing? Etc.) • What might happen if ___________? • Why did that happen? • What is the problem you’re trying to solve? • That is very interesting. That time you _______ instead of _______. • I see ________. What’s happening here? • Hmm, how does that work? • I wonder____________(wondering is always good to do) • What are other ideas you have about ____________.
“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” – Diane Ackerman (famous poet, naturalist, essayist)
For so many of us, all around the world, this Coronavirus pandemic has tilted life to an unfamiliar and uncomfortable angle. Life isn’t as it should be. It’s a confusing time, a frightening time and a complicated time. Days take on different meanings depending on what is and is not happening in our lives. Many teachers are struggling to connect with their students as they juggle their personal responsibilites as parents who are home schooling their own children. It’s overwhelming!
As an early childhood consultant I have been trying to imagine how to productively use my time and how I can virtually connect with teachers. Those first weeks of sheltering at home caused my days to stretch on and on. I was feeling like a person without a purpose.
I wondered if there were a few teachers or parents who would like to explore Choice Time with me. I posted a proposal of my Facebook page and waited to see if anyone might be interested. This is what I wrote:
I’m planning to begin an online, Zoom, presentation/conversation with teachers about Choice Time and Inquiry Projects. My idea is to present a Powerpoint and classroom videos. There would be opportunities for discussion. Using Zoom is quite new to me but I’m pretty excited at the prospect of communicating with teachers! It would be appropriate for teachers of Prekindergarten through Second Grade. PM me if you’re interested.
The response was overwhelming. Teachers from all parts of the world responded. How impressive it was for people who were working so hard to continue teaching on line to even consider spending some of their “spare” time joining a Choice Time discussion group.
The conversations the first week focused primarily on play and Choice Time. We explored what free play looks like and how it might be transferred into the classroom. You can watch the first session here:https://vimeo.com/406286992
The second week was devoted to looking at and discussing two different whole class inquiry projects. One study took place in a prekindergarten classroom and the second one took place in a kindergarten class. Both classes were in New York City public schools. You can view the second week’s session here: https://vimeo.com/411393368
The third week was opened up for teachers to share how they were providing Choice Time opportunities for children as part of their virtual teaching.
How can we avoid giving children “tasks” to do? Can we tweak what was originally a task and encourage children to use the same materials in a more explorative and creative way? For example, instead of giving children specific activities to do with 10 stones or buttons, might we challenge them to see if they can create an interesting design or pattern with the stones. Perhaps we could ask them,”What were you thinking about when you created your design? Can you think of ways to move them around to create something new? Would you like to add something to your collection and see what you can make? What kinds of ideas do you have?” This gives the children opportunities to play, explore and use creative, higher-order thinking.
In a recent zoom workshop for prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers, I was asked if I could include ideas for virtual choice time. Not having taught virtually myself, I was reluctant to do this. I wondered if my ideas might not be helpful. I did give it a try and the feedback was positive, so I’ll share some of what I came up with.
Keep a consistent daily schedule
Maintain routines that children will become familiar with
Include songs and chants
Have a regularly scheduled storytime. Perhaps invite family members and other people in the school who the children know to record a reading of a storybook.
Perhaps include a question of the day. When this becomes routine, children can come up with a question or wondering for everyone to consider.
•Remember that this is a stressful time for all, teachers, children and parents. Keep the emotional needs of all a priority.
•Parents, during virtual teaching and learning, are our partners. Is it possible to have separate group meetings with parents to answer their questions and to tell them what your aims are? This will help them bond as partners in teaching and learning
A Looking Out of My Window book
•Take some blank papers and fold them together to make a little book.
• Every day draw a picture of something you see when you look out of your window.
•You might see a bird, a car, a tree, maybe even flowers.
•You can make a “detail finder” by cutting a peep-hole in a paper. This will help you look really closely!
•First get children’s ideas and then, if it seems helpful, show these pictures.
•Only use these pictures as prompts to start a conversation about building a special reading and play spot at home.
•At morning meeting, brainstorm some chores to do at home. Possibilities are washing dishes, setting the table, sorting socks from the laundry, folding laundry, putting away toys, making the bed, etc.
•Each child can pick a chore that they want to do.
•Parents (or older siblings) can video tape the child doing the chore and send it to the teacher.
•The teacher can make a “chore montage” and everyone can watch it together.
•This might be followed by a discussion of other ways to be helpers at home, how it felt to get a chore done, who helps out in our community and in our home, etc.
Go on a search around your home
•See how many electrical items are in each room.
•Can you draw a picture of something you might invent that could use electricity?
You might want to use recycled materials to construct a new machine.
•Can you give names to parts of your invention and label them?
•You might want to write a story about your invention. Let your imagination go wild!
•Listen to your favorite song. Make up a dance or exercise routine to go with your song. Ask the teacher if you can share it at meeting and teach it to the class.
•Play a board game with someone in your family. Then see if you can make up your own board game. You can play it with someone in your family. Ask your teacher if you can share it at a class morning meeting.
•Can you draw a map of your room or of your apartment? What are the landmarks that are very important to you?
•You might imagine that you are a pirate and you’re looking for a treasure. Draw a treasure map.
•Think of everything on your mind. How could you draw a map of your mind? What about a map of your heart?
Cooking Together Day
•Children (with an adult) cook the dish and the teacher cooks along with them.
•Send the recipe a week ahead so parents can prepare ingredients and be familiar with the recipe.
•Children who can’t participate might sketch what is happening and make a recipe/cook book. Perhaps they might want to create their own recipe.
Two kindergarten teachers from the Dalton Hong Kong school shared some ideas with me via zoom.
I sometimes asked children if they could change their intials into new or silly pictures. This is a similar challenge.
As a final 2-cents piece of advice, I really would like to urge teachers and parents to ignore any message that children are “falling behind” during this time. Children are naturally curious and they are always learning something. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to observe, listen, support and facilitate children’s learning by understanding what they know, what they’re interested in and to build on that. Vygotsky wrote of the zones of development. Young children need to have the freedom to explore and learn in their Actual Zone of Development, their comfort zone. As teachers, we can gently and perceptively challenge them to stretch into their Zone of Proximal Development. This is where they can experience the excitement discovering new understandings just as this prekindergarten boy did when he proudly blurted out, “I did it!.”