One of my favorite things to observe is when a child care provider takes an opportunity to make a meaningful learning experience out of something unexpected. I was in a program recently and was pleased to observe this a couple of times.
One child was very interested in looking for rocks on the playground. I observed this child get a bucket from a nearby shelf when lining up to go outside. He put pebbles and rocks in the bucket as he went around on a hunt during nearly the entire outside playtime (other children also helped fill his bucket) and then, when playtime was over, he placed the bucket, filled with rocks, back on the shelf in the classroom. At some point during the work time, when the children chose their activity, a provider approached the child. She asked about the rocks he had collected. She began telling him about rocks—that there are different kinds and so on. I later asked the provider about the bucket (purely out of my own curiosity) and found out the child takes the bucket home every day, adds the rocks to his collection at home and brings it back empty the next day.
I was visiting that same classroom another morning. The provider was sitting at a table with several gallon-sized Ziploc bags, filled with realistic-looking, miniature animals. She was pulling out several water animals and several animals that fly for a sorting activity she was planning to add to the work shelves. Three children came up to see what she was doing and naturally became very interested in looking through all the bags and playing with the animals. One child was hunting for and pulling out all the turtles. Another child had an alligator that was “eating” other animals and seemed quite content in his dramatic play. The third child was going between the other two children, offering up what he knew about the animals each one was working with, such as, “That’s not a buffalo, that’s a yak,” and “That’s a mommy turtle and those are her babies…they are the same kind of turtle.” The provider did a lot of watching and would ask questions from time to time. She asked about where the animals lived, which were similar, which were different, etc. She would add in some names such as “leatherback” and “Galapagos” when appropriate as well.
I’m such a planner. I know I sometimes get uncomfortable when something is happening that I hadn’t planned on; especially when I hadn’t thought of good questions to ask or vocabulary to provide. And there is a lot of planning that is involved in an early childhood classroom. However, there is something to be said for letting things just flow in the moments when the children are a captive audience (even one or a few) to facilitate a learning experience. The provider in this room really understands the importance of these teachable moments. Neither of the above experiences were planned, yet the teacher engaged with the children to create an experience that was meaningful and supported their development.