When children are comfortable and engaged in their environment, we find that productivity increases, challenging behavior decreases, and child-directed learning is plentiful! Using the physical classroom space effectively can be a teacher’s most useful tool.
One of my favorite tips to build excitement about learning opportunities in the classroom is to create invitations to learn that are ready and waiting when the children arrive. An invitation to learn involves arranging the space in a way that “invites” the children to come to a particular area to explore open-ended and meaningful materials.
A personal favorite from my time in the classroom involved setting up a table with a real pumpkin during the fall season. In addition to the pumpkin, I provided a variety of spoons and other tools, plastic trays, and also some paint with brushes. When the children entered the room, that morning they were excited by the new addition and intrigued about what activities were in store for the day. My overall objective was working on motor skills by scooping out the insides with the tools and picking out the seeds, but the freedom to choose how they explored the pumpkin provided a multitude of other experiences. The children chose to sort and count the seeds, spread them on the plastic trays, pretending to bake and sell yummy treats to their friends. Some chose to paint and decorate the outside of the pumpkin, while others painted the seeds. They talked about the textures and shrieked when the gooey pumpkin guts grazed across their tiny fingers. By simply setting the stage with materials that were already in our space and adding something a little extra, an entirely new and engaging experience occurred!
While creating an invitation to learn doesn’t need to be time-consuming or expensive, it should be intentional. When planning, keep a broad goal of what you think might occur (like the strengthening motor skills in the pumpkin example above) while leaving room for their imaginations to run wild.
Some questions to keep in mind during preparation:
- Will this activity capture the interest and curiosity of the child?
- Are the activity and materials age-appropriate?
- Are there enough materials for all children to participate?
- Are the materials hands-on and open-ended?
- Are there opportunities to be challenged and express creativity?
With a little planning and preparation, a teacher can use the classroom environment to spark engagement, inspiration and joy!
When visiting a preschool classroom recently, summer weather was upon us and the classroom was buzzing with excitement. An unexpected visitor (a snake!) had joined the children on the playground that morning and they could barely contain their joy. As you could guess, the teachers did not have anything in their lesson plans involving this guest, but after discovering the teachable moments that accompanied the children’s interest in the snake, they quickly changed their ideas for the day. The class conducted internet research to discover what type of snake they had found, and they were making some estimates about its length. I couldn’t help but think of the endless possibilities that could come of the day; drawing pictures of the snake’s design in the art center, slithering like a snake during transitions, exploring the idea of how snakes shed their skin. The teacher was thrilled about how engaged the children were in learning and was happy everyone was having such a fun morning!
Summertime is a wonderful time to explore more child-directed experiences outdoors and at special events.. By paying attention to what children are doing and saying, we are provided more insight into their interests and have the ability to offer many more meaningful learning opportunities!
How can you go about discovering interests to expand upon?
- Observe and listen! Children naturally gravitate towards talking about and doing the things they are currently passionate about. Conversation at mealtimes and throughout the day, along with paying attention to what they are building in the block center or pretending to be in the dramatic play area, can give great insight to their personal favorites!
- What is trending? Currently, my nephew is all about his new fidget spinner and I can’t help but see them everywhere I go! I love how this teacher turned a popular toy into some incredible STEM activities that can be adapted to a variety of age levels.
- What events are surrounding them? Field trip to the firehouse or a visit from the shaved ice truck this week? Build upon their excitement for happenings outside of the normal routine and find ways to incorporate elements of the event into your classroom plans.
- Be spontaneous! If your children are distracted by the construction project outside the classroom window, it’s okay to change up plans for the day. They might not often get the chance to see this machinery in action, so take advantage of the spur of the moment science and engineering learning opportunity.
Planning activities based on children’s interests needs plenty of teacher support to be successful.
Teachers help facilitate learning by providing materials, asking a variety of open-ended questions to expand thinking, and being actively involved by enjoying the process right alongside the children!
By letting the children lead the learning, classrooms benefit in many ways:
- Children are engaged and excited, resulting in less challenging behaviors.
- Topics often offer opportunities that can span across several curriculum areas. Math, science, and writing skills to name a few.
- Build connection and expand children’s knowledge by sharing your interests. Children can only be interested in what they already know, so exposing them to new topics and experiences helps increase that knowledge. Plus, they will love learning about your favorites!
When you open your eyes and ears and let the children lead the way, the learning opportunities are endless!