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!
Every parent likes to see something that is cute and well put together that “their child made” such as sun catchers or that cute hand-print frame that is sitting on their desk at work. During the summer, lots of programs have different projects, and parents want to see what they do. HOWEVER, the question lingers in one’s mind—how much of that project did the child actually make? Craft projects are fine every now and then, but is it really something that a young child understands? Process art is different than crafting—it’s about the journey a child takes to get to their end product. It is way more fun, hands on, and appropriate for a young child to do. With process art, a child is able to:
- Work fine motor muscles. Working with different types of tools/media they can build the hand muscles for better dexterity. This lays the foundation for cutting and writing. Examples of this could be setting out a hole punch and pieces of paper, using scissors to cut straws or clay.
- Enhance critical thinking skills. When a child is in the creative process, his/her mind is thinking out ways to make/create the subject at hand. Gathering information and hypothesizing how to create the artwork builds the mind for thinking out other scenarios children may face throughout everyday events. Instead of laying out specific supplies for the children to all come to the same end result, give lots of options: hole punches, stamps, stickers, beads, string, tongue depressors, pom poms, glue, scissors—the possibilities are endless!
- Express themselves. If you provide the materials, they will come! Allowing the child to experiment will result in something that has meaning for them. Sitting and asking questions about the creative process also helps the child develop the language and vocabulary for something that they may have never been able to talk about before. For example, something you may ask would be, “Why did you choose the felt to make the dog’s ears?” or “How can you attach the ears to the paper?” You can also help them express what they created by writing about it. This gives the families the story and process behind the masterpiece.
Art in an early childhood program is about more than just making something cute; it is creating the moments for a child to discover and learn. I said it before and I will say it again: let children have the time to play and try new things. After all, learning through play is how a child learns best!
I recently came across a couple articles that reminded me of how important it is to allow children to be free to express themselves and really discover their own take on the world around them. The first article was authored by a parent who was approached by her child’s school and recommended occupational therapy for their child as a way to deal with what her teacher saw as behavioral issues (she wouldn’t sit still during circle time). I am often shocked at how many of these types of articles get printed. I guess I shouldn’t be. We are in an age in our education system where we are looking for answers to every “problem” that comes along. The author of this article discussed the culture of conformity that has become commonplace in our schools. Adults expect children to behave a certain way in an educational setting, and too often when they don’t, it is assumed that there is something wrong with the child and they need corrective action.
The second article considered the importance of play in a young child’s life. The author wrote about the relationship between the removal of play from children’s school days and home life and the increase in children diagnosed mental illness. He uses historical and biological contexts to make his argument that play is an important, if not vital, part of a young person’s upbringing and we need more of it, not less as we move through a technology-infused future.
We want our children to grow up to be curious and productive citizens. We want children to be able to function on their own and with others in a manner that improves everyone’s lives. Sure, we need rules for safety, but we also need children to help create their own rules as they learn how the world works. Perhaps we can let go of our own feelings and goals and let children determine their own because the more we push them to conform and be “normal,” the more restless they become.
So what can you do to ensure that children remain curious and develop into productive citizens? Give children plenty of sensory activities that go beyond play dough. Include materials that allow them to relate their play to the real world including vehicles, costumes and other props. Share in a child’s delight as they pretend to make soup from water, dirt, sticks and leaves. Make time to engage with children in dramatic play, and allow the children to lead the created environment and conversations. Above all, talk to children about what they are experiencing. How does it feel? How did they do that? Where is it going? What happens if…?
Remember that children learn best through active play but they can’t do it alone. They need you for guidance, support and confirmation of their trials. Removing children from opportunities to play and interact with their peers and adults removes them from the opportunity to be successful in life.
I am currently a coach working with several early childhood programs. A common concern for teachers and directors is for the children’s schedule to be full of time for children to make choices; that the teachers create a learning environment that encourages children to choose what materials they want to explore or play with for the day as well as work with the other children and adults in the room at learning centers. The schedule allows for extended time at those learning centers, allowing children to get very involved in their play without being interrupted. The key is to give children the time they need to explore what peaked their curiosity in the first place.
Giving children choices also means very little teacher-directed activities such as “dittos” or “worksheets,” including product-oriented art (where the teacher has a sample or an idea of what the end product should look like). Teachers often feel like they need to do these kinds of exercises because parents expect them. Parents can look at a worksheet and feel that they can see what their children are learning, and they may not understand the importance of free choice and play. So, what can you say when parents ask what their children are learning?
One way to give parents what they want is to document their child’s learning through photographs and dictation. As my co-worker and fellow coach said when we were discussing this topic, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” If the budget allows, invest in a good camera and take photographs throughout the day (after getting parents’ consent that their child may be photographed, of course). When I was a preschool teacher we had the ability to email parents at nap time photographs we had taken that morning. We wouldn’t send too many, just enough to give the parents a snapshot of the morning and the learning. We would add a few dictations of what the children said during the activity/activities in the main content of the group email. Instead of wondering why a child was playing in the blocks all day, a parent was thrilled to see the child building a zoo, which the child said had “many passage ways and different gates for the animals so when I feed them they don’t eat each other’s food.”
Photographs can also be posted on documentation boards. Add the photos to poster board and write messages about what the children were working on and what the children were saying. This is a great way to show everyone what learning is taking place in your classroom. Dictation can also be used on art work that doesn’t seem to resemble anything real or have meaning. Instead of showing the children a picture of a snowman made by the teacher, provide white circles, black squares and orange triangles, along with glue and paper. Remember, we always ask children to tell us about their work versus asking what it is.
Parents love reading what their child has come up with: “Oh, that’s my daddy walking out to get the mail, and then he slipped on that ice because he wasn’t walking slow enough.” When encouraging children to tell you what they are learning or what they know about their work so that you may document it and/or dictate, ask open-ended questions to help the children think more critically about what they are working on or the process they worked through. This helps children to develop cognitive skills. For example, when a child tells you they just made a picture of their dog, you can ask “What makes that a dog?” or “Tell me about his mark right here.” Not only are you keeping the parents informed on their children’s development, as a bonus you are also creating materials that you can use for assessment. Photographs and dictations are a very appropriate way for teachers and families to build mutual understanding and trust. You can work as a parent-teacher team to ensure that children’s learning and developmental needs are met!