Islamic Art: Provocations to Inspire Curiosity, Inquiry and Play in Young Children

I recently took a graduate course in Islamic Art, Architecture and Music, as much for me as for my early childhood teacher “self.” My college major in Anthropology, acquired in ancient times, left me stewing in a collection of information about tribal Papua New Guinea, arrowheads, Chinese vases and Byzantine empires, but my understanding of the history and spread of Islam is sadly lacking.

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It only takes a quick look at the news these days, littered with posturing politicians spouting fleshy sound bites about the “evil” of Iran, to remind us all that, even as we struggle with hate, racism and bigotry in our own country, our perceptions of non-Christian cultures around the world have become more and more polarized; full of ignorance and fear.

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This media-exposed (and fueled) vitriol is what our children, even our youngest children, learn. As teachers we work to familiarize our students with issues around cultural differences and global awareness; we try to get them to think and ask questions and have an increasing awareness and empathy for their shrinking world. But four and five year olds are concrete thinkers whose worlds revolve around home, family, friends and school. What can an Early Childhood teacher do to inspire even a smidgeon of  global understanding and competency in her own classroom?

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Our PreKindergarten students make their most meaningful learning connections through play, and the Reggio Emilia practice of designing provocations —materials chosen and organized in ways that provoke inquiry and inspire creativity — regularly leads children to ask new questions and become curious about new things.  With Islamic provocations in mind, I developed a Pinterest gallery of photographs, videos, audio recordings and articles to showcase four areas of Islamic Art that I felt would “provoke” the interest and imagination of young children.

  1. Geometric shape, pattern and design in Islamic visual arts
  2. The fantastical engineering inventions of Al-Jazari
  3. Monumental construction – Mosques around the world
  4. Islamic music to inspire singing, dancing, playing, painting, writing and building

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It would be both unreasonable and unproductive to articulate specific learning outcomes, or develop a formal assessment of Islamic Arts for young children.  If a provocation inspires a child to build a block structure in a new way, to create an arch, design a distinctive geometric pattern, sing a story, or ask herself, “What if I invent a…” in a way that she wouldn’t have thought of before, then the provocation is ultimately successful in stretching her mind.

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Having said that, my ultimate teaching goal with these provocations is for our students to enjoy what they see and hear, and to feel inspired to explore these topics further.  I hope they will use the interest and knowledge they gain through Islam-themed “play,” to make meaningful connections when they view a mosque, hear an Adhan, walk on an intricately designed carpet, see Arabic calligraphy, or hear the words Muslim and Islam.

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To view my Islamic art gallery, click below.

Islamic Provocations for Young Children

It’s Not Fair! Martin Luther King Jr. Day with PreK

This year, we wanted to make Martin Luther King Jr. Day meaningful for our PreKindergarteners. I think the following video, which we created as a record of our project, gives a sense of how the process went, and how much more we feel our students understood and felt about the topics we explored.

In our rush to finish the video in time for Charles River School’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day Assembly, I noticed that a painting, created one morning by a four year-old girl in our class during play time, was left out of the final project.  Here it is, and here is our video.

"Here's a fence. OBP means Only Black People. OWP means Only White People."

“Here’s a fence. OBP means Only Black People. OWP means Only White People.”

Deconstructing Technology in a Constructivist Classroom


“What does an engineer do?”
“What is a robot?”
“How do I make a robot do what I want it to?”
“What kind of robot would I like to be?”

When Vanita Srikanth and I set out to develop a Robotics theme for our PreK class, we needed to squeeze our feet into the shimmery light-up sneakers of our four and five year olds to figure out what they were ripe and ready to absorb.

Our PreKindergarteners are encouraged to ask questions, explore concepts with a hands-on approach, and reflect freely on what they learn and understand. As the teachers and technology “gatekeepers” for the youngest students, we wanted to create a robotics theme for PreKindergarten with the goal of keeping it age appropriate and constructivist in nature, while addressing technology’s increasing influence on 21st century skills and ways of thinking.

Enter the Bee-bot.

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I was first introduced to TerrapinLogo’s child-friendly robot, the “Bee-bot,” during a robotics workshop at the NAEYC (National Association for the Education of Young Children) Annual Conference last November. Intrigued, I quickly shot off an email with photos to both Vanita and our Director of Educational Technology, Steve Trust. Within two months, we had a technology grant, six Bee-Bots, and a plethora of ideas.

As Vanita, Steve and I tried to meld our ideas into a cohesive approach, we focused on staying true to our constructivist roots. Constructivism refers to the educational theory that learning is an active process of construction rather than acquisition. As learners, we bring our past experiences and knowledge to new ideas, and create a subjective understanding of the material. Plopping a Bee-bot or two down in front of a group of children, explaining to them how they worked, and letting them “have at it” would be fun for a while, but would not encourage our students to make the meaningful connections that lead to real learning. The Bee-bots had the potential to allow us to delve deeply into a physical exploration of the most basic building blocks of technology, using a pedagogical approach commonly known as constructionism.

Viewing our theme through a constructionist lens, Steve, Vanita and I were able to establish three project-based areas of robotics exposure and discovery:

1) An introduction to the fundamental steps of engineering – from initial idea to design, construction, test, and revision.
2) An invitation to explore and become familiar with the insides of electronic objects, including but not limited to wires, switches, motors,  batteries, gears, and circuit boards.
3) A framework for learning simple programming (coding): the language of directions necessary to program a Bee-bot.

Using these three areas as our thematic framework, Vanita and I then created four essential questions for our students to explore (see opening paragraph). Because our classroom pedagogy is based upon a Reggio approach, we don’t rely on preconceived lesson plans, but rather design projects in response to the emerging interests and questions of our students as they explore new materials and concepts. While the Bee-bot was the initial inspiration for our robotics theme, we ultimately  explored the curriculum areas of engineering, math, language arts, physics, architecture, music, drama and art. Once begun, the PreK robotic theme quickly took on a life of its own, while buzzing Bee-bots eventually threatened to take over the Early Childhood Building.

We  began our robotics theme with the premise that children are natural engineers. Watch a group of young children at play one morning, and you’ll see engineers at work. From Legos to blocks to straws to ramps, children work individually and in groups to create, destroy, rebalance and rebuild every material available to them.

We encouraged our students to approach a variety of play and skill building activities by following the steps of engineers:

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Our children eagerly honed their engineering skills with a variety of hands-on activities, which included building complex tunnels and towers out of different materials, drawing plans for buildings in their journals, and working with balls and ramps.

Building bridges for matchbox cars to drive through:


Drawing plans, building and recording results in our journals:

Our next step was to introduce coding, or the “directions” that make robots work. Using large flat vinyl polyspots and arrows, we mapped out a language of simple directions: forward, backward, right, left, stop and go. Arrows and circles were initially laid out on the floor to create journeys and obstacle courses. Once the children were comfortable “reading” the symbols, we placed them in lines to create sequences of code to follow. The arrows ultimately gave way to pen and paper, and pages of “secret code” soon littered the classroom. We also enjoyed playing the game Robot Turtles, in which turtles need to get to their respective jewels by planning journeys using cards of arrow-based code. The children particularly loved tapping the BUG card and shouting “BUG!” when they made mistakes in their directions.

The PreK children were so excited to finally open the Bee-bots and try them out! They soon discovered how to send Nightbot, Whitebot, Redbot, Greenbot, Lovebot and Flowerbot under tables and chairs, and around in endless circles. After some trial and error, children began to develop their own sequences of code to effect certain predictable patterns of behavior: four right arrows and “go” would make a Bee-bot turn a 360, repeated forward arrows would send the Bee-bot out into the hall, a few pushes on the backwards button and the Bee-bot would crash right into its programmer!

Planning, coding and implementing a Bee-bot “journey” take a collection of skills that are in the zone of proximal development for many PreKindergarteners. Sequencing steps, repeating patterns, visualizing more than one step in advance, building upon a series of directions, determining the shortest route; these were challenging skills that took time and support for the students to develop. As they became more adept at programming the Bee-bots, we enjoyed watching the carryover from structured activity time to free play time: our students quickly usurped our “start” and “finish” cards to create a variety of play scenarios during which Bee-bots encountered hamburgers, road blocks and furry puppets, and fell into blue paper ponds.

For our thematic finale, we turned our classroom science center into a Robot Building Workshop. With a full roster of parent volunteers, enough boxes to stock an Amazon warehouse, “grown-up” tools such as utility knives and glue guns, and a wide range of recycled materials and duct tape, each PreKindergarten “Engineer” was challenged to envision, design, build and test a robot of his or her own. When the project was completed, our entire PreK class had morphed into robots that made everything from ice cream and lemonade to tree houses and movies! During the next Sharing Assembly, the PreK robots paraded proudly in front of the school in a Robot Fashion Show.

Steve and I were recently able to share some of the highlights of the PreK Robotics Theme in a workshop entitled “Bear left, right frog! Putting pre-kindergartners in the driver’s seat with Bee-Bots: How young children can program robots and gain STEAM while they play” at the AISNE Lower School Conference. We will head to Dallas in early November, where, in a fitting nod to where it all began a year ago, we will present our robotics workshop as part of this year’s NAEYC Annual Conference.

¡Amamos triángulos

Triangles and fairy tales go together like wolves and pigs.  As teachers, we revel in their many symbiotic relationships: those trichotomous pigs, questions, bears, problems, porridges, knocks at the door, and stepsisters inspire us to view the three angles and lines of a triangle in a multitude of ways.  Thanks to our Wolf Construction Project, PreK-ers were primed to see the triangle as a practical and sturdy foundation for not only fairy tales, but wolf-proof housing as well. Our PreK “Wolf,” still visiting the classroom after its unsuccessful attempts to blow down our PreK Piggy Houses, found it much easier to take out a structure made of squares than one made out of triangles.

Marilyn Burns’ book The Greedy Triangle asks us to ponder the consequences of unchecked capitalism: the triangle, dissatisfied with its lot in life, wants more angles and more sides.  It is never satisfied until it practically kills itself rolling downhill as a decagon, at which point it begs to return to its formerly content, three-sided self.

Thank goodness for the triangle!  It hides out in our classroom in many places, just waiting to be discovered and celebrated for its simple, sturdy and attractive self.

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Chihuly Over Dover: A PreK Slideshow

Reclaiming Recess

In PreKindergarten, we head outdoors for recess twice each school day; once mid-morning, and again after lunch.  Our recess times range from 30 to 45 minutes in length, depending on the day and the weather. During recess, our students run freely between a large sandbox area with a castle-like structure, a heavily mulched section with swings and climbing structures, large rocks for climbing on, and fields for running games, ball games and other activities dreamed up by imaginative children ranging in age from four to fourteen.

Ask children about their favorite part of the school day, and the majority will respond “recess.”  (As their classroom teacher, I’m not insulted – really.) But to assume that recess is all fun, fluff and physicality is to ignore the tremendous (and I don’t use that word lightly) amount of learning that happens outdoors.

During recess, children negotiate body space, let off steam, blow off excess energy, and develop fitness with physical activity. They use critical thinking to create rules for games, solve problems, form collaborations, get into arguments, jostle for power, and take physical risks. And most importantly of all, they practice these skills with a certain amount of autonomy.  Try walking over to a group of children playing outside, and watch them scatter like roaches from a light.  Recess is a time to play blissfully out of earshot; to revel in being under the radar, but also to appreciate that there is a caring  adult within reach.

One of my favorite things about recess at a small PreK through 8th grade school is watching the interactions and developing relationships between children of different ages.  PreK children often connect with their seventh grade buddies, multi-age siblings and friends might play a game of chase together, and no fifth-grade football game is so serious that a five or six year old can’t join in – learn a few rules, and even get the ball on occasion.

I often think that our recesses allow us to revive what was best about our own long ago childhoods; back when children were sent out in the school yard with kids of all ages for a solid amount of time, and didn’t come in until the bell rang. And while there certainly are elements of similarity in the mixed-age play and relative freedom to explore a large and varied playspace, much has changed.  The blacktops have been replaced with grass, the area under the swings is heavily mulched and the playground structures meet rigid safety requirements for material, height and accessibility.  The ratio of children to adults is monitored to ensure proper supervision, and teachers place themselves thoughtfully so that they can both see and be seen by children at play without hovering or interfering with the flow of activity.

These are reasonable safeguards for daily recess times, ones which add an element of safety without detracting from the quality and substance of play.  But I’ve come to realize that when it comes to the safety of children, schools need to tread a fine line on the playing field. The gains we have made in making recess safe for our children are in danger of threatening crucial aspects of their education.  At what point do we cross over from a rational concern for the safety of our children to an overbearing presence on the playground – one which precludes our children from developing important life skills?

In my twenty-eight years as a teacher and twenty-five years as a parent, I have watched growing overprotectiveness, helicopter parenting, and most recently a heightened fear of bullying cause us to make what I consider to be serious mistakes in how we control our children’s play – particularly their play outdoors. Parents are understandably concerned about the safety of their children, but many schools are given to making nonsensical rules to appease an overprotective but vocal minority rather than providing an education about the importance of allowing children to take risks and practice physical and social skills independently – in an environment with a developmentally appropriate and thoughtfully drawn safety net.

Recently, an elementary school in British Columbia banned kindergarten children from touching each other at recess.  The rationale?  According to the principal, the rule was created in response to complaints from parents about “rough play.” The school instituted a “zero-tolerance” no-touch rule for their kindergarten students, “resulting in the missing of playtime and trips to the office for those who are unable to follow the rules.”

Where was the middle ground?  Here was the perfect opportunity to grasp a teachable moment for both children and parents, and talk about the issue of physical play and fighting at recess.  For young children, understanding that the same play that is stimulating and empowering for one child may feel scary to another is a big, tough, hard lesson to learn.  It’s a process, and one that continues throughout the elementary school years. Hard and fast rules, like “no-touching,” simply skirt the issue rather than address it head-on.

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One of our biggest goals in the PreKindergarten year is to help our students understand that while teachers and other adults are there to keep them safe, children are also capable of keeping themselves safe in many situations by following rules, showing respect, and communicating clearly to each other with words and body language. The toughest part is mastering which problems they can handle independently, and which ones need a teacher’s help. During recess times, children get real, hands on practice figuring out the difference.

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Recess should be a time when children get to practice being individuals in the real world.  It is a time for learning how to climb up on the swing and pump all by yourself.  It is a time to chase and be chased, and to learn how to make it clear to others when you don’t want to play anymore.  It is a time for learning to get down from the top of the monkey bars without help.  And if you fall? There is mulch underneath; and in the bigger scheme of things, a skinned knee is simply not a big deal.

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The Third Teacher

When I was in fifth grade, I had Mr. Lewis for my teacher.  Mr. Lewis drove a sparkly gold Sunbug, and had the full hair and handlebar mustache of Burt Reynolds (think “Smokey and the Bandits”).  He was young, energetic, and most importantly, one cool dude.

Burt Reynolds, 1973

Burt Reynolds, 1973

But as far as I was concerned, the most important thing about Mr. Lewis was that his classroom was unlike any other I had experienced. The year was 1973, and in Mr. Lewis’s fifth grade room, Language Arts meant putting on plays and memorizing really cool poems.  Handwriting meant learning calligraphy – with pens that you dipped in black ink. A group of us were even allowed to dispense with spelling altogether, and in a rare break from some of our previous learning experiences, Mr. Lewis actually spoke to us as if we were people.

But if you asked me what was the one thing that changed learning for me the most in fifth grade, it was the giant cardboard forts.  Oh, and the pillows.

Recognizing that ideal classroom set-up for teachers isn’t always the best learning environment for children, Mr. Lewis relegated the heavy classroom desks to one side of the room, and allowed us to create our own learning spaces.  It has been forty years since I set foot in Mr. Lewis’s classroom, but I still remember the refrigerator boxes, and the pillows and blankets and forts under desks, and the corners of the room that we created, decorated, inhabited and embraced.

The irony is that our tucked away corners and caves did not isolate us from each other, but in fact helped us connect, and be more present in our surroundings.  We had been given permission to shape our own environment, and the process was a group endeavor. Instead of hiding my book inside the opening of my desk and reading while I was supposed to be listening, I could now read openly  in a refrigerator box.  Instead of sitting in a “collaborative” grouping of four desks pushed together, we were allowed to find our own group spaces – on pillows in a corner, or tucked side by side under a table.  Mr. Lewis was one cool dude, and we had one cool classroom.

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I’m not advocating trashing all desks and decorating classrooms with refrigerator boxes; I’m sure my recollections of fifth grade have been built up by time and a child’s desire to hold on to the part of a memory that speaks to her.  But I’ve never forgotten the hold fifth grade had on me: how a teacher’s personal philosophy, appreciation for the aesthetics of classroom environment, and respect for the needs of ten year-olds meshed to create a learning environment that actually made me wake up, put down my book, and pay attention.

Maybe not refrigerator boxes, but what about these?

Maybe not refrigerator boxes, but what about these?

There is no one-size-suits-all learning environment for children of any age: each classroom needs to reflect the vision of its teachers, the age of its students, the philosophy of its school and the economic and physical realities of the school community.  But within an individual classroom, the physical environment can be a powerful force that invites and inspires children to ponder and wonder.  In the Reggio Emilia early childhood learning philosophy, classroom environment is described as the “third teacher.”  Founder Loris Malaguzzi wrote,

“We value space because of its power to
organize, promote pleasant relationships
between people of different ages, create a
handsome environment, provide changes,
promote choices and activity, and its potential
for sparking all kinds of social, affective and
cognitive learning.”

I like to believe that the classroom environment can be the “third teacher” for students of all ages.  Whether you are parent or child, college student or pre-teen, teacher, secretary or scientist, a classroom should welcome you, and invite you in.  It should comfort you, relax you and encourage you to express yourself.  It should provoke you to think, dream and explore.  It should be flexible, and be adaptable to a theme of study, or a style of collaboration.  It should celebrate nature and objects of beauty.  It should inspire you to be curious and creative.

Reggio classroom

Reggio classroom

Quiet reading area

Quiet reading area

Reggio home living area

Reggio home living area

So this year, I’m changing things up.  I’m confident that in our PreKindergarten classroom we have a pedagogy that inspires and a curriculum that sparks.  But I think our actual classroom environment could do more to inspire creative thought, and to reflect what goes on inside.  To steal a term from the business community, we’ll call it our “growing edge.”

This summer I unearthed and reread one of my favorite books; Designs for Living and Learning, digested a new one called Inspiring Spaces for Young Children, pored over hundreds of photographs from other Reggio-inspired classrooms, created an iPad replica of our classroom and furniture, and began to learn the basics of the Rating Observation Scale for Inspiring Environments (ROSIE), which I plan to use as a rubric to help me assess our PreK room.

Last week I moved furniture left and right and forward and back, and put together a tentative skeleton – a work in progress – of what I hope will ultimately be a more visually inspiring, thought-provoking classroom.  

The library as seen from the science area

The library as seen from the science area

The Art Studio from the outside

The Art Studio from the outside

The Playhouse

The Playhouse

The Playdough Center

The Playdough Center

The ROSIE observation guide uses the metaphor of a plant growing to mark one’s progress in developing an inspiring classroom: from sprouting to budding to blooming.  We are definitely in the sprouting stage: our new school year begins tomorrow, and our students will show us which elements of the classroom work, and which ones need improvement.  Since highlighting children’s work is at the heart of an inspiring classroom, our students will have much to explore, create and share in order to make our classroom begin to bloom.

Display of children's work in Reggio classroom

Display of children’s work in Reggio classroom

 Here’s to a new school year, and another amazing journey of discovery.