Video

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.

The Rule of Three

Pigs, wise men, musketeers.  Veni, vidi, vici.  Waltz, minuet, scherzo.  Red, yellow, blue.  Larry, Curley and Moe.  Triangles!

From the very beginning of our Fairy Tale theme, our PreKindergarten class latched on to the Rule of Three with passion, preoccupation and persistence. Six weeks later, they are still going strong; finding threes in everything from the days of the month to the number of clouds in the sky, to the words that fall from their teachers’ lips. (“Ms. Pratt, you just told Khoi to put away the playdough three times!“)

Of course, an exploration of Fairy Tales is the perfect venue for that magical number three, and its deliciously concrete foundation is perfect for this age.  When we read a new tale, eyes shine, ears sharpen and hands itch to shoot in the air with yet another example of that magical number to share.

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A morning meeting brainstorm session: things that come in threes.

The three building blocks of a  CRS classroom (constructivism, creativity and connections) allow us the freedom to respond to the interests of our students, and adjust our curriculum accordingly.   For our fairy tales theme, this meant taking the number three and running with it mathematically and literally – in the true sense of the word.

Paul Galdone’s version of the Three Little Kittens, is a dream of a book; it rhymes, it repeats, the sequence is clear, and that whole kittens-lose-things-and-mommy-gets-mad-so-they-don’t-get-pie thing just plays right into the psyche of a five-year old.  After reading (and singing) it together as a class, we challenged our students to sequence the story from beginning to end.

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PreK’s sequence of The Three Little Kittens, by Paul Galdone.

Why write the sequencing of four and five year olds on a whiteboard?  Children love to see their words in print (even messy print) – it gives them validity and importance.  As they dictated and I wrote, children raised their hands to make the following observations:

  • There are eleven different things that happened in Three Little Kittens!
  • They go just like a book: across, and then down and over and across again!
  • Why does each thing start with T?
  • Each thing starts with Th!  I see They and The!
  • It says “The End!”

The next day’s morning question sported three mysterious plastic counting bears. What were they doing there?

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“These make me think of…”

The three bears on the morning question made our students think of a variety of things, some of which they spelled and wrote themselves. BARS (bears), BIG, MED, SMALL; DRTH MOL (the Star Wars character Darth Maul apparently sports the same bright red of the middle bear); sizes; MAE (me – Arturo does look like a teddy bear!); PATTERN and BOOK.  Answering the morning question is all about reading, thinking, writing, language, speaking and listening – all of the language arts in one fell swoop.

The inevitable three little piggies made their first of many appearances one Wednesday morning, as part of Thematic Explorations time.  In search of a more global version, we read The Three Little Javelinas, by  Susan Lowell. The story structure is similar to the classic version, but the javelinas make their houses out of tumbleweeds, saguaro cacti and adobe bricks, and the wolf is replaced by a coyote.

Once we had read the story, we challenged our PreKers to build houses that that their teachers (The Two Ms. Coyotes) could not blow down, using classroom building materials.  We paired them up, and put them to work:

Lucas and Mia chose to build a house of blocks

Lucas and Mia chose to build a house of blocks

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Alana and Tucker used jumbo Cuisinaire Rods.

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Ollie, Khoi and Sam used Magneatos. There was heated discussion over how to make the structure stable.

Success!

Success!

Jack and Isabella began with Tinker Toys, but after several collapsed efforts, moved on to other materials.

Jack and Isabella began with Tinker Toys, but after several collapsed efforts, moved on to other materials.

"Ms. Srikanth, can you blow this down?"

“Ms. Srikanth, can you blow this down?”

Thematic teaching means watching for the “sparks,” those moments of collective excitement and engagement, and fanning those sparks into flames that inspire further exploration.  A true test of the educational value of an activity in PreKindergarten is whether or not students in the class choose to recreate it, explore it in greater depth, or carry it further of their own accord.  So Vanita and I were more than thrilled when our students asked us to “put out these things again tomorrow so we can build some more pig houses.”  Here they are the next morning, during their free play time.

Jack and Lucas revisiting the

Jack and Lucas building coyote-proof housing

Tucker, Sam and Ollie building a piggy mansion

Tucker, Sam and Ollie building a piggy mansion

The ultimate pig domain

The ultimate pig domain.  Can you find the piggy?

It took several days of immersion in the rule of three before PreKers made a connection between our fairy tale threes and the shape and parts of a triangle.  No longer just any old shape, but a shape with three corners and three sides, the triangle took on new importance in the classroom.  We worked on drawing them:

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For our own sadistic pleasure, Vanita and I included an instruction asking parents to sing the triangle poem, to the tune of Three Blind Mice.

And we discovered that depending how you turn them, triangles can look a bit different from each other.

An orientation pattern

An orientation pattern

We even had a triangle treasure hunt, where we challenged our PreKers to find objects in the room and make triangles.  Each triangle had to be made out of multiple pieces of the same material.

Classroom triangles

Classroom triangles

It’s funny how thematic trajectories like our students’ obsession with the Rule of Three ends up drawing us into their world.  They haven’t let go of threes yet, and neither have I.  I’ve renamed a particularly tight group of mischievous boys,”Hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil.”   Vanita and I have created a song for the May Day Assembly entitled “Big Bad Wolf Mashup” which contains three kittens, three bears and three piggies. And did you know that the popular hand game Rock, Paper, Scissors contains three items?  PreKers are particularly fond of choosing “rock,” and whacking fellow “scissors” with a fair amount of force, causing – you guessed it – blood, sweat and tears.

The Evolution of a Parallel Universe

My husband and I love to engage in parallel play before bedtime.

Before you groan and close your browser in disgust, please give me the benefit of the doubt, and read at least a little further.

Parallel play is one of those terms early childhood teachers love to use, right along with its partners in crime: Solitary, Cooperative and Associative. Together these terms describe the developing complexities and subtleties of play as social behavior. There is nothing new or trendy about this vocabulary: these terms were coined over eighty years ago by sociologist Mildred Parten, and teachers have been using them to characterize children’s play ever since. It helps to see the stages as a simple developmental hierarchy: children learn to play, and concurrently children learn to play with each other.  The older they get, the better they get at the cooperative and collaborative aspects of play.

CRS Kindergarten teacher Lisa Larcenaire once jokingly referred to the common nighttime behavior of couples lying side by side in bed, propped up on pillows, intently surfing personal laptops while engaging in occasional mismatched verbal revelations, as “parallel play,” and the term stuck.  Parallel play distinguishes itself from solitary play by close proximity, and an awareness of each other. The only material Larry and I share during parallel play time is the Advil bottle, and if there were only two capsules left, we would fight over them.

Social play behaviors are at the heart of what we see, model and support in the PreKindergarten classroom. Four to five year-olds generally come to school each year fairly well-versed in solitary and parallel play, while their relative strategies and skills with more complex and cooperative play behaviors vary greatly.  This makes perfect sense from a developmental perspective, as a child’s awareness of same-age peers as potential play partners is closely tied to his own egocentrism: if the world is all about me and my needs and desires, why should I cooperate and compromise with others?  What’s in it for me?  

Parallel, associative and cooperative play all in one shot

Parallel play is pretty much is just as it sounds, involving two (or more) children playing near each other, in similar fashion, but each doing their own thing. Picture the child building a house of Lincoln Logs on the rug, while close by another child is building a zoo of animals. Each child is perhaps talking as he or she builds, and is speaking with an awareness of the peer close by. But the conversation is not interactive: Miss Lincoln Logs might say, “And I’m going to put a window right here just like the window in Grandma’s house. I went to Grandma’s house yesterday and she gave me cookies.” Mr. Zoo might interrupt this monologue to state “And then the elephant ate up all the panda bears and knocked down the elephant house.” There is awareness, but little to no interaction, and no attempts to influence the other’s play.

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This type of parallel play situation could (and frequently does) evolve into associative play. Let’s say Miss Lincoln Logs, hearing about the panda bear tragedy, decides she needs one or two bears to finish off Grandma’s cookies. “Can I have two panda bears?” she asks Mr. Zoo. “I’m going to give them cookies at Grandma’s house.” Mr. Zoo answers “You can have one panda bear that escaped from the elephant. All the others are aten up.” The children are still playing their own games and driving their own stories, but the level of awareness of each other’s play has risen, and there is conversation and trading of materials. Larry and I even have moments where we venture into associative play territory at night – when he’s the dummy in his on-line bridge game he can actually hear what I’m saying, and may even grunt in response.

Associative play

Associative play

In PreKindergarten, associative play situations often evolve into cooperative play behavior, though the length of time cooperative play can be sustained before conflict ensues varies greatly. Mr. Zoo has been watching the panda bear eat cookies with interest. “I know!” he says. “The elephant can escape from the zoo and come to Grandma’s house!” Miss Lincoln Logs looks a bit worried, and covers Grandma’s log house with her hands to protect it from a raging, murderous elephant. “Okay, but the elephant just wants cookies, and then he’ll be happy,” she announces. Mr. Zoo concurs, and with a mutually agreed upon plan and shared materials, a bout of cooperative play is underway.  Cooperative play is a gratifying experience for young children, and worth all that hard work.  One look at Tucker’s and Sam’s faces as they stand next to their multi-level garage is proof positive!

Cooperative play

Cooperative play

During our Water theme, Vanita and I experienced some cooperative play of our own coming up with new and interesting ways to explore water in the classroom. We built waterways out of pipes and clamped them to the water table for the children to explore. (Our students, with much shared joy and excitement, promptly figured out how to adjust the pipes so that all the water landed on the floor.)  Our crowning achievement was our waterwall, complete with funnels, tubing, bottles and an aquarium hand pump. These materials kept our little explorers, who trotted about their days sporting dripping sleeves, wet blotches on pants and shirts, and squeaky sneakers, engaged in scientific play for weeks on end.

Our Waterwall

Our Waterwall – I think we were just as proud of our work as Tucker and Sam!

I went through photographs from our water play recently, and found myself looking at the pictures through the lens of Parten’s stages of play behavior. Both the sensory table and waterwall encourage constructive play and exploration; there were certain children who gravitated towards these areas independently, but more frequently, the waterwall became a focal point for social play that fluctuated from parallel to associative to cooperative and back many times over the course of a morning.

As I examined the photos, it struck me how difficult it was to separate my subjective understanding of each child from my interpretation of the play captured in the picture.  I’m posting a series of these photos in the hopes that others who are less familiar  - even unfamiliar – with the children, will enjoy using the lens of stages of social play to experience the pictures in a different way.  And of course, I’d love any comments on what you see!

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Digging a Hole to China

It is mid-morning on a warm and cloudy October day, and the sounds of the playground are at full pitch.  Balls are bouncing, swings are creaking, children are talking, laughing and shouting as they run, dart and climb.  Meanwhile, a small group of four and five-year olds is huddled in the sandbox around a good-sized hole.  Using shovels, scoops, a yellow plastic construction digger, and in one case a large plastic dinosaur, they continue to dig deeper.  After a bit, one child puts down his shovel, leans head first into the hole and shouts, “Ollie, are you down there?”

Before you worry where this story is headed, Ollie is not in fact buried in the sandbox.  But in the minds of his fellow classmates, he might as well be.  Ollie has taken a trip with his family to China, and his friends are determined to make contact.

Earlier that day, in an effort to demonstrate Ollie’s whereabouts, I held up a globe with one index finger on Massachusetts and the other on China.  To a four-year old the enormity of the world is inconceivable, but the idea that Ollie was on the other side (roughly) of a very large ball  captured their interest.  With the curiosity and imagination of true scientists, they looked at the globe and began thinking, What if…

The notion that children demonstrate scientific behavior in play is not new; I would even suggest a corollary – that scientists demonstrate playful behavior in the laboratory.  Play is, by its very nature, creative; it opens one’s mind to new possibilities and allows the freedom to explore the “what ifs,” the “if, thens,” and the “if not, then whats?”  The scientific laboratory of the four-year old won’t win medals for organization, cleanliness or rigorous standards; it is in fact gloriously messy, randomly inspired and riddled with compromise, but most importantly, it is full of wonder, curiosity and the confidence to explore.

Play in the early childhood classroom is not one behavior:  at times it is an open-ended exploration of materials, at times a pile of wrestling puppies, and at times a group facilitated endeavor or game – a community hole digging project, for instance.  But all play behaviors share distinguishing qualities.  Boston College professor Peter Gray defines play as embodying five main characteristics:

“(1) Play is self-chosen and self-directed; (2) Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends; (3) Play has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; (4) Play is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; and (5) Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.”

Child’s play is just that – play by and for children – and as a rule, we teachers deliberately limit our role to surreptitious observation, and support with finding materials, solving conflicts and cleaning up messes.  Whether and how we join in play on any given day is part of the larger philosophical question of how to balance that early childhood teacher role: where do we observe, facilitate, scaffold, listen and lead?  Where do we stand back and let our children fail?  How many dead ends do we allow them to pursue before making an observation, asking a question or providing helpful information?  Seeing our PreKindergarteners as scientists exploring in a laboratory helps us to clarify those edges and give reason to each aspect of our role.

Psychologist Alison Gopnik, a well-known expert in children’s learning and development, has spent her career looking at the cognitive development of children.  Her research has centered on the concept of what she terms “theory theory;” the idea that children intuitively act like scientists in their play and exploration.  Like scientists, she argues, children rely on three general cognitive behaviors to gather information: they look for patterns, they experiment, and they observe the experiments of others.  They integrate newly observed information with their prior knowledge and even make broad generalizations.

In recent studies, both Gopnik and psychologist Christine Legare have explored children’s ability to predict both causal and counterfactual relationships in play. (Think of a typical causal relationship as a child’s reasoning that wearing rain boots will keep his feet from getting wet, and counterfactual reasoning as the same child with wet feet, saying “If Mommy hadn’t forgotten to pack my boots, my feet wouldn’t have gotten wet today.”)   Legare’s recent work has concentrated on presenting children with materials that behave in a consistent, predictable manner that enables children to identify causal relationships, and then introducing an anomaly into the presentation. “Why did that happen?” she asks.  “Can you tell me more?  Do you have any other ideas?”

An example of counterfactual reasoning

Legare has found strong evidence in her work that children respond to inconsistencies in causal relationships with increased curiosity and interest.  They spend more time exploring the materials, summoning prior knowledge, making and trying out hypotheses and crafting verbal explanations for what they see.  We see evidence of this heightened interest in our classroom daily; the inconsistencies are as simple as the block that won’t balance properly and as complex as the conflict that arises when three participants in a dramatic game want to be the Mommy.  When we step into these situations and try to “fix” them or influence the outcome, we rob our students of the chance to be physicists and peacemakers.

Meanwhile Ollie is still in China, and PreK’s efforts at reaching him through the sandbox are going nowhere quickly.  One particularly informed five-year old has shared the exciting news that there is hot burning lava in the center of the earth, and the anxious faces of his classmates suggest that this is an area of great and grave interest: what will happen to us if we keep on digging?  Gradually, concern that flames lurk just under the surface of the sandbox prevails, and the children step warily back from their hole.

In the laboratory of the sandbox, the children have not been able to prove their original hypothesis,  ab, and they conclude that digging a hole in the sand will not lead to Ollie. That flaming ball of lava in the middle of the earth provides great fodder for counterfactual reasoning (“We would have been able to reach Ollie if the fire hadn’t been down there!”);  the very idea is both exciting and scary, which makes its pull irresistible.

As much as we would like to, Vanita and I are unable to provide our students with the sophisticated digging equipment they need for further research (a fireproof earth bisecting submarine?).  Sadly, our PreK  Science Laboratory has fallen prey to the same funding shortages plaguing most scientific research.  In a grown-up  laboratory, PreK’s attempt to dig to China would be considered an unsuccessful experiment. In the science laboratory of early childhood play, however, each  failure is simply an anomaly worth further investigation: a starting point for new ideas and a search for a greater depth of understanding.  New questions have arisen from the digging experiment.  Why couldn’t we dig that hole?  What is under that sandbox, really?  Is there fire?  Is it poisonous?

The phrase “teachable moment” has become cliché, but Vanita and I sense that we have reached one.  Our playful scientists have exhausted their resources and funding, and are looking to us for new avenues of support.  Their play has initiated a heightened level of interest in the earth, and what goes on beneath the surface.  They are ripe to make meaningful connections with a good book.

Faith McNulty’s How To Dig A Hole To The Other Side Of The World is met with rapt attention, many questions and thoughtful observations.  McNulty invites our PreK children to travel deep down through the earth and learn about rocks, geysers, basalt, hidden pools of water, the mantle and that flaming hot core at the center. (Which, we point out, is way way way far away from our sandbox.)

It has been a couple of weeks now since our PreK children first dug their hole to China. To the joy of his classmates, Ollie has returned unharmed from his journey.  Meanwhile Hurricane-Post-Tropical-Cyclone-Superstorm Sandy has blown through, dumping wind and water, taking out part of the 6th grade roof and giving us a couple of unexpected days off from school.   We return to find our classroom and playground reassuringly intact.

That is, except for the sandbox, where the PreKindergarten hole to China has undergone a surprising transformation.  Our children crowd around in fascination, alternately extending a foot to touch the surface and bending over to stare in.  There is no need to worry about flames anymore, for the hole is deep and full of water.  As the children lean over the hole, we can hear their voices rising with excitement.

“What if…”

Learning Between the Lines

A guest post by my terrific co-teacher, Vanita Srikanth

“Ms. Srikanth?” a PreK-er pipes up. “Is it night time for the big feet right now?” “Well,” I begin, not really sure where this conversation is going, “I don’t think there really is such a thing as big foot…” I get a withering stare in response. “I mean our pen pals!” she adds disdainfully. Oh. Whoops.

This year, Karen and I decided it would be fun to have penpals from another country. We study messages and communication as one of our themes, and are constantly looking for ways to make our curriculum take on a more global focus. My grandmother, who has been an early childhood Montessori teacher for as long as I can remember, was able to put us in touch with a Kindergarten class at the Little Feat Montessori school in Bangalore, India, who responded with eagerness and enthusiasm to our idea of forming a relationship.

This PreK-er’s question about whether it was night time for the big “feet” stemmed from a discussion that we had after writing our first email to our penpals. In this email, we introduced ourselves, asked the burning questions (“what color is the door in your classroom?” “do you have a playground?”), and shared a little bit of information about ourselves. We ended our email with a request for them to write back to us. When we clicked “send” on the email, I explained to them that the email would reach India right away, but that since it was night in India and all the students were sleeping, they probably would not read it until the morning.   Twenty fours later, the next morning in our time zone, we received an email from the school’s principal, thanking us for our email and letting us know that the children were handwriting us letters and would be sending them to us in the postal mail.

I’ll admit, I was a bit surprised when we heard that each child was handwriting a letter back to us. They’re still just in Kindergarten, I kept telling myself. Even having parents who grew up in India and being married to someone who spent the first 30 years of his life there, I remain woefully ignorant of the Indian education system, save for a summer I spent during college interning in a Montessori school in Bangalore.  I knew that there was a strict focus on rules, behavior, and neatness, but due to the small sample size (one school an educational system does not make), I couldn’t really come to any sort of overarching conclusion about what a PreK and Kindergarten curriculum must be like there.

Two weeks later, Karen and I received a package in the mail from our penpals. We opened it while the children were out of the room to organize the letters, and were shocked (I believe jaws may have dropped) to find 20 beautiful handwritten letters, done in perfect cursive, complete with detailed drawings with not a trace of scribbling.

Reading our letters from India

Ok, Karen and I brainstormed, what are we going to have our children do? Do we make them handwrite letters back? What about the spelling? The drawing?  In the end, we decided to have our class draw pictures back to their penpals. We would write their words, and they would be responsible for signing their names at the end of their letters.  The result of these letters was exactly what I would expect a 4- and 5-year old’s work to look like.

An example of a PreK penpal letter

An example of a Little Feat Kindergarten penpal letter

But why is there such a stark contrast in the letters? And more importantly, does it matter? My gut instinct would be to say absolutely not. Schooling is different in different countries for many reasons, a number of them being cultural.  What I took away from my conversations with my husband and my mother is that schooling in India, unlike a lot of early childhood schooling that happens in the United States, is solely an academic experience. There is no time spent on social/emotional learning, no thought given to the importance of play in learning, and little need for teaching cooperation, sharing, and other social skills. The reason for this is that most of the social learning for children happens at home, where it is extremely common to have multiple generations of families living in one home, games on the street take the place of games on the playground, and cooperation and sharing skills are learned within the confines of the home and among regular social events with extended family.

So why do we do things differently here? Why are we so happy with and so in favor of our more play-based and hands-on curriculum? The fact is, free play is one of my favorite times of the day. Within a 45-minute span we see cooperation, sharing ideas and listening to the ideas of others, working through conflicts with words (and yes, occasionally still our hands), thinking logically about next steps, and showing kindness and compassion to one another. Because the reality is that all those core academic skills—the beautiful handwriting, the ability to draw representationally– will develop and be strengthened with time.  When you look back ten years from now, it’s not going to matter that your child wrote his “L” backwards for all of PreK, or that a picture of a horse looked more like four lines and two dots.  What is going to matter is that during your child’s early schooling, he learned to love school, to be excited about learning, to think critically, to ask questions, to be okay with making mistakes, to take risks, to engage with curriculum, to navigate social relationships, and to be an active participant in a classroom. And here’s the kicker: all of these skills come from play-based and exploratory learning.

PreK students immersed in cooperative play

I think it’s important to recognize that curriculum emerges within specific cultural contexts, so comparing them in absolute terms, particularly for young children, is not productive. Our play-based and hands-on approach to learning comes from our assumptions of what is important for children to learn at this age. Given that children spend much of their weekdays at school, this type of social/emotional learning plays an important role in their academic development as well. So look on the bright side: we’ll take care of the hitting, fighting, and tantrums for you.

Well, most of the time anyways…