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, a→b, 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.