Tuesday, May 14, 2019

It Wasn't Peek-A-Boo, Respecting Infants at Play

Last week, a colleague of mine asked, "What does a child-led, play based program look like for infants and toddlers?" For many, it is really easy to see how to follow a child's lead with older children. It is easy when children can communicate with you, when they can tell you what they are doing or want to do, but how to do you embrace a child-led, play philosophy with our youngest learners?

As a home based childcare program with mixed ages, I have the wonderful opportunity of learning, growing, and playing with children of all ages. In our program we support  a play based program for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, school aged children, pre-teens, teenagers, and sometimes even adults! Regardless of age, supporting play boils down to relationships and trusting the player.

For infants, this means providing a lot of materials that support child development and what we know about children at this age and stage of development. For infants it means getting rid of the "containers" and allowing them the ability to trust their bodies. Placing them on the floor or ground where they can work on building their gross motor skills is crucial. Additionally, you will want to make sure to have an adequate amount of materials readily available at their level. 

It also means that you need to be a close, careful observer. Before young children verbally communicate, you can read body language. Facial expressions are crucial to understanding what a child may want/need.  Children generally will develop an understanding of language (receptive language) prior to expressive language. Having a strong relationship with the child and watching and listening to their cues will assist you in understanding what the child wants/needs. 

Young children need to have a variety of materials available to do the things that young children do.

 They need things to fill,
things to dump,
things to climb,
things to hit,
things to grab,
 things to push,
things to pull,
things to bite,
places to be alone,
places to be next to each other. 

Young children need you to support their play, but not interfere with it. Sometimes you will hear this referred to as an invisible support. This means that you pay attention. You look to see what additional materials may be needed.... If you all of a sudden have an influx of infants and toddlers, you may need more of the same materials as those children are solitary players or parallel players. It also means that you may need to step in to help children problem solve. However, keep in mind that if you really trust children, you will see that they generally find a way to work things out. I try not to interfere unless I am concerned about harm to self, others, or materials.  (This does not mean that I do not sometimes play with children. I wait for the child to invite me into the play, and I follow their lead.)

The children in this photo spent quite a bit of time playing independently in the same space. There was the "classic" give and take of materials. I often see it as part of the game, they take turns giving and taking things from each other. I've seen a lot of adults jump in when they see a young child take something from another, wanting the child to "give it back." Obviously if the children need help facilitating this I am all for jumping in to help them express what they want/need. However, 9 times out of 10, I have observed that this give and take is merely part of the game. It is part of the interaction and learning of how to play and be together.  (You may notice that when an adult does interject and ask a child to give something back, often times, no one actually wants the item anymore.)

You may have noticed the majority of photos in this post are of a young child playing with a receiving blanket. She spent quite a bit of time lifting the blanket, lowering it, straightening it out, and lifting it again. At first glance, it may have looked like peek-a-boo. However, instead of intruding on the play and making the assumption that she wanted to play peek-a-boo, I sat back and observed. She did not look over to me at any time as she played. She did not have a visible change in facial expression when the blanket was lowered. I trusted that she knew what she needed to do. I watched quietly and took some photos. Was she exploring the air movement when the blanket moved? Was it about the difference in light? Was she trying to set the blanket just right? Was it about up and down? Could it have been something else??? There are so many things she might have been up to, but really it was her play, she owns that... It may have just been fun... and that's okay too! We will never know what was really going on, but I know for sure that it wasn't peek-a-boo.  Now, if I had intruded, it would no longer have been play. I'm sure she would have smiled and followed my lead, but it would not have been what she was really trying to do. 

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Is It Play? What is Play??

Dan Hodgins, a good friend and colleague posted a great question over on his Invitations to Learning Facebook page today. The question simply stated was, If we plan for it, is it Play??? I invite you to visit the page and get in on that discussion.

Dan is one of my favorite ECE people, not because we agree on everything, but because we don't always. We also tend to make each other think.   After answering his question today and some dialogue with a few other ECE professionals, I have decided to share a few thoughts that were originally published in the Child Central Station Provider's Play Day Book. (This isn't a book you can order, it is just a collection of handouts that changes every year and is given to each attendee of the Play Day).

So here is section 1. During Play Day, we took a lot of time to discuss this in small groups.

Why Choose Play? A Journey to Play

We are living in a time where “play” is almost a 4-letter word. Some advocates have indicated their concern in regard to the possible extinction of childhood, the extinction of play. Why is this? The research continues to support play as the best way for young children to learn, and yet….. practices do not always match our words or intent. The value of play although repeatedly proven, has been diminished. People continually challenge and question the validity play has an children are given fewer and fewer opportunities to play. Why do we have such a hard time allowing and trusting children to learn through play? Why do we continue to add things and call it play when really it is not?

Before we go too far, let’s take some time and reflect…… on PLAY… spend a few minutes jotting down some thoughts and ideas to the following prompts….. Keep in mind there are no right or wrong answers. This is purely for self reflection, contemplation, and group discussion.

What is play? How would you define it?

It can be hard to define play, perhaps think of some tenants or characteristics of play. What makes play, play?

And perhaps… What makes something NOT be play?

Is play something definite? or is there a continuum of play?

What about playful learning? What does playful learning look like?

Would you describe your program as a play based program? Why or why not?

What do you see as your biggest challenge in regard to play?

Defining Play.

I think part of the reason that we have such a difficult time with the term play is that it means so many different things to different people. Is play the opposite of work? Can play and work co-exist? Is learning play? Can play and learning co-exist? Are they one in the same? Does ALL play have purpose? Play has value, and the research shows time and time again that play is important and the best way for children to learn. I do think that some practitioners and systems have also taken advantage of this research and have perverted play, trying to sell things off as being play that truly are not.

So, for a moment… Let’s get on the same page. Let’s look at how we define play.

Dictionary.com defines play “To exercise or employ oneself in diversion, amusement, or recreation” or “to do something in sport that is not to be taken seriously” I wonder, a diversion from what? and really? Are you serious? not to be taken seriously? No wonder why play is on the extinction list… the dictionary does not give play any justice….. Play is not a diversion, play needs to be taken seriously…. and fortunately for us, there are researchers who have spent a lot of time looking at a better definition and proving time and time again that play is important, that play has value, and we need to start paying more attention and embracing the benefits of play.

Dr Peter Gray says that play has 5 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.

(Psychology Today, November 19, 2008).

So, according to this… anytime YOU the teacher determine the activity or come up with the project or plan… It is not truly play. Again… Play needs to be self chosen and self directed. To get the full benefits, the child needs to drive their own explorations and learning. Play is a process! We need to trust that process and we need to remember and to trust that young children are capable!

Dr Peter Gray also indicated that play is not black and white, that there is a continuum of play. Meaning that activities and pieces of our lives can be partially play and partially not at the same time.

How do you feel about play? Does this set of criteria work for you???

What do others have to say about play?

Teacher Tom, (Tom Hobson) describes play as one of his students proclaimed, Play is…. “What I do when no one tells me what to do.”

“Play is the highest form of research” -Albert Einstein

“Play is the answer to how anything new comes about” - Jean Piaget

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” -Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Play is often talked about like it is a relief from serious learning, but for children play is serious learning” - Fred Rogers

“Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold.” - Joseph Chilton Pierce

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than you can in a year of conversation” - Plato

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old, we grow old because we stop playing” George Bernard Shaw

“Play is the highest expression of human development in childhood, for it alone is the free expression of what is in a child’s soul” -Friedrich Froebel

“Play is not frivolous, It is not a luxury. It is not something to fit in after completing all of the important stuff. Play is the important stuff. Play is a drive, a need, a brain building must do.” Jeff A Johnson & Denita Dinger

“Play is a signal that nature’s wisdom is being enacted” Jane Goodall

“Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity of humor” Dr Stuart Brown

More questions to ponder…...

So… What exactly is play? Can anyone besides the player really determine if it is true play?

How can we support children and encourage more opportunities for play?

Why is there a dichotomy between play and academics? If play is the best way to learn isn’t play academic? 

This is a question I deal with all of the time, and I think the biggest difference between what many folks define as a play based program and an academic based program boils down to one characteristic of play. In a true play based program children have a lot of power and control over their time, explorations and environment, they as the players have the opportunity to choose and design their own learning. The more child-centered a program is and the more opportunities children have to drive their own explorations, the truer it is to play. Where things start to get muddy is when adults start to attempt to control the learning by providing “fun”, “cute” activities for the children to meet an adult goal or drive. Remember, that just because something is fun does not mean that it is play! (on a side note, this is why the term playful learning drives me nuts… All play is learning, but when an adult has their own agenda and is pushing academics or ideas it is no longer play and in many cases the children do not learn the subject matter as it is not real or relevant to them.)

Originally published by Amy Ahola DBA Central Station 2016 (c) All Rights Reserved.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Pass Me the Yogurt Cups! A few thoughts on Loose Parts

A few years back, I attended an amazing professional development conference. Like all opportunities to learn and grow, I found myself among many like minded people. One of the beautiful things about diversifying the training I attend is that I am exposed to a variety of programs and points of view.  During this particular session, I found myself questioning my practice and wondering if what the presenters were sharing really fit with my point of view and practice.

Are you familiar with the idea of loose parts? If not, there are plenty of resources out there for you to explore. The basic premise is that children don't need to have toys that have a single purpose. The idea is that you can provide them with a variety of odds and ends where they can be creative and use them for a multitude of different uses.

You'll find some practitioners who promote the loose parts theory who can give you a recipe... or a plan for exactly what to use and add. They may tell you to make sure that you store them in baskets and that everything needs to be "aesthetically pleasing".   I urge you to question that... I have spent a lot of time reflecting on this. What is aesthetically pleasing to adults may not be as inviting to young children. And, for us, sometimes baskets are just not practical. I use some baskets in our program, but seriously, they are not always practical. Do you know how quickly baskets can be destroyed... and not because children are being especially destructive, but because most baskets are not made to withstand the use that young children put them through.

A couple of statements from that workshop run through my mind daily. They told us to go home and throw out the yogurt cups.  It's a good thing that I'm not very good at being a blind follower. In fact, I urge you to collect some yogurt cups. The plastic yogurt cups are used daily in our program. Not only are they a favorite loose part for many of the children, they make sense in our program. They are economically a sound investment. They are also being reused as opposed to being recycled or thrown away. Did I mention that the children love them? They fill them, they dump them, they pretend they are cups. They stack them, they knock them down. They send them flying with the catapult... They are used in so many different ways.

I also want to you to consider this... It is a thought that has continually been running through my mind. I don't think loose parts really have to do with the actual parts. Think about it, I mean yes you can be given a list of things to put into your classroom to use and you can come up with some of your own things... but is it really about the stuff?? or is the idea really more about a mindset?  Are there only certain things that can be considered loose parts???

Here is my take. I think the theory of loose parts is a mindset. I think that anything can be a loose part when the classroom culture supports it. If children are given the freedom to use equipment and are trusted to explore how they see fit, I don't think the "stuff" really matters.  I have seen children use toy cars as money. I have also seen children use just about anything they can find to build structures and piles with. Once, while I was visiting and consulting at a program I was puzzled as to why they had a parking structure/ramp/garage  for the children in almost every classroom. It seemed to take up a lot of space and not have much in terms of play value. However, the program supported children and the culture allowed for that piece of equipment to be used in so many different ways! Had I not spent time observing the children there, I may have recommended getting rid of the structure. If given the freedom and the option to imagine,  children will turn anything into that which they need.

Do you use loose parts in your classroom? 

What are your favorite loose parts?  

Do you think it is a set of materials or a mindset? 

I'd love to hear your take on loose parts in the classroom! 

Friday, April 19, 2019

Santa's Dead

"LOOK! It's Santa!" I exclaimed in my best impression of elf as I noticed a child putting on a Santa suit.

"I'm not SANTA! I'm -------"

"Oh, I thought you were Santa."

"No, Santa's dead. I guess I have to deliver the presents now" (with a deep sigh)

"Santa's dead?? What happened?"

"Yeah, Santa's dead. It's a long story"

and.. just like that he skipped off to play.  Clearly the story was too long to tell, and he had other things that were more important to do than to share it with me. 

Many programs are looking at the calendar and providing materials and lesson plans revolving around spring and Easter. We tend not to look too closely at the calendar and instead follow the lead of the children. We have many holiday related materials available to the children, but they are available year round. On any given day of the year you will most likely find a child dressed up as Santa (in fact, one the children has dressed as Santa every day for about the last 2 years.) Children also regularly trick or treat and play hide and seek with plastic Easter eggs.  We don't rotate most of our supplies, because as adults, who are we to say what will be needed when. 

Thursday, April 18, 2019

The Tattling Tattle Monster


Stop disrespecting a child's cry for help by making them talk to a wall, a phone where no one is there, a stuffed animal... or a crazy made up tattle monster. 

When your spouse or your best friend comes to you to talk with you about a problem, do you send them to the wall or ask them to talk to a phone where no one is there? Of course not! When we value a relationship we seek connection, we listen, we respond, we help. So, why in the world are we hanging children who come to us for help out to dry? 
Why do some adults think that it is okay to do to children?

Young children tattle.  Children who feel powerless or lack the social/emotional skills to navigate a situation tattle. Children who are used to the adults in their lives solving all of their problems tattle. 

What message are we sending young people when we ask them to tell their problems to the wall? To me it certain looks like "I don't care what you have to say" and it sends the message that we are not here to help and support that child. What happens when we do that for all of the little things and then a child has a really big thing they need to discuss with and need help with? Are they going to come to you? Probably not. 

And... on the other hand, what message are we sending when a child comes to you and you are the one who solves the problem, you tell the children what to do? Of course you are going to have a TON of tattling, because children don't trust themselves to solve their problems. They rely on you to do it for them!

If you really want to limit the amount of tattling, give the children support and the skills to feel empowered and to work out those social situations. Tattling, like any other form of behavior is a child's way of communicating a need. Sometimes children communicate in ways that really get on our nerves... tattling, whining, acting out.... you name it... but really... they are just trying to communicate, connect and have their needs met..... So let's help them.

"Ms. Amy, Suzy took the cars out!"
"It sounds like you need to talk to Suzy, do you need my help?"

When a child approaches you with the problem, remind them who they need to talk to. Sometimes I will ask them, "who do you need to talk to?" or I will as stated above, use the child's name. Sometimes the child will say yes that they need my help, sometimes they will just march over to talk to the other child. In either case, I tend to move closer to the children so that I can be there to support if needed. Sometimes children will say yes that they need my help, and in those cases I will often give them some options as to how I may help them? Like: Do you need me to stand by you while you talk to Suzy? Do you need help figuring out what you want to say to Suzy? or What can I do to help?

I try to teach young children to be assertive. I help them with "I statements" and I validate their feelings. 

"Suzy, I don't want you to take the cars out!"
"But I want to play with the cars"

In this case.... the child just did not want someone to play with the cars, and Suzy wanted to play. The cars were on the shelf all morning until Suzy took them out.  I stood by while she talked to Suzy. Sometimes I need to help the children hear each other. Saying things like "I heard Suzy say..... " or did you hear what she said? 

Sometimes the child who is tattling will not get the result that they want, and in those instances I try to validate their feelings. 
"You really wanted the cars to stay put away."

In many cases, when doing this, the child opens up with their reasoning or more of their thought process and then you can help them decide what they are going to do next. 

"I didn't want all these cars out because now there is no room for my blocks!!!!"  and there it is.. the root of the issue for this child.... They needed space to play with the blocks. Would I have found that out if I sent her to talk to the wall or the tattle monster? Would she have gained practice in talking with other children and working to find a solution? 

"Let's see if we can find another place to play with the blocks. Where do you think might work?"

Children who are given the time, the skills (through modelling), and the opportunities to practice social skills do not tattle, because they are empowered to work it out. 

Now please, throw away those tattle monsters.... stop sending children to talk to walls.... or on phones where no one listens. 

Be present and answer their cries for help, so that they will gain the skills needed to work through their problems and the amount of tattling you have in your classroom/program will decrease. 

My friend died

 I learned a hell of a lot from Dan Hodgins.  He was mentor, a friend, and a "bone shaker" for many of us in the field of Early Ch...