Monday, February 27, 2017

More on How Choosing Helps Learning

Last month we blogged about the importance of choice time. This short follow up helps illustrate what it looks like when children make choices from shelves during a work period. When we trust children to make choices we are perpetuating an image of the child as capable.  This image is rooted in a few important beliefs:

  • All children are competent, capable, and bring a wealth of knowledge to the classroom.
  • Children are always in the process of developing self-awareness: as learners, in friendship, and as members of families, culture, and communities.
  • Play-based experiences take many forms.
  • Children need opportunities for discovery and play AND guidance, modeling, and support to be successful learners and develop positive identity.

In rich learning environments, discovery and explicit instruction coexist. From Dewey (1916) we learned that all children need time to tinker, build, experiment, and hypothesize. Montessori taught us that they also need instruction or modeling in technique, social norms, and how to extend play experiences (Lillard, 2005). This intentional modeling is important because for some children an engaging school day can mediate risk factors outside of  school that make learning challenging. While discovery and free play are important, some children cannot simply be left to figure things out solely on their own.
  • Imagine a child trying to use a dry brush with watercolor paints. The child may never discover why the paints don’t work and painting is consequently unsatisfying. Teachers must coach children to become the “boss of the paints” via intentional teaching of how to use a brush and watercolors, a very Montessori and Reggio approach (Curtis & Carter, 2008, p. 124).
  • Imagine children going into dramatic play and dumping all the pretend food and dishes in dramatic play. Children need someone to introduce a scenario such as shopping or preparing food, a practice rooted in Vygotsky’s ideas of socially constructed learning and in Montessori’s approach to presenting materials in a systematic way (Bedrova & Leong, 1995; Lillard, 2005).
  • Imagine “academic” experiences that are only offered via coloring pages or worksheets.  is a very different experience from hands-on materials that children can interact with. Showing children the techniques and routines that accompany certain materials or play experiences supports success.

These “lessons,” can cover everything from learning to put on a coat, social interactions, as well as instruction in using specific materials.  For young children there is no lesson too small; opening a lunch box, carrying blocks, interrupting politely, and using a paintbrush all require instruction. When children don’t use materials with care, it is usually because teachers have not taken the time to carefully unpack the steps, purposes, or interactions.  Then we fall into the trap of having to police behaviors we don’t want to see rather than introducing behaviors we do want to see.

Things to try:

    • Show children how to be purposeful with all materials: Use a small workmat at meeting to define your space as you carefully show materials. Demonstrate how to carry, setup, and do specific activities. Practice before you have the children in front of you.
    • Go into different areas to demonstrate: Gather in the block area and say, “This is the block area. This how we carry the longest blocks. Who would like to try?”  Keep the language minimal, specific, and include key vocabulary.
    • Slow down your movements: Children will imitate you and if you move fast and carelessly, their imitation will be even sloppier.
    • Offer step by step instruction and then release and check in; this is scaffolding!: After presenting say, “Now, when you go to the table for (collage, making books, sorting, etc.) remember to …”  Then check back with children periodically to see what supports they might benefit from.
      Giving careful presentations of materials and showing children what choices are available using objects that represent the choices helps children to get started  in an area or with an activity.

When shelves are set up clearly it is easier for children to make decisions about what to do, know where things are, and be able to put things away.

Bending down, carrying things, actually supports motor planning and builds confidence and independence.
Look around your room and do a quick check:
  • What materials do you need to demonstrate?
  • Do children know how to use everything and put it away?  
  • Are your shelves organized in a way that children can access materials easily by themselves during choice time?