Open-Ended Materials : Tuning Into Affordances

What are affordances?  How can they help us frame children's play experiences?

 
 

One of the biggest hurdles for people beginning to use open-ended materials in the classroom is choosing and curating the materials.  What can a material do?  How can it be used?  What are the possibilities for play and work?  Those are questions that we should ponder as educators, and curators of materials and environment.  Those are questions that we can see children answer through their hands-on play with open-ended materials.  We don't need to orchestrate how play will unfold, but supporting children's play doesn't end with choosing materials

Open-ended materials offer the opportunity for juicy, creative, and independent work for children of all ages.  Choosing and curating materials is not just creating a setup that draws users in : it keeps the user engaged.  Choosing a material that has multiple uses means that one thing is endlessly engaging:  it can be used one way by one child, and another way by the next.  It can be combined with other materials, or perhaps used on its own.  

 

 

Affordances, or clues in the environment that indicate possibilities for action, are perceived in a direct, immediate way with no sensory processing. Examples include: buttons for pushing, knobs for turning, handles for pulling, levers for sliding, etc.  (Source)

 

Those "clues in the environment" can both suggest possibilities, and communicate restrictions.  Blocks, for example, are used for building, usually in a block center.  What might happen if some blocks were put in the sensory table - in particular, blocks that span the width of the sensory table so they might function as platforms or bridges?  A threaded bolt might live at a woodworking station, but it can also make an interesting mark in a soft material, like clay.

This idea is eye opening when we think about it in conjunction with open-ended materials (loose parts), and presenting them to children.  How much does the presentation matter?  How much thinking should we do before we offer children materials?  If we offer children clipboards, we may hope that they write or draw; but paper also affords ripping and cutting, creating confetti, or snow.  At Play Lab, materials move around the space freely. That was a conscious decision - it is part of learning more about my comfort level, and the secret affordances children can see that I cannot.

I thought about this in terms of art materials, too : is there only one way to use paint?  An environmental feature like a chalk wall can start to fall flat when it feels like it is just there to make marks on with chalk.  So, what else does chalk have to offer?  What do we know about chalk that can suggest a new idea?

 

In the video below, M uses markers and a shower curtain ring as a "spinning machine" - a machine that she tried and failed to make for 5 minutes.  She began with a colored pencil and the ring in one hand, and the ring flew off.  She swapped the pencil for a crayon, and the same thing happened.  She swapped the crayon for the marker, and made it a two-handed motion, protecting the ring from flying off.  She had a number of variables, and tested the limits and affordances of the materials.

Affordances

You need to decide how you feel about these kinds of explorations.  There is something tight and nervous inside most of us when it comes to the unknown! Here are a few ways we can tune into the affordances of objects to deepen our understanding, and support children's play with that knowledge.

#1 : Play

A logical first step is for adults to play with materials!  Adults aren't too accustomed to truly open play - most of the messages in our lives tell us that we are either right or wrong.  It is challenging to get into the mental state that children can with their play.  We talk about the importance of play for children, so experiencing it in our own lives can't be a negative thing.

Gather some materials, and see how flexible you can be with them.  How many options does one item afford?  How might you combine different objects and materials to increase the affordances?  

#2 : Be Observant

We need to be prepared to observe children at play.  If children need our support and troubleshooting around the room, we don't get to see and understand children's thinking and meaning in their play.  If children are working with small items and clay, then we should be prepared for children to surprise us.  Clay on the floor, as a bracelet, in their hair, inside small spaces - these are just a few possibilities.  And if we believe that children should have open-ended materials and engage in open-ended play, that takes stepping back, and perhaps some deep breaths, on the part of the educator.

Many of the choices that children make cause adults to cringe.  I was at Play Lab recently, playing with M, a 2.5 year old girl, as her mom watched.  M dumped the markers; she dumped out the crayons; she dumped out the chalk.  She used the now-empty containers to make beds for foxes, and for clay "worms".  There were drawing instruments on the floor and modeling clay on the "drawing" table.  It is absolutely necessary to ask yourself:  does it matter?

It doesn't matter to me; I understand that she is in a place in her understanding of the world where dumping and filling just makes sense.  Observe children before jumping to conclusions about what is inappropriate.  There are different circumstances every minute of the day with young children, and part of our job is to adapt.

#3 : Plan for Playfulness.

The affordances of objects - their secret, hidden uses - are meant to come out loud and clear in children's open-ended play.   If something is happening with a material that is crossing a line, I see that as my planning oversight, not a challenge from children.  I planned for the play, so I should keep the possibilities for what may happen in mind.  Right now, I work in a glass room, so we don't use the golf balls - I haven't quite figured out how to frame that in a way that makes me comfortable.  We may never play with the golf balls here, and that's okay.  I want children to be free and playful; that means that I choose materials that I don't think will need a laundry list of rules attached to them.  

If we are not supporting children's explorations in our planning, then we are putting restrictions on how much children can explore.  Children are natural players - play is an impulse, a spontaneous decision.  And, not everything they do will surprise us:  capes will be worn, blocks will be part of a building.  

#4 : Suggest or Create a New Affordance.

Children want to figure out how things work, and we can give them a few suggestions - that's quite harmless.  I think it may actually be helpful to draw attention to some of the more alternative uses for items.  If we offer pipe cleaners or wire, maybe we wrap one around a pencil, to suggest that the material affords bending and changing form.  This isn't how it must be used, but it suggests how it might be used.

The simple suggestion of that hole in the stump - perhaps a stump that did not have a hole in it the day before - piques children's curiosities.  As an educator, you can draw attention to some of the affordances that you notice, or perhaps the children feel comfortable to begin their experiments unprompted.  This stump is asking to be played with, and a conversation about it in a small or large group would, no doubt, be a rich dialogue - especially if the children know they have an opportunity to interact with this interesting new object.

The goal is not for children to discover every possible affordance of an object, but to follow their curiosity to focus.  As a curator, you play a role in the momentum of that curiosity.  The stump alone is one thing; the stump alongside a basket with ropes and string and sticks of varying lengths is another.  The stump on a tarp with buckets of paint, water, and brushes is yet another.  I want to be surprised by children, but I also want to delight them with new possibilities.  

#5 : Reflect

Keep the teacher-self in mind when you work with open-ended materials.  What is making you cringe?  Why?  What is making your co-teacher cringe that isn't bothering you?  What kind of language are you using when you approach children with materials?   From how we were allowed to play as kids to how we are used to running a classroom, we have some deep-seeded ideas about what works and what does not.  

Affordances are not just about making a list of potential uses and hidden possibilities:  it is a way of approaching and working with open-ended materials.  There is a unspoken language of materials in our world, designed by experience and culture.  Can you expand your thinking about everyday materials?


Learn more about materials and affordances in the Materials and Prompts Online Workshop.


Everyday Materials as Toys

This post originally appeared on the Play Lab blog.


 
 

What do remember about being a kid?  What do you remember playing with?  Where do you remember playing?

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For kids, the whole world is a place for play. And, all those things, all that stuff that is around in our day to day lives - it all has a function in play.  Or, an unlimited number of functions in play, really.  When children have the opportunity to make decisions about their play - especially their pretend play - they dig deep to explore the ideas that are a bit of a mystery to them.  What does it feel like to talk on the phone?  To make dinner while the baby is crying?  To put everything inside of this bag?  To be “bad” or “mean”?  

As an adult, what do you remember about your play?

I have memories of sliding down a snowy hill, using cardboard as a sled; of playing hide-and-seek with my siblings in clothing stores, hiding in the middle of round clothing racks while my Mom shopped.  I remember gathering treasures while I played outside all day long - acorn caps and translucent rocks and leaf skeletons.  I remember being up so high in a tree that I thought I might never make it down to the ground again.

As a teacher, I have spent more than a decade watching children play.  Often, that play looks very different than I would have predicted.  When I first began teaching, I tried to make a lot of choices for children - meaning I, the adult, would decide what kids will do at a certain table, or with a certain toy.  Children have their own ideas, though - and it took me a long time to embrace the importance of those ideas.  Play Lab exists as a way to celebrate the competence, the creativity, and the voices of children, so we might understand children’s choices and ideas more deeply.

I envision some exciting things happening at Play Lab - and rather than keeping that learning and new understanding to myself, the plan is to share the messages about children’s voices, ideas, play, and learning.  The goal is letting kids just be kids in their play, in the way that I was given the space to just be a kid.  This doesn’t mean chaos and madness, although we might see some of that.  It means curating an irresistible and highly interactive space, and trusting children to make their own choices in that space.

Curating the materials in that space is the work that happens before children come in.  The big idea of materials, which we will explore through May, is really a focus on how children use everyday objects.  What do children pretend with everyday objects?  How do these everyday things help children learn more about how the world works?

When you were a kid, did you ever pretend that a fork was a hairbrush?  Did you ever try to stack the salt and pepper shakers while you waited for food at a restaurant, or build a fort out of couch cushions?  Can small stones, lined up along the floor, become a path or a road?  

It might seem silly to promote a focus on this kind of play - the kind of play that most adults now will say they engaged with as children.  My 1980's childhood was full of time and space to explore the world in this way.  My play was deeply engaging, and very independent.  The norm seems to have shifted to increased screen time, with less energy put towards hands-on, interactive, engaging, child-driven play.  I believe that all kids - not just little ones - are really engaged when they are in control of their play in an interesting, curated environment.  Play Lab aims to be that place for kids, and a place that helps adults learn more about making this kind of independent play available for kids in and around their homes, too.

All of this informs the action research question that will guide my teacher research through June:  How might everyday objects support children’s playful learning?  My work is to curate the environment - the space and the materials - and observe and document children interacting with the space and the materials.  These everyday objects range from doorknobs to tile spacers to cardboard - things that are around us in our everyday lives.  These objects get a new, playful life when children interact with them.  In Early Education, the buzzword for these everyday objects is “loose parts”.

I take photos and videos and notes while I observe at Play Lab so that I am able to show, not just tell, the importance of independent play in childhood.  I can’t predict what will happen on a given day because I want Play Lab to be a place where kids make that choice, not adults.  There is a certain pressure to understand our adult role more deeply, and that is another layer to the action research question.  The planning and curation doesn’t stop at the objects in the space - it also matters how we approach children’s ideas and initiatives as the adults.  I believe that we can’t just stand on the sidelines and chat with the other grown ups, but I also believe that we can’t be stuck to children like glue while they play.  Through the programs in the coming months, I’ll think about how our actions as adults influence children’s play decisions - it is something for adults to be conscious of.

 

Loose Parts Installation by Play Lab, 2016

 
 

Giveaway : Becoming Brilliant

Today, I’m giving away two copies of the audiobook Becoming Brilliant, by by Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek.  The authors - long time researchers of all things learning and young children - also wrote Einstein Never Used Flash Cards - a book I am constantly recommending to new parents and teachers.

This is a great listen for anyone who loves to listen to their books on the go, and wants to get a deeper understanding of how we are preparing children for the world and workforce of the future.  

Golinkoff and Hirsh-Pasek introduce their idea of the “6 Cs” in this book: collaboration, communication, content, critical thinking, creative innovation, and confidence.   When I listened to the explanation of these ideas, I thought about the young children that we work with in Early Childhood settings.  The authors highlight the learning that happens in every moment of every day for young children: from walks to car rides to putting on their shoes, every day is filled with learning moments that help children connect with the real world on a deeper level.

This giveaway is closed.  Congrats to the winners!

 

 

Giveaway : Documenting Children's Meaning

I'm giving away a copy of a wonderful book for Early Childhood Educators who are interested in documentation and family engagement!

 
 

Documenting Children's Meaning: Engaging in Design and Creativity with Children and Families  is a book about documentation as a tool for teaching, and for engaging families.  It is a collection of observations and documentation from a drop in program, told by the documenters through stories of materials, space, and people.  

The children and families and educators who interact in this book are all engaged learners: learning about themselves, each other, and the potential of materials and space.  The educators in this space don’t approach their work from a “parents just don’t understand” perspective - which is pervasive and more common than we, as early educators, like to admit.  The Together for Families program sees children and caregivers as partners, not as people to be educated about the “right way” to support children.  All of the people in this experimental space are learners.

This book is about the power of documentation to communicate stories and deepen learning; but more so than that, it is a testimonial about the importance of how families are involved in educational spaces.  We don’t know better than the parents of children about their own child.  We have ideas and theories about spaces and materials, but we need to carefully watch and document the people as they interact with those things.  

This book is an incredible inspiration for the programming at Play Lab, where we will be welcoming children 0-6 years old and their families for explorations of materials and space, and documenting the stories and threads we find over the days, weeks, and months.  This book is an illustration of the discovery of ideas and stories over time, and how families and educators can celebrate this learning and development together.

I have one copy of this fantastic book to giveaway to a lucky reader!  Complete the form below by Sunday, March 12 to enter to win, and the winner will be announced on March 15.  If you win, you'll have the book in your hands by the end of the month!

Thanks to Davis Art, the publisher, for the giveaway!

 

 

Giveaway Entry Form

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What's Going On?

Over the past few years, I have been bringing open-ended materials around my community to create play installations.  The project is called Play Lab.

 
 

I have been trying to find my role in Early Childhood Education:  I consider myself a teacher and an advocate and a writer.  I want to share what I know (and the things I am still learning about) with other teachers.  The online workshops are one way I can connect with other teachers, but the big missing piece is that I am not a classroom teacher: I don't get up in the morning and go to teach children.  

What I know about teaching and childhood is valuable, though, and it has been hard to describe, in words, wonderful things to do with children instead of illustrate those ideas through documentation. 

So this week, Play Lab moved out of my garage and into the world!  Play Lab has a home, in downtown Bellingham, about 600 square feet that will serve as a space for children to explore materials and ideas, and also for educators to learn about play-centered and child-led curriculum.  I plan to be a careful observer and documenter and questioner, using what happens in work with children and teachers to inform the ideas that I pass on to all of you!  The online workshops will not only continue, but they will become richer with the learning happening at Play Lab.  

Play Lab will have drop-in open labs for exploration; registration programs for infants, toddlers, and 3/4s; open planning sessions for teaching teams; book clubs; and workshops for educators.  I hope to work with area schools to help teachers add elements of true, child-centered play to their curriculum.  I see Play Lab as a cyclical place: the ideas we choose to explore with children stem from educator curiosities, approaching all aspects of programming as action research.

 

 
 

Early Childhood is multi-faceted: we think about everything from the physical to the emotional to the cognitive, every day.  Play Lab is a vehicle to learn more about childhood, and about teaching young children.  

Bakers and Astronauts has been an important part of my work since it started in 2008, and I don't plan to let it go.  I plan to let things progress naturally, with a special focus on Play Lab, and the online workshops here on Bakers and Astronauts.  There will be blog posts, there will be new workshops, there will be Instagram stories!  There will be ways for you to engage with Play Lab from afar, or come visit to see for yourself.

If you want to keep up with both Play Lab and Bakers and Astronauts, the best way is through the Early Childhood Playlist: a weekly email that tells you what I'm up to, along with the week's best Early Childhood content from around the web.  Sign up here.

Whether you've been following along since 2008 or you joined somewhere along the road, thanks for reading my words.  There is more to come!

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Kid Music For All!

 
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I've been putting together mix tapes for different Early Childhood occasions: naptime, playtime, and (coming soon) dance time.  

I believe that we can all listen to the same music.  Kids are not born wired to listen to Old McDonald Had a Farm, and I have not met an adult who listens to any version of that song on their own.  Children and adults can listen to music together and enjoy it - neither party needs to suffer!

That said, there is great music out there that is technically for kids, but adults can actually enjoy.  Read on for a few suggestions.


I grew up in a household where Original Cast Recordings from Broadway shows were always playing in the car and in the house.  So, I think I have a soft spot for the sound that John Lithgow tackles on his first album.  Its funny, its upbeat, and it is for kids.  And, underwear songs are great.

In college, I worked at Books of Wonder, an independent children's bookstore in Manhattan.  This CD was displayed on the counter, played on the stereo, and made its way into my student teaching placements.  Dan Zanes and a cast of wonderful musicians play "kid songs" without making you want to rip your hair out, and he peppers his albums with interesting songs and sounds, from hip-hop to original compositions.

Lullatone is a prolific group, recording albums with interesting instruments and sounds in Japan.  Their work is all instrumental, which I prefer as background music.  The music is playful and bright; it makes you feel like you're in a movie.  Try taking a walk while listening to it on headphones - its cinematic.

Woody Guthrie recorded this album in 1958.  All of his songwriting is storytelling, but he has an extra special ability to write from a child's point of view.  I've sang some of these songs with preschoolers, and danced around to even more of them!  

I have to include Free To Be...You and Me in this list because it was my absolute favorite as a kid.  So I am partial, but the skits are absolutely timeless.  And I sang the title song in my bedroom.  A lot.

What are some of your favorite adult-friendly kid albums?

 

5 Reasons : Children as Photographers

 
 

 

Do you have a camera for children's photography?

Whether you share your camera, smartphone, or tablet; or have a dedicated camera for kids to use, photography is an incredible addition to the Early Childhood classroom.  

I sketched out a few reasons why real cameras are a great classroom tool.

The camera lets us look at the world through fresh eyes.

The world through the naked eye and the world through the viewfinder of a camera feel different - using a camera is a unique experience.  When children use a real camera, they get to try on a different perspective; and as educators, we have the opportunity to see the world through children's eyes when we experience their photographs.

Photography is one way to include student voices in documentation and stories of learning.

You may be collecting photographs of children at play and examples of their work and their words.  When we offer children a camera, we offer them a tool for sharing their perspective.  We can include that perspective when telling stories of learning to parents, families, and colleagues!  Including children's photography in digital and print documentation, and children's portfolios, adds another viewpoint on learning.

Photography is super engaging!

You know those timeless, tried-and-true materials that seem to engage everyone, week after week (and year after year)?  Blocks, paint, play dough, water - these are some universal and engaging materials that many Early Childhood Educators use in their classrooms.  Real cameras are highly engaging for children: they are not pretending to take photographs, they really are!  And, when we reflect on those photographs with children, their engagement continues.  Children love to see the world through that little screen, and also the images of familiar faces and things in printed photos in the classroom, or a reflective slideshow.  

A photograph can be realistic or imaginative. (Kids get to choose!)

I have observed dozens of children in my classrooms over the years with cameras, and they can take a realistic or an imaginative approach to photography.  A child may take ten photos of a favorite object in the classroom, or see what it feels like to move the camera while pressing the shutter.  There is no wrong way to take photos - the tool is there to experiment with.  As adults, we get pretty rigid in our thinking, but children see the playfulness of photography.  When we give children the space to make these choices, they are free to explore, which is exciting and engaging.

Photography is more accessible than ever.

Gone are the cameras that my parents had to deal with: they gave me a 35mm point and shoot camera when I was a kid, I promptly used up all the film with pictures of my stuffed animals, and then they had to pay to get the film developed, and get more film.  Digital photography is very cheap, and chances are, you already have everything you need!  You can use an old point and shoot camera; you can use any computer or screen to put together digital slideshows for reflection; you can share children's photography with parents and families through email, a class website, or shared photo albums.  


You can learn more about photography with the Little Perspectives online workshop!  Learn about big ideas around children's photography; see photography in action in classrooms; and get ideas for including photography in your curriculum, all online, on your schedule.

 

New Mix Tape : Playtime #1

 
 

Another playlist for your listening pleasure!  Head over to the Mix Tapes to listen, download, or follow on Spotify.

Sometimes, background music can be distracting.  People seem to be on one side or the other of the background music argument - love it or hate it - but I don't think we need to be so divided.  Music can compliment what we are doing!  When I settle in to read a book at night, I like something instrumental, something ambient, without lyrics.  When its playtime, the right music sets a tone for getting into that mindset of deep play, and can be a soundtrack for exploring.  

Adults and kids can enjoy music together - I don't assume that the only music children like is "kid music".  Learning about music can certainly include singing songs that we associate with preschool, like The Wheels on the Bus, but that shouldn't be the whole picture.  How can we learn about the diversity of wonderful music in the world if we are restricted to a genre that, to be honest, is not popular outside of preschool classrooms?

The Bakers and Astronauts Mix Tapes are an easy way for you to dip your toe into music that can make kids and adults happy.  Try the new Playtime #1 Mix Tape on for size!  

 

Why Reflective Writing?

 
 

You’re a busy person: you plan activities and prompts; you clean up and organize; you make sure everyone washes their hands after using the toilet, and before eating.  You chat with parents, you put bandaids on scrapes.  All this, and I still argue that you should find the time to reflect on your teaching practice and the events of each day.

Reflection helps you to articulate what is really happening in your teaching practice.  It is an introspective act: you examine the choices that you make, try to dig a little deeper to see where those choices came from.  Reflection is the act of getting to know yourself better as an educator, and as a person.  "Reflective Practice" sounds much more complex than it needs to be, so today, let’s simplify, and see how you might find the time for reflective thinking and writing in your teaching practice.

Set an Alarm.

Set an alert on your calendar or phone to remind you to stop for some writing.  

Perhaps you can reflect for 10 minutes during lunch on Wednesday, or for 15 minutes on Saturday morning. The first step is making a bit of time, and holding yourself accountable for that.  There is no wrong way to reflect - it is personal.  Anytime, anywhere, any length of time is fine: all you need is yourself and place to gather your thoughts.

Talk to yourself.

Use your smartphone to reflect!  You can use a voice memo app, or something that helps you organize more. I use Evernote.

We can have some clarifying moments when we articulate ideas out loud - it does not always need to come through writing.  An extra benefit is that you can do your audio reflections while driving home, or while cleaning up at the end of the day.  Keep the recordings to listen to again, or make some notes when you are done with the audio reflection to collect your key ideas.

Embed reflection into staff meetings.

A weekly or a monthly staff meeting can be an opportunity to introduce reflection to staff, and make time for their reflective thinking.

Try starting your staff meetings with a 5 minute reflective writing session, either open for teachers to choose their own explorations, or following a question or prompt.  This can turn into a group discussion, or just an example of how reflection might fit into what already seems to be a busy schedule.


Learn More with the Bakers and Astronauts Reflective Writing Online Workshop!

5 Myths : Open-Ended Materials

As a workshop facilitator, I have the pleasure of talking to early childhood educators about open ended materials.  I get to sit on the floor with teachers and caregivers, playing with materials, and engage in dialogue around their experiences, and the experiences they want to frame for children.

There are a few assumptions that people make about using open-ended materials with children, and they seem to come up over and over again in dialogue and conversation.  

Let's debunk a few of those myths - because open-ended materials are a timeless addition to any learning environment, with children of all ages.

Myth #1 : They need to be presented on a table.

Weaving materials at Play Lab, 2013

Weaving materials at Play Lab, 2013

Using open-ended materials has become synonymous with trays and small items: creating playscapes and prompts for children to encounter and engage with.  When you lean into this kind of thinking, you immediately end up in a corner: imagining materials as teacher chosen, and only presented in offerings.  You can offer materials on tables, of course, but it is not the only way.

Open-ended materials can be an exploration together at the carpet; moving items on the playground; an assortment of items in the sensory table; and more:  you should open your mind to new, never-tried-before opportunities when you plan.
 

Myth #2 : Children are most engaged when they are quiet.

Video by AnjiPlay

This goes for materials and beyond: "quiet" is not a synonym for "engaged".  There is an image in most of our minds of the child at the table (probably about four or five years old), carefully moving materials.  That child is engaged, but so is the child who is dumping all of the materials into a bowl in the dramatic play area, then putting that bowl into a purse, then carrying that purse around the room for an hour.  Is his work less meaningful than the child at the table?  

Open-ended choices in the outdoor area are a great example.  Remember that children are children, not small adults, and their behavior and choices will be different than the choices you will make.  This is not to say they are not capable, competent, and curious!  Noise is an exploration in itself, and is an excellent partner for open-ended materials and process-based play.

 

Myth #3 : Materials = Loose Parts = Small Items.

Radial shovels on the playground, 2016

Radial shovels on the playground, 2016

A muddy definition of loose parts has led to a common assumption about open-ended materials: that they are small items.  

When I think of open-ended materials, I think of absolutely anything that can be used for more than one purpose:  rocks, marker caps, sticks, sand, water, bolts, fabric scraps - these are items that can be mixed and matched to the heart’s content, and will rarely serve the same purpose twice.  The the whole idea of using open-ended materials is to be more flexible, and more open, with the materials that the world has to offer.  These don’t necessarily need to be small: they just need to be anything that can be used for limitless purposes.

 

Myth #4 : Materials are a Reggio thing.

Yes, open-ended materials can be found in the municipal preschools of Reggio Emilia.  But more importantly, they can be found in many other places, and they do not need a label or an attribution: in general, it is the way children played before the commercialization of play.  Children often find materials for play themselves when given the time and the space to explore.

Open-ended materials do not make a program more or less like the schools of Reggio Emilia, which are set in a time and a place that cannot be copied word for word.  Open-ended materials go far beyond glass beads and bottle caps in Reggio Emilia.  Materials are one language among many: other languages include paint, clay, music, construction, any way to communicate about and with the world.  

 

Myth #5 : Materials Play is not for infants and young toddlers.

An infant explores @ Play Lab Cardboard Playground, July 2016

An infant explores @ Play Lab Cardboard Playground, July 2016

When you are planning prompts and play opportunities for very young children, you do not need to dismiss open-ended materials: you simply need to understand how to curate the most appropriate materials.  This is true for any age group, really.  

Very young children can engage with everyday objects - and they often do, regardless of whether they are offered the materials or not.  You can take this as inspiration, offering children more open-ended opportunities to explore everyday objects on their terms.  The exploration is a young child's work and play, and it looks different for children of different ages.  Keep children's safety in mind when you plan, and offer an experience that will be engaging - not one where you need to hover and fret.

 


Learn More with the Bakers and Astronauts Materials and Prompts Online Workshop!

 

 

Teacher Self Resolutions

In 2016, I thought a lot about the Teacher Self: that aspect of classroom teaching that we doesn't get much attention.  We are people, in our classrooms, with thoughts and ideas and preferences and emotions.  While we should not bring our bad mood to plague children and colleagues, a sense of acknowledgement around what works for us as individuals, and what doesn't feel quite right, is important.

I am inviting you to share your Teacher Self Resolutions, anonymously.  This doesn't mean making plans for what you want to change about yourself: it simply means hashing out ideas about where you want to bring your awareness in the coming year.  What is happening, unconsciously and automatically, that is impacting your teaching practice?  Perhaps you know what your barriers are, but you haven't yet let yourself articulate them.  Go ahead and bring it all into the light here.

These answers are anonymous, but I may call on the ideas that you submit to inform future thinking and writing here on Bakers and Astronauts.  Please share: we all have a lot to think about, and writing is a way to get those thoughts (good, bad, and ugly) out of our minds and into the world.  Use the form below to share.

 

Cheers to a reflective 2017!

A Drawing Story

I put together this video of O, age 3.5, telling me a spontaneous story while drawing a few years ago.  

I have storytelling on the brain - I taught a workshop in Hong Kong about playful literacy recently, and I am putting together an e-course on storytelling that will launch in January!  The course will look at research on children's development as it relates to literacy and storytelling; show wonderful examples of storytelling in action in classrooms, and offer actionable prompts and provocations for your setting.  Throughout the course, you'll use reflective techniques to deepen your conceptual understanding to truly link content to your personal theory and practice.  The E-Course will be self-paced, with content available to you for one year after you enroll - meaning you engage as often as you would like to, when you would like to.  

I'm so excited to offer this storytelling course, along with a few other courses that I'll share about in the coming weeks!  If you're interested in being part of that experience, get on the Workshops and E-Courses Email list and get registration alerts right in your inbox.

 

The Anatomy of a Curriculum

I love working with educators and caregivers.  People ask me if I miss working with children everyday - the answer is yes, but with a caveat.  I get to spend my time supporting the adults who support children - advocates and practitioners who want high-quality, actionable ideas for their learning environment and teaching practice.  

Exploring materials at the Day of Dialogue on Mercer Island

Exploring materials at the Day of Dialogue on Mercer Island

When I work with teachers and educators and caregivers, I aim to teach in a more conceptual way, with opportunities to reflect and think about how to put ideas into action.  There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to anything in life, and this is especially true with curriculum.  I cannot stand in front of you and give you step-by-step directions for immediate success - teaching is an art, not a science.  There are many people who are trying to add elements of inquiry based, play-heavy practice to other curricular obligations, including the Creative Curriculum and other outside assessments of space, quality, and time.  These tools are aiming to help early educators with structure and content, but real excitement and passion around teaching comes from living in the moment, seeing ideas and curiosities develop through thoughtful planning of the space, environment, and invitations to engage.  Every child, every group of children, every learning environment, is unique.  The world is full ideas to copy, but what if curriculum was designed from the bottom up, rather than the top down?

 

When I think about “high-quality” early childhood education, I think about curricular design.  What does it mean to learn about the skeleton and the basic principles of ideas, and then learn how they manifest in one’s own setting?  

 

I thought about this as I walked along the streets of Hong Kong in early December.  This is a time of year I associate with rain and wind and cold in the Pacific Northwest, but in Hong Kong, people are buying imported Christmas trees while wearing sandals. Christmas decorations, including snowflakes and snowmen and images of people in hats and mittens and scarves - abound.  Although Christmas doesn't look snowy on this tropical island, the standard imagery is snowy.  This is all understandable - Santa does live at the North Pole, after all, so perhaps we are celebrating like he does.  But the copy-and-paste culture is global: good ideas are picked up and implemented in new ways.  It is more important to focus on how we might remix those ideas.

The flower market in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

The flower market in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

I grew up in a place where you were almost guaranteed a white Christmas - I could relate to the snowy graphics that I saw.  If I lived somewhere tropical, it might feel strange to buy a tree and wrap gifts and watch holiday movies -  but I would still do it: its part of the way that I prepare and celebrate for the holidays.  Right now, in the cold and the rain of Washington state, I engage with the holiday traditions that hold meaning for me.  They aren't pointless  - they connect me to culture and place and time and people.  

When we look at the skeleton of a school's curriculum, traditions can be part of what is examined, and thinking about how to make those traditions authentic and worth the time, energy, and money that they require is really important.  We don't like to let go of the familiar, and we don't like to be the person who suggests erasing a tradition.  When I would interview for a position as a classroom teacher at a new school, I would always ask about traditions: what do they celebrate?  Some centers spend a lot of time thinking about holidays, and some say holidays are for the home.  Some centers go to the fire station every year, regardless of children's interests and inquiry; some centers wait and see what happens.  Understanding the things that a collective of stakeholders value enough to weave it into the fabric of the school - that speaks volumes about the image of the child and the priorities of the center.  Traditions can be wonderful and memorable, but they can also just be old, still in place to appease a small group.

 

So, where do tradition, best practice and authenticity meet?  Where is that intersection?  It seems that all of those elements are important, and would be described quite differently from school to school.  When I work with teachers, the diversity of knowledge, needs, and passion is enormous, and rather than being uncomfortable or trying to teach every last detail to every last person, I am thinking through a curricular lens: how might educators apply this idea to the curriculum they have or prefer, rather than feeling a need to make a big shift in the whole system?  

 

This metaphor of curriculum-as-skeleton is vivid for me as I plan for both teaching teachers, and how we might plan to teach children.  The skeleton is made up of the non-negotiable aspects: perhaps the space that we have, the mandates, standards, and benchmarks from outside sources, the weather, the budget.  The skeleton in itself is worth examining, worth understanding deeply, for biases and assumptions.  Take the example of traditions from above:  traditions are worth investigating with an open mind.  There are other systems that we can add, just as our bodies have nervous, muscular, cardiovascular, and more. Everything complements each other and interacts; the well-being of one system is often tied to the well-being of another.

 

I'm thinking quite a bit about the skeletal system of the workshops and e-courses that I offer, and the other systems that are supported by the skeleton.  This is a metaphor that works for me when I think about curriculum, and I hope it sparks your thinking about the possibility of building curriculum from the bottom up.

 


(You might also enjoy It's Not About the Branch, a post from last year that muses on implementing big ideas in individual schools.)

 

 

Why I Make the Early Childhood Playlist

 

I have been making the Early Childhood Playlist for one whole year!  I am celebrating by sharing my motivations behind the Playlist: where it came from, why I write it, and where I think it is going.

Where It Came From

The Early Childhood Playlist is the development of the Weekend Links feature on Bakers and Astronauts.  There were times when I felt like I did not have enough to write about, or anything personal to share from my teaching experiences, but my interest in learning more about early childhood education is a constant.  We are lucky to be living in the information age, but that can also be a bit overwhelming.  Articles, videos, other people’s classrooms: all of these things that demand our attention everyday - but where is the quality?  How do we know what will be useful for our own teaching practice?

 

Why I Write It

The goal of the playlist is to expand our thinking about what Early Childhood Education encompasses.  Teaching young children demands that we are flexible and knowledgeable about everything from current events to the materials we can offer to children in the classroom.

I write the playlist as a casual way to connect educators with information to stretch their thinking about the field.  Teaching young children should be more than setting out materials and knowing songs for circle time.  As you shift from beginner to intermediate teacher, you need to make connections between ideas, read between the lines, and reflect on that information to put it into practice in the way that your setting demands.

Each of our settings is unique, from physical location in the world to the kinds of families that we serve and the values and priorities of each community.  This doesn’t mean that we cannot all take in the same valuable information; it simply means that how we apply ideas will look different in each place.  

I aim to share information that will spark an a-ha moment for you.  I don’t really believe in cut and paste solutions - perhaps cut and edit is more my style.  

The playlist is meant to be a catalyst for thinking and reflection.  I envision educators taking a few minutes to click through the playlist on Saturday morning, with that first cup of coffee or tea for the weekend.  Not every link will entice every reader; rather, the goal is to get you thinking about classroom practices and how children connect with the world through play, dialogue, and action.

 

Where It is Going

The playlist began on a whim, but it becomes more intentional with each edition.  It feels like an important responsibility to me, and an important part of the work that I am developing for myself.

My hope for the playlist is that it continues on, reaching more inboxes to expand more educators' thinking around the issues that really matter in Early Childhood settings.  I see it as a way to spark reflective practice, moving educators forward with a deeper understanding of global issues and how they translate in local communities and individual classrooms.

If you already subscribe, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the project, and for you to share the playlist with a colleague.  If you don’t subscribe, please join us: it is meant to be read by people just like you.

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