I try to savor moments like these ones in the classroom. This has nothing to do with a theme, a project, or a topic. It is about investigating materials socially. Children are absorbing information from the people around them: the motions other children are making with their hands and the tools to shape the play dough, and the words that people are using to converse or describe.
Creating prompts for play and exploration is one of my favorite things about early childhood education, and the prompt in the video above (play dough, small trays, and scissors) had everyone in the room engaged, with children sharing pieces of play dough to give to others who were dragging chairs across the room to join in. The talking that the children were doing here was incredibly important. Bond and Wasik (2009) share:
"Language Development is one of the most important milestones that occurs during the preschool years (Adams 1990, Dickinson and Tabors 2001). From birth to about the age of five, children acquire about 10,000 vocabulary words (Childers and Tomasello 2002). During this time, children begin with one word utterances and, ultimately, learn to communicate in complex sentences. Rapid and significant increases in vocabulary knowledge and in sophisticated knowledge about syntax and the semantics of language require the children be exposed to environments that are filled with numerous opportunities for conversation. The most beneficial conversations are those that include rich language, which includes sentences with more than just subjects and verbs." (pp. 467-468)Adults obviously play a large role in children's language development, but creating opportunities for children to speak to each other has value as well. Just as teachers are constantly learning from children, children are learning from each other: important people in their world. For example, we had flubber in the sensory table last week, and one day, A arrived at school 10 minutes before anyone else did. We played together, talking and manipulating the flubber. By the time other children arrived and asked, "what is THAT?", A was the expert, describing it with words like rubbery, smooth, shiny, bouncy, and silly.
I think I've reached a point in my teaching career when I sit down with my tea and my planning sheets and I try to picture what different prompts will look like: what students do I think will be engaged? How can I engage other students? What materials have been used a lot lately that can be put into a new context for exploration? There are flops, obviously. But something as simple as play dough that smells like mint and scissors to snip it with can apparently inspire everything from pizza to Elmo's likeness, with sharing and conversation to boot. I'll take it!
Bond, M. and Wasik, B. (2009). Conversation Stations: Promoting Language Development in Young Children. Early Childhood Education Journal, 36, 467-473.