"Instruction begins with the child's ideas, hypotheses, strategies, not the product he or she presents to us. We do not want the product...to improve without the child's learning something that will help on another day; otherwise, our conversation will have been a waste of everyone's time. Further, a conversation on a product, rather than an idea, may even be quite negative because it tends to make students depend on our corrections." (Gould, in Fosnot, 2005, p. 106)
Materials are all around us, the children are eager to play, and we are ready to observe children deeply engaged with materials.
An experience with materials does not need to be intricately planned: just think about how quickly and deeply children can engage themselves with play as they wait in line at the post office with a caregiver. Children are ready to explore their stories and ideas at the drop of a hat.
I do believe that the prompt part of Materials and Prompts plays a role in supporting children with this kind of work. When you are able to, you can prepare an environment for children's explorations. This also comes in handy when you think about the different learning outcomes and topics that we can explore through open-ended materials. If you want to create a focus on mathematics, you can inventory your materials, think about the developmentally appropriate tasks, and, in turn, create a deeply engaging math experience that does not need to involve a worksheet.
Teaching thoughtfully with materials adds more steps than just sourcing materials. You can plan, act, and reflect.
DISCLAIMER: As formal as this flow may seem, I believe it applies to any situation with materials. Your plan may be to have a shelf with jars and baskets of materials available to children at all times: that can be a jumping off point for thinking about the action and the reflection. This is not unlike emergent curriculum: creating those POSSIBLE EXPERIENCES. If you have open access to loose parts in the block area, for example, you can still observe children at work and play, and reflect on your observations.
When I studied Early Childhood Education for my Bachelor's Degree, we created lesson plans : what we need to prepare, how long each part of the lesson will take, the standards we are targeting. This same idea can be used with materials, but perhaps with a bit less structure. That doesn't necessarily need to mean that the lesson is a complete unknown experience. The goal is to find balance: we should have some general ideas about what might happen, with the expectation that we might be in for a surprise. We should plan to keep children safe, of course, but also allow them space for exploration and risk.
When planning for materials, think about the following elements:
- How many children will be involved? (Whole Group, Small Group, Open Choice, One-on-One)
- Is there an area I want to target? (Oral Language, Math, Problem Solving) Or more specific? (Conversation, one-to-one correspondence, partner work)
- Is there a moment I observed that I would like to extend? (children's play, a read-aloud, a previous exploration)
- What time of day should this happen? What will be happening before and after?
- Is the prompt for open exploration, or is it more guided?
- How will the people, space, and materials work in harmony?
- Is there a certain schema I have observed children engaged with?
Your answers may lead you to offer a very open prompt, or a more structured prompt. The structure, especially in early childhood, should come from the affordances of the materials we have chosen, and the guiding language that you use when we interact with children engaged with the prompt.
Imagine planning a prompt for the whole group, which will gather together at the carpet. You have planned for each child to have their own workspace in the form of a felt square, or a tray; and there is a big bowl of glass beads in the center of the group. This might lead to one child taking the majority of the materials, and that in itself can be an opportunity for conversation; or, if you are just beginning an exploration of materials, perhaps each child gets a small bowl of materials for themselves, to reduce the other factors.
Taking action is for both the children, and for us.
Your prompt is prepared and planned - you know when you have time to set it up, where the materials are stored, and other details.
When you are offering materials to children, this is an ideal time to think about affordances. If you are offering children tires and rope on the playground, how will they be arranged? Will they be standing up, asking to be rolled? Will there be three stacked, to imply that they are meant to be stacked? When you present materials, you are communicating without words. Children may be looking for a lead to follow, or a spark to ignite their work. Following a lead is not necessarily negative: you can combine the spark that the children have with your role as facilitator.
When children are engaged with materials, you have more opportunities to observe: loose parts don't need much troubleshooting. You can listen and take notes; you can sit with children and play ourselves. The most important part of the teacher role with materials is to follow the children's lead - even if you think they are taking a longer route to get to the answer, or solve a problem. Our language is a powerful part of the action process: the questions you ask and the statements we make set a tone for children. When you take action, you have to watch, listen, and open your mind to the possibilities of children's explorations.
Reflection comes both after action, and before planning. Our observations are sometimes factual, notes about what children say or do, but I find that there are often more questions that come from our observations than answers.
To reflect, we need to find a few moments to either write or talk. Reflections can be a few notes jotted onto your initial plans for the prompt; in your notebook; or on your computer. Revisiting your notes you took while observing the children engaged with the prompt, ask yourself a few questions:
- What did I experience?
- What happened?
- How did I feel? Why?
- What worked?
- How did the experience align with my expectations?
These reflection questions are not limited to materials experiences, of course, but to our teacher observations in general. In the case of observing children jumping into something that is more unknown, like open-ended materials work, you need to figure out where you stand: your level of comfort; revisiting the decisions that you made and any "rules" that you implemented while the play was happening, and the like. Your reflections should be about the experiences of the children, but also about your attitudes and preferences as an educator. Remember, you are planning for children's learning experiences, and that may not always be within your comfort zone at the start.
The reflections that you record may inspire you to offer a similar prompt again, with some tweaks; it may spark an idea for a new prompt based on the children's interests and explorations. We can play with the three ideas that make up a prompt: the people, the space, and the materials. You cannot expect that every child will automatically become deeply engaged with materials: you need to be patient. If you reflect and feel negative or disappointed, check yourself: are you putting up barriers? Are you placing blame rather than looking for solutions? Children are naturally curious and capable, so keep on trying to implement ideas that work for your classroom - not just something that has worked in another classroom.