4.3 : The Language of Facilitation

I don't always use the word "teach" when I describe what we do when we work with children in learning environments. This might feel especially significant to people who work with young children in other spaces, like libraries, and museums. We have a certain image of a teacher in our heads, but I think we can change the verb to get a better idea of how to support children while they explore materials.


One of the most important parts of working with children and materials is the way that we facilitate an experience rather than teach a lesson. During materials explorations, moments will come up where we are bringing up new vocabulary or supporting children in learning a new skill or technique for their work, but it feels less formal, and more natural, when these things are underplanned.

When working with materials and prompts, there is no "one way", but we can read the situation and see where our time and energy is best spent. The most important element is the language that we use when we check in with children, and when we use that language. We can leave children to do their work independently, but they do look to adults for feedback, and we can make the most of this. This is especially true if we are just shifting from a more structured curriculum to a more open one. Replacing "teach" with "facilitate" implies that we are not there to tell children what to do: we are there to support children as they explore on their own terms.



With very young children, infants, who are seeing and experiencing so many things for the first time, we can provide them with materials and step back, observing how they interact with their world. We will find ourselves pointing out new things; labeling colors; and speaking directly to them: this seems to be the natural way that we interact with babies. It is also incredibly valuable for infants to explore on their own.

Take a look at the following video as an example: a baby at play with a new material, and the caregiver, mostly letting the child be.

Although facilitating can mean asking questions, it can also means stepping back, letting children explore. The more we work with children and materials, the more we understand how facilitation feels.




When we use open-ended questions and statements with children, we are opening the floor for conversation and dialogue about their work and play. Just as we reflect as teachers, these opportunities for conversation allow them to think about their thinking, their work, and their play. We may say, Tell me about that! How did that happen? What will happen next? These statements and questions send a clear message to children that their ideas and explorations are valued. 

If we open up our curriculum to open-ended materials, we can open up our curriculum to the open-ended questions and statements that come along with it. Children are natural questioners: they have a lot to ask, and that can be part of our ongoing dialogue, too. Take note of what children are saying and asking; encourage children to answer each other's questions and use each other as resources. We likely don't have all the answers to their questions. These questions and explorations are a natural jumping off point for inquiry-based learning.

Paying attention not only to what the children do and say, but also to what you do and say, gives you information to inform planning and next steps: the children's questions and your own can fuel reflection and planning for future action.


Carlina Rinaldi (of Reggio Children) reminds us that questions and exploration are not only a part of childhood, but a valuable opportunity for learning and development.

"How can we respond to their constant questions, their 'whys' and the 'hows', their search for that which we like to think of as not only the meaning of things but the meaning of life itself, a search that begins from the moment of birth, from the child's first, silent 'why' to that which, for us, is the meaning of life?" - Carlina Rinaldi, 2000, p111

Why is this important?

Remember the way that people, space, and materials interact:


The people element is not just bodies in a space using materials: it also about the attitudes and actions of the people.  Children and adults make decisions during play that can lead the play down different tracks, and many adults unknowingly close doors rather than open windows with the language they use.  

Open-ended questions and statements go a long way in facilitating an open-ended play experience.  In your next materials exploration with children, make some notes: what are children saying?  What are adults saying?  How are adults and children responding to each other?  Is the language supporting a child-driven experience, or an adult-driven one?