Saturday, August 17, 2013

What's a Provocation?

When I first started working at Tumbleweed a couple of months ago, I kept hearing the word "provocation" used by Amy and the other teachers, and I was instantly intrigued.  In context, I could deduce that it had to do with setting up an environment or certain materials in a way that "provokes" creative play, but it seemed even more nuanced than that.  I decided to research the term by reading all of the blog posts the other teachers had ever written about provocations.

One thing I was really struck by as I was reading everyone’s posts was how simple provocations can be – Melinda wrote about taking the children outside to be in the snow, Bee wrote about using leaves and sticks to paint, and Briana reflected on the inspiration and wonder the children feel when gazing up into the branches of the beautiful tree out back.  I felt like these posts really set the foundation for understanding provocations and their intended outcomes – they are simple, whole, pure windows into basic elements of the environment.  Of course, provocations can be more complex and pre-meditated, but my interpretation was that sometimes the most basic, untouched provocations make the biggest impacts.  Since reading these posts, I’ve already begun to view my environment differently.  Raindrops aren’t a reason to scurry inside – they’re an invitation to stick around outside and learn (what do they feel like? Smell like? Sound like?).  Shadows aren’t to be ignored – they’re to be played with, touched, and viewed from different angles.  The best part is that the infants in my room already know all of this; it’s been my lesson to learn (re-learn, really) these past couple of months.  I feel like I’m waking up to all of the wonderful things around me, and becoming more attuned to my environment and the kids I share it with. 
I also really enjoyed the various posts on the introduction of new art mediums.  One entry described this process as “offering the children the ability to get to know the art mediums like they would a good friend”, a phrase I really loved.  Especially with the youngest children, allowing complete and uninhibited exploration of brand new materials (e.g. paint or clay) really encourages a depth of interaction between the child and the material, which will later enable expression and creation.  Children’s very first “art projects” shouldn’t be set up with particular goals or outcomes in mind (in terms of the kids making certain shapes or drawings) – rather, they should be opportunities to touch, roll around in, smell, smear etc.  In other words, really coming to know the properties of materials is what it’s all about.  This is the majority of what infants are doing with their waking hours, and both older children and adults still practice this exploration on a daily basis.  It is the primary way we navigate new territory.  I really liked how these posts got me thinking about various mediums as “good friends” – ones you want to get to know as thoroughly as possible because you will know and rely on them for years and years!
Finally, Briana had a couple of posts that were very beautiful and touching that I wanted to make sure to mention.  The first one describes a moment in which she was setting up an elephant provocation during the day, when a few of her kids were in the room.  Briana wrote about how she became very immersed in the setup, and eventually realized that she was truly playing – it was for the children, but it was also deeply satisfying and engrossing for her, too.  She looked up to find each of the children engaged in their own activities in much the same way.  The room was peaceful and secure, with everybody focused and fulfilled in their own explorations.  I thought this was such a beautiful post, and one that is exemplary of thoughtful provocation set-up.  There have been parallel moments for me in my room since I've started, when I've noticed how deeply absorbed I am in the setup of materials.  Briana’s post really helped me appreciate the value of this, and to understand that the provocations we set up are first and foremost for the children, but that we stand to learn and thrive from them, too. 
The second post that I really appreciated described how Briana had painstakingly rearranged small, beautiful cubes so they were alluringly stacked in little spice jars.  She wrote about how excited she was for her kids to discover this provocation and take these familiar objects in a whole new direction.  Much to her (initial) dismay, however, the kids took note of the new arrangement and immediately returned the cubes and bottles to their previous location and arrangement.  Briana felt disappointed that the setup she had been so enthusiastic about was disregarded by the children, but she took this as an opportunity to practice letting go.  Her children showed her in no uncertain terms that they weren’t ready to see the materials change yet, and she had to remind herself that kids will always show you where they are in their process of play and exploration.  Briana’s post reminded me of a great quote from Magda Gerber that I recently read:

“Play is for play’s sake only – be careful what you try to teach; you may be interfering with what the baby is learning.”

All in all, I was so impressed and inspired by the writing on provocations that all of the teachers did.  I am fortunate to be working alongside such thoughtful, focused individuals!

metal pots & magnets

Preschool house ink & paper provocation

found objects
scissors, strings, paper

I set this one up with momentum in mind - the blocks flow to the left  & the car and
balls are placed alongside them to inspire exploration of movement & direction


  1. Lovely post, Elizabeth & yes, you are fortunate to be working in such an amazing setting but from what I've read, you are perfect for this place too.

    1. You couldn't be more right Kierna. We are so glad to have her insight!