Sunday, July 27, 2014

What is Significant Play?

As I move through my Master's courses, I have reflected on the changes that came with the first four years. I have a much more profound appreciation for play and relaxation as I grow older. I realize the importance of play and how play allows me to work in a more in depth way. At my orientation for my Master's programs, the requirements and the roadblocks of the journey ahead of us were laid out with little fluff or decoration. We were forced to take in the enormity of what we had committed to. In this moment when I should be regretting my decisions and feeling overwhelmed by the looming madness I would enter in only two short weeks, my thoughts instead were with the classroom.

I thought to myself: What is significant play? We talk about play as work for children and I've long heralded that this is true for adults as well. Is all play significant, though? Must children have time to simply be and relax in order for their significant play to... Well for it to have the significance that it has? This question sits with me this weekend and I look back at the work the children have done in the past. Is their play significant when it's completely child driven like The Bakery? Is there a time that play is just play, or is it always work for children? And, most of all, why do we tend to think of play and work as being so different for adults? Letting the two overlap almost seems wrong to some.

I've posted the following video before but I feel it should be revisited regularly to remind us about the importance and significance that play holds in our lives so please, when you have time, watch Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discuss the concept of Flow.

Within Mihaly's wise words lies the answer to what makes play significant, yes, but I think it also suggests that sometimes play can be simply play. Sometimes we set out to let our minds rest. In reality, of course, everything we do adds to our knowledge and even the activities that let us zone out (television and video games, for example) are more engaging in our day and age than ever before because audiences demanded them to be so.

Rather than trying to define work and play, I argue that they are one and the same as long as they are fulfilling. If our work fulfills us, then we've found an element of play in it. We've found a way to connect with it, to make it ours, to take it on as a unique and wonderful way to further ourselves and our minds. If we aren't doing that, then work is simply tasks. It takes away rather than fills us up. The same goes for play. If play is fulfilling us- if we feel more after it- then we've found an element of work in our play. We, either consciously or subconsciously, have found how play enriches our lives and works our minds. This is something that children do almost effortlessly, as Mihaly suggests, but that adults need help with. This kind of play is what significant play is: when the element of work is awoken in play. Play that lacks this... believe it or not, I'm certain it empties us just as work without play does.

What about you, though? Tell me what you are certain of... because the real element of play in this work is the engagement I gain from my audience. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Shared Experiences in Play

Lately, I've been observing groups of four or five children exploring small group dynamics during our afternoon outside times. With all the life appearing in mid summer, our outside play area has transformed into a new world everyday- immersed in imaginative play. These worlds have been full of bug hunters, pea harvesters, sand builders, hole diggers, fire works and waterfall makers. All of them have started with one child and one idea which spread like wildfire into a small group playing and learning together.

The Bakery and Cafe is just one of these worlds. We've seen this as a recurring theme in play with our current cohort and past cohorts both. The bakery started with just one child using a muffin tin to bake some pastries, but exploded into servers, daily pastry offerings, and bakers. This world began when one day when AS started to use our common tools with the sand in the sandbox thought about making some cupcakes. After filling a metal pan AS said "Who wants cupcakes I made?". Soon every child in earshot was excitedly following AS to the table. Of course the infatuation with sweets in our class didn't hurt but somehow the offering of eating sandy cakes seemed to spark everyone's interest and need to become part of the process.

AS had started something much bigger then sharing some cupcakes from her play. A group was forming that would explore play together. New ideas emerged from others and a busy air surrounded the group as they went deeper and deeper with their imagination.

LC said, "Let's make blueberry muffins". CE said, "We can put frosting on them too". DC said, "Fill them up and I will put them in the oven".

After pulling them from the oven they would work on frosting them and call out, "Who wants a cupcake??" This process then started over again and again, each time adding new ingredients and ideas.

Baking group and others developed from our own process of leading small groups. Children are often involved in each step when facilitating a small group. In many ways each student has had a turn being a leader, giving creative paths for discovery, as well as following direction in the many diverse small groups offered. The variety of ideas that could be explored in a small group brought together everyone and allowed the group to discuss more and more complex topics. The children have since used the tools gained from our interesting small groups to present ideas in our outside area and produce big group play.

Whether this play originates from a child stating their actions, "I'm making fireworks!"(AS) or just calling out, "Who wants to make a waterfall?"(TUS); the end result is the same. They are connecting with communication in order to share the experience of being a child. By inviting big group play where many voices can come together children can take any idea into a new imaginative world.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Taking a Step Back

First of all, I would like to introduce myself as a new voice on the Tumbleweed blog.  My name is Emma, and I am joining Tumbleweed as the teacher for a new cohort of toddlers that has begun in the Preschool House.  I am a native Portlander, but I come to Tumbleweed after nine years in New York City.  Most recently I was teaching at a small, arts-based preschool in Brooklyn.

One of the first things I noticed during my week of observation at the Infant and Preschool Houses was the care the teachers here take care not to interrupt the children when they are at play.  That means not correcting children, not initiating new ideas that don’t come from the children, and gently coaching and guiding children through disagreements among themselves with respect.

It is not that teachers are not paying attention to the children as they play – in fact they give a focused, respectful attention that the children seem to relish.  It’s that the teachers respect the importance of the children’s play and want to give it the space that it needs and deserves.  The teachers take a step back to give children space for their play to thrive.

One of the Seven Principles of Respect in RIE is “Time for Uninterrupted Play," because children who have the opportunity for uninterrupted, interactive play “have long attention spans for tasks they set for themselves.  They are learning to learn.  They are taking the initiative in doing what they want and getting what they want.  They are learning to cope.” (I like the specificity of that quote from Authentic Relationships in Group Care for Infants and Toddlers by Petrie & Owen).  Indeed, the children that I observed at Tumbleweed are confident, curious, and independent in their play, are able to follow their imaginations in new directions without looking to a teacher for approval, and navigate conflicts between themselves well, asking for a teacher's help at times, and often communicating their needs to their peers directly, even during a disagreement.

When C started as the first member of Cohort 9, I knew she would be the only child for a few weeks, as her future classmates aren’t transitioning in until August.  Without classmates with whom C could interact and engage, it seemed like more of a challenge to give her the space she needed to begin building confidence in and ownership of her play at Tumbleweed.  I decided my approach when C was engaging in free play would be to be actively listen and watch her, to be available to play, but not to be the initiator.  I wanted to give C the chance to really explore and lead the way.

On C’s first day at school we headed outside.  I showed her our front yard (with its sweet playhouse, bountiful vegetable garden, and towering sunflower) and then gave her my attention but also gave her some space.  At first, C seemed to wonder why I wasn’t following her closely or handing her toys, but after about five minutes I noticed a change.  C seemed to feel secure that she had my attention and started to engage with her environment rather than me.  There were so many things to do: stumps to climb, rocks to feel, plants to smell, grass to sit on!  Occasionally, C would want to show me something, or ask me to name an item she had found, but generally she was engaged in her own play and with her own environment.  By taking a step back I allowed her to feel safe, self-assured, and in control of her own play.

As the other children join our cohort this stepping back will become easier in some ways (more kids to play with!) and more difficult in others (more potential conflict!).  While I have long practiced stepping back to allow children to engage and play without my intervention, I am excited to bring a new consciousness and purpose to this practice.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Garden

The ever evolving,  yet constant presence of the garden at the Infant House is something I look forward to every year.   I follow a similar pattern for how I approach introducing and including the children in the inception, tending and harvesting. I like to use the garden as a focal point outside because the opportunities for hands on ways to interact with life are seemingly endless. Here are a few things the children are most interested in this year.

Our investigations almost always focus on the cycles of life.  This begins when we plant seeds in the garden, but I also enjoy having other ways to invite children to watch how a seed changes.  We also have plants that live in our classroom which we take care of and watch as they change.  Every day we go outside and tour the yard.  In the spring the seeds began to slowly make their ways from the soil.  A bending stem pushing up the first leaves.  The children are astounded and excited as they grow bigger and bigger.  Then the flowers open in many different colors.  We practice touching the leaves gently and carefully.  When the flowers fall, we are reminded of the seeds we planted months ago.  I tell the story of the cycle of life in the garden: We planted a seed, it grew from the ground, it became a plant, then there were flowers and the flowers become new seeds!  Some seeds we eat: beans, strawberries, raspberries, peas, squash.  Some we allow to grow old and harvest so that we can plant again next year.  

During our observations of the garden there is another constant that attracts attention: Insects.  Bees, lady bugs, grasshoppers, earwigs, ants.  And other small creatures such as spiders and pill bugs.  These all make up the busy environment of the garden and the children want to know more.  Why are they there?  What purpose do they serve?  What do they eat?  Where do they live?  Why is it in the flower?  They also create stories about what they notice.  We are especially interested in the ants that climb up and around and over the tall sunflowers.  The children grab the stems gently and say "Ant house!  Sunflower ant house!"  The joy in the discovery that this plant creates a home for these tiny creatures.  Other times they are a bit more concerned, so we talk about moving around ones they feel nervous about, or watching quietly so that the insects feel safe.  Bees sting because they are scared.  So do spiders and other insects.  I wonder what they want to be doing and how we can give them the space they want?

We finally are in the summer months, which means harvesting the produce is in the front of almost every child's mind.  We approach this with intention and wish to create a respect for not just the plants and creatures of the garden, but for what we can harvest and how it can be used.  We have special harvesting baskets, we teach best harvesting techniques and of course how to decide what is ready to pick.  It is an exercise in trust and patience with varying daily results.  Our goal is only to pick things together as a group, but there are times when berries are eaten or we invite children to graze on kale or beans.  I feel like we are able to have this variance, because the expectation is set, so the times when there is less rules the children are still respectful of the plants and what they pick.  There are times when they are the ones who find the harvesting baskets and ask to pick because they noticed some things that were ripe.  

The bounty, both fruit and enjoyment, of the garden has just begun.  Each day we look forward to watering, pulling weeds and noticing how it changes.  It grows with us and offers us new experiences as we care for it and learn from it. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Patterns in Preschool

We are sitting around the table. Everyone is silent as we study the lines on the paper. Some are jagged and some are curved. Some are thick and some are thin. At first the kids had simply pointed out what's different about the lines. AK says, "Look! This line is long and that one is short." AS notes, "That line is BIG! This one's just little." I try to write fast enough to keep up with everything they are noticing, but their brains work much faster than my hands. Then I ask, "What do you notice about these lines that makes them special?" Normally, I get a rush of responses. Today, though, everyone is engaged in quiet observation. I wait.

After a moment, MR speaks up. "Well... I mean... the thing I notice is that there's two fat lines then a thin line then two more fat lines... That's a pattern. Like we talked about yesterday."

This causes WK to chime in. "Yeah! And here it isn't just a bunch of green and red lines. There's two greens..." She pauses to count the red lines, "Five reds! Then two more greens! Then I bet that's five more reds so I'm not even going to count them."

From that moment, voices explode. Every child has something to offer on what patterns they saw. Our discussion about patterns from the day before, though mostly theoretical, seemed to really take hold. After everyone has a chance to notice a pattern I pose a new challenge to them. "When we look at this collection of patterns we can see some rules about patterns." I don't ask them anything further, but rather state this fact and wait a moment.

WK speaks almost immediately after I fall silent, "Yeah, like all sorts of things make a pattern. Color or fat or thin or long or short or wavy or curvy... just one little thing can make a pattern and that's just how it works."

"And they have to repeat! Like we talked about yesterday! If it doesn't repeat it's not a pattern." TB notes.

I ask my last question for group that day, "What else might have a pattern?"

WK studies her arms and hands for a long time then looks at mine. While she is observing MR speaks up, "Music can have a pattern!" AS likes this idea, "Yes! Music!" After their interaction, WK is ready with her observation, "Patterns can happen in nature. Like the freckles on your arm, Melinda. They are kind of a pattern... aren't they?" I glance down at my arm and notice that the seemingly speckled randomness does indeed have a sort of pattern, "They do, WK. There's a big one there and a little one... then another big one here... and another little one." I point as I talk so everyone can see what WK has discovered.

It's interesting what happens when we start to look for patterns in the world around us. Patterns are such a graceful extension to the study of lines because, just like lines, they are found everywhere in our world. All we have to do is open our eyes and phenomenal patterns are everywhere. There are patterns in visual arts, in nature, in music... and in the way we interact with one another each day. They are this amazing predictable thing in our world that we can always rely on.

Monday, July 14, 2014

Art-Based Exploration in a New Space

Last week, the children of Cohort 7 engaged in an exciting exploration of materials in our new studio space.  It was late afternoon, and I had set out basic, familiar materials:  palettes, brushes, white paper, and yellow & blue tempera paints.  The children began mixing colors and trying out different strokes, but it wasn't long before I sensed them all wondering what more could be added.

I had placed a bucket of water at the entrance of the studio for washing up after we were all done, and AJ walked over to splash in the water a bit, before noticing a small pitcher floating in the water.  She dipped it in the water and returned to the table, adding the water to the palette.  I'll admit, my adult brain felt inclined to redirect her with thoughts of: "These aren't watercolor paints!" "The paper isn't strong enough!", etc.  I held my tongue though and challenged myself to simply observe.  LC and LT immediately noticed what AJ was doing and went running to the bucket in search of more pitchers.  There was only one more, so I went off to find another so that all three of them could pour.  When I returned with a third pitcher, I was amazed to see their level of focus as they took turns adding more and more water to the palettes.  There was now so much water covering the table that it spilled over the edges of the palette, soaking the paper underneath.  The colors were running everywhere, some quite faded, while others had collected in bold, vibrant pools.  LC gratefully accepted the third pitcher, and began her own trips back and forth between the table with pitcherfuls of water.

After some minutes of focused water-pouring, the girls started to alternate pouring with painting, experimenting with the altogether new painting environment that they'd created.  LT noticed that the paper was now very easily torn and seemed taken aback at how silent the tears were.  This was not like tearing dry paper!  We talked about the characteristics we noticed:  "The paper is soft and wet.  When you lift a corner it tears in many places."  Everyone paused to try ripping the paper a bit, before beginning anew with painting and pouring.

Eventually, LC's older brother arrived for pick-up.  He was interested in our work and joined the table.  He focused on making bright swirls of color on one of the pieces, noticing the way in which the colors trickled out from the center of his swirls, becoming more faded as they edged across the paper.  Like LT, he also noticed the greater ease with which the paper could be torn now that it was so laden with water.  He flipped his brush over, using the end to run across the paper, making long jagged tears in the paper as AJ and LT looked on.  Eventually, everyone decided they were finished and asked me to hang the work alongside paintings done by Cohort 6.  AJ was interested in the process of displaying the artwork, as it was very tricky to lift the paper while still preserving the whole piece.  We managed to hang two pieces, and will be very interested to see what they look like after a weekend of hang-drying.

I felt so excited and fortunate that afternoon to have this amazing space, which allowed the children to explore materials in this new way.  The outdoor space makes these kinds of explorations feasible -- the canvas-covered table and rock floor can withstand all sorts of experiments, which allows us to be less concerned with preservation of the environment, instead encouraging complete engagement in the creative processes led by the children.  This is only the beginning -- I can't wait to see what adventures lie in store for us in our beautiful new space!

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Outdoor Art Studio

During our summer break, the teachers at the infant house created a new, outdoor art studio to provide new avenues and enhance focus in our continuing exploration into art mediums. 

On Monday we began by offering small marbles and buttons to scoop and pour into small jars and pitchers. This have us the opportunity to being limits and discover new ones. For example we decided that materials that we use in the studio stay in the studio, the rocks on the ground are for walking on (vs scooping, digging, throwing), bikes can be parked outside of the studio, as well as our continuing practice at negotiating space with each other. 

Today we began with a good amount of corn starch in a tray. The same scooping and pouring tools were offered and the children immediately began manipulating the unique powdery texture of the corn starch. After a while I dripped some liquid water color in and the children enjoyed chasing the drops with their fingers and seeing then disappear into the white.  
The final step was offering a few jars of water.  Naturally they were dumped, and a new texture element was added. 

The thing I found interesting was that despite what I offered, the children continuted to scoop, spoon and pour, as well as feel with their hands.  
Our final addition was to offer a bucket for hand washing that is always available.  Children could wash their hands off in the water as much as they like and inevitably this meant that the water became a part of our play. 

We look forward to what this space will become as we build it to fit our needs and desires.  We invite our families to bring items to add to the studio which might enhance what we have but also make this new space a collaboration. If you have any small jars, found natural objects, beads, yarn, statues, art, scarves, spoons or other things that you would like to add to our studio, we look forward to finding a place and use for them!  

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Exploring body symmetry

Lately mirrors have become prominent part of exploring provocations. The image reflecting back at each child leads to many interesting questions. Why the human body looks the way it does? What features make us look different, the same? This lead us to do a group body symmetry, what makes bodies the same?

After we warmed up with songs that got our bodies moving, we began by each looking in a mirror. After discussing that we have different sizes, shapes and colors, W said “we all have hands and feet”.  How many do we have? TU said “two hands” and C said, “two feet”. We all agreed we have two, one or many body parts. If we divide ourselves in half (we put a hand up to our noses), what do we see on each side of our body? Are there any body parts do we have only 2 of? Are there parts on us that we have only one of? We started to count all the body parts from the top and discovered that many body parts come in two. There are also some parts of us that only come in one. “Why do we have the one eye on each side of our body” I said.  We are born to look the same on each side.

Do we have body parts that have more then 2? We then counted our fingers and our toes. We have five fingers on one hand and five fingers on the other and we have 5 toes on one foot and 5 toes on the other. Is each side the same? We all agreed yes. Is that the same as our eyes? Are they the same if you split yourself in the middle?

We have just been talking about symmetry. Symmetry is when something looks the same on each side. No one seemed to know understand we looked at shapes. First we put our hands in front of us. Are hands symmetrical? "Yes!" said M. "Why?" I asked. "They both have five fingers" said W.

I took out the pattern blocks and started to put both sides together. Each time someone would say no or yes if they were symmetrical.
Can we make a painting that is symmetrical. We all folded our paper in half and I told everyone to just paint one side. When everyone was finished we folded the back over to sandwich the painted side. “What do you think will happen when we open up the paper?” I said. “It will be the same”, said M.

As I showed how to open the paper with the paint side up everyone’s face light up as they saw what happened. We made each side the same. Kind of like us.