Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Is play a high form of thought?

Since my last post I have been thinking more about play. Why is it so hard to understand its importance? Then, two days ago, I went to visit a friend who has made (“French”) horns all of his adult life. George wasn’t trained as an engineer. He had drafting lessons in the Navy, and went on to be chief engineer for a well-known brass instrument company. Finally, he set out on his own to build horns by hand. His horns are played in symphonies all over the world. He has so many patents he has lost count. George is 84 years old. He still talks about horn making like a child with a new toy. He said something that struck me as the essence of playful creativity during our lunch together: “People say I should just order mouthpieces from Europe. It would be so much easier and quicker. Why do I make my mouthpieces by hand? And I tell them, well, what fun would THAT be?!”

What fun indeed?

This morning, my Pre-K students were all over the room solving problems through play. When I say play, I mean not only playing with materials, or playing games, or playing pretend scenarios, but playing with ideas as well. Two boys worked together with Magna-tiles to make something that they envisioned: A rocket within a space station. They worked for a long time to get the surrounding “station” just right so that the separate rocket would fit inside, but slide out easily for launching. Two girls challenged themselves to make a ball go “up” a ramp. Through trial and error, they made two ramps connect so that when a ball ran down the first ramp, it would, through momentum, go up the second one, only to slide down again. Their image was that of a skateboarder going up a ramp and coming back down, they said.

Is this only play? If someone walked into our classroom they would see children playing with many materials, including Magna-tiles, and ramps with balls. They would not see the creative problem-solving, nor the give and take of conversation driving the creative thought. They might think, “Oh, well, I want my child to learn. This is just playing.” How wrong they would be!

Einstein said that playing with images and thoughts was crucial before actually thinking and speaking logically about a new idea. When children play with toys, art materials, or socio-dramatic roles, they are thinking, and playing with images in their minds. If we allow and even facilitate this kind of thinking in play, we may just be nurturing an Einstein, or another George. Can we afford to lose this opportunity? I sincerely think not.

To learn more about learning through play you might want to read about observing children at play to see their thinking and learning. School ultimately must prepare children for the future, so we must help them learn to learn, and think about their thinking. Discovery is intrinsically rewarding, as Jerome Bruner wrote. Using one’s own faculties to discover new ways to do things makes learning “fun”. It is what both children and grown-ups actually want, after all.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Parents: Play is creative and cognitive!

I was so excited listening to Rae Pica’s program,” How PlaySupports Brain Development”. Her two guests, both experts in the field of early learning, emphasized how play is not an option for children. Children’s brains need play like a thirsty runner needs water! Children’s brains run on play. So why would parents worry if their children play in preschool or kindergarten?

I suspect there are many reasons, including that many parents’ early memories of school include academic instruction, and perhaps their struggles with it. Parents don’t want their children to struggle and they acquire the mistaken notion that doing worksheets and flashcards will give their children an edge. They want to see their kids buckle down and learn, darn it! Play looks too, well, uh…fun.

Another reason, I suspect, is that when they shop for preschools, they run into some programs that say they are play-based, but do now know how to make play the center of learning for the children. The teachers do not have the training to scaffold children’s skills to go deeply into their interests, to pursue and develop their ideas in play. The play these parents see is not high quality play. It is not avid, creative learning. It is just, well, let’s be frank—goofing around. Flitting from activity to activity.  I know this from what my college students tell me.

The most important fact, in my mind, is that mature, high-quality play is creative. Creativity is an innate part of cognition. Once I had a pre-K student who noticed that birds seemed to poop all over the playground picnic tables. He developed a hypothesis that if he made a bird toilet, our picnic table would be cleaner. In the classroom, working for over a week, he used constructive materials (boxes, tubes, and magazine pictures) to create his bird toilet. On the seat, he glued a picture of worms to attract the birds so that they would be motivated to use the facility rather than our picnic table. In the process, he explained his contraption (oral language; cognitive development), asked others to find materials for him (social development), and through trial and error, created his invention. He tested his hypothesis outdoors. Now I would love to tell you that the birds flocked (no pun intended) to his creation, but of course, this didn’t happen. What did happen is that other children began forming ideas of inventions they thought might be needed and began creating them. The bird toilet itself was used on the playground for imaginative, if bathroom oriented, play by many children!

This boy could not have made his invention, nor could other children have taken up the idea of creating inventions, if the program had been either an academic program, or a traditional program that claimed it was play-based, but did not scaffold inventive, creative learning opportunities. In the school where I taught, teaching staff applauded and encouraged the boy’s work. They brought in, and asked parents for, boxes, tubes, tape and other materials to give the children what they needed to pursue their interests. They began reading books about birds, and bird recognition. We found nests in trees to keep an eye on. We rode the wave of creative play.

All of this was documented in picture and text in the halls. Our parents learned the benefits of these types of projects because teachers and administrators put it up where parents could see them. In Rae’s program, one of the guests mentioned using documentation to illustrate the learning taking place in children’s play. For me, this is a deal-breaker. Connect those standards to the documentation. Explain, in text on pictures, or narration in videos, how the play allows children to learn across all domains, and in all content areas. Keep at it. And make sure the right people (administrators, parents) have it in their faces day and night. The effort is more than worth it if more children get the opportunities to learn through the language of play.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

The Gift of Water, and Adult Tools

Why buy toys when you can get the real thing?

If I've learned anything, children respect adult tools. Clear rubber tubing and PVC pipes from the hardware store, along with funnels, extend engaging activities far longer than the same old toys year in, year out. 

"It's a water fountain!"

"Did it come out?"

"Let's take turns."

Let's try two funnels, one tube."

"If you have the funnel in one side you can let the water out the other side".

These are some comments I heard while the girls experimented with the tubing, funnels, pipes and water yesterday. Children investigating, forming hypotheses, and cooperating are all part of preschool science. 

Prompted by the first two girls and their excitement, a few boys came to share the fun. What happens if you pour water into a funnel while it is facing down? How many ways can we fill a measuring cup?
The water table was getting crowded!

These are only a few tools that make water play challenging, exciting, and filled with learning. Pair this with Water, by Frank Asch,or Water up, down and all aroundby Natalie Rosinsky. This is the season to explore the gift of water with young children.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Space Shuttle or Millenium Falcon?

They are making the control panel for our space shuttle! So far we have colorful straws and buttons for the buttons and levers. The control panel will be placed under the table, and seats will be added.
Straws can be cut easily, and attached. Buttons benefit from Tacky Glue.

Under the table, engineers attach more controls to the soon-to-be rocket engine. We are asked, repeatedly, if they need to create guns. "Like Star Wars", they say. "The Space Shuttle doesn't need guns", we insist. "It is to bring astronauts to and from the International Space Station." This does not compute, in these young minds. No guns!? "Okay, then they're boosters", they decide. Boosters make noise, and have fire. Perhaps that will satisfy the need for firepower.

My Dad was a NASA engineer. I regale them with stories of space flight and design. "Design?".
"Yes," I reply. You need to draw what you want to build. So they do, somewhat after the fact, and rather hurriedly.
"That's the idea", I say. Now let's get building!

Perhaps we can blot the Millenium Falcon out of their minds for a time. At snack today, someone says, "Let's talk about Star Wars". Others moan. "We always do that. How about that Air and Space Museum?"
I smile.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Preschool: Marshmallows and Toothpicks Offer 3-D Building Opportunities

We gave the children the materials to see what they would build. Mini-marshmallows, large marshmallows, and toothpicks created an open-ended opportunity to build, something our class loves to do!

Everything from a "one-legged ostrich" to "New York City"emerged from this activity. The beauty of open-ended, choice-driven activities in centers is that the children can work as long as they like, and make whatever they choose. Teachers are on hand to have powerful interactions with each child. 
The results are immensely satisfying to the individual child, and gives them a sense of accomplishment, nurturing self-esteem.

While older children are building atoms or scaffolding, our preschoolers are building what comes to mind. They deserve and need preschool to offer them time to imagine. This is one way.