You know you are on the right path moving the needle in your field forward when towards the end of your time spent with colleagues the questions and push back begin!
For me it feels like you might have hit a nerve – sparked some thinking – and made the day relevant and inspiring all at the same time. For the educators who attended the conferences my colleagues Susan Golab Poltarak and Susan Remick Topek designed, it was probably the beginning and ending sessions that made the most impact on the participants.
The beginning because the keynote was delivered by a very experienced and engaging educator from Bankstreet College, Rick Ellis, who just makes you feel like he gets it. All of it. The kids in your classroom, you as the professional, the environment you work in, and parents who care deeply about their children. Not to mention the topic at hand; the importance of play and that it’s not an ‘add on’ but an essential component to the development of children and your role in fostering that play the classroom. He articulates this with such insight, compassion and humor, and yet never sways from the importance of the message. It was like God’s voice saying, “Let Your Children Play!”
And then the ending because it was designed in the style of an informal forum with Ellis mirroring back to the participants the issues he heard raised while visiting the individual breakout rooms that were sandwiched in the middle of the day. Ellis validated and addressed all of their concerns which helped scaffold and deepen the learning even more for the participants. He showed empathy for where they’re at and reiterated the message without sounding like a broken record. He made the educators believe there’s the possibility of making the very changes that might have seemed impossible just an hour or two before. Not that it would be easy, but that it’s important enough to make it possible and that they are the only ones who can make it happen.
Here are the concerns elevated by the group about adopting a play based curriculum in an environment that appears to be putting up every obstacle possible:
– There’s too much focus on the project-of-the-day. This is the go to activity for educators which is often coupled with the expectation by parents to have art projects sent home on a regular basis. It was interesting that the educators were very aware of their own contribution to this behavior.
Rick suggests three things to combat this. One: Refocus the communications to parents so the emphasis is on the process and not on the end result. Two: Share windows into the learning through creative documentation so that that now becomes the “take-home”. And Three: invite parents into the classroom to see projects in the making often so they see it as a place for creation not only completion.
– Kids get bored too easily.
Ricks suggestion here is to let them “learn to be bored”. It may sound like a hard-line reaction, and it is, but he feels there are positive things that educators can do to keep the environment especially interesting. He says children are just beginning to make sense of their world and want to naturally figure things out. If you lay it all out there for them it becomes very uninviting. He also suggests an abundance of materials that are completely open-ended. Meaning that they don’t have any obviously prescribed use for it. These items he says encourages much more creativity and verbal exchanges with other children; the very things that help combat that sense of boredom.
– Knowing when to enter or not enter the play.
I don’t recall Rick’s suggestions here but I do remember him saying that during teacher observations he knows something’s wrong when every student is surrounding the teacher. He says that it indicates to him one of two things. One: that the students current activities are developmentally beyond their capabilities and therefore require much more support and input by the teacher than would be preferable. Or two: that the teacher may have become too much the focus of attention. Like the entertainer rather than the facilitator.
– Adopting a less-is-more approach to the display of materials.
Rick is a strong proponent for having fewer materials out on display and available to the children but much more with regards to quantity. Unfortunately educators are getting conflicting messages from visiting quality stars inspectors who tell them that ALL of their materials, like puzzles, need to be out all the time. Rick’s belief is rooted in the idea that open ended materials encourage more investigation, pretend play, and team work between and among children. I like to think of it as either a rotating assortment of materials or the growing of materials based on the interests of the children themselves. Either way having everything out all the time is just not conducive to the best learning and therefore is not recommended.
– Parents asking for more technology in the classroom.
Rick follows the research here, especially for the 2’s and 3’s, which suggests that too much screen time for young children doesn’t allow for that hands on tactical investigation of real things. I’m remembering a story about children using iPad screens to see how trees might sway in the wind or how they feel in general, when ideally the children would be given opportunities to do these things in real life in a natural environment. It also reminds me of my colleague Susan Remick Topek who strongly suggests giving children real items rather than representations of those items is the way to go. Things like shofars and candles and flowers and hammers. Real is the deal here!
Hearing, elevating and honoring the concerns of educators enables us to begin to map out a course of action that can move the needle in their practice. In some cases it’s a matter of better advocacy, in some cases it’s a greater understanding or skill-building, and in other cases it’s the way educators communicate the importance of what they do and why they are doing it. It’s fascinating work that we do and I respect all those who are engaged in the practice of being part of a child’s and a family’s learning and journey.