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Early childhood education has been my life for over 30 years. I have taught all age groups from infants to 5-year-olds. I was a director for five years in the 1980s, but I returned to the classroom 22 years ago. My passion is watching the ways children explore and discover their world. In the classroom, everything starts with the reciprocal relationships between adults and children and between the children themselves. With that in mind, I plan and set up activities. But that is just the beginning. What actually happens is a flow that includes my efforts to invite, respond and support children's interface with those activities and with others in the room. Oh yeh, and along the way, the children change the activities to suit their own inventiveness and creativity. Now the processes become reciprocal with the children doing the inviting, responding and supporting. Young children are the best learners and teachers. I am truly fortunate to be a part of their journey.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

AGENCY

There are some things that happen in an early childhood classroom that are a surprise.  Often times, those things are ordinary and magical at the same time.  Does that sound counterintuitive? You will have to decide for yourself after you see a series of short videos that capture some ordinary moments next to the sensory table.

In the videos, a child uses loose parts from around the sensory table to build his own construction.  It is not an expansive structure, nor is it an aesthetic marvel.  It is ordinary in every sense of the word.  In fact, it only uses a few ordinary elements.  Not only are the the structure and elements ordinary, but so are the operations used in building the structure.  

Next to the sensory table, there is always an assortment of what I call Hodgepodge and Doohickies.  Children go to the shelves to pick out what they want to use in the sand and water table.

On this particular day, many of the implements had already been transported to the sensory table. One child, though, found four things he could use to create a little building project for himself.  For more insight into this child's actions, I solicited the parent's reaction to the videos. Her reactions are in italics after each clip.

In the first video, you see a child take a clear plastic tube and drop it inside a larger cardboard tube.  With great facility, he puts the tube combination into a measuring cup.  He seems to have an ultimate plan: standing the tubes upright in the measuring cup.  His actions are extremely measured (no pun intended) because he seems to realize the structure is not stable. With a leap of faith, he places another measuring cup onto the structure and lets go.  The result?

engineering 1 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In the first video I noticed his uncertainty (which was really obvious when compared to video 2). I could tell the wheels were turning the whole time and I must say was impressed that he knew he had to hold the tubes at the bottom in order to keep the clear one in the cardboard one without trial and error.

Even though he did not succeed, he carried out his actions and intentions with great care and a budding aptitude for building.  (If you read the action writeup on the Vimeo clip, you will get an idea just how much care and aptitude he exhibits.  Nothing is easy when balancing different things in each other or on top of each other.)

After being unsuccessful and little frustrated at trying to get the tube to stand up in the measuring cup, he inserts the tube into a red coffee can.  As the video begins, you see from his actions and his definitive "Huh" that he has realized his plan.  He now places the measuring cup on top of the tube with a lot more confidence.  He turns to the camera and gives another "Huh" and proudly declares: "It stays."

engineering 2 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In the second video, I noticed how much more sure of himself and his method he was. He said "Huh" right away in the beginning because he anticipated success with the smaller coffee can. He had no apprehension on his face the whole video and used "huh" again at the end (when he was actually successfully) as a kind of completion and "I've bested you" to the now standing tube. His smile at the end was priceless and showed how pleased he was with himself and his accomplishment. 

Like all good builders and experimenters it was time to test the structure.  He exudes confidence with his body language as he tests putting a couple of other loose elements on top of his structure.  It is not hard to see that he is smiling with his whole body.

engineering 3 from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

In the third video, I thought it was so cute how he could barely contain his excitement and couldn't sit still (It almost looked like he had to go to the bathroom!). He was willing to tempt fate by placing another container on top but wasn't too sure it wouldn't wreck his masterpiece so he ended up taking it off. He seemed a lot more relaxed after he took it off to know the tube would remain standing.

The videos really show his mechanical aptitude, which runs in the family (my husband is a 3rd generation elevator mechanic).

The parent watched the videos with her son.  This is what she said about his reaction to the videos:

He had a big smile on his face the whole time we were watching the videos and was so proud that a video of just him was commanding all of our attention. At one point he asked me, "Why did I go "ha, ha"?", I said I didn't know and asked him why he did it and he said "Because I liked it" which I interpreted as him being proud of himself.

The videos show a child who has the time and the space to employ a sense of agency to begin to figure out how things work in his world.   And he does it while working with the most mundane elements: a plastic tube, a cardboard tube, two measuring cups, an empty coffee can, and a metal pail.   

There is a postscript to these videos.  I left the area and came back several minutes later to see what was going on.  The child was still there and had replicated his structure.  This time, though, he said: "I can make it fall."  He then proceeded to kick it over.  In the span of 15 minutes, he had moved from being unable to make it stand; to being able to make it stand; to being able to make it fall.   Now that is agency.

Did a little magic unfold in these ordinary moments?

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