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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 26, 2016

Agency for children---and the teacher

This post will take me into uncharted territory.  Usually I write about an apparatus I have set up at the sensory table.  But the last couple of weeks I have been writing about the life of a cardboard box in the classroom.  In doing those posts, I began to think about my role in the classroom, and more generally, what type of agency does a teacher really have and how can others see it. 

There is a lot written about giving the children agency in the classroom.  How often do we really give children agency?  Do we really give children agency when we offer children choices so they will learn what we want them to learn?  Do we really give children agency when we work so hard for children to internalize our wants and desires so they see them as their own?  Do we really give children agency when we look for them to substantiate our world view?

Those are heady questions and not easily deconstructed.  One of the ways to deconstruct those questions is to raise the question: What is the role of the teacher in the classroom?

I will try to answer that by moving to another part of the classroom: the large muscle area.  I have a large muscle area as defined by a 5' x 12' blue mat.  This area is always open during the hour and a half of unstructured play time in the classroom.  I chose this area because I think I can easily find an example of the interplay between children's agency and my own.

A couple times a year, I set up a wooden climber and slide on the large muscle mat.  I do that because I know children need to climb and slide---even indoors and even at times other than at gym or recess.  However, there are metal shelves at the end of the slide so I have to cover them with other blue mats so children do not bump into the metal shelves.
I'll let you in on a little secret: they never do anyway.  Instead, they liked to launch themselves into the mats from the slide.

The children also liked to take the mats to cover themselves for rollicking games of hide and seek.

In essence, these mats became two big loose parts in the large muscle area for the children appropriate for their own uses.  Needless to say, there were many, many uses, but here is one fetching example of how the children used the mats as loose parts.  Two children covered the slide with the two mats.  One child held them in place while the other stepped onto them to slide down.  It was slower than they or I expected.  At the end, she declared: "That's a nice boat ride."

That's a nice boat ride from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

Up to this point, my agency was setting up the invitation for large motor play.  When I saw that the children started to used the blue mats for their own purposes, I made a conscious decision to let them move the mats away from the metal cabinet because they were already regulating their own speed down the slide.  At that point, I became really curious how many different ways the children could use these mats.  That meant that I needed to take a step back to watch.  Not only was I going to watch, but I was also going to document how the children used the mats.

After watching how the children used the mats,  I decided that I could create a new invitation for play in the large muscle area by just setting out multiple mats.  I took away the climber and set out seven mats.  Now it was the children's turn to show their agency.  They did not disappoint.  They stacked them so they could jump.

They laid them all out on the big blue mat so they could pretend to go sleep on Christmas Eve only to wake up to see that Santa had left them presents.

Some of the children decided to try to build a fort with the mats to protect themselves from the bad guys.  As the video below shows, that was not so easy because the mats were flimsy and floppy and took quite a bit of effort to manipulate.

Mat fun from Thomas Bedard on Vimeo.

With the help of others, though, they eventually did create a decent looking---though quite unstable---fort.

I think it is easy to see the children's agency with the blue mats.  There manipulation of the mats both when the climber was up and when there was no climber was only limited by their imagination, both individual and group imagination. 

Where was my agency in all of this?   My agency can be clearly seen in the initial set up.  From there, though, I do not think it is so clear.  Was making the decision to let the children initially move the mats away from the metal shelves something that can be considered agency on my part?  Can observing and recording what they were doing be considered my agency.  What about the decision to create time and space for the large muscle play?  Can that be considered agency?  I think taking the children's lead by creating a new set up with just the mats surely showed agency on my part. 

If indeed all those things I mentioned fall under the rubric of my agency, I am struck by the realization of how much the children's agency and my agency are intertwined.  It is like a small game of soccer.  I kick the ball to them.  They receive it and dribble with it a bit, sometimes with moves I have never seen.  Then they kick it back to me in an unexpected way or direction that makes me have to shift my stance to receive and handle it.  Maybe I do a few dribbles, but then I kick it back to them in a way that gives them a chance to receive, dribble and kick in yet another new way.  Agency is not something I have or they have.  Instead, it is something that emerges in the context of the room between the materials, the children and myself.  It is not static, but ever changing.

Does that make any sense?

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