About Me

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Early childhood education has been my life for over 40 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.

Monday, March 22, 2021

The life of a dead tree trunk in the classroom

In a way, this post is a sequel to my previous post about the possibilities for play in a provocation I called the Swamp. The environment helped determine the possibilities.  And by environment, I meant the process of setting up the provocation by me; I meant the children and the curiosity and imagination they brought to their investigations; and I meant the materials themselves which begged to be explored.

This post is an experiment to see how the possibilities of play unfolded when just one of the materials offered to the children got placed in other parts of the room.  The object and its potential I would like to examine is the a piece of tree trunk from a tree I cut down in my yard.

As part of the swamp, the tree trunk was a loose part that could be used as a place where some of the plastic animals could find a home. (If you look closely in the picture above, there is a plastic grasshopper on the tree trunk.)

And because it was a loose part, it did not have to stay in the table.  In the picture below, the child lifted the tree trunk out of the table and was about to drop it on the floor. 

In a way, he was deconstructing the swamp by piling the pieces of wood on the floor.  But at the same time, he was constructing his own collection of wood by using the floor as an open platform to pile.

After the swamp, I moved the tree trunk to the housekeeping area to see how the children would use it in their play and explorations.   I placed it on the shelf by the window and by some living plants.

In the picture above, the child noticed that the tree trunk had a hole in it.  She found a stick from the bowl of sticks on the bottom shelf and used it to explore the hole.  By the way, the hole was a entrance to an old bird nest so it was worth exploring.

One child took the tree trunk off the shelf to put it on the floor where he proceeded to dislodge a piece that had rotted and become weak. 

I noticed that the child found the work gloves in the house area to add a little authenticity to his deconstruction operation.

I subsequently moved the tree trunk to the writing table as a provocation with other Fall elements like gourds and corn.  The children found many more ways to explore and examine this natural element.


For example, the child pictured below examined the bottom of the tree trunk.  That way she was better able to see that the hole was bigger on the inside where the nest had been.

For another example, the child below found a different way to examine the hole in the tree trunk.  He used one of the ears of the Fall corn to "measure" the size of the hole.

A good question is: Did any of the children draw the tree trunk?  I do not know and since these pictures were taken more than five years ago, I do not even remember.  However, one of more stunning pictures I took was a picture of a child showing his mother the picture of the girl examining the bottom of the stump.

This was the same child who had used the Fall corn to explore the hole in the top of the tree trunk.  In other words, the documentation from the week before triggered a memory, a memory that he could share with his mother about his own interaction with the tree trunk.

This was actually an enjoyable reflection for me.   I remembered that I had brought in a tree trunk into the room to add to the swamp and I remembered that I had moved around the room.  However, I had not realized how this dried up piece of wood spawned so much engagement by the children in multiple areas of the room, whether that engagement was with the piece itself or in concert with other objects.  The quintessential point was that this was a narrative about just one object in a sea of objects in my early childhood classroom.  As it moved, so did the narrative.  And it was not lost on me that this dried up piece of wood was basically waste wood not even good enough for firewood.  Leave it to the children to bring it back to life and make multiple meanings out of it.


Tuesday, March 9, 2021

All play is local

All my adult life I have watched children play.  Even when I was not in a classroom, I paid attention to children's play whenever I was out and about.   To complement my observations of children's play, I have also read a bit about children's play.  For example, here are five generally agreed upon principles of play from the National Association for the Education of Young Children authored by Marcia L. Nell and Walter F. Drew:

        1) Children make their own decisions.

        2) Children are intrinsically motivated.

        3) Children become immersed in the moment.

        4) Play is spontaneous/non-scripted.

        5) Play is enjoyable.

These "essentials" by no means exhaust the definition of play but are meant to summarize some important characteristics of play.  However, for me, there has always been something lacking in these generally agreed upon characteristics of play. 

I was recently reading an interview with Vivian Gussin Paley in the Fall 2009 edition of the American Journal of Play in which she added a new characteristic of play that struck a chord with me and all she needed was four words: "Play is entirely local..." p. 128.

Let me see if I can explain why those four words add richness to the idea of children's play.  To do that, I will look back on a provocation I would set up every year in the Fall in my sensory table.  I called it the swamp.

The swamp usually consisted of Fall leaves, gourds, sticks, branches, stumps, rocks, pine cones, grass and plastic swamp-dwelling animals such as frogs, snakes and bugs.

I would add about an inch or two of water to the table because it just would not be a swamp without water.  The shelf next to the table offered various containers and kitchen utensils.


The child pictured on the left used her hands and eyes to examine one of the logs in the sensory table. What made this local?  First, the log was locally resourced.  I found it at the Mississippi River just a few blocks from my school.  Its shape and smoothness invited the child to handle it. Second, the child brought her own curiosity and desire to know more about this piece of wood that was unique as an object and unique as part of the sensory table.  She would be the only child that week to examine this piece of wood in such a way.  Local for her was her unique way of examining the piece of wood.


The child pictured on the right also examined a different piece of wood.  This log, too, was locally sourced: it was a section of a maple tree that I cut down in my front yard.  This child brought a different curiosity and desire to better know this piece of tree.  He wanted to test his strength by attempting to lift the log off the bottom of the table.  For this child what was local was his approach to better understand the physical properties of the log and the limits to his own capabilities in relation to the properties of the log.


The child on the left used yet a different piece of wood that came from the tree I cut down in my yard.  He was actually attempting to balance the three-part branch on top of a long log taped between the two sensory tables.  For this child what was local was his attempt to bring two separate pieces of the tree into a balancing relationship. 

The child on the right used smaller sticks across a larger branch to make a home for a bug.  The sticks again came from my walks by the river and the larger branch from the tree I cut down in my yard.  The leaves and grass he used to complete the roof were from my yard.  For this child the local was the knowledge he brought to the encounter around building a home for the bug.  


The child on the left used the largest log in the table as a platform to create a frog world.  The log again came from the tree I cut down.  However, the frogs were plastic and not locally resourced; they were bought.  What was local for this child was her ability to use the log as a platform to animate the frogs in a way that utilized her own unique imagination to create novel relationships between objects and herself.

For me, play in the classroom was an extremely complex concept.  In fact, I eschewed trying to define it.  Instead, I spent more time creating the conditions for play.  My own play with the materials, which must be included in the conditions for play, was an invisible part of the children's play.  The properties of the materials themselves offered the children possibilities for play that matched their burgeoning imaginations.  And each child---and combination of children---not only brought imagination to the conditions of play, but they also brought a certain amount of unique knowledge to bear on the conditions of play.  The phrase "all play is local"encompassed all conditions---past, present and future---in the immediacy of each and every moment of play.