Most mornings, I begin my day in bed next to my dogs, with my meditation app from Omvana or an inspirational talk from TED Talks. I read my email from The Universe and begin my day in gratitude. It helps me become excited about my day ahead and has been beneficial in helping me to recognize these important moments that happen during my day...
One particular morning, my TED app thought I would like this video, "What do babies think?" So I clicked on it. And I watched how energized Alison Gopnik (a child development psychologist) is about child brain development. How passionate she is in celebrating knowledge of how amazing children's brains work. As she explained to the audience (and me) how children's brains think, I was struck by the fact that I get to watch this happen everyday I go to work! How children's brains are working, how they construct their knowledge through trial and error, and how I get to celebrate their knowledge with them.
If you don't have 18 minutes to watch the video (which you should make some because it's fantastic), Alison surmises, that babies and children are the research and development division of the human species. They aren't defective grownups, they are designed to learn and have powerful learning mechanisms when given the environment, support, and opportunity to do so. Based on her research, four year olds are better are finding out an unlikely hypothesis compared to adults. They are born experimenters! And maybe in order for adults to experience the full capacity of our brains, we should begin thinking more like children.
You see, when children are given opportunity to construct their knowledge through trial and error without being judged, pushed, or told what the answer is, they actually think about it.They try out different ideas and when validated through appropriate a positive verbalizations, they become articulate about their experiences as well. For example, when a child is stacking marble maze pieces together and the marble doesn't go in the direction they hope it would, my role isn't to show them how to move it but to validate their experience, "You put the red and the blue pieces together and the marble went straight down the tube." I could (depending on their motivation) pose a supportive question, "I wonder what would happen if you switched the top to the bottom pieces?" In many cases, without my prompting, children begin changing their pieces and testing out their new marble maze pieces. They continue to persist and test through trial and error/cause and effect to achieve their goal of rolling the marble through the tricky maze. And they think in much more inventive ways than we can imagine because our brains are already hardwired to know what the "right" answer is. After watching that video, I can now withhold my comments and questions more and sit in awe of the process that is unfolding in front of me.
I can't tell you how frustrated I get when I put out a provocation for children and a paren't or college student comes in and shows a child how to play with it (or how they think it should be played with). And when the child has a different way to use it, the adult tries to stop them and correct them. My inner face goes, "Ooosh! Missed opportunity..." while my outward appearance is attentive and loving. What if a child had a new way of playing with the materials than we had imagined?
So this made me think:
Children have the right have uninterrupted play.
Children have the right to approach materials without having a "right" way of playing.
So the other day while we were experimenting with blowing (a project we had been immersed in for a few weeks) I provided children tubes, bubble paint, and paper on mini paint stands to "print" their larger bubbles. One of my three year old boys was blowing paint bubbles not onto the paper propped up on the paint stand. He instead, was dipping his tube into the mixture and blowing onto the tray below him. My college student sat next to him and being a great model began to play and verbalize how to use the space "appropriately."
While sitting next to him she said, "Wow. When I dip my tube into the bubble paint and I blow close to the paper, my bubble pops and I can see the bubble print on the paper." He stopped what he was doing, watched her, looked back down at his tray and then began his process again.
This time when he achieved a bubble on the tray the size of his fist he smiled, giggled, and sat straight up. He reached for the small cup holding the bubble mixture and pressed it on top of the bubble but not too hard so the bubble would pop. The bubble connected with the cup and he began to lift up. Then the bubble popped. He made a growling noise and began the process all over again.
My college student had watched him and knowing that her goal was to support these activities so children sustain productive play (and unsure whether or not this was okay or unproductive based on the intention of the activity) began to model again, "Hummm...If I blow my bubbles onto my tray they pop and I can't see the print. I will try blowing again onto my paper." This time the boy stopped, looked at her not with curiosity but with frustration. He didn't comment but went back to his experiment. She recognized the look and looked up for help from me.
I went over to my college student and let her know that her words and modeling were supportive to children playing at this activity. I also let her know that the boy next to her was testing out an idea and if we just give him a little space, we would be able to understand what he is trying to do. He already knows-we are interrupting the process. I explained to her what he did already and then we both watched with fascination...
Once again he blew the bubble onto the tray. He placed the cup on top of the bubble and pulls up. The bubble that was on the tray, unattached from the tray, and connected onto the bottom of the cup. The boy breathed out a sigh and excitedly announced, "I transferred the bubble!"
Okay. Wow. The three year old boy in my classroom came up with an idea about transferring bubbles. He used the materials on the tray to support and test out his idea. When the bubble got onto the tray at the right size he had accomplished step 1 of his task. He then began on step 2 by placing and connecting the bubble with the cup so that the bubble was essentially sandwiched between the tray and the cup. But then-it popped. Oh dear. Did he give up? No! Did he stop a few times to look up and listen to the adult next to him trying to support him? Yup. And he wasn't even unkind to her. ( Talk about attention and inhibitory control on his part! ) So then he continued until he was able to achieve step 3: transferring bubbles from one surface to another.
He had the right to have uninterrupted play. And when he did, look what happened.
Even though I can talk and support children, I am learning to pull back and choose my words with even more care and consideration. My talking can inform their learning process but it can also interrupt at times (even when I have the best intentions like my college student). This isn't to say I don't coplay, coconstruct, model, or challenge children. It just means that I am becoming more aware of how unique and magnificent their brains work and how my brain can inhibit some of their process. It takes observation, purposeful hesitation, and restraint! There is a balance in all interactions. How and when to provoke and support children are all part of the process. But, it is a wonder what they can do when just given interesting, intentional, open-ended materials with a teacher who is nearby to watch and document their thinking. Its amazing.
Thank you to Alison, who helped me think more deeply about this.
Brittany Courchesne is an early childhood educator, teacher mentor to teachers in training, public speaker, and blogger.