Saturday, September 24, 2011

Less is more!

Play dough is a staple in my toddler class. Even with the younger toddlers now part of the group, we still use play dough almost every day.  Usually we make it ourselves, which lets us customize the color and/or smell. We have always offered a basket of play dough tools along side the play dough. I have always thought that by offering these tools, the learning and creativity would be enhanced. It stands to reason that having abundant materials or tools will encourage them to use the play dough in a variety of ways, or so we thought!

As the children work with  the play dough and tools, we make a point to talk with them about what they are doing or what we are observing. We point out how the dough looks like a circle when they smash it or how they now have two pieces after cutting their dough with a pizza cutter. We ask them what they are making and follow along as they make up stories about their product. We let them use the play dough in other areas of the room as well. It is not unusual to see them cooking with the play dough or loading their dump trucks or diggers with play dough rocks. One of the best experiences came when we had plain dough, no color or scent, that they were using in the dramatic play area to cook. One child, who happened to be Chinese, looked at the rectangular prism a teacher had been forming and promptly labeled it tofu. For the next couple weeks, the children spent much of their time cooking tofu or frying fish as they used the play dough. That evolved into a whole new level of creative representation as they realized the dough could be anything they chose.

Until last week, I thought we were maximizing the learning potential of the play dough. Until I started reading some blogs and collecting new ideas for its use.  Jamie at hands on: as we grow had so many great ideas that I pinned most of them to my art board on Pinterest.  Not to mention Jenny at let the children play and several others. So with new inspiration, I cooked up red apple dough and cinnamon dough and placed them on the table with some sticks we had collected on our nature walk. No tools, knives, rollers, or cookie cutters. I thought the children would love having something new for the dough. Instead, I got lots of calls for, "tools, tools." They asked repeatedly for scissors, rollers and the familiar tools, even after I showed them how the sticks can be used to cut the dough, poke it or just stand up in the dough. Two of the children who had come to the table tried it for a minute or two before moving on. They simply didn't know what to do with the play dough in the absence of tools.

I opened up the sensory table full of the nature materials we had collected the week before and told the  remaining child she could use those with the play dough, too.  I then stepped back and left her to her own devices.   I checked in with her occasionally but mostly just sat back and observed.  By the time she had finished, it looked something like the picture below. She had a whole story to go with her creation. Some of it was for mom, some for dad and some for her pet dog.  She explained each part of her creation to me as she worked. By giving her an idea and stepping back, she had the freedom to create something new, in her own way.

 Why is this important? She got to practice some new problem solving skills, learn more about the physical properties of the dough, leaves, pine cones, sticks and other materials. She practiced her observations skills and integrated all of this into what she already knew about play dough. She made a snake and wanted to save it, which gave me the opportunity to refresh her memory about the piece of dried up, hardened play dough we had found a few days before.  We discussed what might happen to her snake if we left on a piece of paper to dry and she predicted it would be hard like the piece we had found earlier. She was excited to discover just a few short days later that her prediction had, in fact, come true and couldn't wait to show her mom the snake and acorns in the dry play dough, one for each family member, which illustrates her developing one-to-one correspondence.

Over the next week, the other children started to adjust to the idea of not having tools and began exploring with the nature materials.  I, along with the other teachers, learned a very valuable lesson: When working with toddlers, more often than not, less really can be more, both in materials and interactions.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Environment Matters

Just one month into the new school year and we've already made some major changes.  It seems like something was off from the beginning. But, we weren't sure it was a result of us trying to adjust to younger and new children, the new children getting acclimated or the environment itself. So we waited a couple weeks to see if things would change as the new children adjusted to life in our classroom and the current children adjusted to their presence along with a new schedule. Things just seemed more chaotic than they should at the start of a new semester.

We have also been working with technical assistance people from the state in order to participate in our state's quality rating system during all these changes. About the time their latest ITERS-R report arrived, I was assigned to teach a course on infant and toddler environments.  While we scored high in most areas, we had received a low score for our cozy area being too close to the puzzle and fine motor area. We did this so the children would have quiet activities available to play with in their quiet, cozy space and we had set the room up with the help of the TA folks.

Around the same time, I had been assigned to teach a course on infant and toddler environments and had just received my texts in the mail.  After discussing the ITERS-R report at length with my co-teacher, I spent the next couple evenings reading the texts. I have been struggling with the ITERS-R because, in my opinion, there are criteria in it that conflict with the philosophy of PITC and RIE, which I rend to rely on most in my classroom. After some reflection, I came up with a tentative plan, which I shared some selected details with some of the student workers and then discussed with my co-teacher at length.  We came up with a final plan, sent the children outside and started moving furniture around.

It took us a little over an hour to do the majority of the moving. But, by the time the children came in for lunch, we could already see changes in the way they were using the room. When we set the room up initially, I thought they would a need a large gross motor area since there would be more young toddlers. What we noticed was that they would get to the gross motor center and either feel overwhelmed or become overstimulated. The fact that there was a lot of traffic through our room from the preschool classroom and office was just making matters worse. The traffic flowed right past the gross motor area and the more traffic there was, the more chaotic the area became. So we made the area smaller and moved it to the other side of the room, out of the traffic flow.

We used an open shelf to separate the gross motor and block areas. We made the block area larger, which gives the children more space to play without falling over one another. We have noticed them building more and using the area in a more productive way after just one week.

Dramatic play is adjacent to the block area so they can easily carry props back and forth between the two areas, which they do frequently. Next to the block and dramatic play areas, we have a more open space that we can change as needed. This is the space they use for the rocking horses or pushing strollers around.  By enlarging the space for blocks and dramatic play, they have more space to push the strollers easily, without crashing or getting stuck. At the same time, the space prevents most of the running that could happen with the push toys. Eventually we will have a low roof for the dramatic play area that we can cover in fabrics to add to our themes there.

We moved the quiet, cozy area and fine motor areas to the other side of the room previously occupied by the gross motor area. This more than doubled the space in each area. With the couch and rocking chair together, along with baskets of books, this area is used more often by parents at drop off times to help transition the children in the morning.  The children also use this area to get away from others when they need some quiet space or alone time. All we are missing is our by-myself space, which is coming soon.

Now that the fine motor space is larger, the children can spread the materials out as much as they need. Rather than abandoning their materials mid-play or dragging them into the crowded block area, the children and teachers now use the area the way it was intended. We also changed the puzzles out since they seemed bored and added a few things to enhance the area. Now we frequently see two or three children in the area playing, often working together in a much more positive way.

We made the teacher area a little smaller, which gave us room to expand the mealtime area, which also serves as the art area.  Now the older toddlers children have easy access to simple art materials while still being able to limit access to the younger toddlers. By placing the materials in drawers, we are more aware of the children getting the materials so we can still supervise the younger toddlers closely when they have pencils and crayons. I'm sure we'll have some literal writing on the wall before the years over but, we won't have an epidemic of it, hopefully.

Another issue we had with using the ITERS-R was all the displays required. Between displaying the children's artwork, family photos and general pictures that represent diversity, the wall space could be used up quickly. So, we got creative and placed our displays on tables and benches in the play area. They are right at children's eye level and we can talk about the pictures as they play. Some of the pictures even inspire pretend play ideas with the older toddlers. To display their artwork, we decided to use the back of cubbies adjacent to the art area to highlight current projects and we display other artwork throughout the classroom.

While there are still challenges, it is no longer chaos in our classroom.  The children and the staff are calmer and more focused.  This just reinforces the theory of Reggio-inspired classrooms that the environment truly is the third teacher.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Why blog now?

I've been tossing around the idea of starting a blog for a little while now but have never quite been able to convince myself it was something I truly wanted to do. This fall I finally have the impetus to get this thing started since we are in the middle of some very big changes in the classroom and the center where I work. I have been working with toddlers for most of my professional career but up until this year, they have been older toddlers. This year, for the first time ever, I will be working with younger toddlers.

For several years now, I have consulted with other centers and teachers on best practices for this age group and have even taught courses at the college level in this area. But this is the first year I will actually have day to day, hands-on experience with the age group.  While explaining it to others and interpreting best practice from books and videos is something I can do pretty easily, actually putting that into practice is not always as easy as it sounds.

We are two weeks into the school year and find that we are making changes on almost a daily basis.  Some of the changes have been small while others have more comprehensive. We've changed the daily schedule so much that we are having a hard time even remembering what we decided on.  We have adjusted the room arrangement several times as well and we still aren't completely satisfied with it. Trying to reconcile the needs and interests of the children with what can sometimes be conflicting views of best practice is proving to be a bit of a challenge.  Being an accredited center, we follow the criteria of NAEYC. We are also participating in our state's quality rating system, which uses a tool that sometimes conflicts with the NAEYC standards and criteria.
Cozy area

To further complicate matters, I follow the many of the principles recommended by Janet Gonzalez-Mena and many other faculty of the Program for Infant/Toddler Care. When it was left to me to choose a text for the infant/toddler course I was teaching at a community college, I chose a text based on their principles. The problem is their principles don't always mesh with what the state considers best practice. So the challenge is going to be finding a way to mesh all of these theories, principles and ideas in a way that works for us and the children (and families) we care for. It is a a bit daunting at times to think about it but I am confident we can make it work. The first challenge is going to be the room arrangement. Here are some pictures of the current arrangement as well as the first big change we've made so far. I have a feeling change is going to be the one constant this year!
Fine motor

We set this area up near the cozy area for those times a child just wants to do their own thing.

Dramatic/pretend play

The children weren't using this are a lot so we started setting it up in different ways each day to help them generate some ideas. The more we play in the area with them, the more we see their ideas expanding in this area.

Block play

This is one of the busier areas in the room. I wish we had more space for them to build without bumping into each other.

The older toddlers were having a hard time controlling themselves in the active play area so we thought they were in need of some new challenges. So we added some tubes they can use for exploring with balls or other items they can find in the room. We purposely put them higher so the younger children can't get to them. We have the smaller panel for the younger toddlers to explore with and we can move it to meet the needs of all children so they can all be successful in the area without interfering with one another too much.

Active play before
Active play after