Today was one of those rare days with toddlers where there were no major melt-downs, tantrums or arguments. Aside from a two-and-half-year-old doing some minor limit testing and a 15-month-old who wanted to wash her hands every 30 seconds, it was a quiet day where the children led pretty much everything. The only question or idea I offered up today was asking one child (the limit tester, actually) if he wanted to do some more gluing like he did yesterday. He had really enjoyed exploring with the glue so he gladly shook his head and said yes. I told him to go get a board from the pile of mat board that a parent had gotten donated for us. He went straight to the board without needing any reminders of where to find one, picked one out saying, "this one," and brought it right to the table to get started. As I looked for a full glue bottle, he took the bag, pulled one out and said, "big one." Generally the children use the smaller glue bottles in my class but I had a feeling I was just going to be re-filling soon so I let him take the big one.
He spent the next 10 minutes with the glue. The idea was to make a nature collage, which he had done the previous day before abandoning it to explore with the glue. He had learned yesterday that if he put glue all over his hands, the paper or items could stick to his hands so I was curious to see what he would do with the glue today. He chose one stick from the sensory table full of nature materials and promptly glued that on his board. He added a few more items but, it was really about the glue today. He discovered that if he held the glue up high and squeezed just a little, it looked like raindrops. The excitement on his face as he made more raindrops was contagious.
One of the girls joined us at the table and followed his idea, for the most part. She glued one stick on, then made a picture with the glue. She eagerly told me about her picture. "You have to go around the bend. This is the mountain and you have to go through it." Along the way, a pile of 'sneaky mud' showed up ("you don't want to go there, it's slippery") along with a cash register to mark the end point. She told the story several times as she added more glue, barely changing the details.
Another boy joined in and didn't even bother with the collage materials. He just wanted to 'queeze' the glue. You can see the focus as he works on squeezing the glue out. He was so engrossed that we brought out the colored and glitter glues we haven't used yet this school year. He spent a good five or so minutes at this activity, which isn't bad for a child who is choosy about art activities.
Even the 15-month-old joined in. While squeezing the glue was a bit tough for her, exploring with it and spreading it was not.
Once the glue exploration wrapped up, I noticed two children in the gross motor area pretending it was nap time. One would lie on a row of cardboard brick blocks while the other one rubbed their back, as the teachers do at nap time. They decided they needed a chair so they moved one of the blocks out to be the chair. Over the course of fifteen or more minutes, these children changed roles, taking turns being the napper and the teacher, at least six times. They listened to each other and responded in a genuine to-way conversation.
As this wrapped up, some of the children migrated to the dramatic play area. Someone brought me a bucket full of clothes and announced "make lunch" as he placed the bucket on the table in front of me. He 'cooked' more clothes for the children there, telling us it was how. A few minuted later, this play had evolved into dress up and the three two-year-olds experimented with putting the clothes on. They dressed themselves, trying until they got it. One child discovered that taking his shoes off made it easier to put the shorts on. The other two noticed and followed his example successfully. They cheered each other on and offered both encouragement and help. This took up the rest of the morning. They were so engaged and productive that all the teachers did was watch and offer just minimal support as needed.
Why is this important, you might ask? They weren't learning to name their colors, count, practice their alphabet or any of those other academic schools that come to mind when the word learning is thrown out there. But, research has shown that extended free play helps children develop the important skill of self-regulation. During all this play and exploration, these children had abundant opportunities to practice skills that help develop executive function. They practiced self-control as they squeezed just the right amount of glue and stayed in their roles during pretend play. They communicated with each other and took turns, both in conversation and in play. They solved problems and made new discoveries. They managed their emotions and didn't give up when things weren't working.
There was so much learning happening that I will probably have to write about it in more detail later. It's days like this that make me remember why I love what I do and remind me just how important the early years are.