Monday, December 19, 2011

Where the Ideas Come From

I used to be one of those teachers. You know the kind- the one whose themes were pretty much the same from year to year. And while I was pretty good at tweaking my themes to match the interests of the children, it seems like light years away from the way I do things today.  It started about four years ago when I had one of those classes. The kind with lots of big personalities, big highs and low lows.  When one child started something interesting but not-so-appropriate, it took mere seconds for several peers to join in and escalate the situation into chaos.

That was the year my strategies started to change. I happened across a book about Charlie Parker, the jazz musician, and thought it might interest one particular child. It had a recording set to a piece of Parker's music and this particular child had a strong musical inclination.  What I didn't expect was for the majority of the class to fall in love with the book. In a very short time, I think we had it all memorized. I started planning some activities to incorporate more music. I took a big risk by leaving the rhythm sticks out all day long, as this group could get physical with each other quickly and over unexpected things. But they rose to the challenge and used them to make music and for pretend play. We made all kinds of shakers and even ventured into making trumpets.  The more I incorporated things that interested them, the easier our days became. There were still challenges but they were easier to overcome most of the time.

From that point forward, I started incorporating more of the children's ideas into my planning. I think last year was probably the first one where every theme and activity related to the children's interests rather than things I felt they needed to learn.  The question that comes up the most, though, is how to figure out what toddlers are interested in, especially when you consider some of them are barely talking still. For some reason, I tend to pick up lots of ideas when the children are on the playground. That is where I observed several children shopping at the 'dollar store' and showing an interest in the sunflowers. Both of these led to great projects and discoveries for me. I watched a two year old practice one-to-one correspondence as she shopped at the dollar store, placing one dollar on each item and discovering she needed more dollars. Happily, her friends were more than willing to help.

The sunflower discovery led to one of my favorite art projects to date, a mural that covered our whole wall. The children decided what we needed- pumpkins, since it was fall, and a gate to put them on, trees and falling leaves, since it was fall, squirrels to live in the tree and what tree would be complete without a squirrel. The children even did all the cutting, as we had a couple that had taught themselves to cut on a line. We worked on this mural off and on for well over a month. Even though I knew I couldn't keep it up forever, I was sad when we finally took it down. I did save two of the flowers, framed them and hung them in the new classroom this year.

I am always amazed to see how a group of toddlers unites behind an idea. Sometimes that lasts for a day but often it can last for weeks at a time. This group is no different. On the playground last month, we had a little argument over a reusable grocery bag.  There was one on the playground with some dress up items in it. One of the boys dumped it out and started putting other things in the bag. Soon another child wanted a bag and since the first wasn't ready to be finished with his turn, I went to look for the other bags with the boy who was waiting. We thought the bags were lost until we decided to check one more spot and hit the jack pot. We excitedly took them outside and offered them to the other children. It didn't take long before they were all headed to the grocery store. We asked what they were buying and most of them named some of their favorite foods.

After a couple days, we talked to the older children about transforming the kitchen into a grocery store and they eagerly agreed. With the help of donations from the families we had a fully stocked grocery in no time. Even without the cash registers, the amount of learning happening was amazing. We watched as one child, who had been struggling a bit entering into play, quietly walked over to another and asked for some yogurt. They played together for a while, even cleaning up the pretend spill together when the container dropped onto the floor.  We listened to many of the children use new words to categorize food or identify foods based on the familiar label or logo (emergent literacy in action!). Boxes were used for stacking and building. Spatial relationships were developed as they tried to find the best way to fit all of their items into their basket or bag. Spontaneous turn-taking, helping others and social problem solving happened over and over. Learning to wait (and they will wait when they are invested in something) to follow another child's lead. And all of this through play. No formal lesson written, but lots of planning and support from the teachers.


So far no new theme has bubbled up so we are going with an old stand-by, camping under the stars. The tent came out today and the stars are hung. I am curious to see what, if anything, they do with this. We also decided to move the food boxes to the block center since there is an interest in stacking them. Learning to follow the children's lead has not been easy. It feels a lot like giving up control and flying by the seat of my pants at times. But every item, activity and idea is carefully thought out. My co-teacher and I are always reflecting on what is working, what we are seeing and how we can extend their ideas. There have been successes and failures. Sometimes an idea just doesn't take hold the way I thought it would. But when they do take hold, the results are astounding.


  1. What fabulous ideas! I love how watching the kids play inspires you! You sound like an amazing teacher! Thank you so much for linking up at Teach Me Tuesday--this is perfect! ;) I hope to see you again next week!


  2. Thanks so much Carla! It really has expanded my view of the children. I will be checking back in:)

  3. Aww, I love watching toddlers play... they inspire me too!
    The Mommies Made Me Do It @

  4. Soooo cute! Thanks for posting