I thought that adding tools to the play dough box would be extremely appealing to them. It combined two of their favorite activities into one. But, they weren't nearly as interested as I imagined they would be. They did use them a for a while with the play dough but, they had bigger and better ideas than I could come up with. They were much more interested in using the tools to fix things in the classroom.
Since the tools were in the play dough, I brought out a tool puzzle as a substitute. It wasn't long before N. found the drill in the puzzle, laid himself on the floor and set to work 'fixing' the table. Some days he spent a good portion of his mornings engaged in activities like this.
Others followed suit and it was pretty common to see someone under the table, a rocking horse flipped upside down or the garage on its side as they set to work 'fixing' all the broken objects they could come up with.
After winter break I decided to introduce a more realistic way to use tools. I purchased a small pack of golf tees to use as nails. I had been saving a printer box since before break, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to use it. Since it is tall, it makes the perfect tool bench. after gathering up the three boys present who were most interested in tools, I showed them how they could use the golf tees as nails on the top of the box. I was a bit surprised at which boy picked it quickly, concentrating as he held his nail in place to get the hole started.
They hammered away for a good portion of the morning before discovering the holes on the sides of the box from the carrying handles. I should have known to tape them shut before starting. Instead, I had to reopen the box at nap to fish out all the hammers and nails. My original plan was to keep this activity just for the older toddlers since the golf tees are fairly sharp. However, a couple of the younger toddlers were interested and they did hammer for a bit. We just made sure we put the nails in before they came over. They were pretty content to just hammer on the box, with or without nails. We even took the box outside today since it was such a nice day. This gave the older group some time to work on it without worrying about the younger children.
Through all this tool play over the last month, we have learned more about the children. We have seen how much time they spend focused on an activity. We have seen children expand their play, adding new elements and depth as the weeks passed. We have seen children come back to the same activity again and again until they feel they have mastered it and then find a way to take it to new levels of complexity. They have practiced waiting, taking turns and trading tools with friends. I dare to say some negotiating skills were practiced, too. They have spent large chunks of time engaged in the same activity, oblivious to the potential distractions around them. They have learned some new words and participated in conversation with peers, actually hearing what was said and responding appropriately. They have picked up new ideas by watching a friend and trying to imitate them. All of this learning happened during free play time, in activities the children selected and carried out on their own, with minimal support from the teachers.
The next challenge is to design a project that lets them really build something. With any luck, there will be an update before the semester is over.