Friday, February 3, 2017

The True Kings and Queens of Themes: Children

I am a former "Queen of Themes" who has proudly stepped down from her thrown.  

For those of you that are new to me, here's the abbreviated version of my journey, with an option to read more:

For the first 11 years of my career as an early childhood professional, I was addicted to themes (read about it HERE).
I was a stubborn and proud of my teacher-led preschool program.  (read about it HERE)
I THOUGHT I was running a child-led, play-based program.  (read about it HERE)

What I know now, is: I WAS WRONG.

Luckily, for the children in my play school, I made changes.
I am incredibly grateful for my theme-filled past, however, as it helps me spot the themes that now occur organically in my TRULY child-led program.

In the past, I chose the themes.

I chose them in August.

I chose them for every single week from August-May in AUGUST.  Yet, I thought I was considering the "current" interests of my group. 

I admit that some of "my" themes were based on the interests of the children in my program, but the majority were chosen because of the clever ideas I came up with to execute said themes.  I considered myself to be the "queen of themes".

NOW, I know that
CHILDREN are the "Queens and Kings of Themes", I just wasn't giving children enough credit.  I was blinded by my own need to express MY creativity, that I wasn't allowing children to express theirs.

I'd like to share the themes that were led by the TRUE Queens and Kings of themes in my program.  These themes all occurred during the morning of February 2, 2017, and were all led by children.

Theme One:  Sewing

Before:  I would have done a week-long theme on sewing.  The letter we would have focused on was "s".  I would have had all sorts of books available about sewing, opportunities to sew, we would have rhymed with sew, we would have sewn with a variety of materials:  cooked spaghetti, yarn, string, skinny strips of fabric.  Weaving would have been incorporated.
Number of children participating:  EVERYONE.  No one had a choice to not participate. It was meaningful to no one as the idea belonged to me, not the children.

Now:  One child in my program has made an old slipper into a stuffed animal.  He used the stuffing from one of his torn stuffed buddies at home as filler for his monkey slipper.  He has brought this "stuffed animal" to school several times.  Yesterday, when he arrived, he was really wanting to get rid of the "sock" part of this stuffed animal (the part of a slipper that comes up on a child's ankle).
Together, he and I problem solved back and forth.  I offered an idea, he shot it down, he offered and idea, we discussed the possibility of that etc. (COLLABORATION at it's finest).  FINALLY, we agreed on an idea.  We would pull out some of the stuffing, in order to make room for the sock part to fold into the slipper (he did not like the idea of cutting it off).  He would then sew the slipper opening closed.  I gathered a REAL needle and thread, and together, we sewed until I knew I could trust him to use caution and complete the project successfully.
Number of children participating:  ONE.  No one else was even aware this was going on.  This was a meaningful moment for ONE child.


Theme Two:  Valentine's Day

Before:  I would have spent a week or two focused on Valentine's Day.  The theme would have ended with a traditional Valentine's Day filled with repeated requests to "sit still", "don't eat all your candy now", "listen for your name", "make sure your bag is open so a Valentine can be placed inside", "sit still", "sit still", "don't eat all your candy" etc. etc. etc.  aye yi yi!
Number of participants:  EVERYONE.  No one had the option to not participate.

Now:  Valentine's Day is handled completely different in my program now.  It is child-led.  Children are welcome to bring full, unopened boxes of Valentine's to school.  They can then play with them to their heart's content.  Books are read that talk about the traditional Valentine's Day.   Children spend the majority of their time ripping Valentine's apart, stuffing them in envelopes, practicing writing each other's names etc.... all in their own time, and their own choosing.
On this particular day, Feb. 2, Zoey (who is in her third year in my program) walked into school carrying a file folder full of papers.  It turns out that the day before, her mom took her to Target so she could choose what box of Valentine's she wanted to bring to school this year.  Upon entering the store, Zoey announced "Mom, I want to make a Valentine for Denita and Elsie."  Her mom said "Sounds good.  Let's go and choose some supplies."  Shortly after, Zoey decided she wanted to make a Valentine for everyone, she did not want to buy a box of cards.  And so.. that is exactly what she did.  She returned home and went to work, constructing 12 Valentines because she was INTRINSICALLY MOTIVATED to do so.  This was genuine, straight from the heart.
Number of participants:  One, but in a way, it involved everyone as Zoey handed out a Valentine to each child.  The children had the opportunity to express gratitude and feel special.  Zoey, was EMPOWERED by HER thoughtfulness and ideas.  Zoey has the rest of her life to have to do things other people tell her to do.  At the age of 5, she should be allowed to experience autonomy.





Theme Three:  Shadows

Before:  Since this was in celebration of Ground Hog Day, I would have spent a week learning about ground hogs, yet not a single child would have actually gotten to experience a ground hog.  I would have focused on the cutesy songs about ground hogs popping out the ground.  We would have colored carbon copied ground hogs that were found in the latest teacher's magazine and we would have glued them to a craft stick and stuck them in a styrofoam cup.  Shadows did not come into play for this theme until my journey towards a true play-based program began.  My first step was ditching the ground hog and focusing on shadows.  Shadow play would have been a part of the environment for one week.
Number of participants:  Everyone. No one had the option to not make a ground hog, and later, not play shadows.

Now:  I simply re-arranged the room the evening before, leaving a bare wall for shadow play.  I then added a lamp, and waited for a child to ask why there was a lamp sitting on a table.  When that moment happened, thanks to the natural curiosity of children, I simply turned off the overhead lights, and turned on the lamp.  The why, was quickly answered by the children:  "Look!  Shadows!!"; "My shadow is small here, but it's big when I walk over here!"  "My shadow looks like a witch!" ; "My shadow is nice."  etc. etc.  As the children were exploring their shadows, the book "The Dark Dark Night" by Christina Butler (that we had read the day before) came into their play.  One child did mention that it was Ground Hog Day, and he explained it to empty ears.. no one, not a single child cared.  What they DID care about, however, were the shadows they were making.  Shadow play continued until someone requested the projector.  I switched out the lamp for the overhead projector and shadow play continue with an added element.
Number of children participating:  Everyone.  No one was forced, but all were naturally curious and had to experience and discover their shadows.





Theme Four:  The Mitten

Before:  I would have led the children in a theme based around the classic book by Jan Bret:  "The Mitten".  We would have explored, in depth, each animal (even though we got to touch, smell or hear none of them), we would have made construction paper mittens, we would have acted out the story (not organically, but led by me, assigning roles to the children).  The letter "M" would have been the focus for the week.  Stations would have been set up all related to the story, "The Mitten" in some way.
Number of participants:  Everyone.  No one would have had the option to not participate.

Now:  While the lights were out, and some children were still exploring shadows, and projection play, one child asked for the finger lights (we had played with them the day before).  After playing with the finger lights for a while, one child wondered what would happen if we put a finger light inside a balloon.  And so.... like all wonders that happen in my program we tested it to find out.  We learned it was awesome.  The process of getting the light into the balloon (I held the balloon open with my fingers, while one child pushed in the light), gave ME a wonder.  SO... I added on to the moment, I extended the learning and simply said "I wonder what else we can fit inside a balloon."  There were several "takers" to my wonder and they were EXCITEDLY gathering items they predicted would fit into a balloon.  SO, I quickly grabbed ANOTHER balloon, and held it open, while object after object was tested.  Some fit, some failed.  After about four items made it inside the balloon, I blew it up.  I held it up to the light and we "oohed and awed" about the affect.  I then released the air (resulting in a stretched out balloon that suddenly had room for MORE) and the children gathered more items.  I repeated the process one more time.  Then I added this:  "Hmmmmm..... boys and girls, I wonder what would happen if I tie the balloon and then....... POP IT!!!!?"  SQUEALS of delight followed that wonder.  So, I quickly tied it, grabbed a pin, and gave plenty of warning to ALL that a balloon was about to be popped (not every single child was a part of this...and I wanted to give fair warning).  "POP!!!"  EVERYONE inside the balloon FLEW all about the room!!  This was quickly followed by "DO IT AGAIN!"  And so, the whole process was repeated.  When we reached the "pop" stage, I asked who wanted to have the honor of popping the balloon (I like to hand moments like this off to the children as much as possible in order to empower them with ownership).  After the second time, I said "Boys and girls.  Does this remind anyone of one of our favorite books?!"  "The book about animals squeezing into something very small......."  One child's face LIT UP and he said "The book about the white glove!!!"  (aka: "The Mitten").  After doing the balloon thing one more time, that child said "Can we read "The Mitten" now?!"  YES WE CAN!
Number of participants:  The number of children participating varied throughout this play.  I have eleven children enrolled in my program, ten were present on this day.  The number of participants varied from 8 to 3.

No... your eyes do not deceive you... that IS a big stuffed mouse from Ikea (if you have heard me speak, you know all about those) INSIDE a balloon!!!

So proud.  This child just successfully shoved a frog shower puff into the balloon!!



I handed the process of holding the balloon open to the children.  THIS IS HARD WORK!




Theme Five:  Outer Space

Before:  I would have done a week-long theme on outer space.  We would have talked about gravity, and of course, experienced it.  We would have imagined everything else.  We would have focused on the letter "O", possibly "A" for astronaut.  We would have explored lots of books and pictures.  But nothing would have been real, and none of the children were ever very interested, but I did it none-the-less because it felt like a right-of-passage for all preschoolers to learn about outer space..something that even adults can't really comprehend.
Number of Participants:  Everyone.  No one would have had the option to not travel to outer space with us.

Now:  After the balloon excitment, one child meandered back to the overhead projector.  He proceeded to figure out that the magnatiles would work on the projector, and he built a rocket ship.  Another child noticed, and "hopped aboard", declaring to everyone that he was about to blast off into outer space.  He was quickly empowered as other children grabbed hold of HIS idea and they too took off for outer space.  The children shared all the info they knew about space travel that they had gathered from siblings and parents, sparked by their own questions.
Number of children participating:  Two - six.





This child is trying to move the rocket by pushing it up.  Prior to this, the children standing at the projector were making the rocket ship blast off.  This child has yet to connect the cause and effect factor of playing with the overhead projector.

I didn't have the heart to tell them that they weren't all in the rocket, and that they were about to burn up.  Sigh.
Theme Six:  Birthdays

Before:  I never did a theme on Birthdays, as I wanted each child's actual birthday to be something special.

Now:  Birthdays happen pretty much daily in my program.  Someone, every.single.day., creates a birthday cake out of SOMETHING.  On this day, Ellery created a birthday cake with flubber, using scissors for candles.  He made it for his friend, Zoey.  (perhaps because she made him a Valentine?)
Number of children participating:  Two.



Theme Seven:  Puppet Theater

Before:  The puppets would have come out for a two-week appearance (just the one's that I allowed the children to play with...aka: the "cheap ones").  I had a huge stash of puppets reserved for special appearances ONLY.  Some puppets were only seen once a year, and they were only run by me.  WHY?  Because I didn't want the "magic" of puppets to be spoiled.  (hand to forehead...what on earth was I thinking?!?!)
Number of Particpants:  Again, EVERYONE, as no child had a choice.  (This is painful for me to reflect upon.  I gave children no choice.  None.  I worried something fierce about the child that might be bored, or might not want to participate.. and so, participation was mandatory, whether they liked it or not)

Now:  The puppets were "set free" almost two years ago.  ALL of the puppets.  Even the super expensive ones.  It was the best decision I ever made.  Puppets are the tool some children need to open up, and express themselves.  Puppets are the catalyst of imagination, and a peek into the soul of the children who are timid or shy.  Puppets belong IN THE HANDS of children, not to be reserved for the hands of teachers only.
On this particular day, the puppets were not in the environment, but since the children in my program are empowered, they are not afraid to ask for what they need.  One child wanted to put on a puppet show, and so he asked for what he needed:  the puppets.
At first, all of the children, every single one grabbed a puppet.  This left NO ONE to observe the puppet show.  Oliver (whose idea this was to begin with) was so incredibly sad.  The other children heard him, and demonstrated AMAZING compassion.  It looked like this:
"Awe man!!  Now there is no one to watch my show!  This was the worse idea ever!  WHY did I think of this idea!"
Within seconds of this, one child said "I'll watch your show!", and they headed across the room to grab a chair.  This was followed by several more children saying and doing the exact same thing.
Number of children participating:  Every single one.  And they all had a choice.



Theme Eight:  Teacher Pride and Reflection

Before:  I was so proud of my clever ideas.  I thrived on thinking of outside-the-box ways of bringing themes alive for children.  I had a plan, and we stuck with the plan.  Children learned that I was in control, and their job was to listen and do what I said.  I was proud of the children who listened to me and followed directions so well, and frustrated those who wanted to ignore my directions and do things their own way.

Now:  I am incredibly proud of the clever thoughts and ideas of the children in my program.  I am constantly amazed at the natural flow of child-led play.  I love observing, and reflecting upon how one idea leads quite naturally, and sometimes bizarrely into another idea or theme.  I am constantly in awe of the number and variety of themes that we visit on a daily basis.  There is no pattern, there is no right or wrong.  There are days where the themes visited are countless, while others, all the children participate in the same theme for almost the entire duration of our time together.
I love my job of quiet observer and facilitator.  I love following the unpredictable lead of children, I love TRYING to predict what they may do with various materials I place in the environment.  With that said, I love it even more when they bamboozle me with their amazing, unfenced ideas.

Indeed, children are the true Kings and Queens of themes.


About the author:
Denita Dinger is an internationally-known speaker and author who loves to share humorous, intentional and inspiring keynotes and workshops to anyone who has young people in their lives.

For more information, contact her at:  playcounts.denitadinger@gmail.com

Follow her on Facebook at Play Counts as well as her two program pages:  Kaleidoscope Play School (her child-led play school) and Camp Empower (a school-aged summer play camp) and her podcast group:  Embracing Play Community.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Day I was Led to Crow Bars

Something I didn't grasp when I was a prescribed-lesson-plan-following-teacher is this whole idea of following the lead of children.

Wasn't it my job to be the leader?

Wasn't it the children who should be following ME, so I can teach them, and they can learn?

How will they ever learn anything if they are leading and I am following?

Those of you who are familiar with me, or have heard me speak, know my story.... and you know my journey from leading children to following them did not happen overnight.  It was a long journey full of AHA MOMENTS; moments where it was loud and clear that my lesson plans were NOT filled with as much meaningful learning as where my children were leading me IN THE MOMENT.

Enough aha moments have occurred that I have completely changed my philosophy.   My program is now TRULY child-led.  My plan, is no longer "mine", rather it is "ours".  Our plan for tomorrow is unknown until today happens.  "Our plan" simply means how I will set the environment, not what the children will do in the environment.... that is completely open to their unfenced imaginations.

Because of the drastic change in my philosophy, moments like this are a regular occurrence in my program:

Last week, the "Home Alone"-loving-six-year-old-student in my play school said the following:

"Denita?  Will you get me a piece of pvc pipe?"

My "go-to" reply for such a request is always:

"What is your plan?"

"I want to make a crow bar."

"I can't wait to see how you will create that!  Let me go see what I can find."

I returned to the classroom carrying the first pvc pipe piece I ran into, a roughly 3 ft. long piece of 1/2" pvc pipe.

Oliver looked at it and said, with a smidgen of disappointment, "Oh.  I didn't know crowbars were ever this big."

"You know what, Oliver?  I don't know if they are ever that big either.  Let's do some research."

So he and I grabbed my phone and I Googled "crowbars" and selected "images".  Up popped all sorts of images of crowbars (including a cartoon of crows sitting at a bar).  It was at that moment that it dawned on me that we had a crowbar out in the garage!

"Oliver!  How would you like to use a real crowbar?"

"Can I REALLY!?!?!"

I quickly returned with a REAL CROWBAR in my hands.

I then grabbed the 4x4 that we use to hammer nails into.  It was full of nails that could be pried off with a crowbar.

Oliver's interest in crowbars quickly spread to a few other children as well.

Following their lead, I quickly added hammers and goggles and more nails, as some children hammered, and Oliver used the crowbar.

I then stepped back and quietly observed.  I remained present, right there, in the moment, anxious to follow the next lead, but I was in the background of the action, rather then the center.

It didn't take long for the children to determine their own method for taking turns.

Patience was challenged as children eagerly awaited their turn with the coveted new tool.

Various techniques were tried.  Some failed, some succeeded.

Children were sharing with each other what they had learned while using the crowbar.

Children were assessing and managing risk.  They were actively being careful, rather than just being told to be careful as a dangerous object was removed from their hands.

Vocabularies were enriched as words like leverage and pry were used readily and correctly.





And to think, I used to limit the learning in December strictly to things that related to Christmas .....because that is what I wrote in my lesson plan book.

This beautiful child-led moment will go down in my memory as the day I was led to crowbars... and the learning that followed was more rich than ANYTHING I could have ever pre-written in a lesson plan book.

Following the lead of children creates joy-filled opportunities that are loaded with meaningful learning.


Denita Dinger is an internationally-known speaker and author who loves to share humorous, intentional and inspiring keynotes and workshops to anyone who has young people in their lives.
For more information, contact her at:  playcounts.denitadinger@gmail.com
Follow her on Facebook at Play Counts as well as her two programs:  Kaleidoscope Play School (her child-led play school) and Camp Empower (a school-aged summer play camp)

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Words Hold the Power to Discourage....or EMPOWER: Use them Wisely

Words.

They are powerful.

If used incorrectly, they can make a child feel inferior and not good enough.  They can turn a child away from reading completely.  Forced memorization of insignificant sight words is a prime example of this, as well as forced memorization of letters before a child realizes their purpose.

Words.

They are powerful.

If used correctly, they can empower children, and build the best foundation for all future literacy skills to build upon.  They can foster an insaturable urge to know more.  The "mystery word" is a prime example of this.

____________________________________________________

WHAT IS A MYSTERY WORD?

The mystery word is a technique I use in my play school to build the foundation for future literacy skills.  It's all about teaching letters in their natural habitat, where their purpose is clear, NOT isolated on a worksheet or flashcard, as a meaningless letter.

At the basis of the mystery word is simply attaching a word to a meaningful experience.  It is among the simplest and most basic components of any child's literacy foundation.  Next to reading, reading, reading to a child sits the very basic "attaching words to meaningful experiences".

We can attach words to experiences through conversation.  Simply being in the moment and providing commentary of child-led play is one way of accomplishing this.  Another is writing down a word that is connected to what children are currently doing and physically building that word.   THAT is what the mystery word is all about.

The Mystery Word's beginnings are quite teacher-led.  This technique was originally imagined by my good friend Jennifer Henson.  She was a family childcare provider who was also on a journey, like mine, away from a thematically-led, teacher-controlled program to one where the current interests of children are respected and the children lead, while I follow and scaffold.  (to see where the Mystery Word began in my program, read THIS POST)

Over time, however, it has evolved into something that is completely led, and owned by the littles in my play school.  They, on their own, figured out that the mystery word was connected to what they were currently doing.  And one day, out of the blue, a child suggested a word to me..... and the rest is history.  It is now totally led by children.  There is not a mystery word unless a child suggests one to me.  Some days there are three mystery words, while other days, or even weeks, there are none.

______________________________________________

Today, my littles discovered a small photo album that contains upwards 80 index cards with one word on each card.  Those are our mystery words from last year.  That's right almost EIGHTY MEANINGFUL WORDS.  ALL suggested to me, by my littles.  ALL are attached to meaningful memories.

The excitement on the children's faces when they realized what was in this book matched that of a child who just discovered a jar of candy.  

"DENITA!  It's our mystery words!!!  You saved them!!  JUST FOR US!?!  Read them to us!!"

And so I began:  "Costume"

"I remember that day!  It's the first day we had the cow costume and the cat costume and the dinosaur costume!!!  Read some more!!"

"Snap, crack, pumpkin, crash, monster, slimey, wipe...."

"STOP!  I remember that day!  It's the day we learned that we could wipe off the walls in the doodle room, and the color moved to the rags!!  Read some more!!"

"Build, swing, color, push..."

"STOP!!!  I remember those words!  It's the day we had the green swing and we colored on the floor while we were swinging.  We have to do that again this year!  The new kids don't know about the green swing yet!  Read some more!!"

"Dump, suck, ramp, goopy, puppet, magnets, balloon, lights, donuts..."

"STOP!!!  That was Oliver's birthday!  He brought us donuts to eat!!  Read some more!!!"

"Blow, flubber, family, party, snip, drip, stretch, projector..."

"STOP!  Today is the perfect day for the projector!  Will you get it out?"

"That's a grand idea!  I will be right back."

And so.....out came the projector.  And with it, the start of new memories as "fragile" and "light" were suggested for mystery words.

SIDE NOTE:  "Fragile" was suggested because after setting up the projector, I reminded the children that it was fragile.  After saying that, Oliver said "Hey!  Fragile would be a good mystery word because our box is fragile too!" (we have a house/train/rocket ship in our environment that we constructed out of several boxes and duct tape, and let me tell you...it is FRAGILE!! :D ).  "Light"...for obvious reasons.

When a mystery word is suggested, I write it on an index card, show it to the child that suggested it (they usually watch me write it) and then I hang it on the wall.  When the attention is off of the word, and whomever was interested is back to their play, I hide the black letters you see in this picture.  Using poster putty on the back, I hide them anywhere and everywhere.  I then wait.  Quietly.  As the children play, they discover the letters... and let me tell you, it is EXTREMELY exciting to find the letters.  When found, they figure out where the letter goes.  


The most AMAZING thing that has evolved out of the mystery word is extreme letter knowledge.  My littles understand the POWER of a letter.  They know that every letter they add CHANGES the word.  How do I know they know this?  Because they ask "what does it say now, Denita?"  after they add a letter.






This child discovered a problem, and decided to take it upon himself to fix it!  Do you see how the letter "g" is in front of the letter "i"?  Noticing that error takes some fantastic visual tracking abilities and differentiation skills.

PRIDE.  Intrinsically motivated PRIDE.  No one told this child to fix the word.  No one praised this child after he fixed the word.


This Noelle.  She just turned five and is VERY much in love with our mystery words.  She just found the "f" that completed "fragile".  She was just a tad bit excited!!  Insert a sing-songy voice as she is yelling "FRAGILE!!!".  
_______________________________

Words.

They are
powerful.

We can use that power to discourage children..... or
EMPOWER children.

I choose empower, every.single.time.
About the Author:
Denita Dinger is the owner of Play Counts Consulting and is an international keynote speaker on the topic of embracing play.  She is passionate about helping early childhood professionals see the learning power of child-led play.  Her most popular training is the Defender of Play Boot Camp.  

Contact her at playcounts.denitadinger@gmail.com for more information about her speaking rates.  You can also learn more about Denita's passion for embracing play on her Facebook pages:  Play Counts, Kaleidoscope Play School and Camp Empower.

Words Hold the Power to Discourage....or EMPOWER: Use them Wisely

Words.

They are powerful.

If used incorrectly, they can make a child feel inferior and not good enough.  They can turn a child away from reading completely.  Forced memorization of insignificant sight words is a prime example of this, as well as forced memorization of letters before a child understands that letters are used to make words.

Words.

They are powerful.

If used correctly, they can empower children, and build the best foundation for all future literacy skills to build upon.  They can foster an insaturable urge to know more.  The "mystery word" is a prime example of this.

____________________________________________________

WHAT IS A MYSTERY WORD?

The mystery word is a technique I use in my play school to build the foundation for future literacy skills.  It's all about teaching letters in their natural habitat, where their purpose is clear.  NOT isolated on a worksheet or flashcard as a meaningless letter.

At the basis of the mystery word is simply attaching words to meaningful experience.  It is among the simplest and most basic components of any child's literacy foundation.  Next to reading, reading, reading to a child sits the very basic "attaching words to meaningful experience".

We can attach words to experience through conversation.  Simply being in the moment and providing commentary of child-led play is one way of accomplishing this.  Another is writing down a word that is connected to what children are currently doing.   THAT is what the mystery word is all about.

The Mystery Word's beginnings are quite teacher-led.  This technique was originally imagined by my good friend Jennifer Henson.  She was a family childcare provider who was also on a journey, like mine, away from a thematically-led, teacher-controlled program to one where the current interests of children are respected and children led, while I follow and scaffold.  (to see where the Mystery Word began in my program, read THIS POST)

Over time, however, it has evolved into something that is completely led, and owned by the littles in my play school.  They, on their own, figured out that the mystery word was connected to what they were currently doing.  And one day, out of the blue, a child suggested a word to me..... and the rest is history.  It is now totally led by children.  There is not a mystery word unless a child suggests one to me.  Some days there are three mystery words, while other days, or even weeks, there are none.

______________________________________________

Today, my littles discovered a small photo album that contains upwards 80 index cards with one word on each card.  Those are our mystery words from last year.  That's right almost EIGHTY MEANINGFUL WORDS.  ALL suggested to me, by my littles.  ALL are attached to meaningful memories.

The excitement on the children's faces when they realized what was in this book matched that of a child who just discovered a jar of candy.  

"DENITA!  It's our mystery words!!!  You saved them!!  JUST FOR US!?!  Read them to us!!"

And so I began:  "Costume"

"I remember that day!  It's the first day we had the cow costume and the cat costume and the dinosaur costume!!!  Read some more!!"

"Snap, crack, pumpkin, crash, monster, slimey, wipe...."

"STOP!  I remember that day!  It's the day we learned that we could wipe off the walls in the doodle room, and the color moved to the rags!!  Read some more!!"

"Build, swing, color, push..."

"STOP!!!  I remember those words!  It's the day we had the green swing and we colored on the floor while we were swinging.  We have to do that again this year!  The new kids don't know about the green swing yet!  Read some more!!"

"Dump, suck, ramp, goopy, puppet, magnets, balloon, lights, donuts..."

"STOP!!!  That was Oliver's birthday!  He brought us donuts to eat!!  Read some more!!!"

"Blow, flubber, family, party, snip, drip, stretch, projector..."

"STOP!  Today is the perfect day for the projector!  Will you get it out?"

"That's a grand idea!  I will be right back."

And so.....out came the projector.  And with it, the start of new memories as "fragile" and "light" were suggested for mystery words.

When a mystery word is suggested, I write it on an index card, show it to the child that suggested it (they usually watch me write it) and then I hang it on the wall.  When the attention is off of the word, and whomever was interested is back to their play, I hide the black letters you see in this picture.  Using poster putty on the back, I hide them anywhere and everywhere.  I then wait.  Quietly.  As the children play, they discover the letters... and let me tell you, it is EXTREMELY exciting to find the letters.  When found, they figure out where the letter goes.  


The most AMAZING thing that has evolved out of the mystery word is extreme letter knowledge.  My littles understand the POWER of a letter.  They know that every letter they add CHANGES the word.  How do I know they know this?  Because they ask "what does it say now, Denita?"  after they add a letter.


This child discovered a problem, and decided to take it upon himself to fix it!  Do you see how the letter "g" is in front of the letter "i"?  Noticing that error takes some fantastic visual tracking abilities and differentiation skills.

PRIDE.  Intrinsically motivated PRIDE.  No one told this child to fix the word.  No one praised this child after he fixed the word.

Words.

They are
powerful.

We can use that power to discourage children..... or
EMPOWER children.

I choose empower, every.single.time.
About the Author:
Denita Dinger is the owner of Play Counts Consulting and is an international keynote speaker on the topic of embracing play.  She is passionate about helping early childhood professionals see the learning power of child-led play.  Her most popular training is the Defender of Play Boot Camp.  

Contact her at playcounts.denitadinger@gmail.com for more information about her speaking rates.  You can also learn more about Denita's passion for embracing play on her Facebook pages:  Play Counts, Kaleidoscope Play School and Camp Empower.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Confessions of a Play-based Teacher

I haven't always had the correct understanding of what "play-based" meant.  And I didn't always support children more than I supported the system.

I believed..... that "play-based learning" simply meant children learned through playful activities, not sit-down worksheets.

I believed..... that I was a "play-based" program because:
  1. I didn't do any worksheets in my program.  
  2. All of the ways children learned were, arguably, PLAY.
  3. I thoughtfully considered what my littles were interested in when I sat down in August and wrote out nine months worth of lesson plans.
I believed .....the following were MY JOBS in order to run a "play-based" program:

  • I set up the hands-on, play-based stations.
  • I demonstrated each station so the children would know the correct thing to do at each one.
  • I decided how many children could be at each station.
  • I decided how long children would be allowed to explore each station.
  • I decided what letter we would be learning about each week, and would plan activities around the letter.
  • I chose the themes that either lasted one or two weeks (depending on how much I thought the children would enjoy each theme).
  • I decided how many materials to set out.
  • I worked hard to avoid conflict.
  • I solved problems for children (again, to avoid conflict).
  • I made sure all children were busy doing something, out of fear they would be bored.
  • I made sure the blocks stayed in the block zone, and the books in the book nook.
  • I stopped children from doing anything that was even slightly risky.
  • I pulled each child aside periodically to "test them" to make sure that, even with all of this "play" they were still learning what they "needed" to know.

I believed the following was the children's job:
  • Listen to me and follow my lead.
That was then.... and this is now:

Thanks to a very lengthy journey, and some hard work, busting through my stubbornness (you can read about it here)my belief system changed, and with that, the depth of learning that happened in my program changed drastically.

I finally GOT IT.  It was like I got brand new eyes.

What I was doing before was TEACHER-CONTROLLED,  PLAYFUL LEARNING...... NOT to be confused with PLAY-BASED LEARNING.

I Now Believe.... "play-based learning" means children learn through THEIR play; child-led, adult-ideas-out, PLAY.  NOT to be confused with teacher-led playful learning (which is what I was doing before)

I Now Believe.... I am a "play-based program" because:

1)  There still are no worksheets in my program
2)  Children lead their learning through their play.
3)  The "plan" for the next day doesn't get written until TODAY is over.  The plan for tomorrow is directly related to where my littles led me TODAY.  The plan only includes the setting up of the environment, and the gathering of materials.  There is no "here is what we are going to do" in OUR plan at.all.

I Now Believe... the following are my jobs:
  • Be in the moment with children. Thoughtfully listening and observing, jumping in only when invited.
  • Following the lead of children and adjusting the environment accordingly.
  • View play through a lens that respects the learning that is buried deep within.
  • Keep the environment free from hazards (NOTE:  Hazards are dangers children CANNOT see.  RISKS are dangers children CAN see and CAN assess and manage)


I Now Believe.... the following are the jobs of the children:


  • Freely explore the materials in the environment and use them as they choose to do tasks of their choosing as well.
  • Own discoveries.
  • Ask for what materials they need.
  • Decide how many children they would like to play with at any given time.
  • Work hard to manage conflicts.
  • Solve problems.
  • Learn through failing.
  • Pick themselves up.
  • Work together.
  • Lead with their own interests.
  • Demonstrate what they know, (unbeknownst to them), through their play.
  • Cross pollinate all of the toys.
  • Sit and stare into space, full of wonders.
  • Embrace boredom and figure out what to do next.
  • Enjoy their freedom of time, technique and task.
  • Assess and manage risk.
  • Play freely. (not to be confused with "free play")

Do I feel like I have "arrived" and have nothing more to learn?  Oh goodness no!  I don't feel there is ever a true destination in the world of early childhood education.  There is always something to be learned, something to change, something to improve upon.

But what I do feel like is I am NOW running a program that supports CHILDREN, not the system and the grossly inappropriate expectations being placed on them.


___________________________________
If you would like Denita to speak at your next early childhood professional event, contact her at playcounts.denitadinger@gmail.com

Read more of her thoughts and journey on her Facebook page, Play Counts.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Risk. Finding the Balance.

Risk.
Life is full of risk.

Early childhood programs have a responsibility to help prepare children for life.  Part of that responsibility is to provide opportunities for children to see risk, determine just how risky said risk is, and solve the problem of dealing with the risk (aka:  recognizing risk, assessing risk and managing risk)

Too many programs are shying away from this responsibility.
Too many parents are shying away from this responsibility as well.

The result:  
  • Children who don't have the "gut feeling".  
  • Children who get blind sided by risk, and don't win.
  • Children who get used to hearing an adult yell "STOP!! THAT'S DANGEROUS!  YOU CAN'T DO IT!"  When that adult isn't there, the child has no idea how to recognize risk as they have always depended on the yelling adult.
I'd like to share this moment-o-risk that just happened last week in my play school.  As  you look at the photos and read the captions, I encourage you to dissect all the IMPORTANT STUFF that the children in this situation are learning.  At the end, we will review.



Meet Bennett.  Bennett has had opportunities to practice using caution.  He knows how to slow his body when the gut feeling tells him too.  He is using our brand new water-weaving wall.  In order to pour water in that red funnel, Bennett had to solve a problem.  He had to get himself up higher.  This tire, was conveniently right there, and so, it is the obvious solution to his problem.

While standing on this tire, Bennett's body is learning a lot about balance and support.  Notice how he is bracing himself on the lattice?

Bennett is PROUD to have accomplished his self-chosen task with a technique he chose as well.

Meet Oliver.  Oliver is the middle child.  He and Bennett are solving a problem.  Oliver would like to pour water in another tube on the water-weaving wall.  That tube, however, does not have a tire to stand on near by.  SO, these boys are using some teamwork to accomplish this task.

The boys invited me in to their play by asking me to help them stack the tires (ASKING FOR WHAT WE NEED).  The stacked tires provides some risk.  See how Oliver is standing?  His gut feeling is telling him to MOVE SLOWLY in order to maintain his balance.  See Zoey?  She is helping to support the tire tower for her friend.

As Oliver is standing on the tire, I simply said "Oliver?  Do you feel safe?"  His reply?  "No".  See Bennett?  He added to our conversation with this awesome, nugget of knowledge:  "Don't worry, Oliver.  I'm coming to help.  I'll stand over here and balance the tire for you."


After Bennett got into position, I simply said "Oliver?  Do you feel safe now?"  His response:  "YES!  Yes I do!"

After Oliver emptied his bucket of water he said "Denita?  Do you remember the ladder we used last year when we had the other water wall?  Can we use that again?"  My response "Absolutely!"

Let's review all the opportunities that occurred during this beautiful, child-led moment at my play school:

Recognize Risk:
Standing on one tire provided an opportunity for Bennett's gut feeling to kick in.  It told him it was time to kick into "cautious mode"
Risk Assessment:
Bennett's gut feeling told him it was time to kick into "cautious mode" but this was a risk he was able to manage.
Risk Management:
Bennett listened to his gut feeling, recalled all the other times he has had to manage risk and knew that he needed to SLOW HIS BODY down in order to take the time to be cautious.
Problem Solving:
Oliver needed to get his body up higher.  After looking around at the supplies near by, he proceeded to move a tire to where he needed it.
Teamwork:
Seeing that tires were a very good solution to the problem of getting up higher, Bennett ran over and moved another tire with Oliver.
Recognize Risk:
The moment Oliver got up on the tire tower, he knew this was risky.  His gut feeling kicked in, just as it was developed to do.  Oliver has had previous opportunities to have that feeling, enough to recognize that that feeling means USE CAUTION.
Risk Assessment:
This is where my job as teacher came in to play, by simply offering one question to help Oliver assess this moment of risk:  "Do you feel safe?"
Risk Management/Applying Previously Learned Knowledge to a New Situation:
Enter in Bennett to offer the help that Oliver needed in order to manage this moment of risk.  Bennett took information he has learned through previous experiences with balance, and balanced the tires so Oliver could finish his self-chosen task more safely.
Asking for What We Need:
After working very hard in order to dump some water down a tube, Oliver recalled that there was an easier solution, and one that held a lot less risk.  He asked for the ladder that he remembered using last fall.

I encourage you all to do what Bennett did for his pal, Oliver; he helped him find balance.  You need to find a way to balance risky opportunities while also meeting each child where they are at.   The amount of risk needs to match the amount of trust... with a slight push of those boundaries.

I leave you with this bit of wisdom and a whole lot to ponder:
"At my school, we no longer call it risky play.  We call it safety play, because when provided with risky opportunities, children are learning how to be safe." -Teacher Tom