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

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

Monday, May 9, 2016

Risk. Finding the Balance.

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.
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

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Innovative Materials Foster Innovative Thinkers

If we want children to grow up being innovative, then we better be innovative with the materials they have access too!  Ditch the commercialized junk that limits imaginations and boxes children in.  Replace that with INNOVATIVE materials.  (aka:  empty boxes, plastic jars, plastic rain gutters and other, seemingly random odds and ends)

THEN... be innovative with how you present the materials children already know.

Take vinegar and baking soda for example.  Children LOVE the reaction that happens by simply mixing vinegar and baking soda.  When I lead my Defender of Play Boot Camps, I share LOADS of innovative ideas of how to present the opportunity to create the FIZZ... but this is one that is brand spanking new... hot off the press... straight from the noggin....and totally AWESOME!   

Allow me to introduce you to...... 
Baking Soda Ice Cubes (Don't stop scrolling here....keep on reading.. this grows into another, even more amazing idea!!)

I am not a measuring kind of gal (you should have supper at our home sometime... it gets interesting).  THEREFORE, I have no measurements for you (relax, ye with little faith.. trial and error is GOOD)  What I can tell you is I dumped in a bunch of baking soda, and added water, stirred it well and then filled various ice cube trays with the mixture.  I used silicone ice cube trays from Ikea.  

I plopped (this means I just put it in the environment with ZERO direction or expectation) the ice cubes, a couple of brownie pans, a mini-muffin pan and cups of colored vinegar (each with a squirt of Dawn dish soap added) and pipettes.  I then quietly waited to observe what my littles would do with these materials.

As the "magic ice cubes" melted, and the fizz died down, there was MORE fizz opportunity, and that made for really gorgeous results!
So then... as I was rinsing out this container post-play, I realized that it was really AWESOME to watch it all run down the pan... which sparked the next idea I am going to share with you.....

Frozen Fizzing Ramp!! (I KNOW... right?  HOW CLEVER and FUN!!!??)

Do the same thing that you did to make the "magic cubes" only fill a brownie pan with the mixture instead.  Using shelf liner from the Dollar Tree on the edge, (this keeps the pan from slipping) position it on the edge of another container to create a ramp)

Then, my own curiosity led me to grab the scraper to see if they could scrape away the top layer and start all over.  The scrapping was LOTS of fun, and a great sensory experience too!

The children's conversations were rich with comments on the colors they were making, the speed in which the magic cubes were traveling, the sizes of them as they melted and how cold it was when they touched it.  There was cheering for the fish as they slid down the slide and lots of "Oh LOOK WHAT I DID!!"
Recall the magic cubes from earlier?  Well, I made more of those too, and it turns out they are lots of fun on a ramp as well!!

As our morning progressed, and the magic cubes and ramp melted, the results changed.  The ability to fizz happened again and again for the melting cubes and ramp, the rainbow river that appeared was awe-inspiring and sparked lots of conversation and imagination.


Innovative materials fosters innovative thinkers.

Hopefully this post will work the same on you, as opportunities like this do on my littles.  Let this inspire YOU to be INNOVATIVE.

I challenge you to take the ordinary and make it EXTRAORDINARY.   Get in touch with your innovative side!  You have children to inspire!

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

A Child's Remorse and Forgiveness is Not Yours to Control

How many times have you said to a child:  "Tell him you are sorry."?    
Chances are, your answer is:  "Too many to count."

What about this:  "She said she is sorry.  Tell her you forgive her."

For whatever reason adults feel the need to "coach" children through the act of apologizing and forgiving, but when while we think we are "coaching" what we are truly doing is CONTROLLING and fabricating something that should be authentic and from the heart.

Authentic remorse and forgiveness are owned by a child... they cannot be controlled by an adult.  They can be taught through example... not through control.

If you have heard my "Empowering Children Through the Gift Of Control" workshop, you know I hold "trust" in high regards.  Specifically,  trusting children. 

WHY is trust so important?
 Knowing someone trusts us is empowering.  

Empowered children are able to develop a solid foundation of self regulation, they are more apt try new things, stand up for themselves, and own their mistakes.   Apologizing to someone is basically owning your mistake.

Today, a situation happened in my play school that backs what I just said:

Oliver threw water on Sam.

It is October, in South Dakota.  It's not the kind of weather where you say "thank you!" to someone who just threw water on you.  

To say this did not go over well is an understatement.  

After consoling and getting dry clothing for Sam, and having a very firm, yet loving conversation with Oliver, all was well.

NOTE:  There was no adult-ordered apology, and no apology was authentically offered.

Fast forward thirty minutes:

Out of no where, Oliver went over to Sam and said:  "Sam, I am really sorry for throwing water on you."

My inner adult-control-freak was going BONKERS.... I wanted to hear "It's okay, I forgive you" come out of Sam's mouth SO BADLY.  BUT.. instead of telling him to say those words, I simply said "Hey Sam!  Did you notice that Oliver is apologizing?"

Sam looked at me and said "Yup."

Fast forward about fifteen more minutes:

Out of no where, Sam walked over to Oliver and gave him a hug.

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury..... I rest my case.

Young children (the children in this story are 3 and 5) CAN be trusted to give authentic apologies and own their forgiveness, handing it out when they feel it is appropriate to do so.

Now... I know what you are thinking.  Well.. if we can't coach, then HOW do we teach children about remorse and forgiveness?


If the adults in children's lives are doing their jobs well, there should be ample time for children to learn about apologizing and forgiving THROUGH OBSERVATION.  It is YOU JOB to be an EXAMPLE.  It is NOT your job to control that in which children can be trusted to control themselves.

The author of this blog is Denita Dinger, Defender of Play and owner of Kaleidoscope Play School and Play Counts Consulting.

If you are interested in having Denita keynote your upcoming early childhood professional conference or training, you can email her at for more information.

Friday, October 2, 2015

"WOW!" Born from "Whoops!"

There is always a pendulum of some sort in my play school program.  


Why pendulums?

At the forefront of pendulum play is visual tracking, a vital piece of the literacy foundation.  

In order to successfully read, we all need to be able to follow a row of print, and then return our eyes to the very next row.  This is called visual tracking.  Ipads and iphones are ruining a child's ability to develop their visual tracking skills correctly.  Visual tracking needs to happen in LARGE SPACES with DEPTH before tracking things on a smaller plane.  Please do not give young children iphones or ipads to play with.  We are ruining eye development and therefore harming future reading success.  Give them pendulums instead.

Pendulum play is also loaded with social benefits, builds a beautiful foundation for science, math and provides fantastic social-play opportunities.

What hangs at the end of our pendulum can be anything from a PVC connector to a swing.

Sometimes I hang the balloon pendulum VERY they have to really reach and stretch and jump to hit the balloon.  While sometimes I hang it an inch off the ground so they can kick it with their feet (we don't wear shoes in my program).  Kicking requires a whole lot of core strength and balance and 

I use para cord attached to various eye hooks that are attached to studs in the ceiling of my play school..... my husband LOVES drilling holes into our basement ceiling for me (insert LOTS of sarcasm).


This particular story I am about to tell (grab a blanket and get cozy...) begins as a story about a balloon pendulum, but it quickly grows into so much more.

It was "stuffed animal day" (as requested by one of my stuffed-animal-lovers) and Bennett was giving Zippity a ride on the balloon pendulum.

The children were having a blast playing with the pendulum as this was the first time this year a balloon was attached.  

LAST YEAR...... we all learned a valuable lesson:  if you pull on the balloon, it will eventually get a tiny hole and slowly shrink before our eyes.  The children learned to play in a different way with the balloon pendulum.

Fast forward to this year...... that lesson had been forgotten

Out of the blue, I heard a child exclaim:  "DENITA!  LOOK!  The balloon looks like an apple!"

Sure enough, the balloon had suffered a small puncture wound, and was losing air at an alarming rate.

I announced:  "Boys and girls.  We need to have a meeting."

We then talked about what was happening to the balloon and why -- you should have seen the hands-to-forehead expressions as the children were like "OH YA!  WE FORGOT!"

I told them I would hang up a new balloon tomorrow, but for today, we would play with this deflated balloon.  I am thinking:  "This will really be a good opportunity for them to use self regulation in the future to control how THEY are playing with the balloon"

And then.........this happened:

And the balloon SNAPPED and FLEW into the air.... clearly, Noelle did NOT have a clue what had happened... but the observing child on the cozy chair did (look at their eyes)

As quickly as the balloon had disappeared from site.... it returned.  And Noelle was like "OH!  There you are!"

As you can imagine.  This discovery was completely and totally ASTOUNDING for my littles.  I love it when an opportunity to patiently take turns presents itself so naturally.

It didn't take too long, before the already injured balloon broke off, and my littles learned that I trusted them to throw the two pieces of balloon away.
I then added a new, deflated balloon to the pendulum so this valuable moment could continue.

Next up was a child who had been observing from a distance.  Do not under estimated the value of a child who appears to be doing "nothing at all" for they are learning SO MUCH through observation.  As these photos clearly show, this child had observed enough to be able to predict what was going to happen when he snapped the balloon:

Watch this child's eyes.  He had collected enough information through observation to predict what would happen....only.... it didn't happen!  What a grand opportunity for handling failure and exploring problem solving and perseverance. 

"Hey Denita!  I learned something!  You can't let go slow!  You have to let go FAST!"

And then..... THIS happened:

 The balloon did not come back down.  (insert GASP!)

Call in the troops!  EMERGENCY!  The balloon needs rescuing!

TEAMWORK solved the problem!  (well.. according to Bennett "No.  Zippity did, Denita" :) )

After the great rescue, the play continued, as did the visual tracking, motor control, visual planning, empowerment, problem solving, turn taking, perseverance and, let's not forget:  FUN!

And so my story ends. 
It is really a simple tale.  Child makes a mistake, mistake turns into a moment of heartbreak, moment of heartbreak turns into a new discovery, new discovery opens up an entire morning of empowering exploration full of failing, persevering, solving, succeeding, collaborating and pre-literacy (visual tracking is VITAL for future reading success).

The most beautiful part:  in the eyes of my littles, this was nothing but another day of play.  And a child's play is truly their work.

The Author:
Denita Dinger is an international keynote presenter and owner of Kaleidoscope Play School.  Contact her for more information:

Monday, March 23, 2015

Respect Child-led Play: Wait for Your Invitation

Think of all the special events you have attended in your life.
Would you have crashed the party without being invited?
Would you have waltzed on in, suggested how things could be done differently and then helped yourself to some beverages and nibblies?

Of course not.

Think of a time when you have been in the middle of a project.  You are focused on what you are doing, enjoying the fact that you are getting things accomplished.

What if your spouse suddenly crashes in and corrects you?
What if your spouse starts telling you that your method is wrong and you should do it their way?

Would you be offended?  
Of course you would.

What about child-led play? 
Have you ever crashed in on child-led play without being invited?

Have you ever offered advice or a solution that wasn't solicited?

Have you ever stopped a child in the midst of their own technique because you had this incredible urge to teach them how you would accomplish the task at hand?

I am betting you have done at least one of the three, if not all.  I know I have, or I wouldn't be writing about this!

For whatever reason, it is very hard for adults to understand their role in child-led play.
It is hard for adults to understand that sometimes, children really don't want to hear from us.  (gasp!  I know!)
It is darn near impossible for some adults (myself included) to bite their tongue and give children the RESPECT they deserve and WAIT FOR AN INVITATION into their play rather than just crashing in, completely unwelcomed.

Last week.... I crashed child-led play.  It was a HUGE "aha" moment.  (For heaven's sake!!  When will the "aha" moments finally cease?!!  I have so many "aha" moments it's not even funny.  I could have a wall-o-aha-moments, a photo-album-ala-aha!)

Let me set the scene:

This is Bennett.
Bennett is an amazing child with amazing ideas.
He has set up the game he invented the day before:  "SUPER BALL GAME!"
See how he has carefully placed a PVC pipe connector at the bottom of this plastic rain gutter?
The goal:  release a ball down the ramp and watch it come out one of the two holes in the pvc connector.

It didn't take long for Bennett to come up with a new idea!
He decided to add plastic jars to the end of his ramp to catch the balls.

I am quietly observing, thinking this is so awesome.  I can hardly wait for him to be successful with this GRAND idea!

After carefully placing the jars....he released the first ball. 
A hush fell across the crowd of observers (, basically, I was quiet .. everyone else was engaged in their own tasks and had no clue what Bennett was up to... but when do I ever get to say "A hush fell across the crowd...?")

Was he successful?
 No.  But SO CLOSE!
Not one to be easily discouraged, he grabbed another ball, went back to the ramp and tried it again.
Failed again.
At this point, Bennett was ready to move on.  He grabbed the balls, one at a time and placed them into the jar.
No big deal...right?
Well.. apparently, my adult brain was having fits about this.  Internally I heard a very dramatic:  "NOOOOOOOO!!!!  You can't give up!  YOU.MUST.TRY.AGAIN!"

Bennett had moved on to exploring the balls inside the jars.... and, in hindsight, I should have left it alone.  But.....I didn't.

Instead, I grabbed my super hero cape, and I crashed Bennett's play.
I swooped in (insert appropriate Indiana Jones music), uninvited and unwelcome and offered my unsolicited advice.

I said:  "Bennett!  You are SO close!  Look.  All you have to do is....." and I proceeded to take a jar out of his hand (oh the shame) and show him how the pvc pipe could fit INSIDE the jars.

After I connected one jar, we ran a test ball...SUCCESS!
I stepped back and let him connect the second jar.
(It was at that moment the Indiana Jones music came to a screeching hault and I remembered this is not MY was his, so perhaps I should let the poor child participate in his own play.)

Bennett then dropped a second ball down the ramp....

I instantly pictured confetti falling all around us as we happily celebrated this awesome accomplishment.

When I opened my eyes to reality...Bennett had quietly left the scene and ran off to play something else.
There was no "THANK YOU DENITA!  You were a life savor!  How could I possibly play without you?"

There was no "WOO HOO!!  We did it!"

There was.... NOTHING but a child who no longer owned his own discovery.
There was... NOTHING, but a child who lost the control he had of his own play.
There was... NOTHING, but an adult who recorded yet another "aha moment" for the books.

What did I learn?

I learned that it's not all about succeeding.
I learned that perhaps children understand that the process can be just as much fun and rich as success.
I learned that teaching does not necessarily mean to "show you a better way".
I learned that SOMETIMES, teaching means to stay back and enjoy the show, giving ownership of the entire process to young children.
I learned that the quickest way to end child-led play is to crash in, uninvited.

Respect child-led play.  
Wait for your invitation.

Denita Dinger provides trainings across the US and Canada.  Her material is appropriate for parents, teachers, before and after school program staff and administrators.
Contact her for more information:
Follow Denita on Facebook at Play Counts