Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Dance: When to Lead and When to Follow

I often times compare my interactions with the children in my play school to dancing.  The type of dance often changes, as does who is doing the leading, and who is doing the following.

Currently, in my program, I typically utilize the following dances:

1)  The "Slow Dance".  The child who requires the slow dance needs a LOT of me in order for them to eventually fly.  This child needs a lot of encouragement, they prefer I model and they copy.  They need lots and lots of support.  I don't like doing the slow dance for long with a child, as I want them to see that they can fly without me, however, I am not in charge of that.  Meeting each child's needs is number one, and, if that requires the slow dance...then that is what I will do, for as long as it takes, with smidgens of the "Jr High Dance" tossed in to test the waters.

2)  The "Jr. High Dance"  Awe yes, I remember it well: fingertips barely touching shoulders, and space for a grand piano to fit between mine and my dance partner's bodies.  The child who requires the Jr. High Dance requires just a bit of me.  I just need to make ONE THING happen, just model one of the possibilities of the materials, and then that child can FLY on their own from there.

3)  The "Prom".  My ultimate goal for each child is for them to require me to do "the Prom" dance:  this is when I get to decorate for the prom, but I do not get to attend!  This child likes to walk into the environment I have created, based on where they have led me,  and then decide for themselves what to do.  They will invite me into their play, and I am allowed to stay, as long as I don't suggest any ideas!

AND THEN... not exactly a category on it's own, but there is the "Bunny Hop".  You know:  one step forward, two steps back -- or, visa versa.  The child that IS FLYING, that has achieved "The Prom" dance status,  suddenly regresses back to needing the Slow Dance, for whatever reason.

Throughout all of these dances, the leadership bee-bops between myself and the child at different intensities, and in various ways.

Today's play, was a fine example of both the various dances, as well as the flip/flop of leadership.  This tale begins with the environment:


Among other things, the environment was set with a couple of clear tubes I found at a woodworking supply store, taped to the legs of a chair. This tubing is meant for dust collection, but in my world, it is used to provide an opportunity for visual tracking and so.much.more!

The beginnings of this play evolved from two children (the girl and the boy in the green), to eventually four children.  This is what happens when children have large chunks of time that are dedicated to THEIR PLAY.  The social aspect of more children joining in is an important component that is missing from programs that only allow children a small chunk of time to play.

When children have plenty of time to PLAY, their play has time to evolve.
Recall the dances I mentioned earlier?  Let's get back to that:

One of the children involved in this play has been requiring the "Slow Dance" from me this week.  It is as if he has lost all confidence, and has forgotten that all the materials are for him to use, and if something is not in the room that he needs, all he needs to do is ask.  For whatever reason, all of this was forgotten, and so I have been rebuilding his confidence and reminding him of the possibilities all week.

While the children were enjoying the clear tubes, I shifted who was leading just a bit and said:  "Hmmm.... I wonder what else you could add to these tubes?  Let's see...there are the rain gutters over there, that are for you to use anytime you want.  Should we add those?"  (The reason I interrupted their play was to help this child remember how to fly here)

The answer was YES...and so, he and I, together, grabbed some rain gutters and the play EVOLVED to this:

And THEN, an amazing thing happened.  The child who was needing me to slow dance with him, took the lead back....and added this big carpet tube to their play:

That tube is heavy, but never fear, teamwork is alive and well in my play school:

When this tube was added to their play, I took the lead for a brief moment and added yet another tube that is not kept in our play school, but it's in the storage room.  I had a hunch he would use it, and I wasn't at a point yet where I trusted his confidence was back to it's "Miss Denita, can you get me the...." stage quite yet.

Let's review:  
do you remember the simple beginnings of this intricate play?  Two clear tubes taped to the legs of a chair somehow evolved into THIS!!

Also, it's important to note that their play arrived here thanks to their needs being met, AND  taking turns leading and following.

I'm not done, however!  There is MORE!!!

Do you see in the photo above, how the clear tube is draped over the ladder? 
Well.. as you can imagine, the tube kept sliding off of the ladder.   One solution was to hold onto the tube (as you see in the photo directly above), however, since  the ladder is risk enough, I stepped in and took the lead role and finagled a system to hang the tube from the ceiling, so the ladder was no longer supporting it.

My job is to watch for hazards (risks children can't see), I felt that huge stretch wasn't necessary, and added just that much more risk that also wasn't necessary.

As the children took leadership back of their play, and I retreated back to my role as observer, follower and hazard monitor, I realized I needed to tweak this plan a bit to alleviate the need for the children to STRETCH quite so much, especially when standing on the ladder.

Children need adults to MODEL the skill of thinking-outside-the-box.  They need adults in their lives that aren't afraid to try an idea-on-the-fly, that may, very-well FAIL.  BECAUSE..failing happens in life.. a LOT.  Modeling failure, and the resulting tweaking-of-the-plans is one of the most valuable things adults can do for children.

So, I tweaked the plan.  While doing so I made sure to talk about how I needed to adjust my plan as it wasn't working exactly as I had hoped it would.   Problem solving and plan making/tweaking is a very important part of my play school, therefore,  MODELING those two things is an important part of my job.

Post tweaking, the tube was easy for the children to reach from the ladder;

And there you have it, a tale of "The Dance".   Recall the humble beginnings of this play?  It evolved to where it did because of two things:
1)  The children in my program have lots of time for their play.  Three hours to be exact.  Our schedule is:  "Play".
2)  The children and I know how to dance.

A tale about leading and following, and knowing when to do so.

It all boils down to

1)  Being in the moment with children.
2)  Having solid relationships with each one so you can recognize their needs at any given moment.
3)  Reading what dance each child requires that day/hour/moment.
4)  Knowing when to follow, and when to lead.
5)  Having a desire to help children FLY.

About the author:

Denita Dinger is a popular, internationally known keynote speaker, trainer and consultant on the topic of transitioning from a teacher-led pedagogy to a play-based, child-led one.  Denita's presentations are REAL, humorous and inspiring.

Denita is the co-author of three books:  "Let them Play:  An Early Childhood UnCurriculum", "Let's Play" and "Let's All Play".

To book Denita for your upcoming conference or to spend a few days coaching your staff, contact her at

Learn more about Denita's philosophy on her many Facebook pages:
Play Counts  (Denita's Consulting Page)
Kaleidoscope Play School  (Denita's Play School page)
Camp Empower  (Denita's School-aged Summer Camp page)

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Empowering Imagination Beats the Real Deal

I love learning from children.

I believe strongly that although I am the teacher, it is the children who do the majority of the teaching.  In both my play school and school-aged summer camp, I have learned countless things from children.

Of all of the things children have taught me, however, what I am going to share with you in this post is probably the most shocking and sad.

First of all, some background info:
My summer camp, Camp Empower, is a low-tech, high-think play experience for school-aged children.  The whole purpose of Camp Empower is for children to be EMPOWERED by ownership.   At Camp Empower, the materials are supplied by me....but the ideas are generated by children.  The process of generating ideas is HARD...especially for children who are fresh from a year of public school where in some unfortunate cases, they don't dare do anything unless they are told.  This creates human beings that find it difficult to think for themselves.  It creates human beings who follow rather than lead.  These are side-effects of the current state of our education system that I don't think enough people consider.   Because of this nasty side-effect of prescribed, learn-it-just-long-enough-to-spit-it-out-for-a-test, rote learning, it takes new campers a while to fully trust that I truly mean "YOU are in charge here".

The lesson I learned, that I am going to share with you, was taught to me by my 5th-7th grade campers.  (They just finished 4th-6th and are now headed into the 5th-7th grades).

This story begins in the sand pit:

Without a doubt, the sand pit is the favorite area of camp. It is here where the majority of this week's play occurred.

This session, all but two of my campers have returned for their third year at Camp Empower.  They are seasoned at how things work here.  At the core of Camp Empower is meaningful relationships.  Though we only see each other for 4-8 mornings a year (one camp session is M-Th, 9-noon and some campers sign up for two sessions), I KNOW these campers well, and every year, we pick up right where we left off upon their return.

I know that this group of campers LOVES to mix, so prior to their arrival on Monday, the environment was set, ready to welcome them with open arms.  There were all of their favorites:  shaving cream, corn starch, shampoo, colored water, colored vinegar, baking soda and.... for something new this year, I added washable tempera paint to the sand pit area.

The campers didn't even skip a beat.  After a welcoming hug, they went straight to work.

Again, let me remind you that these children are going into the 5th-7th grades.  Look at their play:

The two seasoned-campers in this photo had previously figured out that using the sand as their mixing bowl worked really well and created a really awesome "dough" when cornstarch, water and shampoo were added.  So here, they are teaching the rookie camper.

It didn't take long before imaginations were hard at work and delicious looking delicacies were created.

They learned that the paint mixes really well with shaving cream and cornstarch to make a super soft, amazingly vibrant frosting.

There is just so much to love about this picture!  IMAGINATIONS hard at work...without a care in the world.  Just as child-led play should be!

After this one day, it was clear to me that baking was definitely something that interested this group of campers.

My summer camp follows my play-school philosophy (I call it the Kaleidoscope Philosophy) which is, in a nutshell:
My job is to control the environment, not to control children.  I am in charge of the materials, the children are in charge of the "what to do" part.   Once the children have arrived, my job is to grab additional materials as needed.  When I do this with the best of my ability, the child-led play is constantly evolving and changing, just as the picture of a kaleidoscope is different every time you turn it.

SO...following their lead,  I said "It's clear to me that you guys are having a blast playing bakery.  Would you like to use real ingredients to make real cupcakes tomorrow?"

Unsurprisingly, the answer was YES!

And so....the next day:
We measured and mixed and scooped and baked REAL cupcakes.

You can't make cupcakes without licking the beaters...right?!  (Before you get all "germy" on me...they are using their fingers to gather batter, and then licking their own finger....the girl with her tongue out is teasing)

Here's a peek at the rest of the play from this day:

More IMAGINATIVE cupcake baking.

Paint fight with watered down washable tempera.


The parachute and WATER!

(BONUS LESSON LEARNED:  Children of ALL ages have an innate need to PLAY)

Bring on the frosting!!

Why Not?
For both of my programs, "Why not?" is the RIGHT answer.  It comes after the following questions:
"Are they hurting anyone?"
"Are they hurting anything?"
When the answer to both of those questions is "NO"....then I say "WHY NOT?!"

I think this last group of photos speak for themselves.
CLEARLY...frosting and eventually wearing and then eating REAL cupcakes was a BLAST!

So then...what was the lesson I learned from this group of 5th-7th graders?
At the very end of this morning, as we were winding down, and parents were picking up, I had the opportunity to ask several campers this question:

"What was your favorite part of the week?"

Their answer?
"Making cupcakes in the sandpit bakery."

My response was another question:
"Would you rather make pretend cupcakes or real ones you can actually eat?"

Their answer?
"PRETEND!!! Not very many teachers let us use our imagination like you do."

There you have it.
A very, very, VERY important lesson, taught to me by some of the most amazing teachers I have ever known.

Children....of ALL ages have imaginations that they want to use, yet our society has forgotten about that.  Out of fear of what children might do when they are bored, we have over-scheduled their lives and left little time for imagining.

And so.... in my little corner of the world, there will always be sand-cupcakes to be made, by children of ALL AGES.


About the author:

Denita Dinger is a popular keynote speaker, trainer and consultant on the topic of transitioning from a teacher-led pedagogy to a play-based, child-led one.  Denita's presentations are REAL, humorous and inspiring.

Denita is the co-author of three books:  "Let them Play:  An Early Childhood UnCurriculum", "Let's Play" and "Let's All Play".

To book Denita for your upcoming conference or to spend a few days coaching your staff, contact her at

Learn more about Denita's philosophy on her many Facebook pages:
Play Counts  (Denita's Consulting Page)
Kaleidoscope Play School  (Denita's Play School page)
Camp Empower  (Denita's School-aged Summer Camp page)

Embracing Play Podcast (Denita's Podcast, co-hosted with Beth Wolff)

Friday, April 28, 2017

Open-Ended Baking: A Sweet and Savory Tale of Child-led Play

Guess what?  I learned something new about myself: I am a fan of open-ended BAKING opportunities!!  Who knew?

Up until the tale I'm about to share with you happened, I believed baking was a time for children to learn about following directions, and definitely not a time for leading with their own ideas.

Baking was a time for my inner-control freak to come out, guilt-free and take over the job of leader.  I was, after all, teaching children how to follow a recipe, we HAD to do it right....right?


Open-ended baking can be a thing.... in fact, it SHOULD be a thing!

What does open-ended baking look like?  Does it look like what it sounds like?

YES.  Yes, it does.   As with all open-ended opportunities in my program, open-ended baking involves no adult expectations or direction.  The children are given the freedom of time, task, technique and most importantly, TRUST.   My job is to be in the moment,  quietly following their lead, gathering ingredients they may decide they need.

Truth be told:  as I was setting the environment in which this tale begins, I was expecting the children to have engaging conversations about the smells and loads of fun "pretend" cooking.  I NEVER anticipated this was going to turn into the EMPOWERING experience that it did.

Here is the tale of how open-ended baking happened organically in my program:

A couple of weeks ago,  I set the environment at my play school with a large bowl of flour, small cups of water with pipettes in them, a bottle each of oregano, basil, garlic powder, paprika and a salt grinder.  I added a plethora (don't you just love that word?) of mixing bowls that I have collected over the years at various thrift stores, as well as spoons.  My expectations involved rich conversations, sensory exploration, trial and error, mixing, blending and grand imaginary play.  I then stepped back and patiently waited for a child to discover what I had placed on the table.

The first discovery.
The gears were turning as this child slowly took in the contents of the table.  Her eyes soon brightened and she called in the troops!

Right here, with this itty bitty bit of exploration, this child was already declaring this day to receive the coveted title of "BEST DAY EVER!".

Creating a plan, instigating that plan...then changing the plan to make it better:
In this child's original plan, water and seasonings were important, but who cares about flour?!?  She later learned, after an exciting discovery was proudly announced, that perhaps she needed to tweak her plan.

During the first twenty minutes of exploration, the rich conversation revolved around the smells and the textures.
I was hearing things like:

" smells so good in here."
"Hey...what is that smell I'm smelling?"
"Feel mine!  Mine is so soft."
"Mine isn't soft, mine is really really sticky!"
"Hey guys...wanna smell this?  It's the best ever!"

Over time, their interest in what they were actually playing with peaked...and someone said "Denita!  What is this stuff?"

I have never met a child who wasn't proud to own words. They listened intently as I told them the name of each seasoning.  Immediately following my desciption, the conversations I was over hearing were along the lines of:

"Can I have the oregano when you are done?"
"Where did the basil go?  I really need it."
"Boy.. you can really smell the garlic"
"I think mine needs just a bit more of the salt."

As more time passed, curiosities grew:
"Is this stuff spicy?" (referring to the paprika)
My reply "You know what?  I am not really sure.  Why don't you taste it and find out?"
Eyes got HUGE as he replied "WE CAN TASTE THIS STUFF!?!"

"YES!  It is ALL edible.  That means you can taste it!"

The children were now not only freely exploring with hands and noses, they were also exploring with mouths!  SO EXCITING!

The richness of the conversations just continued to intensify.

It was during this sampling frenzy that this discovery happened:

"I MADE DOUGH!  GUYS!!  THIS STUFF CAN MAKE DOUGH!!!  Wanna know how?!?!  I can show you!!!"

After this "aha moment", came another one:
 "Denita!!!  We can bake this and see what happens!!! This really IS the BEST DAY EVER!!!"

I immediately set the oven to 350, grabbed my cookie sheet and some parchment paper and waited for the products of their open-ended baking to fill the pan.

Learning from others!  
After the child declared he had made dough, this child quickly re-thought her plan, tweaked it and made it BETTER!!

Self Regulation and Conflict Management 
Shortly after dough was discovered (no less exciting than when gold was first discovered) rollers and cookie cutters were requested.  
Notice how many rollers are on the table?  One.  I call this purposeful conflict.  I intentionally put one roller out to see if 1) they could handle the conflict this would cause 2) if they would have the self-regulation to handle waiting and 3) if anyone would think to ask me for another one.  Guess what?  They made ONE ROLLER WORK.  They all were able to patiently wait their turns.  I was beyond impressed.

Motor work
Loads of muscles were used as dough was rolled, kneaded, punched, pulled and otherwise manipulated by little hands.

Freedom of Technique
Each child discovered their own, unique technique to control the dough, and get the results they were hoping for.

"Denita!  Look! I made a pizza!!" 

 Once the pan was full, into the oven it went.  I set the timer for 10 minutes and hoped for the best!  I anticipated there were about to be many lessons learned about failing... I couldn't have been more wrong.

While their creations were baking, this child thoughtfully made a pizza sauce to accompany the anxiously anticipated delicacies.  
When that timer beeped... holy cats!  IT WAS THE BEST MOMENT EVER!!

Let the tasting begin!!!
This child is exclaiming "HEY!  They are actually really good!"  AND... THEY WERE!!!  I WAS SHOCKED! No lessons about failing to be learned so far!  They tasted like really good bread sticks you would find at an Italian restaurant!

Learning from failing.
Look closely..... see the sauce?  The verdict?  Too salty.  He followed that up with "Now I know what to do next time."

This very play was repeated that week, and on Tuesday of the following week as well.

Every time they baked, they learned something more and tweaked their "recipe" ever-so-slightly.

They commented on things that happened last time, reminded each other not to do particular things because "remember what happened yesterday...."

When their creations came out of the oven, they learned to tear off their bites, so then they could share tastes with each other and compare the results.

They learned that just because the salt grinder was fun to use, does NOT mean you should use it a lot!!!

They learned that too much water makes a sticky dough, but that problem can be solved with more flour.

They learned that paprika is really fun because it makes the dough red. Unfortunately, the paprika didn't make it past the first day... it was a hot item!

They learned that sticky dough on fingers washes off quite easily.

They learned to ration the flour last Thursday, as we hit the bottom of the bag.  They learned how to help each other out when in a pinch.

On Wednesday, I changed it up!  Instead of the oregano, basil, garlic combo.... I put out mini chocolate chips, sugar and cinnamon with the flour and water.  SWEET FLAVORS OH MY!

The child in the gray shirt was the last to realize what was out on the table.  By the time he joined the fun, there were no bowls for him to use.  The child in red, thoughtfully said "Oliver!  You can work with me!  We can be a team!"


Self Control

I was so impressed with the control the children displayed.  They had FREE REIGN of these ingredients, yet they very thoughtfully added the best part (the chocolate) and were careful not to hog it all.  This served as yet another reminder that children CAN BE TRUSTED.

Then came the favorite part....the tasting.  GUESS WHAT?!?!  These were really tasty too!!!  WHO KNEW open-ended baking could turn out so well?!? (side note:  the sweet version needed a hotter oven:  375)

As the children were comparing their baked goods, plans were made for the next day.  "Denita?  Can you get us some sprinkles?  We think these could really use some sprinkles."

So...of course I added sprinkles to the mix on Thursday!

Comparing and Contrasting
When Thursday's batch came out of the oven, the children just wanted to look at them all.  "Guys!  Don't eat them!  Let's just look and see how different they all are!"  
This was an extremely rich moment as the children commented on how the cookies were alike, and how they were different.  What stood out the most were the three that are more brown than the others.  
"What made them more brown? " 
"OH!  Cinnamon!"  
"Look at how pretty this one is with the sprinkles, and that one is with the sugar on top."  
THEN, it was finally time to TASTE!  After much sampling and comparing and commenting, everyone decided that Elsie's tasted the best.  So, I said "Elsie, do you want to tell them your secret?"  (she sprinkles more sugar on top of hers when she puts it on the pan!)  She was so empowered by the fact that everyone agreed that hers tasted the best that of course she told them her secret!

When I consult with providers, I always get asked "when do you know when it's time to move on?"  It's simple, you follow their lead.  You listen to the children, you look for the joy.

Judging from my observations, there is no end in site for our open-ended baking days.  I foresee this continuing on until the end of the school year.  And honestly, observing them lead this open-ended baking opportunity brings me great joy and reassures me that I have done my job, and done it well.

My observations have told me, loud and clear, that these children are confident, they aren't afraid to try new things, they are kind and compassionate.  They have self-regulation and can handle conflict with impressive ease.  They have impressive vocabularies and understand the meaning of countless words, they can express themselves with words instead of hands even in the most heated moment of conflict.  They know how to make a plan, instigate that plan, and fix it to make it better.  They know how to pick themselves up from failing and try again.  They know about teamwork and are able to collaborate ideas with others.  ALL of those skills were demonstrated during their open-ended baking.

They are amazing, capable people that I am blessed to have in my life.

So then, I encourage YOU to change your thoughts about baking experiences with children.  Put ingredients out that go together and follow their lead.  PLEASE KNOW that your results could and SHOULD be different than mine.  Forget you read this, and keep your mind open to the ideas of YOUR CHILDREN!

About the author:

Denita Dinger is a popular keynote speaker, trainer and consultant on the topic of transitioning from a teacher-led philosophy to a play-based, child-led one.  Denita's presentations are REAL, humorous and inspiring.

Denita is the co-author of three books:  "Let them Play:  An Early Childhood UnCurriculum", "Let's Play" and "Let's All Play".

To book Denita for your upcoming conference or to spend a few days coaching your staff, contact her at

Learn more about Denita's philosophy on her many Facebook pages:
Play Counts  (Denita's Consulting Page)
Kaleidoscope Play School  (Denita's Play School page)
Camp Empower  (Denita's School-aged Summer Camp page)
Embracing Play Podcast (Denita's Podcast, co-hosted with Beth Wolff)