Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Are You Addicted to Themes? A Tale About Themes, a Caterpillar and Change

For whatever reason...adults (well intentioned adults, mind you) feel that young children need to learn in themes.  They feel the brains of a young child are actually organized enough to see the world thematically, and not only that, but desire staying with the same theme for sometimes weeks at a time.

For whatever reason...adults (still well intentioned adults) feel that everything a young child learns while in a preschool type program should be all bundled up nice and neat in the form of a theme.  Whether this is to appease misinformed parents, inspire bulletin boards or help children with their life long skill of categorizing, themes have ruled the preschool world for years.

For whatever reason....adults (and yes, still well intentioned adults) work tirelessly after hours to bring a theme alive for young children.  I stapled (yes, you read correctly) roughly fifty greeny vines to the ceiling of my basement to replicate a jungle for our jungle theme years and years ago.
HEAR me now...if you can't bring children to the jungle, a teacher-led jungle theme is not an effective way to give children an opportunity for MEANINGFUL learning.

These same well intentioned adults choose their themes wisely, taking into consideration the interests of each child in their program...and therefore, they call their program "child-led". This is not what child-led means.  
Child-led means the children are the curriculum.  Child-led means the adult carefully observes the children in their program and follows their lead and enhances the discoveries owned by young children.


Listen closely, all of you theme lovers out there who are squishing up your faces, gathering your feisty response to this post:
 I USE TO BE ADDICTED TO THEMES. (insert group therapy: " name is Denita Dinger.  I was addicted to themes.")
I lived and breathed for themes.  I dare say I was a self-declared "Queen of Themes".  In fact, if you look back at my very first blog posts, you will see the remains of my themey self.

What changed me?

A caterpillar.

An innocent caterpillar that did not fit into my grand theme...but would in two weeks when I had "Caterpillars" in the lesson plans.

A caterpillar, that I was not going to bring inside so young children could observe and learn from, simply because he did not fit into my adult-led theme.

What was this theme that was so much better then watching a child-discovered caterpillar metamorphosize into a butterfly?

The Five Senses.  (ahh yes, trumped by those darned senses)

On this particular day, my plan was exploring the sense of smell.  We were just outside playing for a little bit before heading inside to get to the "important stuff" when my crew goes and finds a caterpillar.   (sigh.  I have changed....OH HAVE I CHANGED!!  Play IS the important stuff...never forget that!!)

To make a long story short, I said "no" to the requests to bring the caterpillar inside.  After watching every single shoulder and eyebrow of hope slouch in disappointment I stopped and had myself a little "aha moment".  Up until this moment, I had not realized that I was THAT ADDICTED to themes that I couldn't allow an innocent caterpillar to interfere. What would happen if that caterpillar poisoned the brains of my littles with CURIOSITY  and MEANINGFUL LEARNING!!??  (the crowd gasps).  What if they were no longer interested in the five senses?  (insert appropriate dramatics)

After much chit chat with myself, I went back to my crew, and said I made a mistake.  We brought the caterpillar inside and this particular moment will always be known as my biggest and most beneficial "aha moment".

And so began the metamorphosis of my program.  From that day forward, little by little I gave up on my "themey" ways.

(Anyone else see the irony of a caterpillar, a creature who is known for how it changes, being the creature that caused great change in the way I viewed how young children learned and how I ran my program?)

What did I discover as I let go of themes, step by step?

I discovered a child's brain does NOT work in themes.  Well, I take that back...a child's brain does not stay on one theme for very long, and certainly not in synchronization with all the other brains in the room.  I might have ONE child interested in dinosaurs for weeks, another that shows interest for five minutes here and five minutes there, but nothing consistent.  I might have 4 children who are enjoying a picnic lunch..when suddenly, as often does in child led thing leads to another and the dinosaur lover, in his dinosaur ways has come to destroy said picnic....and the picnickers play along for a few minutes until a bright shiny object catches their eye and they are off to another topic...perhaps even splitting into twos as the world of curiosity beckons each child in unique ways.

I discovered that children learn even without the leadership of elaborate themes.  In fact, they learn more because there are no adult-set limits. (whether you notice it or not...themes have boundaries, themes can limit a child's natural curiosity)

I discovered that I could still get my theme-fix during the holidays.  I learned to "set some bait" so to speak.  If the bait didn't inspire the direction of the traditional theme, I learned that was okay, and I could ditch the theme and follow what the current interests of my littles were.  For example:  after Thanksgiving, teensy gingerbread boys just start appearing.  First one.  Then two.  Then three.  This particular bait is always taken and leads into our tradition of gingerbread boy fun.  BUT, if they were to not "take the bait" I would be okay with it (well..truth be told, I would sort of be okay with it ... I'm not perfect after all!!!).

I discovered that all the time I took to organize my supplies and books into themes over the years was still helpful because when children are allowed to lead, we sometimes visit up to 5 different themes in a given day.  It just depends on the interests of each individual child.  Organization is the KEY to following young children.  I need to know where my stuff is at a moments notice!

I discovered that I should not be feeling guilty that I was no longer sending home theme-related notes and having theme-related show and tell opportunities and theme-related snacks.  I discovered that if I continued to do that, it was not to benefit the would instead be all about pleasing the parents.

I discovered my job is to educate parents, not to please parents.  My job is to create an environment that allows young children to learn in the way they were wired to learn.  Research proves young children learn best through child-led explorations and play.  My job is to provide a learning experience that benefits the children.  My job is to then educate the parents the reasoning behind why I do my job the way I do it.

I discovered that my job is to educate parents, not to please parents.  A child-led program looks much different then a teacher-led/controlled one does.  Changing from teacher-led to child-led can come across as the teacher is "not doing their job as well as they did before".  Do not assume your parents "get it".  Do not assume your parents are reading your blog or other information you send home.  Assume that you cannot educate too much.  You cannot show them too much research or too many articles that support play based and child-led programs.  You cannot talk to them too much about how their child is learning.

Take a deep breath.  Reflect.

I know from personal experience, change is hard.  I also know from personal experiencing that recognizing the need for change is harder....sometimes it takes several, slap ya in the face, "aha moments" to alter your perspective and open your eyes.

Caterpillars make change look so easy and effortless, when in all actuality it is challenging and somewhat painful.

Are the rewards worth the effort?

The change this post suggests gives children the wings they were wired to use.  
Following young children and trusting them as learners gives each child the freedom to soar at their own pace to heights unique to them.