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)