Yesterday, I posted about how our 3-5 class played with a collection of oddball parts and pieces, starting by exploring the parts individually, then working toward experiments that involved connecting the disparate parts. We ran with the same materials in yesterday's Pre-3 class.
It's always more of a challenge when 2's and young 3's are playing with collections of small parts because many of them are still very much learning what they need to learn from simply dumping things out onto the floor (or scattering, as I called it in a previous post about this phenomenon). The older kids, while still liable to dump boxes, baskets, and bowls, have for the most part moved beyond this behavior, and even when they do dump something it's usually a part of a bigger plan, like hunting for a specific Lego piece or setting the stage for actually using all the parts in some master construction.
For instance, this rather impressive and precarious wall of yoghurt drink bottles by an older 4-year-old started with a dump and a (perhaps pedagogically inappropriate) comment from me, "I don't want you to just dump things unless you're planning to use them all." I'm glad he took it as a challenge and not an admonishment, which is sort of how it felt when I said it.
This approach does not work in the Pre-3 class, which is why I cut the amount of materials in half, anticipating all the dumping that would take place. I've found that with preschoolers, whatever age, once the floor is totally bestrewn, pretty much the only activity that takes place until it's tidied up again is to kick through the area, which inevitably leads to wilder kicking until, finally, we start inadvertently kicking our friends. This is why I generally advise our parent-teachers to spend their "down time," meaning the time when the ebb and flow of kids has taken them elsewhere, to do a quick tidy so that it invites play other than simply kicking through the mess.
This isn't always true, of course. A dumped container of toilet paper rolls lead to this game.
Someone else had dumped the tubes, and while I considered what to say about it, Simone quickly got busy arranging them in a cluster, then fitting a practice golf ball into each one. The older kids had been frustrated that the balls were slightly too big to roll through most of the tubes (although they did discover that a few of the tubes were of a slightly greater diameter, allowing the balls to freely roll), but Simone found the tight fit satisfying for her game.
Once she'd used up all the balls, she then impishly scattered them before setting them up again to repeat the game, this time having attracted Lucy and Luella to play with her.
These girls expanded the game by adding yoghurt drink bottles and wine corks to the game.
But Simone still took the prerogative of scattering the whole thing when they were done. After three rounds of this game, it was given up in favor of one in which the kids carefully picked the remnants of paper from the tubes, dropping it on the floor.
At one point, a boy motored through the area, systematically dumping the balls, the tubes, the yoghurt drink bottles, and the corks, all of which I'd only moments before tidied up during a "down time." It's a Sisyphean task, sometimes, keeping up with the Pre-3 class, and as I was mentally scrambling to come up with a pedagogically acceptable way to steer his energies toward something that I, at least, thought of as more "productive," he came to the box of foam packing material.
It's a box more than half his height, but lightweight by virtue of it's contents. When he tried to dump it, however, the materials were packed tightly enough that they didn't react to gravity the way he'd anticipated. He dragged the box across the rug, shaking it, still trying to get the stuff to budge to no avail. This was something unprecedented, worthy of further investigation. After trying to dump it several more times, he wrestled the box onto its side and finally succeeded in emptying it with his hands, one piece at a time. That accomplished, he moved on. Before I could start my tidying, however, just as Simone had done with the tubes, Calder got busy using the pieces to make letters.
By the time I'd figured out what he was doing and got my camera ready, he'd worked through A-D and was assembling an E, saying each letter aloud as he went. Here's his F . . .
. . . I . . .
. . . and K . . .
As adults, we shape much of the children's play by what we say and how we say it, and that's a big part of our job. And it's a big responsibility, one worthy of careful thought. I got lucky in the first instance, that the words I blurted out were taken up as a challenge to build something magnificent, but more often than not those first words kill play rather than stimulate it. In the second two instances, with the tubes and foam, it was during the time that I paused while wading through all the admonishments and instructions that I could have spoken, that a creative space opened up, free from my adult words, for discoveries to happen.
I'm still going to tidy up during the down times, refreshing things for the next kids on the scene, but to paraphrase mom, "If you can't say something informative, don't say anything at all."