Saturday, November 17, 2012

We Can't Afford The One Trick Pony

There are a lot of nice building sets out there. Whenever I peruse school supply resources or toy manufacturer websites, I'm impressed by the variety of building toys: things that snap together, balance, or magnetically connect. There are big sets for creating things in which children can fit their entire bodies, and small ones that challenge the dexterity of fingertips. 

Of course, being a little cooperative preschool with appropriately tight budgets, we're not usually in a position to purchase these things. Even when we do have the resources, it's still a gamble, especially when we're talking about things that are not tried and true like Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, and Legos. Although even those classics have a tendency to become one-trick ponies, capable of holding a child's interest for a day or a week, then needing to be put into storage to make way for something new.

And then, of course, there is the issue of storage, something by which every preschool is challenged.

Mind you, I'm not complaining. Sufficient, yet tight budgets, sufficient, yet tight storage spaces, are good things for a teacher and a school. At least it is for one like ours with a play-based curriculum, one in which the central idea is an environment in which children inquire and explore, where learning emerges from within, rather than being imposed from without. 

As a teacher, I find limited space and resources to be a creative challenge, one that spurs me to find new ways to introduce old things, to seek out strange and unusual freebies, to consider everything that crosses our threshold to be a pony capable of learning an infinite number of tricks. 

For the past week, for instance, our "block area" has been populated by a random collection of what people outside the world of preschool would call "junk": bits of wood, picture frame corners, plastic tubes with lids, cigar boxes, pieces of fabric, carpet samples, florist marbles, egg cartons, car keys, old CDs, and yoghurt containers. I suppose it's a variation on the whole loose parts concept.

All week, the children started their days by walking right past this collection of refuse, sorted categorically into boxes, making a beeline for other, more traditional invitations to play, leaving perhaps one or two friends to explore on their own. But each day, whether the kids were 2, 3, 4, or 5, after quickly exhausting the other stuff they found in the classroom, they all wound up playing there, engaging with materials, engaging with one another, being inspired by one another, and ultimately creating meaning in ways made impossible by "building sets."

What happens with the random stuff is impossible to categorize. It's construction, it's art, it's drama, it's science, it's mathematics, it's literacy, it's music, it's both fine and large motor play. Children created together and alone, making meaning from this meaningless stuff, forming connections between things that have no business being together, things that they will later find on the art table or in the sensory table or outdoors or with the play dough or costumes or recombined with yet more random stuff on a table top in the corner. And then they'll be new again.

Preschool teachers can't afford one trick ponies and that's a good thing.

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