Monday, June 10, 2024

"It's Not Child-Centered, It's Child-Driven"

I was watching the girl arrange her things, or rather, the things she had made hers by gathering them from around the playground. It was clear from her behavior that she had a plan, but since these were loose parts, anything could be anything to an outside observer. Only the girl knew what that length of rope represented or that battered saucepan. I could have asked her, of course, swooping in as the adult in charge, but I didn't want to interrupt. She was clearly thinking something through and when someone is so immersed in an activity that thought and action are merged, it's a sin to interfere unless life and limb are at stake, especially if I call myself an educator.

Moments like this are common enough when we are children, but as we get older it becomes increasingly difficult for our thoughts and actions to merge in this way, even as we pine for it, because we know, in our hearts at least, that it's in these moments that we are most ourselves. This girl was at one with her purpose, pursuing a flow of thought-action, connecting experience, theory, and ideas to make something new: to create meaning from meaninglessness, order from chaos.

The psychologist and philosopher Abraham Maslow defined what this girl was doing as being creative and creativity is how we self-actualize, which is the pinnacle of his famous hierarchy of needs. As I watched the girl, I knew that for this moment, our preschool environment had satisfied all her lower level needs, which is why she was free to come alive in this way.

As an educator, however, I had an interest in what she was thinking. I hoped that when she reached a moment of triumph or epiphany, she would seek me out to tell me what she had made or discovered or felt. I hoped that another child would join her game and I could construct my own understanding through overhearing their conversation. But until then, I was left with observation and reflection.

In my recent conversation with Dr. Denisha Jones on Teacher Tom's Podcast, she said she doesn't even like the word "guide" or "facilitator" to describe the adult role in a play-based environment. Our job, she says, is "to be present, to observe, to step back. It's not child-centered, it's child-driven."

Eleanor Duckworth, teacher, psychologist, and translator of pioneering developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, wrote in her book The Having of Wonderful Ideas that the process of thinking and the process of learning are indistinguishable from one another. It's a concept that stands at the heart of much of my work as an educator: I see my role as creating environments, both for children and adults, that prompt thinking. Not agreement, although that might happen. Not memorization, although that might become a part of it. Not enjoyment, although that might emerge. I don't know what anyone will learn, but if I have evidence that they are thinking, like I did with this girl, it makes my heart sing. I know I've done well when a child looks up from their play and says, "I have an idea." I know I've done my job when someone says, "I've been thinking about something you said," or "I've been wondering about that post you wrote." But most of the time, I'm left to patiently wait for hints and clues. Both Dr. Jones and Duckworth feel that our primary role as educators is to be researchers and this is what I was doing.

The girl began to sing a song to herself as she played. It wasn't a song that I had taught her. It wasn't a song I recognized. It sounded like a lullaby, the kind that caretakers croon to a baby as it drifts off to sleep. It seemed to me that it was a song that evoked fond and soothing memories. The other day I came across a quote from the philosopher William James: "The art of remembering is the art of thinking." 

The author Doris Lessing wrote: "That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way."

Thinking, remembering, understanding, creating, learning. It was all happening right here in this moment of thought and action merged into a singular creative purpose. This is the way humans are meant to live. It's when our lives are full of meaning and emptied of doubt. We spend our lives trying to recapture these moments of merged thought and action from our childhood. It would be a sin to scuttle this girl's play just so I could tick boxes on an assessment form. What she was doing was nothing less that living, right now, on point and on purpose, self-driven. It's always my hope that if we can allow children to fill their childhoods with authentic moments like this, one after another, day after day, it will become a well from which they can draw when they feel lost, to drink of that substance they have understood all their lives, understand it in a new way, learn it, and to continue to live with meaning and purpose until the day they die.


I've been writing about play-based learning almost every day for the past 14 years. I've recently gone back through the 4000+ blog posts(!) I've written since 2009. Here are my 10 favorite in a nifty free download. Click here to get yours.

I put a lot of time and effort into this blog. If you'd like to support me please consider a small contribution to the cause. Thank you!
Bookmark and Share

No comments: