The documentation the teachers gathered of the children’s exploration is voluminous and rich. While they were documenting, the teachers were also observing and interacting with the students through non-judgmental comments and open-ended questions ( Download).
While playing with clay had been a sensory experience, this exploration revolved around a trial and error approach. As a result, their questions changed, focused less on the sensory experience and more on bringing out what was happening and helping make connections for problem-solving.
They realized how easy it is to give in to the tendency to praise or to reinforce a “correct” answer.
T- What happened when you rolled the ball?
C- It stopped in the middle.
T- What can you do to fix it?
C- Put a block here to make it go higher.
T- That’s right. Great idea!
The effect of this approach was quite evident when they problem-solved in a group discussion setting. As soon as a “correct” answer was acknowledged, the other children’s contributions became irrelevant with the result that the discussion and exploration stopped right there.
Instead, the teachers tried to acknowledge each answer. Instead of saying “That’s right, Peter”, they might say “Thank you for sharing, Peter”. They also encouraged the children to try their solutions and to explain them.
This “questioning stance” is something they tend to do throughout the day in a variety of situations, yet they still had to be very conscious of their spontaneous and often enthusiastic reactions to children’s play. They had to learn how to encourage the exploration, take into account the children’s’ perspective and find ways to both support it and help move it along.
Throughout the activities, they also observed the children’s reasoning and their discussions, their planning and problem-solving. They had to learn to refrain from interfering, to resist the urge to point out where it wouldn’t work. Christiane brought to life how difficult this initially was for her as she describes a run a group had made for a ball. They had started with an inclined plane and then laid out a horizontal roadway of blocs that curved from the end of that inclined plane. They obviously expected the ball to change direction autonomously in order to follow their winding road. She laughs as she recalls how she turned away to stop her impulse to say something. Only after they had encountered the problem themselves did she question them to help them articulate what happened, what they wanted the ball to do and how they could make it do that. The solution was not obvious to them. Only through a series of successive iterations, and with a little help from their friends, did they eventually refine their original idea to make it work.
To introduce the practice of formulating hypotheses, they read the book “I Fall Down” ( Go to site) in video format on the SMART board ( Go to site). The book asks questions so they paused to try to answer them and to test their answers. They introduced “What will happen if…” questions, asked for predictions or what to do to make it work. They noticed that the same children who problem-solve well during play time explorations were also those who can imagine solutions and make predictions in other situations. This highlighted for them the importance of valuing this kind of play exploration as it provides essential experiences and an active learning environment for everyone to progress because the problems encountered are real and practical.
It would be a mistake to think that this exploration is about learning and solving problems related to the physics of motion. In the context of preschool education, it needs to be understood as a holistic learning experience through which all aspects of child development are engaged.
The simple (for us) task of working with tape to create a vertical marble run with tubes provides a good example this. The children learn to manipulate it, to cut it the proper length, to work together when taping paper rolls together on a wall. “There is a lot of fundamental K learning happening here: motor development, using tools and materials with purpose, cooperation, autonomy, using language to communicate, cognitive development while observing, exploring and manipulating for problem-solving. They’re messy, they’re active, they’re creative, and they can be noisy!”
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|Learning to manipulate tape and making choices together ||Discussing how best to set up the next piece. |
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|Little fingers are working hard to push in the pins that hold the rolls up. ||Fine tuning the final stages: the run essentially works and they are designing its landing pad. |
The teachers concluded: “As a teacher, you have to value this [play], see it as important. It’s not “just playing”. We must not see “real learning” as sitting down, holding a pencil, putting something on paper, looking at a text book, writing in an exercise book or on sheets. This type of exploration [they are doing] is what engineers do! This is REAL learning.”