With this 3rd exploration, certain ideas emerged which took root in the teachers’ approaches.

Let the Materials Lead and the Children Dictate Where They Are Taking Their Exploration

From the onset of this exploration, the teachers were set on letting the materials lead it, to provide “loose parts” and let the children tinker and explore freely.

In the team’s planning discussions, they also envisioned an implementation plan that would involve steps or gradations of problem situations, for example, first making things slide, then setting objects in motion and changing the objects’ course or direction. The idea was to provide materials that, over time, would allow concepts like friction, speed, direction, mass, etc. to emerge. It seems we all gave in to our habitual approach of pre-planning with a view to direct the exploration, albeit subtly, in order to bring up these aspects of motion.

In reality, things were both much simpler and somewhat messier.

The block center was transformed into a “Motion Exploration Space”. The blocks were kept and other materials were added with which the children could build ramps. Objects to roll down the ramps were provided: balls, pompoms, cars, marbles, etc. No instructions were given, save perhaps for a question or prompt: “What do you think you can do with this?”

Over time more materials were added: cardboard bricks, PVC pipes, a plastic Marble Run game, etc. The children also took from the classroom environment whatever they felt they needed to solve a problem or test an idea.

Exploration over time in the Motion Exploration Space:
making, problem-solving and tinkering.


Intuitively the teachers, following the children’s lead, enriched the environment over time to enrich the exploration which eventually led to the creation of a marble run.


In this case, not much emphasis was placed on a “lead-in” provocation (mise en situation).

As it was winter, Natalie made sure the children had a good outdoor play session of sliding with and without “Crazy carpets”, sliding on the Jungle Gym, rolling a ball down. They talked about their experience and later tied it in with the book Oscar and the Cricket: a Book about Moving and Rolling. Go to site

On the other hand, Christiane and Loretta chose not to use books or videos as provocations in order “to keep all avenues of exploration opened”. They did not want to influence the children’s initial play.

However, when interest dwindled after a while, they brought in books which focused the children’s interest on new aspects of exploration, like “I Fall Down” ( Go to site) and its read aloud video version ( Go to site). They also used videos, particularly one showing adults creating a 3D marble runs with a variety of materials ( Go to site). After viewing this video, there was a strong renewed interest because it related to things the children had already experienced. They discovered new possibilities and expanded their own understanding.

Individualised Learning

This exploration lent itself to learning in small groups and at different levels, with each group tackling different problems as a result of this personalised exploration. This allowed the teachers to tailor their interventions and questions to children’s varying levels of experimentation and understanding. It created the setting for a truly personalised learning experience emanating from the direction the children were taking. Within each group, some children often emerged as the problem solvers while others tended to observe, but both were engaged and learning at their level of development. The learning context was rich and challenging for all.

Documentation, Observation and Questioning

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.

The children are laying out a winding road at the bottom of their launching ramp, obviously expecting a ball or car to follow the road.

When the ball kept going straight, they fixed their problem by adding a block to the first curve. They did not anticipate that the ball still would not continue along the path.
It took several successive steps for them to finally enclose the entire pathway.
They encountered new problems in the curves where the ball would get stuck. Friends were invited to help and to make suggestions.
They made many adjustments, tested and re-tested to fine tune their solutions until they had worked out most of the kinks from their original idea.
By refraining from pointing out the problems and giving the children ample time to discover and figure things out for themselves, the teachers created a rich exploration and problem-solving environment.

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!”

Learning to manipulate tape and making choices together Discussing how best to set up the next piece.
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.

What’s the problem?

A pompon keeps stopping as it lands in a horizontal tube. It is not evident to the children that the inclination of the tube is problematic. The teacher questions but doesn’t provide an answer. They will need to work it out through trial and error while developing perseverance.


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.

The Dynamic of Sharing

The teachers did not do much group sharing nor did they interrupt play to ask the children to have them explain what they were doing. There were several reasons behind this choice. First and foremost, in their words: “... because I believe in the importance of play, of uninterrupted play.” Instead they observed that most of the sharing among the children happened spontaneously within small work groups. They would observe the children explaining what they were doing as they worked together, or discussing how to solve a problem.

The teachers noted that the groups were all tackling different problems since there was no common fixed final production. In this context, sharing at large would not have been meaningful for those who had no experience with what was being discussed or presented. However, the teachers sometimes called upon a larger group or the class at large to help solve a problem that a team was experiencing.

What emerges is that “group” sharing needs to be grounded in a common experience that provides the background which makes what is said meaningful for the child.


Working in MAKER SPACE mode transformed the explorations and the creation process into individualized learning.

Something in the way this exploration unfolded transformed the block center into a Maker Space and things happened in this Maker Space that did not happen in the block center.

Trying to make sense of how a MAKER SPACE is not quite like "centers", the teachers saw it in the intentionally of the space. Loretta explained that she has always provided ramps in her block center yet the children never played with both ramps and blocks. Only when she added materials with which to explore sliding or rolling did the children use everything available in the block center to create interesting experiments. The teacher’s intentional addition of materials created a new setting in which the children took their explorations in new directions which eventually led to the creation of marble runs.

Christiane, for example, came to realize that she never connected the games in her room with engineering. It’s when she integrated them into a new setting, such as the block center, and when she provided a multiplicity of materials that new things started to happen. “That’s when creativity and innovation happens!”

Providing a variety of materials together in a space and providing ample time for exploration creates an initial impetus for exploration which can be enriched with further materials over time.

Simple experiments such as “Make a volcano that erupts”, “Sink or Float”, “Soluble or not soluble”, or simple observations such as “Identify the smell” do not support the emergence of problematic situations. There will be no in-depth explorations resulting from them. In contrast, through the marble run exploration some groups encountered friction problems; others dealt with creating a path for the marble to follow; yet another explored inclination as it relates to speed; some compared the speed of different objects (Does the car go down faster than the ball?); and they all encountered practical problems of cobbling together marble pathway with a variety of materials. They even used other tools, such as a scale to weight objects in order to answer the question of whether mass/weight affects speed.

This project also made evident that the concept-based models of learning which we use at the elementary and high school levels are not appropriate for Kindergarten. Five and six-year-old children’s learning is concrete, not conceptual.

It Takes Time!

It worked before!
It takes time to fine-tune a concept. After a first trial that worked,
things go wrong and the children need to figure out what the
problem is before they can find solutions.

A tape “hack”
This child fixed a problem by using masking tape to redirect his
marble down the run. If you think this is not particularly noteworthy,
think again. He used the materials at hand to come up with a
creative solution that worked. When it comes to creative use of tape,
kindergarten children are up there with the members of the Apollo 13
crew whose use of duct tape saved their life.


Solving the problems encountered can be a long and rich process of trial and error as exemplified by Annabel and Maverick.

Annabel joined Maverick and they began working together. Their conversation was rich as they tried to figure out together what to do.
Maverick and Keylan started to build bridges just trying to get the marble across without pushing it.
Their marble kept stopping.
Asked why they thought this was happening, Maverick explained: “It’s because of the furniture”. When Natalie did not understand what he meant, he showed her the page in the book “Oscar and the Cricket” where Cricket talks about “friction”.
They discussed why friction was stopping the ball in the middle. In the end, Natalie intervened by suggesting they try to start the marble from the higher side to make it roll downwards and go faster.
They continued and found other problems: the marble still slowed down or stopped in the middle.
At one point, Natalie invited other children to come and help problem solve. They propped up sections with blocks to smooth it out, but that wasn’t very effective.
Later, Annabel continued working by herself to solve the problem of the ball getting stuck in the middle.
At one point, she experienced an “Ah ha!” moment: “I know. I need to raise it. It’s like when we were sliding down the hill.” Then she added blocks to raise the starting point of the run.
Annabel showed incredible resilience and focus during this exploration which lasted over an hour. It was surprising because she had never manifested this type of “Stick-to-itiveness” before.

The next day, Maverick returned to the project and expanded on it.
He a
dded more tubes to lengthen the course. He ran into a variety of
problems which he solved over time.

Generally, the children were given time to go to the end of their process, over days if necessary. Their projects were not destroyed or put away out of sight. They became intensely involved and there was sometimes a lot of frustration. Natalie recounts that she could actually hear them growl when things were not happening as they expected. This is a hugely important observation that connects to several of the Preschool education competencies, with emotional development at the top of the list followed by the development of work methods.

Documenting for Assessment and Learning

With the children’s work and behaviours constantly shifting as they explored and created, and with productions that were ephemeral, the question of documenting the children’s learning and development became central.

The teachers were unanimous in their view that a framework, on which to hang their observations in order to give them meaning, is essential. For them, that framework is the Preschool Education Program of Québec which is solidly built on our current understanding of child development. It provides the key aspects of what we need to look for in each area of competency development as we observe children at play. (Download)

Taking pictures and videos at different moments in the process allowed them to capture important moments. They used them as documentation for themselves, to help remember what they observed and in what context. These pictures can also be used to help the students remember and retell their engineering feats, to help them articulate, in their own words, what they did, what eventually worked and why it did so, from their 6-year-old point of view of course. The teachers liked the idea of using them to make “Our Engineering” books that the children could view over and over to retell their stories. They definitely plan to follow up on that idea next year. Of course, the pictures will also go into the child’s portfolio.

By being exposed to a variety of rich non-teacher directed learning explorations, they saw the children developing attitudes like curiosity, self-confidence, autonomy and perseverance, skills to communicate and collaborate and the elements contributing to the construction of their sense of self.

Resources and References

(1) Daly, L., Beloglovsky, M. (2015) Loose Parts - Inspiring Play in Young Children, Redleaf Press Go to site

(21) Waring, Geoff (2009) Oscar and the Cricket: A Book About Moving and Rolling.  Penguin Random House. Go to site

(3) Cobb, Vicki (2004) I fall down. Harper Collins. - Go to site
A children's album that describes the scientific relationship between the force of gravity and weight.

(4) Read aloud video: I Fall Down - Go to site

(5) Educational Activities for Kids: Marble Run Challenge - Go to site

(6) Question Cards - Download

(7) Kindergarten Competencies in Action: Videos
     For illustrations of observations indicative of competency development see examples related to:

Language development - Go to page

Cognitive development - Go to page

Work methods - Go to page

Developmental Quick Reference Guides for competencies 1 to 5 - Go to page

More on typical observable behaviours and authentic assessment:
The Kindergarten Development Profile (KDP) - Go to page

Follow this link to continue on to the next case study: Squishy Circuits - Scaling Back and Moving On - Go to page