Yesterday I visited a family child care program where it was evident to me that children were given the time and space to direct their own learning. During my hour visit, the children engaged in many playful learning experiences that their teacher supported my primarily staying out of the way. Does that make you nervous? Some of you might feel like a teacher’s role is to guide a child’s learning, which is partly true. This teacher had carefully planned the environment so that she could trust the children to explore independently.
Often times when we think about risk in early childhood programs we are solely focused on children taking risks. This is important, but it’s not the most important thing. Children naturally take risks, so that’s easy. The hard part is looking at yourself and allowing yourself to take some risks. It’s a risk to trust children to make their own choices. It’s a risk to believe that worksheets, flash cards and drills are not the tools children need to be successful.
So how do we start to trust ourselves and the children? Start small. I always encourage teachers to ask themselves first of all, “who is this for?” If it’s not for the children…then maybe you should re-think it. Secondly, when you feel your anxiety rising, you can ask “what’s the worst that can happen?” It takes reflection and careful thinking to weigh if the risk of maybe getting hurt is greater than the learning that might occur. What could a child learn from this experience? How could I use my questions and comments to help them be safe?
During my time yesterday I saw some amazing risk taking happening with both the children and the teacher. So much so that I started taking photos. I want to share this story with you.
Jackson had an idea that he wanted to put his “boat” on the “river”. He dragged the “boat” over to the exercise step “river” and placed it on top. I could see that his boat didn’t quite fit on his river. At that moment I made a choice. I could have explained to him how that wasn’t going to work, or I could watch and see what happened. I chose to watch. Jackson tried unsuccessfully to row his boat on the river. Avitt joined him and they both alternately climbed in the boat and fell out of the boat as it tipped over. Here I made another choice. I could stop this because they might hurt themselves by falling out, or I could watch and see what happened. Once again I watched.
I could see that Jackson was getting frustrated. Another friend had an idea that they needed to tie a ladder to the boat so that it would be sturdier. They boys tried this method without much success. I still waited. After a few more unsuccessful attempt I decided it was time to “teach”. I said to the boys “I wonder how you could make the boat stay on the river.” They responded that they didn’t know. I followed up with “what could we add to make the river wide enough for the boat?” They looked around. I looked around (nearby there were more steps). Suddenly Jackson got an idea. I can get one of those! (As he pointed to the steps). At that point the boys gathered more steps to create a larger river.
That story was an example of how a teacher taking a risk and allowing children to explore can end in a great learning experience. We could talk about all the Foundations that those boys met during that experience and their developmental milestones all day long. I promise you they are there. But what I want you to leave with is the idea that sometimes waiting a moment and going slightly outside your comfort zone can make a world of difference for a child.
Thanks to Ann Doss for the work that she does every day with young children and for allowing me to use our coaching visit as an opportunity to study children’s play!