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Inquiry Muse

Observations and Reflections on Language Learning

Tinkering With Loose Parts

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” In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it”  -Simon Nochoidon, Architect

It is easy to notice the abundance of “loose parts’ in our classroom.  From plastic animals to pennies to seashells, these tiny treasures are essential to our daily learning, inquiry and investigation.  As suggested in the quote above, an environment that supports creativity must include an ever-changing array or loose parts. Here are some of the ways we use loose parts in our classroom:

The children work with loose parts in the math center, sorting, classifying, counting and graphing.

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Loose parts at the light table encourage language, storytelling, conversation and design work.

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The fact that loose parts can be configured in many different ways allows children to experiment with different designs and modes of expression.  The impermanence of the work lends to it’s flexibility, helping the children better understand the fluidity of their ideas.

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Loose parts invite children to tinker, manipulate, play and design.

Andy Goldsworthy Investigation

Loose parts encourage children to think creatively and flexibly and provide endless opportunities for work and play in the classroom and beyond.

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Wonderings about Light

Light is an element that is naturally fascinating to children. As they explore materials and experiment with placement, children are creating ever-changing murals and learning many principals in the process.

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Which items are transparent and which are opaque? What can we learn about objects by examining their silhouettes?

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How does projected light change the size of our designs?

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What designs can we make with sand and light? How does this material change our experience with making marks?

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Light is considered a guiding teaching strategy in Reggio-inspired learning environments as explained by the following quote:

“The teachers prepare the environment to allow light into the room, to flood light from underneath and through objects on the light table, to create shadows on the floor and the wall with an overhead projector. This emphasis comes from a deep understanding of how light calls our attention to changes in color, form, and motion, to personal perspective, and to a ubiquitous and integrative source that brings disparate objects into eloquent relations” (Edwards, Gandini & Forman, Hundred Languages of Children, 3rd Edition, p. 374).

Adventures in Toyland

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“Toy play is one of the ways in which children nurture their disposition for imagination and fantasy.”   David Elkind, PhD.

The season of gift giving is upon us.  My niece and nephew have already received Hanukkah gifts from their father’s side of the family and are eagerly awaiting the next round of presents that will come when they celebrate Christmas with their mother’s side of the  family.  My sister’s inter-faith family has been the subject of many conversations with my children who used to find it quite unjust that their cousins got to celebrate two holidays, and receive special gifts on two occasions, while they, tragically,  were limited to just one.  Thankfully, now that they are a bit older,  we are beginning to move on from this line of thinking.  At the very least, they have given up on pleading their case, yet we are still many years away from embracing the philosophy that “it is better to give than to receive.”  Like most of you, I find that I am a consumer during the holidays.

Before I brave the crowds in the toy section each year, I like to re-read a chapter from David Elkind’s excellent book The Power of Play entitled Toys Aren’t Us.  In this chapter, Elkind highlights the history of toys, the marketing of toys, classics that have survived the test of time and changes in the way that children interact with toys.  He begins by discussing the  volume of toys that contemporary children have.  He posits that the sheer number of toys that modern children own make it harder for them to invest emotionally in them, therefore inhibiting their ability to use the toy in truly imaginative play.

According to Elkind, toys should have a personal meaning and significance to the child rather than being tied to a movie or television program. While it is hard to escape the powerful marketing pull of movie or T.V. products, it is good to keep in mind that it is harder for children to engage imaginatively with a product that already has a predetermined “story” connected to it.  Likewise, building sets with specific step-by-step building instructions limit the creativity of children by forcing them to create a set product rather than coming up with their own design.  A recent post in the New York Times echos this sentiment: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/23/sunday-review/has-lego-sold-out.html?_r=0

Many messages about gender are communicated through toys and their corresponding advertizements.  While we can applaud the fact that Legos are now marketed to girls, we should question the fact that they are pink.  The next time you are in the toys section of a store, notice the way that toys are marketed to girls and boys.  What messages are being transmitted?  What stereotypes are being perpetuated?  Many of us have seen the video that went viral this fall in which girls used their overwhelmingly pink “girly” toys to create a complicated Rube Goldberg machine.  If you did not have a chance to view it, here is the link:

http://www.goldieblox.com/pages/beastie-boys-rube-goldberg-machine

Ironically, the Goldiblox video itself is also an advertizement, which has ignited some conversation and debate as seen in this recent article from the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2013/12/can-toys-help-create-future-engineers.html

Are you confused yet?  In the age of information overload, we are bombarded with conflicting views, which we must balance with our own personal values as well as the individual wish lists of our children.

Toys have become a huge part of consumer culture, and are marketed to adults and children in both subtle and overt ways on a daily basis. In general, the more open-ended the toy, the better. Look for toys that allow for versatility if you want them to stand the test of time.  Truly educational toys allow children to solve problems or create something new rather than doing the work for them.

Parents have known for centuries that very few toys rival the appeal of the boxes in which they are wrapped.  Indeed, the cardboard box epitomizes the notion of an open-ended, educational toy.  There is truly no better vessel from which to inspire creativity at any age.

The Caine’s Arcade project that grades 1-5 are working on at Park Tudor has inspired my 4th and 5th grade children to take a renewed interest in cardboard boxes.  While the boxes and box remnants, duct tape and paper scraps strewn throughout my home are not adding a lot aesthetically to my holiday decor, it has been fun to see them fully engaged in the creative process with such simple materials.  The link below provides a good introduction to the project, which began with one child tinkering with cardboard boxes in his father’s auto shop in L.A. http://vimeo.com/40000072

Whatever your holiday plans, I hope that your child will be fortunate enough to play with at least one box during winter break.  Elkind points out in his book that whimsy and imagination are often captured in the most simple things.  The cardboard box is a classic example.

Can you Spot the Hidden Science?

Can you spot the science in the photos above?  One of the pictures are from a bird beak investigations we conducted this week, a planned science activity related to our classroom study of birds, yet others depict science and inquiry opportunities embedded in everyday classroom activities and experiences with nature.

The National Science Education Standards emphasize that inquiry into questions generated by students should be a primary focus of science education for young children.  With this in mind, the challenge for educators is to create classroom environments that inspire children to make careful observations, generate questions, test hypothesis  and make meaning of the physical world around them. Teachers are there to support children in their investigations, while providing experiences to expand their thinking rather than simply supplying them with answers.  Children are encouraged to build on their previous knowledge and deepen their conceptual understanding of relevant scientific topics in their immediate environment through observation and hands-on investigations.

Science is embedded in classroom routines from our daily conversations about the weather to our classroom birthday ritual in which the children walk around the “sun” holding the earth once for each year of their lives.  Classroom pets provide opportunities for children to make observations about the characteristics, attributes and behaviors of living things and to develop an understanding of the properties of living and non-living things as well as the concepts of real and pretend.

As children are  interacting with materials in the classroom, experimenting and observing the results, they are playfully engaged in the physical sciences.  Nowhere is this more apparent than in the block area, where concepts such as gravity are explored on a daily basis.  Light and color are experienced at the easel, on the projector and on the light table.

One of the photos depict children on the playground after a morning of rain.  They had noticed that the mulch had a different color in certain spots and were perplexed by this.  A small group gathered to investigate, and began searching the playground for more evidence.  The teachers pretended to be perplexed as well and encouraged the children to investigate further.  Eventually a hypothesis was formed, tested and proven and the children were very proud of the discovery that they had made all by themselves.

While structured science activities, such as the bird beak lesson, are important components to our science curriculum in our class, some of the more powerful knowledge gains come from self-guided exploration and free play.  Children who have many interesting, direct experiences with science concepts during their early years will also develop a deep understanding of the broader principals of science, and an increased understanding of their place in the natural world.

Toy Day: Playful Learning and Skill-Building

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All learners need practice in order to achieve skill proficiency in any given subject area.  We often think of skill practice as consisting of drills and exercises, yet activities to which the skills are applied are also a means of practice and are often more engaging and meaningful to children. Skills are increased with use. Our focus in early childhood is on providing contexts in which children are motivated to apply their emerging skills in literacy and numeracy.

In my classroom, children are invited to share a special item from nature, a hand-made art project or an item related to our theme during share time each morning.  Toys, however, are not allowed.  Instead, at the end of every month we have a day specifically set aside for toys, which we aptly call, “Toy Day.”  What started out as a solution to a seemingly endless share time in which children brought the same toy week after week has become a very rich, meaningful, community event in our classroom.  Toy Day is a great example of a functional and purposeful learning situation in which children are motivated to practice and apply skills using a favorite toy from home.

The children are excited to talk about their toys, providing opportunities for rich oral language experiences as well as written language through journal entries.  The children draw a picture of their toy and then add language to their journal.  The Toy Day entries are always very descriptive because the child is invited to talk about something in which they are very interested.  Other opportunities for early literacy activities come about as we talk about the initial and ending sounds of the toy or the number of syllables (claps) in the word car or mermaid.  Emergent writers may begin to use phonetic writing to title their journal pages.  During our afternoon centers, several of the children “read” to their toy, sharing a favorite story in the classroom library.

Opportunities for mathematical integration are plentiful on this day.  Each child is excited to measure their toy using non-standard units of measure.  Concepts of more or less are practiced as the children compare the length of their toy with that of their classmate’s.  Estimation is practiced as the children guess the length of their toy before measuring.  We also use a balance scale to establish a measurement of weight, providing additional opportunities to apply skills of measurement, counting, number comparison and estimation. We spend time as a class sorting, classifying and graphing our toys, part of the algebraic standard in mathematics.

Social and emotional competencies are important to foster in young children, and bringing a toy from home provides opportunities for the children to connect in new ways.  It also gives the teachers a glimpse into the ever-evolving  interests,  passions and fantasy life of each child.  We typically have “Toy Day” towards to end of every month.  To the children, it is a culminating event and a fun day of play in the classroom.  The teachers know that it is much more than that.  It is a time to observe and assess the children as they apply the skills that they are learning in the classroom, while happily playing with a favorite toy.

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