Tuesday, March 2, 2010
What about open-ended, exploratory learning?
Over the weekend, Bryce (age 14) got a new pair of shoes that came with two pairs of laces. Knowing my love for "extras," he offered a set of laces to me - and I immediately thought "Oh, yes! Pendulums!" Back in November, at the NAEYC Conference, Bev Bos and Michael Leeman had planted the seed for this idea...I just hadn't executed it yet. I found two wiffle balls in our basement and connected one shoelace to each - instant pendulums. At school, I set them up over the science table, hanging from the ceiling, attached at the top by pipe-cleaners. To set the scene, I created a few small block structures on the table - "leading the witness," an attorney might say.
Several years back, my then colleague Lynn told me that teaching preschool was a lot like throwing a rowdy dinner party. The teacher is the hostess: you set everything up, make it look nice and inviting, rush around at the last minute, put on a big smile for the door, and, once the company comes, you are on autopilot, fingers crossed that the guests will find the party as compelling as you had planned, and, guaranteed, all sorts of antics will ensue. For me, there is an energetic rush to this - I never know exactly what to expect on any given day, except for time to pass in a blur.
I love to set up open-ended, exploratory fun. I like children to "investigate" in my room - to find new materials in the classroom each day and to consider what can be done with them. I have the most fun watching children be engaged in play, figuring things out, cause and effect.
Our first experience with pendulums was so rewarding for me and the children. The science table was surrounded by ten children within minutes of its unveiling.
Often with my open-ended, exploratory ideas, I don't give any rules up front, but - with a couple frisky friends in mind - I stated "Just know one rule: you can't hang or swing from the strings -see, they are just shoelaces attached to pipecleaners."
I grabbed my clipboard, but my notes could not keep pace with the fun.
"Ms. Maureen, what are those balls doing there?"
"Let's hit it," someone suggested, eyeing the tower of blocks
"Wheeeee!" as the ball was pulled back and released
"Look at that!" as the blocks tumbled
"Ha! Ha! It didn't hit! It didn't hit!"
I explained, "Yes, yes, it went "around" the blocks, Zach, I think 5 times - 1, 2, 3, 4 5!"
"No, Ms. Maureen, 500 times!"
"Ouch - it hit me! - we need to cover our heads!" someone shrieked (and instantaneously everyone folded their arms over their heads as the pendulums continued to swing)
I interjected, " Perhaps we need to wear our construction helmets?"
"No, we need to use our hands to cover!" someone argued, demonstrating how to protect your head with your arms
"Hey, my turn now! Let's pass to me, then me to you" someone negotiated
"Build it again, we need to build it again!"
"Don't let go yet"
"Mine didn't fall! It stayed!"
Honestly, the children played over and over with the pendulums, for some 40 minutes of freeplay time. Two little boys never left the science table's side that day. Thinking about it afterwards, I was stunned by how little I had to say or intervene. The children themselves figured out the best sharing routine - two pendulums, up to 10 kids at one point - the child who built a tower got to release a pendulum, then he passed the pendulum ball to the friend to his side to do the same. I shook my head at the wonder, the marvel of this sharing - no bickering, no tears, everyone engaged and laughing.
As a teacher, you do have to have a particular kind of personal energy for this kind of play...you have to put aside preconceived conclusions. You are on alert, watching, "a guide along for the ride," not telling what to do, but accompanying. I love this kind of learning - teacher-staged, but child-run - the exploration is the goal. We make the rules as we go... the sharing was amazing..the laughter fierce...
I ended this preschool "dinner party" full of energy, a gift from the children - seeing them so engaged in play.