Friday, November 25, 2011

What's happening with engineering this year?

I've been having a lot of fun doing engineering projects with my preschoolers this year.

I've created an engineering center, where six students can work at a time, with some help from me as needed. (Threes often have trouble cutting tape - their imaginations run faster than their fine motor skills!). Since our center time lasts about 45 mins to an hour, I typically need two days to allow each of my 23 students the chance to build their engineering solutions.

The children use a variety of recyclable and discarded materials to create. I have one "underbed storage container" that lives in the center, with a much larger bin of materials stored elsewhere, as backup. Families help me keep this well-stocked with egg cartons, meat trays, paper towel rolls, fruit nets, wine corks, etc.

Recently, I introduced the story Who Sank the Boat? by Pamela Allen, a simple fiction story wherein five animals going "rowing in the bay" and, of course, the smallest animal - the mouse - manages to sink the boat.

I posed the problem of building a boat out of recyclables that could support five animals (counting bears, in our case) and not sink. We would test our boat in the water table.

My problem with this project was that ALMOST EVERYONE wanted to make a boat immediately!

What a morning we had! The weather cooperated - offering a steady downpour that prevented us from getting out to the playground at our usual time...we had some 90 minutes of engineering time.

Imagine - three year olds staying engaged on one thing for this long! This is the power of open-ended engineering. Scissors, tape, bins of recyclables, no directions, only time - what's not to love?

As the children worked at the engineering center, we looked through the materials and discussed which ones would work best in the water. What would happen to cardboard in water? Foil, cork, plastic, foam, bubble wrap - these were the best materials for use in water.

The variety of boats was wonderful. The ideas (and children's own descriptions) were even better. Let me share a few of these...

Engineer Lucca tells me–
My boat is a valid choice. That’s a big word!

Engineer Naia, explaining where the animals will go on her boat, declares
Where these go is under the foil, so that they don’t get all wet.”

Engineer Ahmad creates a large flat boat using a cereal box, foil, assorted plastic pieces, and tape, tape, tape, and more tape.
I’m making a barge. It will not sink. It will not fall over!

Engineer Oscar is preoccupied with the water.
How to make sure that his boat doesn't sink?
He creates an entirely transparent boat, using a Ziploc bag...adding all sorts of details to the interior of the bag.
I want the bears to go inside because the water is wet,” he explains.

Engineer Zaki creates a very detailed boat beginning with a cardboard base, which he covered w/foil.
He adds foam and plastic pieces to create compartments for the animals.
Finally, he adds a ramp on his boat -
I made a slidey thing.
He considered how the animals would get on the boat!

One engineer (Liam C.) created four different iterations of a boat before he was content with the outcome. Talk about perseverance!
1) He cuts out two long thin cardboard strips and holds a net from oranges. “Ms. Ingram, look - these are fishing poles, these are nets.
Then he realizes that the cardboard will disintegrate in the water.
2) He decides to use foil, to make the boat more waterproof. He has difficulty cutting this and molding it into the shape he desires. Finally, after working with it and getting somewhat frustrated, he smashes foil into ball, “My boat is a ball.
3) He cuts two long sections of cardboard, about 3 inches wide, 12 inches long; wraps them in foil, wrapping last four inches of them together tightly. “They are also tongs, so they can get dinner.
Then he realizes that the five counting bears must fit on his boat.
4) His final boat is made from a recycled meat tray and bits of cardboard.

The reality was - 90 minutes was enough time to create a variety of boats, but it was impossible to test the boats at the water table as well. We decided to launch the boats the next day.

When the children arrived at school the next day, most had only one question for me -
"When are we testing the boats?"
The excitement was unending.

At our gathering circle, in preparation for the tests, I asked - "What if we put the five bears on the boat and the boat sinks to the bottom of the water table? What will you do? Will you throw yourself down on the floor and wail -'My boat didn't work! I am so mad! Waaaaa!' " and I gave my best dramatic imitation of a full-blown tantrum. The children laughed - they were on to me now. Several called out, "No! We will go back to engineering and fix our boat!" Yes!! These threes understand the engineering process: Plan, Build, Test, Modify, Test Again. A circular process.

Yes, I have a fabulous new group of engineers this year. They are engaged, persistent, creative, and questioning. They love to solve problems! They love to work together and help one another. We are having a whole lot of fun together.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

What about those sharing struggles?

A vignette.

Six children working at the clay table,
rolling, patting, pounding.
They have recently discovered the clay knives, and they are cutting things out, digging deep into the clay.

One shows me the tunnel he has made and inquires,
"Do you want to know how I do this? Well, I scooted this [tool] into bottom of this hole and then I lift it out, see?"
I smile.
Things are moving merrily along, everyone is happily engaged, when all of a sudden . . .

I hear a loud shriek from one of the children-
"He took that from me!"

Time stands still.

She had been using a blue cutting tool, and I see that another boy is now using it. He used to have a red one.
[Funny, how this fact stayed in my mind...why do I even remember that this was how the tools were divvied up?]
I'm thinking and watching, as she continues to shriek,
"He took that from me! From ME! From ME!"

Hmmm. I haven't seen this boy take things from others before. Well, it's not my place to presume. Just deal with the tension. Help the children to solve this conflict together.

Time stands still.

I turn to the boy, "I see you have a blue tool. I remember you having a red tool."
He points to the girl, "She has it."
The girl gives an angry glare, fists are knotted, one is knotted tightly around a red tool.

Ah, the stuff of threes. Mind you, these two tools are virtually identical.

Time stands still.

I turn to the girl, "I see you have a red tool. I remember you having a blue tool."
She continues her angry glare.
I add, "You are upset that you don't have your blue tool. How did you get a red tool?"
She responds, "I took it from him. I wanted it."
Me, again - "Oh. Did you take it because he had taken your blue tool?"
She gives me an angry glare. Clearly, I am missing her point!

The boy speaks up, "She took my red tool. And then, I took her blue tool. I need one for my clay."
Oh. "How did you feel when she took your red tool?" I asked the boy.
He answers, "I no like it. I need it."

I turned to the girl, "How did you feel when he took the blue tool from you?"
She continues to glare. But I can see that she is thinking about this. Truly, it is the thought that counts.
I let the question soak in. Silence, for a moment. Then I ask, "Do you wish you had both tools? Do you want to have BOTH of the tools?," I ask the girl.
She nods.

"Let's begin again. Ask him if you might use the blue tool for awhile. He might say 'yes,' he might say 'no.' But he is using it and you must ask him before taking."

"And the same goes for you," I said to the boy, "If you want to use the red tool and she has it, you need to ask her if you may use it. Let's start over..."

I return both tools to their original "owners." I coach them through their respective scripts. As I expected, the boy says "no" to giving up his blue tool. He goes back to working on his clay. There is no further discussion or negotiations.

But, my girl still has her angry glare. I know that she hasn't totally bought into this resolution.

I put my arm around her shoulder. "You want it all, don't you? It is hard to be using the clay tools with others. But, we are working together - all of us are sharing the same materials. We need to take turns with the tools."

This vignette also shows the necessity of slowing things down for children, making time stand still, taking the time to listen to children and allowing them to listen and learn from each other.

I don't always have such patience, but I strive to.

Threes vary so much in their developmental ages. This little girl still has a lot of that "all about me" behavior that one associates with two year olds. She is reacting to others, but not yet demonstrating a lot of concern about others.

Slowing down to negotiate these conflicts with children (rather than for children) fosters social-emotional growth, encourages the development of empathy.

I know that there will be many more of these sharing issues in the weeks and months to come. It will feel - when I have the same discussion over and over again - as if time is standing still. I'm okay with that. I believe these sharing struggles offer some of the best learning opportunities for children.

I know it will take time.
I know it is time well spent.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

What about clay?

First days with clay in my classroom.
Natural red clay.

I love watching children explore this for the first time. A big ball of clay.
What to do?
How to touch it?

Should you use two tools at once?
We have more tools...why can't we have more hands?

We practiced making little balls and bigger balls, rolling the clay in the palm of the hand.

We soon realized that the really big clumps of clay required us to roll them on the canvas placemat, with the leverage of the table top, in order to create a ball.

Children happily created clay pizzas, cookies, and other fun shapes.

Clay triangles, circles, squares.
I made a snake!” one child shouted, showing us several itsy bitsy snake pieces. And then he showed us how he pressed and whirled the clay - demonstrating, wordlessly, totally engaged.

We used the end of tools to make patterns all over the clay.

The children have loved pounding the clay with fists and special hammers.
One hammer makes three holes!
One makes a big rectangle!
One makes it flat!
One makes one hole!

Hammer! Bang!
How good this is for my frisky friends.

This new center has been a big hit. The children have enjoyed this natural material, and have been very responsible with its care. I have been impressed with the “buzz” in the classroom as the children work with this material – calm chatter, happy faces, and focused movements. They work with the clay on canvas placemats, using a variety of tools. At the end of center time, they roll their creations up into a ball, so that the clay can be used again another day.

Here's to further clay exploration...seeing how their creations change over time.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Why have dramatic play?

Today's post is really a "guest blog" - my dear friend Janise Allyn Smith happened to send me a newsletter that she sent out to her class families recently, and I asked her permission to copy it here for all to read. Janise teaches three year olds at Silver Spring Nursery School.

Janise is not a blogger - but, you tell me, after reading this, don't you think she ought to be? Enjoy!

I attended a workshop at the P.A.C.T. conference by Geetha Ramani, Assistant Professor of Human Development, University of Maryland, entitled "Superman and Cinderella; Benefits of Dramatic Play." Superheroes and princesses seem to play a large part in many preschoolers’ lives, and the question is not whether there are benefits from dramatic play but what this type of fantasy play has to offer.

Dramatic play offers abundant opportunities for children’s development. Children develop interpersonal skills, particularly cooperation and conflict resolution, and improve their language and problem solving abilities in pretend play. Their social skills are promoted as they communicate and negotiate their roles and actions. Children use language more frequently and more elaborately in make-believe play than they do in virtually any other activities.

Play is pleasurable; it is freely chosen, actively engaging, and most importantly, in the moment. Superhero or princess play focuses on children’s fantasies of bravery, danger, good/evil, and above all, power. We’ve got Batman, Superman, and Superwoman being brave, facing danger, fighting the bad guys and winning. There are fairies, witches, and unicorns who can cast spells, make things go their way, and put them in charge of others. Monsters have sharp teeth and claws; princesses dress up and dance at the ball. All of these fantasies allow children to feel as powerful as adults. It makes them feel powerful and invincible in a world where they often feel very little control over their own lives. Think about it – we are telling our children what they have to do or what they can’t do all day long. Fantasy play gives them a sense of empowerment.

There are emotional benefits to superhero play. It provides a way to understand and act out feelings. Through play, feelings can be explored through symbols: monsters = fear; wands = take control of the situation; guns/swords = stopping what feels out of control or harmful. If children are fearful or confused over things they have seen or experienced, it can be played out in a fantasy.

Okay, so we know why children enjoy fantasy play, but how do we keep them safe and how can we help them understand the difference between reality and pretend? First, we’ll talk about safe play. Limits need to be clearly established.

When playing a game with superheroes/guns/swords, where and when are the activities allowed?
What are the rules of the game?
What happens if a rule is broken?
What can children do if someone is treating them unfairly in the game?
Do they know how/when to stop the game?

All of these need to be talked about BEFORE the play begins – or at least when you see that this is the game they have started to play. Set the children up to be successful.

“Okay, it looks like you want to play Spiderman. Where did we agree that the game could be played?” Outside.
“Good, and what are the rules for the game? You do not use your body or objects to hurt your friend’s body. This is a game, and you don’t want to hurt one another. If someone does get hurt, the game will come to an end. Is everybody clear on the rules?”

Second, how can we help the children with understanding the difference between reality and fantasy? Look for those teachable moments. With princesses – do the children know about real princesses or only the ones in movies? What does a princess do? With heroes – discuss the qualities of the superheroes. Who are the real heroes in our world? Get non-fiction books that tell what a princess does or about the jobs that people such as police or fire fighters do. What kinds of things do they do to help others? After watching the movies of princesses or superheroes, initiate a conversation about what is pretend and what is real. A “reality check”, if you will. Talk about what they could have done in a real life situation – even if it was fun to watch what they did in the movie.

Pretending to be someone else clearly has many benefits. I am not advocating squelching the fun and fantasy of this kind of play. Parents can actively encourage dramatic play at home by capitalizing on their children’s interest at the moment, developing themes from stories their children have heard or movies they have seen, and providing props for pretend play. But it’s important to check-in with where the play is taking them. If it’s just become all about fighting, then maybe they need an outlet for that energy; karate classes, gymnastics, bicycling, baseball or soccer. If it’s all about the dress and looking in the mirror, then we want to move them outside the box. Encourage them to do things that a princess would do while dressed-up; painting, sewing, building things, dancing, reading, helping others, playing music, or taking care of animals.

With careful adult guidance and lots of discussion, children can understand the difference between fantasy play and how we ordinary human beings deal with good and evil that we encounter in the world. Now excuse me while I go get my cape and tiara on – I’m late for soccer practice.