Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Minimally Invasive Education


Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Chapter 6 - The Human Educative Instincts

"All animals learn, but only humans learn to a significant degree from others of their species and thereby creative, transmit, and build upon culture, from one generation to the next."


The title of this post is a phrase from Peter Gray: minimally invasive education, or education with minimal intrusion in the children's lives. That's what I often think when I think about teaching and learning in the early childhood environment. And it's a difficult balance - prompting or asking questions without intruding on what the children are exploring on their own. Gray would probably advocate only becoming involved at the child's direction. I sometimes think that a little question or push can expand thinking but ultimately I think kids should pursue their own agendas.

Peter Gray writes: "Today when most people think of education they think of schooling. In other words, they think of education as something done to children by adults." I would tend to agree. Gray writes about three innate aspects or instinctive drives within us that can serve education.

Curiosity - the drive to explore, understand, find out about the world around us. From earliest ages, children are intently interested in things they have not seen or experienced before, more than what they have seen or experienced already. As they grow, children are interested in exploring beyond what is known, not just replicating past experiences. If an adult explains how to use a toy, a child will explore it less and not discover much beyond what he was shown. If an adult just plays with the toy randomly and then gives it to the child or just gives it to the child without doing anything, children will explore the toy longer and discover more about its attributes. "Teaching" inhibits curiosity about the toy. Less direct instruction can yield more learning, deeper learning.

Playfulness - the drive to practice and create, to repeat new skills and use them in creative ways. Curiosity is focused on discovery. Playfulness is purposeful action to produce known result or using something in a different but purposeful way. Peter Gray lists several different types of universal play. (These types overlap and are not distinct categories.)

  • Physical play - using bodies in coordinated movements (running, wrestling, chasing)
  • Language play - learning to talk and use language to communicate (babbling, puns, rhymes)
  • Exploratory play - refining exploring skills (making sense of the world, science)
  • Constructive play - producing something that is in the mind (drawing, building)
  • Fantasy play - create and operate within an imaginary world (pretending, thinking logically)
  • Social play - cooperating and restraining impulses (playing games, negotiating)
All children play in these ways. Specifics of play vary from culture to culture.

Sociability - drive to share information and ideas, telling and teaching others what we know.
Children will naturally show others what they have learned. They will help other children discover how things work. Children learn more together than alone. Groups can generate more ideas and pool their knowledge to have greater understanding. Language is a key component to social learning.


Gray writes that schools thwart these natural instincts of children. They do not allow children to explore what they are interested in or make many choices related to what and how to learn/explore. Schools tend to focus on "one right answer" over finding ways to solve problems. Schools stress evaluation and assessment. Included in this chapter is a quote from a teacher; when students began to exploring items in a way different from what she had planned, she said, "Kids, I'll give you time to experiment at recess. Now it's time for science." (In other words, do things my way and explore on your own time.)

I think there's a lot of meat in this chapter regarding these three instincts. Peter Gray broadens the discussion of these three in the next chapters. But I think the note that adults and schools often thwart the natural ways kids learn is an important point. And I think the focus on standards can also tie the hands of educators who want to encourage exploration. The question I come back to is this: Are we derailing learning--true deep understanding and mastery--for education (performing well on tests and parroting back established formulas)? 

Friday, November 25, 2016

Subordinate Agenda

Read more about this in my post on EdWords

While I may think about activities and choose resources...while I may think about what will happen in the classroom...while I may see lots of possibilities for learning, my thinking and planning should take a backseat to the thinking and exploration of my kids. They will explore and experiment to make sense of the world and of their own ideas/thinking. I must be willing to relinquish control of the learning.


*(My friend used the cube blocks to spell PIXAR.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Giving Thanks


This week is the time we set aside to give thanks. I am truly thankful for all the blessings I have. God has continued to give to me beyond measure. I see each day the things I have that so many others do not have - a warm house, a vehicle to drive, food on my table, the world of knowledge at my fingertips through the Internet.

I am thankful for a wife who is supportive and tough and loving. She regularly cooks for me. She helps me when I need a sounding board. She gives me wisdom. She tells me to "get over it" when I need that. She is a true blessing to me.

I am thankful for the opportunity I have to talk and learn and play and grow with a group of young kids. They show me new things each week. They remind me how to be kind. They lead me to try new things and risk without thinking about what others may think or say. They are brave as they take on the world.

I am thankful for the things I didn't get. In looking back over the past couple of years, I see that what didn't happen was for my good - even if it didn't seem like it at the time.

I am thankful for you, the ones who read these words. Thank you!

Monday, November 21, 2016

5 Ways to Use Jingle Bells



Do you like jingle bells? One of the benefits of working with preschoolers is that we get to play with jingle bells all year long, not just in December! Here are a few ideas to use jingle bells in the classroom.

1. Play them.
Of course, string the jingle bells on chenille stems and make homemade instruments. My kids love to make these. They love to use them as much as purchased instruments.


With younger preschoolers, stick several in a empty plastic bottle and seal the lid. It's a great bell shaker instrument. And so simple to make.

2. Spy them.
Speaking of bottles, make great "spy bottles." Fill small bottles with shredded paper, sequins, jingle bells, and other various small items. Challenge children to find the bells (and other specific items) in the bottle. (We made these as gifts for our kids - they can play spying games at home.)


Or make this great discovery bottle from Preschool Inspirations: fill the bottle with mineral oil and jingle bells and use a wand magnet with it.

3. Practice number skills.
Provide bells and other items to string on a chenille stem or length of yarn. Add numbered cubes and a key. Kids can roll the numbered cube and add the specific item.


This activity was planned for first graders, so we used two cubes. For younger kids, use only one cube and adjust the list. Kids can practice their subitizing skills (recognizing quantities without counting) and counting skills.

4. Paint with them.
We love to paint with balls and marbles in an oatmeal box. Change this up a little and paint with large jingle bells. You have some sound in addition to the physical (rolling the box) and creative (painting).


Another way to paint with them is this idea from No Time for Flash Cards: Tie jingle bells onto paintbrushes to add sound to your easel painting.

5. Quiet them.

This STEM challenge from Little Bins for Little Hands is wonderful. Kids explore how to put a jingle bell into a plastic ornament with other materials in ways that will make it quiet. I think this would be a great fun exploration experience. And so counterintuitive to what we do with bells.

What fun ways have you used jingle bells?

Thursday, November 17, 2016

The Yard Sale

I honestly don't know why people want to spend time with adults and not young kids. I always have a fun and interesting time, with intriguing conversations. And I am continually surprised by them. (Well, adults surprise me, too, but in completely different and often less positive ways.)


We put out the doll furniture with the wooden blocks. Since we were talking about families, I thought the kids may build rooms or houses and use the furniture. At the very least, the furniture could trigger conversations about homes and families.

One boy came to the center. We talked about the fact that there was furniture there. He pulled all the pieces out and placed them on the floor. He moved them around a little - then he declared, "Oh, it's a yard sale." 

He arranged the pieces in various configurations until he was pleased with the display. We continued to talk about different things--the furniture and yard sale, other things that he was thinking, maybe a few things I was thinking. He picked up one piece. "The stove is sold," he told me as he set it aside, "for $150." 

"$150? That's good," I said.

Then he picked up the couch. "The couch is sold," he said. "$60,050."

"Wow," I said, "that is a lot of money for a couch."

"Somebody paid it," he said. (I had no comment to that.)


Even after...all...these years of teaching kids and working with them, they surprise me. That's why I try to stay out of their way. I have idea when I plan the classroom activities and put out resources. I know what I think may happen. But I always try to communicate that the kids can use their own ideas. I learn about them and their thinking as they build or draw or play.

If I'm not open to new ideas and directions from the kids, then I'll miss the surprises and insights that I can learn.

The yard sale play went on for a while. Then the boys were off to paint or something else. Others came and moved some of the furniture around. Some pushed it aside to build with blocks. (Not rooms or houses but towers.) That's the nature of the classroom.

But I'll always think of the yard sale when I put out this furniture. And I'll handle that couch with a little more respect. After all, someone paid thousands of dollars for it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Children Educating Themselves


Free to Learn by Peter Gray

Chapter 5 - Lessons from Sudbury Valley: Mother Nature Can Prevail in Modern Times

"People naturally want to make sense of their world."


In chapter 5, Peter Gray explores the Sudbury Valley School, founded by Daniel Greenberg and others. Greenberg had wondered, "What is wrong with our educational system that prevents students from developing passionate interests and then pursuing those interests in their education?" He founded the school to create a democratic institution in which students could pursue their own interests and come to their own conclusions.

I found the description of this school very interesting. The school is administered by the School Meeting, with every person in the school (students and adults) having one vote in the proceedings. The meeting discussed and decided all rules of behavior, hiring decisions, budget and expenditure decisions, and so forth. The rules are enforced by a Judicial Committee comprised of student representatives and one staff member.

Students move freely throughout the grounds all day and associate with anyone they choose. Staff are adults that serve as resources and do other appropriate work (including ensuring safety and giving comfort as needed). Students can use whatever resources are available onsite as they choose - books, computers, equipment, adult staff, and one another. (Students must be "certified" to use expensive or dangerous equipment; they receive training as needed and show proficiency before they can use on their own.) Classes in specific subjects are offered at students' request and last as long as interest continues. Students older than 8 can leave the campus anytime; under 13 must be accompanied by another student and sign out. No set scheduled or set classes/subjects. Students are not grouped by age or in any other way (except as they choose). The school has no established curriculum, no testing, and no student ranking. If students want to receive a diploma, they prepare and defend a thesis explaining why they are ready to graduate and how they are prepare for responsible adult life; this is evaluated by outside reviewers.

"The basic premise of the school's educational philosophy is that each person is responsible for his or her own education."

Through this example, Peter Gray concludes that these conditions optimize children's abilities to educate themselves effectively--

  • Time and space to play and explore (unscheduled time, space to roam, choose for themselves)
  • Free age group mixing
  • Access to knowledgable and caring adults
  • Access to equipment and the freedom to play with it
  • Free exchange of ideas (all ideas are on the table)
  • Freedom from bullying (a safe environment)
  • Immersion in a democratic community

I'm very intrigued by the idea of the Sudbury Valley School. I agree with the basic premise that each person is responsible for his own education. I think that kids need more freedom to choose and pursue their own ideas and interests with less constraints. I think that many adults feel a need to exercise more control than they need to do.

I'm unsure that this philosophy could be replicated on a large scale throughout the country. But I do think that the education system could incorporate more of those conditions above and create environments that allow children to educate themselves more. I also think that we as a nation need to think about approaching education in some different ways, not just tweaking the existing system but creating a new one.

Kids want to explore their world. They are born ready to do it. We just need to find ways to get out of their paths.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Becoming Effective Human Beings

Gray Quote about Play (Brick by Brick)
from Free to Learn

Through play kids practice and master life skills and other skills. Through play kids learn to work together with others and to work independently. Through play kids develop knowledge of the world. Through play kids learn to think, question, test, and conclude. 


Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Wielding Our Power Carefully


A few years ago, my wife took several recycle/repurpose items to a preschool classroom to use as "environmental instruments" with the other rhythm instruments. She took some paper towel tubes, plastic plates, and some paper wads; children took pairs of each item to tap together and create some different rhythm sounds.

Another teacher remarked that she had brought trash for the kids to use...and her tone was an unfavorable one. Kids immediately began calling the items "trash," especially the paper wads. They used them reluctantly and quickly moved to change to something else when the time came. Weeks later, they still referred to the items as trash and wanted to quickly trade whenever they can. While one child was tapping the paper wads together, another child said, "He's got the trash!" The first kid immediately dropped them and wouldn't play until he moved to the next instrument.

I think that we adults sometimes forget the power we have. Our influence can go beyond learning content. Our reactions, comments, facial expressions, and words can impact how kids feel about what they are doing and even how they feel about themselves. How I wish that teacher had enthusiastically said, "Look at what we can use as instruments. We can use things that normally would be thrown away to make rhythms and music." I think then the kids would be excited to use "trash" as instruments.


Vanessa at Pre-K Pages often says that we sometimes need to sell what we are doing. We can make things sound exciting and wonderful...or challenging and difficult...or undesirable and weighty.

Now my wife and I work together with a group of 4-year-olds in a music/choir class. This group is enthusiastic about just about everything. One thing that my wife does each week involves our lining up to leave the room and move to the next thing. As you know, most kids want to be the leader of a line. But Cindy makes every place in the line seem special. She lines them up in different ways - calling names or describing clothing or using initial letters of names. But it's always like this: "Who will be #3 in line? It is Liam! You are number 3!" Each position in line is exciting. I haven't heard a child yet who complains about who is leader or who whines to be first in line. Every place is great!

We must wield our power carefully. Our thoughts about a child can become everyone's opinion. If we use an exasperated voice in talking to this child...or act in ways that seem that the child is difficult...or do anything that singles out any child - that attitude could be transferred to other children. Or if we think that something is boring or tiresome, kids will begin to think that it is boring.

This made me think of the Spiderman quote: "With great power comes great responsibility." If an idea seems unusual to me, I should help explore it (not dismiss/reject it immediately). I shouldn't try to impose my interests and tastes on the kids. I need to help the kids explore a variety of ideas and develop their own unique interests and tastes.

And I should be excited about learning and discovering. Because they already are and I shouldn't dampen that.

Saturday, November 5, 2016

5 Ways to Use Pompoms


Pompoms are standard tools in an early childhood classroom. While you can use them for art in lots of different ways, you can use them for other learning, too. Here are five ways to use pompoms (other than gluing them on paper).


1. Build those fine motor skills.
Working the small muscles of the hand is an important early childhood skill. Pinching and manipulating items helps build skills that will be used in writing (and other important life skills).

Use chopsticks to move pompoms - Or use tongs or clothespins or or tweezers or just index finger and thumb.

Transfer them into an ice cube tray. (Pre-K Pages)

Or scoop and pour them - for those younger or less developed muscles. (Buggy and Buddy)



2. Use air to move them.

You can do this with a squeeze bottle. (Mom Inspired Life)

Or blow them with a straw. (Lemon Lime Adventures)


3. Use them in water play.

Drop pompoms in your water bin. (Fantastic Fun and Learning)
Squeezing the water from the pompoms is great fine motor play, too!


4. Stick them on Velcro.

Stick a strip of Velcro to the wall or on a stand-up. Stick the pompoms on. (Teach Me Mommy)
Make patterns, count them, or just play with them on Velcro.
For older kids, create Velcro in shapes or letters or numbers. Stick on the pompoms!



5. Play number and counting games.

Roll the cube and fill numbered bags. (Pre-K Pages)

Or count them in a game. (Learning 4 Kids)


For lots more great ideas (including magnetic pompoms!), check out this post/video on Pre-K Pages.


How do you use pompoms in your classroom?

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Heavy Duty Problem Solving


I saw some heavy duty problem solving happening in our blocks center last week.

The boys began building the "traditional" arch structure that I've seen over and over in my classrooms. Two tall blocks standing on end and another block across the span at the top.

Then one said, "I wonder if I can fit through here." He slowly inserted his head into the opening...until the structure fell on him. (Sorry - no photo.)

Well, the exploration was on. They tried spacing blocks out as far as possible. They tried moving their heads through the space in different ways. They speculated that if we had longer blocks, they could move the sides apart as far as they needed.

Then one boy decided to try it feet first.


He could get more of his body through the opening. But, alas, it fell on him at some point.

Then we began explorations in balancing.

Could we hold and balance a stack of blocks?


Could we balance a round, rolling block on top of another one?


Could we build a balancing structure?


Could we balance the columns on one another and get them to stay?


I watched this column work for a while. The builder tried several different configurations until he decided that "the square ones on the bottom" was the best foundation.

He would build the fragile structures again and again. A slight bump or move the wrong way and they would tumble. But he built them again.

Through trial and error - and a great deal of persistence - he was able to get this result.


I heard lots of self-talk and encouragement among the boys. I heard interesting speculation on what could be done at all the different stages of play. And I said hardly anything. (Other than "Wow!")

I think I enjoyed the exploration more than the boys did.

Our mishmash of blocks can yield some pretty great learning, I'd say.