TEACHING YOUNG CHILDREN | VOL. 5 NO. 3 Download PDF
Unplanned Explorations and Lively Minds
by Kelly Matthews
The infants to 5-year-olds in my family child care program have taught me the value of rich and meaningful learning that happens in authentic, everyday experiences. Early educators often spend much time and effort planning such experiences. However, sometimes we support children’s learning best by stepping out of the way. This lets us learn alongside the children.
The following story offers insight into both the children’s thinking and my own. It illustrates the different roles I took to engage children. I assumed the traditional role of teacher as I set up the environment for a morning project, as well as documenter, peer learner, and researcher as the children’s interest evolved. I challenge you to name all the roles you see 5-year-old Troy stepping into. These experiences emphasize the importance of following the children’s lead to see what they can teach us and each other.
The magic of mirrors
Our morning project started with face painting. I provided a small tub of face paint, handheld mirrors, and small compact folding mirrors. Children busily painted their own faces (or the backs of their hands) for about 15 minutes. Then, suddenly, Troy noticed something. He turned the mirror to see his cheek but realized there were other things he could see too—the wall and poster, and even the art materials on the shelf behind him! It was exciting to see Troy’s expressions as he used the mirror to see things that were not directly in his line of sight. That was the start of an unplanned exploration that lasted all morning!
“It looks like you are standing on the ceiling!” Troy said to me excitedly from across the room. He had put the mirror down on the art table, looked into it, and saw the ceiling. Then Troy picked up the mirror and continued to look at it as he turned. He asked me, “Can you see Laura now?” (Laura was sitting directly across from him.)
“No, I can’t,” I said. But I explained what I could see to give him clues about my perspective. He was determined that I see Laura, so he kept turning the mirror and asking, “What do you see now?” It was incredible to see Troy combining the information I gave him with his movements to accomplish his goal. This experience allowed him to solve a problem that was meaningful to him. He could learn in a context he had created.
By this point, other children noticed how Troy was using his mirror. They started using their own mirrors to explore perspective and reflection. One child discovered how to get the ceiling on the floor: she put an upturned mirror on the floor at her feet! All the children were inquisitive and excited about sharing what they had discovered. It became a collaborative learning experience. The children could copy one another’s ideas and share what they learned with each other.
While observing the children’s exploration throughout the room, I evaluated my options. I could have demanded that the mirrors stay in the art center. Or I could have enforced my original intention for the mirrors: they were to be used for face painting only. In the end, I decided to respect the children’s interest, discovery, and authentic learning, gracefully following their lead.
Through my observations, I learned the value of trial and error for children’s problem solving. By asking one another about what they could and could not see, the children learned to manipulate the angles of the mirrors and make adjustments to change their perspectives. Sometimes a child would overcompensate and turn the mirror too far and be surprised by what came into view. I continued to observe without commenting to see if the children would make smaller adjustments to the mirrors to locate the objects they wanted to see. This would show in-context problem solving.
It was also interesting to observe children’s learning as they communicated their perspectives to others. At first, I listened to them struggle with directions. They didn’t yet have the spatial understanding to use a phrase like “turn it to the right.” However, children started using objects in the room as focal points. For example, Sofia told her friend “Turn toward the window” and then asked, “What do you see now?” The children took directions from their friends and then finetuned their actions to establish a common visual experience. This showed their higher-level learning. They gathered information and immediately analyzed it, applied it, and offered next steps within that context. Finally, through these observations, I learned about children’s receptive language skills. The children were able to translate verbal directions into actions.
As groups of children worked together to solve a problem, they were all invested in making sure everyone saw different perspectives. I saw leadership in action as well as children following directions graciously. What was especially meaningful was that the children were learning with and from their peers. This learning was happening by the children, with the children, and for the children— they owned it. What started out as an art activity had become so much more. And it got even better!
The children’s understanding of the world grows
Troy left the art area. He went to our book corner and sat on the floor, looking intently into a handheld mirror. Suddenly he said, “It’s not where it’s supposed to be! Look! The chalkboard is on the other side!” Troy had discovered and experienced something we adults take for granted daily, the idea of “mirror image”—the visual image getting “flipped” (right on left and left on right) when we look in a mirror. This is one of those ideas that I could have tried explaining, but Troy’s experience gave him a much deeper understanding than anything I could have told him.
Soon, the refrain, “Hey check this out!” was widespread. Friends were excited to show each other what they had discovered. For some, it was locating a particular body part in the mirror. For others, sharing a reflection with more than one person was the goal. The children used complex language as they described what they saw. The children carefully described how they wanted their peers to hold, twist, or angle their mirrors.
Controlling our view of the world
At this point, Troy switched to a compact mirror with a hinge in the middle. He instantly noticed that he could play with reflections differently with this setup. He asked classmates, “Want to see two coffee cups? Want to see two doors?” The finding and controlled disappearance of “Two heads!” not only showed skilled use of the tool but also made for howls of laughter. I am a firm believer that where there is laughter, there is learning!
I asked if other children were interested in trying to do what Troy had done. The other children began to pick up mirrors in each hand, asking Troy to describe what he had done. Some made eternity reflections (where the image inside the mirror goes on seemingly forever by being constantly reflected back). There was an explosion of conversation and excitement as the children described their work to each other. Laura exclaimed, “Look, I have a hundred hundred shells in my mirrors!” which was followed immediately by Gabe’s demand, “I wanna do that!” Laura explained to Gabe how to set up the two mirrors so that each was opposite the other with the shell in the middle. “First, go get a shell, Gabe. Put it down on the table and hold a mirror in each hand. Use big ones so you can see more shells better. Hold the mirrors straight across from each other.”
During this time, I saw my role as that of a stage manager, as Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds describe in their book The Play’s the Thing: Teachers’ Roles in Children’s Play. Making sure each child had what she or he needed to carry out the experiments was important and kept the play moving. Normally I find myself asking lots of questions or asking children to name what they are doing, but the language was so rich and meaningful between peers that it felt like I would be interrupting if I added anything.
I felt my work at the time was to do some learning of my own: to pay attention to how children were solving problems and to take notes on the language used and problem-solving techniques applied. I remained ready to ask questions or “wonder out loud” about things as needed, which happened as the morning’s explorations continued.
Creating problems to solve
The children came up with many of their own problems to solve: Could Madison teach Gabe how to find the same part of the ceiling she was looking at? What happened if toddler Nelly got a mirror—was there a way to include her in the game? What happens if you are upside-down but your mirror isn’t?
I posed other questions to challenge the children’s thinking: Is it possible to spot two friends at the same time in two different mirrors? If you used several mirrors but one shell to look at, how many shells could you see? Can you make more shells? Fewer shells?
We spent a good chunk of the morning creating and solving these and other problems, which ranged from social to scientific, from mathematical to methodological. We all delighted in creating problems to solve. When thinking about ownership of the learning process, explorations like these are ideal. Children are engaged because we are encouraging exploration in an area that already has their interest! During these explorations, children begin to see themselves and their classmates as creators of knowledge and as resources for more information.
For Troy, this morning represented a day of engagement—the kind of day you want every day to be like for children. He was engaged not only with exciting learning materials, but also with curious peers and a supportive adult. He was challenged but persistent, because he was motivated to find the answers. Troy got to be a leader who inspired his friends, and found them to be ready companions. He moved between leader and follower as those friends came up with questions and challenges of their own.
In watching this morning unfold, I was reminded of the complexity of teaching young children. We must balance the scaffolding we provide with opportunities for children to scaffold each others’ learning. I also remembered how providing engaging materials is only a part of our job—we must also provide a supportive environment in which those materials can be used. Finally, I noted the importance of being curious along with the children on a daily basis. This morning of exploration and excitement never would have happened without a “yes” to taking the mirrors out of the art center. I mentally made a note to start a list titled “What happens when we say ‘yes’ to children.”