Planning to Let the Plan Go: Empowering Teachers for Empowered Classrooms
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Briya Public Charter School is a two-generation program that serves over 900 adults and children annually at four locations in Washington, DC. Families and their young children attend Briya together. Adults study English for Speakers of Other Languages—from basic to advanced levels—in a culturally sustaining classroom setting, or they enroll in Briya’s high school diploma and job training programs. At the same time, their children, ages 6 weeks to 5 years old, attend play-based, constructivist, Reggio Emilia-inspired early childhood classes that encourage them to investigate how the world works through an emergent curriculum that addresses their own wonderings. In addition to cultivating English language and leadership skills, adult students learn about all areas of child development and put this knowledge into practice through weekly family time experiences in their children’s classrooms. Briya focuses on providing student families with tools to build from their strengths and meet their holistic needs, including through a long-term partnership and co-location with Mary's Center, a federally qualified health center (funded to provide health care services to underserved areas and populations), to connect families with comprehensive services onsite.
In 2020, the world ground to a halt, and schools across the country found themselves in an impossible, unprecedented position. Like many educators, we recognized the loss that children would soon encounter and realized that the impact could be catastrophic. As the shutdown became more permanent, the early childhood educators at our school, Briya Public Charter School in Washington, DC, began to wonder and worry about how to mitigate the major changes and challenges for young learners ahead. We found innovative ways to meet the needs of children and families in person through playful outdoor learning. We found space for outdoor learning in grassy lawns, gardens, makeshift garden beds, pavement, and a small urban forest. With creative and collaborative support from the school community, the turmoil of the pandemic became an opportunity for us to reflect on the core values we wanted to preserve and promote, and it offered the possibility and freedom to recommit and strengthen the connection to our play-based philosophy.
As the English-language co-teacher in a mixed-age preschool classroom (Kerstin) and as the director of professional development who guides teaching and learning for both children and adults (Noelani), in this article, we share our journey of deepening the ways in which we authentically embedded play into the culture of a program, for teachers and children alike. We highlight the value of following a child-centered, inquiry-based, and emergent curriculum. Freedom and empowerment—core values of Briya’s early childhood program and essential conditions for growing agency, voice, and creativity—were rediscovered along the way. Indeed, we used this challenging time to innovate and pivot, recommitting to our play-based philosophy to benefit children’s development and our professional learning in the long run.
Making Space for the Delightful
It was a Friday morning, our first dry one all week. As my coteacher, Carlos, and I (Kerstin) set up the patio area outside our indoor classroom space for breakfast and morning activities, we fine-tuned our plan for the day. We typically start our mornings like this, multitasking by sorting rain boots and other items while confirming plans and making adjustments based on what happened the day before or an idea that occurred to us overnight. Our plan on this particular morning was to delve deeper into the idea of “deconstruction,” connected to an exploration of loose parts and maker-centered thinking that had captivated our pre-K children for weeks. We wanted to look more closely at the parts inside an old CD player we had started to take apart the day before. We hoped to prompt a deeper understanding of the parts and purposes of machines and to perhaps inspire new avenues of creativity.
Carlos and I always have plans and ideas about where things might go, but we also always listen and observe for children’s thinking and meaning making. We remain poised to adjust to children’s ideas and to be surprised. And surprise us they do. As Carlos reached for the bin filled with deconstructed CD parts, Abel raised his hand, wanting to share what he had made that morning. Carlos had a choice to make—stick with our plan or give the floor over to the children. He let the children share. The following ensued:
- Abel showed the snake family he made using bottle tops and masking tape.
- Victoria explained how she used the handles of a paper bag to make hoops for dogs to jump through in her dog park.
- This idea prompted Erick to excitedly imagine what a park for crocodiles might look like, and the whole group animatedly brainstormed potential pieces of equipment and evaluated the pros and cons, especially from a safety perspective.
- Santiago showed the egg carton he transformed into a car for eggs. When asked why eggs need a car, he proclaimed, “Because eggs can’t walk!” Of course!
- The sharing session ended with Elizabeth showing an art piece she made containing the initials of her family members, which she turned into a game (and a literacy lesson) by asking us to guess everyone’s name based on the letters and sounds.
I would like to report that this conversation, particularly the part about dogs and crocodiles, inspired a bigger, longer-term project akin to the well-documented amusement park for birds from Reggio (Casarini, Gambetti, & Piazza 1995). Alas, no such thing materialized. It was the last few weeks of school. Carlos and I, along with the rest of our classroom support team of aides and volunteers, felt like we were barely hanging on. We were exhilarated by how well the year had gone in our new forest classroom, but we were physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. We used several strategies to connect the children’s project ideas between our indoor and outdoor spaces—having a similar set of materials in both places, helping them carefully transport an unfinished project to the forest, and reminding them of their plan upon arrival. Still, the children generally preferred to pursue other options once outdoors. Redirecting them toward our vision would have felt misaligned and inauthentic to what we believed about children and the importance of following their lead in their learning and play.
Something we realized only much later was that many of the making ideas the children had that morning were part of a larger pattern of expressing empathy and caretaking for animals. It had been growing for months. Here are some examples:
- Abel designed and engineered a cardboard birdhouse, which he assembled entirely by himself using the glue “sticker” (the child-given moniker for our rechargeable glue gun).
- Victoria created her version of a birdhouse, complete with a doormat so the birds could wipe their muddy feet and feathers taped to the windows for cleaning purposes.
- Obed, Erick, and others “wired” the forest with brown yarn connected to a fan made of sticks after concerns about the “sweaty” birds that had been the compelling topic of conversation while walking to the forest.
- One of our most prolific creators, Santiago’s usual greeting each morning after saying hello was to announce, “I have an idea!” or, on occasion, “I have two ideas!” In addition to his egg car, which was the latest iteration in a series of cars he made for his favorite stuffed animal, Santiago’s catalog of creations included a baseball field for baby chicks, a habitat for caterpillars, and a house for worms. This latest was to house (temporarily) some of the worms from our compost bin, and Santiago carefully monitored the position of the house relative to the sun the entire morning, moving the worms as necessary to keep them from overheating.
None of these creative ideas was written in our lesson plan, but this was exactly what we wanted our young group of capable and curious emergent multilingual learners to be doing: observing and tuning into the world around them with sensitivity, then feeling empowered to take action and discover novel ways to solve problems.
Evolving a Program into a Culture of Playful Learning
In the scenario described above, the teachers moved away from their planned exploration of deconstructed CD parts in order to give the children the opportunity to share their own creations. Teachers benefit from support and encouragement to make these spontaneous pivots in response to children’s ideas. In my role of guiding teachers’ learning and professional development, I (Noelani) realized somewhere along the way certain specific ingredients come together to create a recipe for empowered learning that is the same for teachers and children: emotional safety, primacy of interactions and trusting relationships, an environment that promotes risk taking, community building, and a culture of learning around shared values. Professional development and adult learning thrive when there is a culture of playful freedom, empowerment, and curiosity that mirrors our learning environments for children.
The following three realizations took shape organically as the Briya community focused on developing a shared culture of playful learning.
Realization 1: Creating a Culture of Play Is a Collaborative, Reflective, Iterative Process
In the last few years, through increased exposure to Project Zero ideas and approaches (which explore how learning can support human potential in many settings), Briya teachers have grappled with key questions related to teaching and learning, informed by Project Zero’s overarching questions (pz.harvard.edu).
- What is the role of play in our classrooms?
- What elements need to be in place in my classroom environment for my children to learn through play?
- What does learning through play look like, and what does it feel like for children?
While participating in the Project Zero mini course “Let’s Play” in spring 2021, some of the Briya pre-K team examined these questions, collectively considered the values of the Briya community, and created play indicators to look for in a playful learning environment. They learned about the research around play and considered how play can be a gateway for critical thinking, empowerment, and a sense of freedom and joy in learning. One teacher summed up the discovery as, “I am now reimagining how I plan. The materials guide the exploration, and I can anticipate what the interaction might be. After that, I let it go and follow the children’s lead.”
As part of the Playful Schools Network cohort in the Washington, DC area, the entire Briya pre-K teaching team worked with seven other public, public charter, and parochial schools during the 2021–22 school year. Together, they explored playful learning and its connection to creating a culture of thinking, to the language of classrooms where play is central, and to the thinking routines that engage children in deeper learning. Briya teachers took on a new facilitator role, focused on observing to notice the children’s learning agenda, listening and acting flexibly, and at times abandoning the plan of the day in order to create a new plan around children’s curiosity and wonder.
Realization 2: Play Is Healing, Engaging, and Transformative for Teachers and Children
In the midst of this investigation, the administration at Briya found ourselves wondering: If we want children to grow and develop into problem solvers, empowered risk takers, effective communicators, and curious learners, what should teacher learning look like and feel like? To answer this question, we considered the elements of play we defined for the children, and we wondered—what would these elements look like in teacher learning? We asked ourselves a lot of “what if” questions:
- What if we engaged teachers in professional development through similar processes of curiosity and wonder?
- What if teachers could also experience the healing benefits of play?
- What if we used thinking routines to deepen our learning and reimagine our classroom environments?
Before embracing playful (adult) learning, we had designed our professional development in more traditional ways, presenting new information about a topic and allowing some time to process how this might look in a teacher’s classroom before setting an intention to try it out. This formula of “I do, we do, you do,” a common method in schools, was typically led by the designated professional development facilitator. As our school began to commit more fully to a truly play-based curriculum, administrators began to also rethink teacher learning.
“What If” Questions to Guide the Development of a Playful Learning Culture
In Briya’s reimagining and intentional design to create a playful learning culture, “what if” questions emerged to guide our thinking about the learning approach for both children and teachers.
- What if we balance planning intentionally with improvising in the moment?
- What if we put the right amount of planning and support structures in place to allow for flexibility and let teachers step back to have children lead?
- What if teachers’ own action research guides professional development sessions?
- What if we playfully learn together so that we can better understand how to create children’s playful learning spaces and guide critical thinking and exploration?
Realization 3: Empowered, Free, and Curious Classroom Environments Depend on Emulating Those Conditions in Teacher Learning
The process of reimagining learning changed the way we approach professional development. Although we still use teacher surveys, classroom observations, and child data to inform teacher learning, teaching teams are now invited to think about a provocation during sessions, such as How has storytelling unfolded in your classroom? Teachers are empowered to share their expertise and research from their classrooms to teach and inspire their colleagues. They showcase how playful learning has deepened the development of concepts, such as how stories are put together, children’s stories of maker creations, and children’s retelling the stories of their learning process.
Although the rich sharing of stories from the classroom is reminiscent of what could be found in a book, our teacher learning comes from the response to these provocations and sharing. In this model of professional development, Briya teachers have the opportunity to redefine effective practice by explaining strategies in their own words. They are empowered as researchers in their classroom labs to redefine quality play-based instruction and set the agenda for their professional development.
Making Space for the Unexpected
The lessons we learned inside and outside the classroom illustrate the delightful and insightful moments that emerge when we make space for the unexpected. In our outdoor classroom spaces, creativity and wonder unfolded, and children had the space, time, and freedom to express their ideas and to ask and answer open-ended questions. We were able to evaluate how something worked (or did not work) by making predictions, wondering, and playing with ideas. This was perhaps the key serendipitous discovery from the pandemic: when given time and opportunity, empowered thinking will emerge in the form of creative and unexpected ideas. It does not need to take the form of elaborate projects. In fact, the impact of playful learning opportunities is perhaps best noted in small and unanticipated moments that lead to connected threads of iterative thinking: a hoop for dogs to jump through, a park for crocodiles, and the discovery that empathetic minds will even consider the transportation needs of eggs.
For the adults engaging with children as they make meaning and generate ideas, there is also space for our own delight and joy as we make robot machines in professional development sessions or explain our classroom’s community goals through a plant and root system made with recycled materials. Inviting materials and immersion in a rich, interactive, joyful environment allow us all, adults and children alike, to uncover new and insightful ideas, provided we are ready to listen and pay attention to the “aha” moments. It takes more work and close collaboration, and it requires intentionally relinquishing control of the agenda and narrative to let the children’s and teachers’ curriculum emerge authentically. In that space, the unexpected can happen, and we can learn from it.
Casarini, T., A. Gambetti, & G. Piazza, eds. 1995. The Fountains. Reggio Emilia, Italy: Reggio Children.
Kerstin Schmidt, MA, teaches pre-K at Briya Public Charter School in Washington, DC. Kerstin holds a bachelor’s degree in linguistics from the University of Chicago and earned her master’s degree from Pacific Oaks College in Pasadena, California. Before joining the staff at Briya, Kerstin taught pre-K and kindergarten in Chicago, California, and the DC area. Beyond her work with children, Kerstin is an active member of the DC-Project Zero network and has facilitated workshops at NAEYC, Bank Street, and the Progressive Educators Network.
Noelani Mussman, MEd, is director of professional development at Briya Public Charter School in Washington, DC. She holds a bachelor’s degree in education and comparative literature from Brown University and a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins University. Noelani has served as a teacher, charter school leader, and early childhood program director in DC, San Francisco, and Baltimore. Previously, she was assistant principal of a dual language elementary charter school, and she launched a national early childhood literacy program site at a community college in San Francisco.