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When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.

― Fred Rogers

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Following a child’s lead is crucial to the success of progressive education.  But, it is much more difficult than it sounds.  It is easy to say that we are going to listen to a child’s idea and base our plans on it.  However, catering to the child’s idea and facilitating it in a way that helps it flourish is a challenge.  One of my cooperating teachers said it best this month, “sometimes our idea of wedding, trains, or garden are different from what their idea is”.  As teachers, we may notice that the children have an interest in a particular topic.  But, the adult in us can not get upset when we tailor the environment to this interest and the children lead it into another direction.  Instead we must follow the child’s idea and provide them with support.

A couple months ago the children in my preschool were in love with trains (actually, they still are).  They pulled carts around filled with friends or items.  They stopped at pretend stations and traffic lights.  The children recruited teachers and children to be the train pullers.  They sang songs or made train sounds while riding.  They gravitated towards the train track building sets.  As teachers, we ran with this theme.  We built box sides to fit over wagons for train cars, provided whistles that sounded like a train, placed a gear set on a manipulative table, staged the outdoor dramatic play house as a train station, and so on and so forth.  We thought this theme would burst into weeks of exploration.  We discussed maybe bringing the theme inside and exploring how the mechanics of a train works or incorporating some other aspect of train play.  Turns out the children had different ideas.  They still love train play months later.  However, that week the “train station” became a movie theater and the train box sides became sleds for the compost pile.

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The adult in us wants to say “don’t take apart the train, please” or “movie ticket, this is where we buy train tickets”.  But, we can’t.  If we are truly respecting that a child’s idea has value we need to follow their lead.  We need to grab the shovels when they ask, bring them paper for their rockets, allow our staged areas to transform into other areas of purpose, and let go of a portion of a theme that may just not fit what a child is asking for.

This presents one of the biggest challenges to me thus far in progressive education: extending the theme.  This is a task I use to master.  Webbing the theme out and providing weeks of activity based on a theme was easy for me.  However, this year my classroom is multi-aged (2-5), the classroom is a well spaced indoor classroom with 2 acres of outdoors and a team of teachers, and the interests of each child varies tremendously.  Following the children by selecting an interest that a large portion of the class population is intrigued by and that will last over time is tricky.  Each teacher will have their own environmental or contextual challenges.  However, I do not feel it is impossible to meet the children’s needs.  As time passes I feel that myself and the teachers I work with will be able to overcome the challenges.  I emphasize this because “Rome was not built in a day”.  I will not have this perfected the first few attempts and it can not be expected that any other teacher will either.  It takes practice.  Some days will be better than others.  Mastery of this will come with time and practice; The most important task is to stay dedicated to following the child’s lead.

Tips for following the lead of a child:

Observe and Listen – Watch how the children play.  What areas do they enjoy?  Track how many times they visit certain areas or topics.  Listen to what they talk about.  They will tell you what they want to do and what they want to know.  There are times that I will come right out and ask them, “what should we learn about next?”.  But, at other times I flip through my documentation (pictures, anecdotal notes, and language clips) to see what commonalities exist and what ideas seem to continue to resurface.  Sometimes a deep exploration and interest is easy to find and at other times the hints are more subtle.  For example, this week we started to really focus staging our environment for the children to explore gardening.  There was not a pile of notes showing this interest but two events that made it apparent that the children were interested in this topic.  Everyday our director invites the children to travel up to the garden with her and harvest some of the vegetables we have planted.  Sometimes we gather them to cook, to give to our families, or to feed our preschool bunny and tortoise.  But, this invitation always is widely accepted.  The children gather in bundles to travel up to the garden.  They dash up to the top to be a part of the harvest.  In addition to this we recently planted some bean sprouts on the window together while exploring the story Jack and the Beanstalk (another theme that came from their interest in giants and fairy tales).  Almost every child wanted to be a part of the planting and then they excitedly watched as the seeds sprouted.

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These two small observations could go unnoticed.  There was not piles of documentations of the children in each area talking about the garden.  Our environment was not staged to encourage this.  But, the fact that the children always want to visit the garden and be a part of planting tells us (teachers) that more of our environment and activities should be dedicated to this. It is important to remember not all note worthy observations are verbally delivered from a child (especially when working with infants and toddlers).  Watching where a child goes, what learning experiences they gravitate towards, what objects they continuously pursue, what experiences make their eyes light up are all clues to what makes a child tick.  Every child has the right to be a part of the classroom.  Be sure to write down that Molly always carries a baby doll around or Johnathan played with blocks and cars the entire day.  The things we see children do and hear them say are the maps to what they are ready for next.

Staging the Environment – The next step is to take the collection of your observations.  Choose a theme that the children have demonstrated a strong interest in.  Plan the classroom environment around this theme and be sure to incorporate what the children are asking for or showing a need to know about.  Sometimes this process includes making a list with the children.  While they are playing doctor with the stuffed animals ask them “If we had a doctor office for the animals what would we need?”.  The children may tell you: band aids, blankets, stethoscopes, medicine, etc.  This gives you information for what you need when you set up a dramatic play veterinarian hospital for the children.  Sometimes the props the children ask for may surprise you.  Try to incorporate authentic materials for the children to explore:  real scrub shirts and stethoscopes for the vet/doctor’s offices, real firemen hats and boots for the the fire station, and real seeds and shovels for the garden shop.  Providing real items allows the children to expand their knowledge of and build connections with the real world.  The environment should be reflective of the children and the classroom community.

Following the Cues – This is crucial and often where a great plan can fall apart.  This is the area that I myself and working on improving.  Once the environment is staged follow the children’s cues.  When the children ask for fabric to make a cast for the doggy or tape to measure the length of a jump- go get it!  Don’t just say that is a good idea!  Go get it!  If you can get it that moment do it!  If you can’t then the next day tape and fabric should be there and ready.  Extending learning and play can only be done by continuing to observe and provide for what the child needs.

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In progressive programming the teacher is the facilitator.  If a child asks for something and it doesn’t seem fitting ask what their plan is.  Maybe they have a great idea that needs to be facilitated.  As a teacher I can say that I am a great fetch-er.  I will usually get what they ask for.  But, the difficult part is taking the cues gathered from the week and rolling that information into the next week.  It may mean staging the next week with the same theme but with more or new but related materials.  It could also mean that the materials need to be adjusted to what the children really need.  Again, a teacher’s idea of what something should be could be different from what the children envision.  The end of the week does not mean the end of the interest unless the children are asking for something different or the cues that they are providing communicate “I am looking for something else”. If the children do not dive into and environment that was staged for them ask yourself:

  • Did I truly record their interest?
  • Did I invest enough thought and ideas into the theme so that each area or most areas catered to the interest?
  • Did the areas have multiple purposes? (Each learning area should have multiple ways to explore.  If a child can only participate by using one linear method then the area has lost its flexibility to each individual learner.)
  • Was my vision of the interest different from their interest?  (and if so) Do I have the ability to re-stage this in a way that will meet their needs?
  • Did too much time pass from when the interest was recorded?  (Some ideas need to be addressed in the moment and others can be stored away for the following week or even months later.)
  • Was there something in the environment or other events that the children found more important?

Taking the Lead – A great teacher takes the lead by giving the children the power to lead.  As an early childhood educator you can not just be a supervisor.  You have to be a facilitator and sometimes even a play-er.  As Fred Rogers says, the things we play with and the people we play with do make a difference.  One of the most important jobs for a teacher is to be the person that provides the materials and environment needed for deep and rich explorations.  This can only be authentically done by following a child’s lead.  Play will provide learning but a child will tell us what they are ready to experience and learn.  The learning experiences that stick with us, whether we are an adult or child learner, are the ones we have invested an interest in – the ones we say “I need to know that”.

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