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Certified PreK-6. Masters in Child Development. Advocate for play, teacher & children choice, & the family's voice. Believe in volunteering as social justice.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The One Center Child

This post is also published on the Kinderchat Blog as part of the community's participation in NaBloPoMo. You should definitely head over to the blog and read a month's worth of posts from a variety of teachers, administrators, and others who work with young children!

This is the reflection of a conversation and ideology that began when I was teaching preschool and has recently reappeared in conversations among classmates. One of my core beliefs about teaching young children is respecting the child's right to free play. As a teacher, I see one of my most important roles as providing an inviting classroom space that promotes exploration, curiosity, conversation, and problem solving. In other words, the centers within the classroom are the sun to which the children's and my day revolve around. It is within these centers that the children are free to become who they are. It is within the block center that a 5 year old girl, let's call her Lyla, taught me the importance of keeping centers open to children. Even if they are like Lyla and choose to only play in the block center.

Which brings me to the idea of whether it is appropriate to close a particular center if a child chooses to spend all of their time in only one center. I am arguing that it is not appropriate to close a center, nor is it appropriate to require any child to play in a center that they are not interested in. Now, I do recognize that there are many brilliant teachers who don't believe this to be true and may not have the luxury of teaching in a full day preschool program where I was able to allocate a solid hour and a half of free play every morning with more occurring after nap. But, in order to stay true to my beliefs about a child's right to play and my knowledge of child development, I chose not to close the block center to the 5 year old girl from my class and I would make this decision over and over again.

Lyla came to my room as a quite 3 year old who spoke only Spanish. She had spent her past two years in the toddler classroom down the hall and was quite attached to one of the teachers in that room. That teacher had been the first person aside from Lyla's mother and grandmother who had been a primary caregiver. This teacher was warm and a native Spanish speaker. When Lyla transitioned to my room, she was leaving the comfort of this teacher's embrace and the relatively small classroom with only 7 other children and entering a room with 19 other children who ranged in age from 3 to 5. My classroom was large, with a separate alcove where the blocks and cubbies lived. It was also busy with the sounds of 20 children creating and two, English speaking, teachers facilitating the mess. It doesn't surprise me that Lyla found comfort in the alcove. It's a smaller space where the bigger girls often brought the dolls to play amongst the blocks.

As a three year old, Lyla began to work with the small blocks building row after row of horizontal structures in her cubby. As she became more accustomed to the classroom she began to branch out and would talk to the bigger girls and their dolls. Lyla would occasionally visit the dramatic play center on the tail of those big girls, but was always drawn back to the block area. As Lyla grew up, her structures became works of intricate art and she blossomed into one of the most friendly, curious, and talkative children in the class. At five years old, she was now one of the big girls, active in morning meetings and meal times and kind to the other children...and she still spent most of her play time in the block center.

Over the course of Lyla's time in my classroom, the children and I had to play host to a multitude of program monitors, directors, and coaches. Many of these people, especially my director, asked me why I did not just close the block center so that Lyla would be forced to play elsewhere in the room. I refused. Lyla was obviously thriving within the context of the block center. I knew the arguments being used as evidence for me to require her to play elsewhere; the need for her to be doing more writing, the need for her to be interacting with more of the children in the room, that ever present push in the inner city of "getting her ready for kindergarten to compensate for poverty". My answer was that my classroom and I were to adapt to the children, not to make the children adapt.

Rather than take the choice away from the child, I would be more flexible in how I set up centers. It's much easier to add things to a center than to force a child to play where she doesn't want to play. So Lyla stayed in the block center. And into the block center went baskets of paper, clipboards, pencils, books, cameras, rulers, tape, string, blocks, clay. Into the block center went photos of buildings which included those that Lyla and her classmates had created. Into the block center I went where I joined in the excitement of constructing and where I put up a sign next to something we had created asking others not to remove it and describing what it was. Into the block center went an invitation to continue to create and to expand on the creations by adding signs and labels and new materials. Into the block center flocked the other children drawn by Lyla's enthusiasm and creativity.

I think that part of our job when working with young children is to reflect on why children do what they do and how we can respectfully respond. There are many reasons why a child may favor one center over the others. A child may show a passion for it as did Lyla with the blocks or they may find comfort in the familiar objects in the dramatic play center. I've seen many children with special rights show strong preferences for certain centers whether it's due to a need for sensory input (or less sensory input), an emotional need, or a need I haven't yet discovered. There are opportunities to bring new experiences to the familiarity of a preferred center in order to scaffold learning. It's also important to remember that it's within free play that children are scaffolding their own learning and if a particular center allows them to do that, then that should be celebrated rather than taken away. There are many times in the day in which we dictate where a child should be and what they should be learning, but free play isn't that time.

There was no need to restrict where Lyla chose to play. She left preschool with a love of writing and drawing and reading and building. She left preschool confident and creative and full of joy. She left preschool able to solve problems and negotiate space and people. She left preschool ready for the adventure of kindergarten.

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