Child-directed play holds value all on its own. However, there are many things that adults can do to both support it and help extend it. At Little Treehouse Kindergarten, our teachers have spent decades collectively doing so. We draw strategies, approaches and techniques from research, study and experience, putting them together as a team to help our children make the most out of this innate learning process.
This is what we do:
Setting the environment
The first thing that we do to support children’s play — usually before they even arrive — is through how we set the environment. Choosing what resources are out, how much, where and how they are placed will affect how the children approach them. Different resources encourage different ways of interacting with them. For example, playdough’s squishiness encourages squeezing and pinching to form it while the wheels on a truck encourage rolling and movement along surfaces. Similarly, big building blocks will have children use big movements to create sprawling constructions while little ones will encourage fine-motor control to create smaller, more detailed creations.
The way that the resource is set up will also encourage a certain way of using them. Cars may happen to be conveniently placed near drain pipes that would make for the most perfect tunnels, or blocks may be split into little piles on the table edge, each with a pair of chairs before it so that two children may be tempted to work together. We can encourage these without the need for a single word.
Keeping our minds open-ended
Open-ended is the preference, where a resource isn’t really anything until you make it to be... and you can make it be a hundred different things. As Miss Bloem says, it’s often not about the item itself but about the mindset that we and the children approach it with:
“One of my great lessons as a parent and educator is to think outside the box in how children play with certain items. Just because an item is designed and developed to be used in a certain way, doesn't mean we shouldn't use it in a different way. A child has great imagination and they enjoy using straightforward items in a way adults oftentimes don't think of because adults are more guided by rules and logic. A small stick from a tree can go on the compost heap or it could provide hours of imaginative play by being a sword, a tool to stir up concoctions or a magic wand.”
There is no wrong way to approaching open-ended play. It’s all inclusive. It allows for interests to be shared and grown, and most importantly, doesn’t tell children that ‘they’re doing things the wrong way’.
It's more than just things
As any of us can attest to, it’s not the objects inside a house that make it a home. There are emotional aspects that make an environment a safe and comfortable one, and more often than not, it has to do with the people. Ms. Gulbransen could not stress this enough:
“To me the most important thing is that children are in an environment where they feel safe. Of course, this means providing things like crash mats and child safe scissors but what I’m really talking about is an environment where children feel safe to explore in a non-judgmental and encouraging way.”
As Mrs. Dudley says, this feeling of safety is very important when it comes to supporting children's risk taking:
"When children feel safe and supported in their environment, they are more likely to take risks within their play (both physical and emotional) which is what we want to achieve. I love being able to support children to test new ideas and to learn to keep themselves safe in the process. It's important to me that we provide a home-like feel to the kindergarten that is both calm and reassuring."
The feeling of safety is essential for children to be able to fully engage in their play. It’s something that we work on from the time of a child’s first visit to Little Treehouse, getting to know them and spending time with them in a non-imposing, relaxed manner. We focus on building reciprocal relationships which allows children to feel safe, comfortable and confident in our environment.
Building reciprocal relationships
Getting to know someone is a long process. Getting to know six of them takes much longer —especially if they’re more than thrice your size and much, much older. That’s why we begin with assigning a primary teacher for each child, someone that is the first point of contact for them as they become familiar with the setting. It makes for a much easier transition, and it allows the child to feel safe and comfortable within our kindergarten environment much quicker. It’s the beginning of every learning journey, something that Ms. Reidy holds in high regard:
“To me as a teacher, building a relationship with children is the most vital part in any child’s development. Gaining that relationship from the beginning allows the child to express themselves freely and be care-free in their play. Through that relationship, we can support the child emotionally and help build their self-confidence, which enables that child to feel safe and explore the environment around them. We can build that relationship through play, by simply observing and acknowledging them, by spending time with them. This provides a simple message — ‘You are important to me. I will keep you safe.’”
Of course, as Ms. Gulbransen says, it’s not just the children that we build relationships with but the parents too:
“One of my favourite things as a teacher is to be able to share my knowledge with parents. I love moments when I can reassure them that even though ‘all their child does is play’, they are learning lifelong skills. The child that wants to spend all day, every day in the sandpit is not ‘just playing’ they are making choices, being creative, extending their social skills, having sensory experiences, practising safety, mastering physical skills and the list goes on.”
How we use language
The language that we use colours our world. The things we say and hear direct and shape our thoughts about people, places and things that surround us, and even ourselves. This is especially true when someone knowledgeable, someone we look up to and trust with all our being, says something to us or about us. That’s why we take special care in the way that we use language with children. Mrs. Clayton holds this in high regard:
“I believe that my role as kaiako is to participate in meaningful learning conversations with children that expand their thinking. How do I do this? For the most part by using open-ended questions for example, ‘What do you notice about the paint on your paper?’ or ‘What do you think will happen if you place the block on the top of your tower?’. By asking questions I aim to promote enquiry, provide children with opportunities to express themselves and lead them to experiment with whatever resources or scenario they may be engaged in.”
We like to help children extend their ideas as opposed to imposing our own, and asking an open-ended question goes a long way there. “Can you tell me about what you made?” leaves so much more room for the child than “Is that an airplane?”.
Children pick up on how we talk to them and those around us. They learn how to interact with others from their experience and observations of us more than they do from anything else. That’s why we treat them and those around them fairly, making sure that our language builds them up as individuals with rights and a valued part of our community. We call this modelling — using ourselves and the way we interact with the world as an example.
As Mrs. Clayton says, when combined with thoughtful language, modelling is a great way to support children in social situations as well as extend their thinking within play:
“Modelling is another way to promote learning through play. By interacting (not to be confused with interrupting) play I can verbalize suggestions to support their learning, for example “I’m going to pretend that this stick is a microphone”. I can also use language to support children in using appropriate strategies whilst playing with their peers, for example to help them problem solve, “Why doesn’t Jack be the doctor first and you can be the patient?”
Listening, observing and timing
Often, what we do looks very much like we’re doing nothing. That’s when we observe and listen. Our goal isn’t to solve children’s problems, but to help them learn how to solve them themselves. There are many times when we are not needed at all as children work through the issues themselves, getting that invaluable practice. Other times, it may only take a little encouragement for them to ‘talk to their friends’, to try and solve the problem on their own. Children are very capable of resolving their problems and grow more and more so with each opportunity.
Of course, there are many times when the children do need us, when they could use a little support or a suggestion, or would simply like for us to play with them. As a teacher, Mr. Sebastian finds that there are two different approaches he tends to take:
“When supporting children’s play, I see myself as either a ‘participant’ or a ‘consultant’. As a participant, I’m there, sitting in the wet sand with a spoon in one hand and bowl of (slightly gritty) cake in the other. I might ask ‘did you need this frying pan?’ to introduce something that might add to the process or say something to extend their thinking with my own experiences, like tell them about the yummy walnut cake my granny makes. As a consultant, I’m on the peripheral, listening, observing and waiting in case there is a problem (usually of a social nature) that may require support. Sometimes all they need is time to resolve it on their own and sometimes they need someone to slow them down, help everyone be heard and understood.”
Children and the situations they find themselves in are unique, therefore we often need to adapt our strategies to that. While our teachers share so much in philosophy, each of us brings something unique to the table which gives us a range of approaches and perspectives for supporting children which we may not otherwise have. We love to share our knowledge, so if you have a question on your mind, do ask.