Recently I taught in a classroom of four year olds. Well, most of these kids had turned four in the past year. They are very different from the kindergartners (that have turned six this year) that I teach regularly at church.
These kids move. A lot. They move from one thing to another thing and back to the first thing again quickly. Every time I encounter these younger kids, I'm reminded to have lots of things going on and lots of ways to keep them engaged.
We went outside to enjoy bubbles and chalk and tossing rings. One girl handed me a piece of sidewalk chalk. I sat down to one side of the play space. The girl told me to write "numbers" for her. I wrote what she requested (and a few of my own) and she jumped on the letters, numbers, and shapes I drew. Other kids came over to jump. Some kids walked over to the chalk bin to get chalk; they began to draw lines and shapes (both near me and in other areas).
One girl walked over to the chalk container (a few feet away from me) and gathered up a handful of chalk. She brought the chalk over to me and dropped it in my lap. Other kids saw this and also began to gather handfuls or armfuls of chalk and carrying it over to my location. They dropped the chalk beside me or near me.
This happened several times. Repeatedly. A pile of chalk began to form. (And the bin started to look rather empty.)
When it was time for us to go back inside, we had to cart all that chalk back to the container. As I helped direct kids to take the chalk back, I was thinking, "Why did they carry it across the space? Why not just draw with it (or pile it) by the container?"
I wondered if it was because I was sitting a distance away. I've written before about the power of presence - an adult sitting in a place draws kids to that spot, intentionally or not. That may have been part of the appeal.
But then I thought about David Elkind and his comment that kids choose an activity to do that they need to do. These kids were mastering moving groups of materials from one place to another.
I think about kids in classroom situations. So often an adult is choosing what they do and what they "learn." If a child goes off-script, beginning to draw or stack pencils or do something else, he is reprimanded and guided back to what the group is doing. But is that the best learning environment?
Recently, I've been reading more and more about the value of self-initiated activities, play in which the child chooses what to do and how to do it. I've always been a strong advocate for this, but I may need to be an even stronger one. True play is chosen, guided, directed by the child. Adults support, encourage, scaffold, narrate about what is happening. But the learning happens when kids are choosing what they need to do to learn what they need to learn.
Sometimes you need to draw with chalk.
And sometimes you just need to carry chalk from one place to another.
That's what learning is all about.