Open-ended Activities: One Right Definition?

I have been teaching Art, Music and Movement to college students for a while. There are certain concepts we try to get across to practitioners that are important to ECE professionals, and encouraged by our professional organization, NAEYC. One of those concepts is the idea of open-ended activities.

What are open-ended activities? Do you put out a mass of materials and say, “Go get ‘em”, like one workshop participant opined? If you change materials, are you being too “teacher-ish”?

Well, yes and no…

Because many tend to think, in this post-social media age, that each question has a right and a wrong; that the right is might, and the wrong is way too strong, we have trouble seeing the grey areas. Perhaps I’d rather say the value areas. In art, adding white or black to a color changes its value. When we consider concepts, our values may change a tiny bit or a lot, depending on what is added or subtracted. So, as Diane Kashin has written, there is a continuum between a concept such as “open-ended” and its opposite. Open-ended might mean throw the lot of your materials on a table and see what they do, and closed might mean giving children directions and materials, saying what they must do with them (generally not recommended!). But in between, ah, there is a rainbow of values!

This week we have been studying bones at my center. The topic of bones was child-generated. Some of the children’s questions were, “What holds the head bone up?”, and “what is inside the spine?” We took out body books from the library. I bought a cool magnetic puzzle with bones on one side, and the under-the-bones view on the opposite side for the children to assemble on the fridge. My teaching partner brought out our collection of deer bones and skulls (courtesy of a former parent who was a hunter). One child brought in a raccoon skull that he and his family found outdoors.

These materials were for inquiry, manipulation, comparison, and questioning. Children touched, sketched, and discussed.

Meanwhile, coming into the building one day, we stopped to admire the two year olds’ silhouettes that were hung all along the hallway. An idea came up.

The next day we traced our children’s bodies, and then asked them to draw, on their silhouettes, what they had learned about the body, specifically bones. What they did was open-ended in that they made choices. Should I draw a skull or a face? Should I draw veins and arteries or bones? Do I include joints? They drew what most impressed them so that each was different, and an individual expression of their learning in the moment.

This project (which continues—there is some discussion of dinosaurs bones!) demonstrates that activities can be both teacher and child directed, (another concept to examine as a continuum, as Ms. Kashin suggests), and can be open, but guided.

Did we measure up to the standards of the open-ended advocates? Perhaps not. But we were somewhere in the rainbow of values. And the children were satisfied.

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