A Case for Migratory Materials

Most preschool classrooms have “centers,” and ours is no exception.  In our inside space, we have an area for pretend play, an area for art, an area for reading and literacy exploration, an area for science, and an area for engineering, physics, and construction.  We do our best to make sure that each of these centers stays fresh by rotating and introducing materials on a regular basis.  Because we also incorporate elements of Responsive Classroom in our practice, we sit with the students and discuss how we all think each new material should be used, where it should live, and how to treat it with respect.

But for our students (and many other preschool students all over the world, I suspect), learning materials are made to migrate.  Like coastal driftwood or Canadian geese, the temperament of the students can sometimes engender materials moving seamlessly from one area to the next, from inside to outside, and from outside to inside.  Sometimes children move one block at a time.  Other times they take an entire basket of markers into the reading center, and chaos ensues.

As a meticulous individual who loves all things to be in their place, migratory materials are a great source of frustration for me.  I often find myself repeating phrases like, “Remember, the blocks stay in the block center,” and “please make sure the paint ends up on the canvas, not your hands.”  Somewhere in the back of my mind, the learning environment and materials it contains are the final bastion holding the forces of chaos at bay; as long as things stay in the general area they belong, classroom cleanup will never get out of hand and order will prevail.

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But I often remind myself that the environment isn’t prepared for me; it is prepared by me for the students to freely explore and engage their unfettered curiosity.  Centers are ultimately artificial.  Transporting is a commonly recognized schema of learning, and as such it is a way children exert agency on the world around them.  Rearranging the classroom and the learning materials they come in contact with isn’t a purposeful disruption; it is a genuine interest of many of my younger students.  My efforts to “maintain control” might make my job easier in the short term, but they are in many ways a direct contradiction of my commitment to respect the child as an educator working in the Reggio Way.

Moreover, learning isn’t geographic.  Some of my students do wear the dress-up clothes in our indoor pretend play area.  But just as many of them go out to the sand garden, sit down, invite their friends to bury their legs, and announce to the world that they are a mermaid.  Both are valid examples of pretend play.  Likewise, counting, sorting, and arithmetic happen in the middle of the woods as often as they do in the classroom.

Telling children that investigations into literacy live in the book center tacitly conveys the assumption that literacy doesn’t live anywhere else, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.  Mathematics, science, literacy, physics, and imaginative play aren’t centers in a classroom, they are pervasive forces that codify the world, and they exist in delicate harmony with one another.  It is my opinion that children who find productive alternative uses for materials shouldn’t be restricted, but instead encouraged to pursue their avenues of ingenuity for as long as they are willing and able.  After all, their interpretation of how the materials should be used is often a better reflection of their learning needs than anything we come up with.

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Asserting the distinct boundaries of these learning areas also perpetuates another myth, namely that pretend play, art, math, science, and literacy are always distinct from one another.  While distinct centers might exist in the classroom, their barriers are virtually non-existent in the real world.  The truth is that all disciplines are hopelessly intertwined, so much so that it is often impossible to learn one without another.  Designing and constructing a building is as much about aesthetics as it is about engineering and physics.  Similarly, any painter will agree that art is rife with core concepts of mathematics, such as bilateral symmetry and the golden ratio.  Dimitri A. Christakis’s study titled “Effect of Block Play on Language Acquisition and Attention in Toddlers: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial” directly explores the connection between linguistic development and block play in young children.

Although it might not always seem to be the case, exerting excessive control over the environment disrupts and discourages learning opportunities more often than it cultivates them.  I’ll be the first to admit that the urge to maintain a pristine environment is not an easy one to shake, but it is undoubtedly the right decision to embrace a more fluid understanding of materials.  The development of children, especially the manner in which they acquire information, isn’t a simple formula.  As teachers, we can’t produce the exact lessons we want by controlling the variables and introducing the perfect set of vectors.  When teachers introduce something new into the learning environment, we can’t know what effect it might have on the students.  Trying to preempt or channel their reactions is not only futile, but also obfuscates the free and unhinged learning that happens in a beautifully assembled classroom.

A little bit of chaos is sometimes exactly what is required for true inspiration to occur.  Sanding colored marker off of shelves, tripping over block piles, and erasing pencil drawings from the pages of library books are frustrations in my life, but they pale in comparison to the joys I get to experience on a daily basis.  Watching two good friends laughing while they enthusiastically engage in collaborative mural painting is worth cleaning a little paint off the ground.  Seeing a student napping with his hand still inside a vampire bat puppet makes me glad that I didn’t sternly enforce cleanup time.  Watching a group of children with shovels attempting to excavate a plastic horse from a block of ice invites me to consider how the horse got outside and into the water in the first place.  Emptying countless pairs of rubber boots filled with mulch/mud/water/rocks/soil lets me know that my students love the Earth enough to attempt to take it home with them.

Teachers and students have to live on the wild side from time to time.  If those materials want to migrate, sometimes you just have to let them.

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