A World of Materials

A recent professional conference I attended featured a large cavernous exhibit hall with hundreds of vendors sharing the latest in books, software, furniture and materials to assist teachers and enhance the learning experiences for children.

Walking down row after row I noticed that many of the offerings available for teachers and children contained an entertainment component. The software presented embodied educational components, but in appearance were not unlike the video games I experienced as a child. The programs offered were interactive and featured a component that encouraged learning in math, science or music. The images on the screen were colorful and accompanied by sound. I have not practiced in a program that utilizes this type of material. My practice has existed in play-based or social constructivist schools where the use of technology represented a compliment to the learning for the teachers and children.

As my journey down the aisles continued the variety of offerings changed. Booths sold and demonstrated arts and craft supplies, blocks and toys made of plastic, wood and fabric. A variety of light boxes were available with accompanying colorful plastic toys to build with. Wood blocks represent a big draw, as I noticed educators looking at classic block sets and marveling at the new generation of wood ramps, toys and building materials. Vendors sold loose parts or toys that look and acted like loose parts with possibilities for manipulation. I toured the bookseller’s offerings and watched children's book and child development authors perform talks and book signings as part of the conference experience

I started to wonder how the different experiences of early childhood educators influence the choice of materials offered to children? All of the choices in the vendor area comprise quality made materials and the companies and their representatives were gracious and helpful in answering questions about their product. The vendors were willing to highlight the benefits of utilizing their product and how the product would benefit children.

My practice has involved different environments from play based, social constructivism and Montessori. I have visited programs that use technology and Waldorf programs that encourage the use of no technology in the early years. Some programs have prepared environments, others have prepared environments with specific materials and a few programs featured the same materials everyday. In different environments children will engage in their own way. The choice of work a child makes will vary, as some children love computer games and Lego's, while other children thrive outside in the mud kitchen with no materials at all.

The materials for sale at the conference exist for a reason. The materials are being sold to educators and schools for use in their work. The variety of philosophies and ideas in our field is fascinating and always constitute debate, but I believe that in our hearts all educators are looking for a material or a method that they believe represents the best for children and their development. Knowing what types of materials I would choose is based on my experience and observation of children. I would like to learn what types of materials other educators prefer and  about the philosophies that guide their choices.

What types of material is featured in your classroom? How does your philosophy influence your environment? How does your environment influence children's learning and development?