Educators in school-age programs spend much of their time trying to create new activities for children to be engaged in the classroom. School-age educators search books and websites for ideas, inspiration and engage in a process of seeking that can become a burden. The process of creating and implementing activities often becomes a distraction from working with the children. How can school-age educators encourage children’s activity while creating opportunities for wonder, discovery, and self directed satisfying work?
The following are some ideas about classroom activity that have been important in my practice as a full-time school-age educator and a part time early years educator. These core ideas are what works for the children I collaborate with and what works for you may be different. My hope is sharing will begin or continue a conversation about creating activities, a topic that is talked about consistently among all colleagues in our field. Here are some ideas I have gathered over the years; I hope they help you in your journey in the classroom.
Let’s begin with the environment, a space that promotes ideas, collaborative work and exploration. It is essential that the environment is an inviting space that draws children in by the possibilities that the space offers. An environment that features small quantities of attractive looking materials that invites children to explore and create. Having small quantities of materials encourages the children to work together, share, or wait to get access to a specific material. Some educators may see waiting for access to materials as a conflict waiting to happen, but limited materials create a common interest, collaboration and discussion about how to use resources together. Then the creative space in the classroom transforms to a gateway for beneficial social interaction. Some children will struggle in this type of environment especially in the beginning. This creates an opportunity for educators to talk with children about materials and the role they play in our work. Taking time to talk about materials with children helps the program become a stronger learning community.
The next practice has been very successful in supporting activity in children and is simply inviting children to choose their own work. We offer a variety of choices in our program, some are planned and most are spontaneous. By inviting children to choose their own work and whom they are going to work with, this creates a natural opportunity for children to share common interests, come together and create. Is it possible that some children are going to play with one material for an extended period of time? The answer is yes and no. Yes, it is very possible some children will spend an entire year exploring the same material, but even if this happens other children are going to come and go into their workspace. The child, who works to explore a material deeply, becomes a child who is interesting to talk to and collaborate with. This child will have deep thoughts about their work to share with other children. The truth is most children will not spend a whole year exploring one material or anything else. Children will spend as much time as necessary to explore the possibilities of a material and then move around to explore other materials, making new connections along the way.
Another way I support activity in the classroom is by guiding children as they negotiate friendships. Children play and work with us each day and sometimes need to solve a problem with a friend. Depending on their age and the situation, children may need our help. Our role as educators is to be a guide, not a rule czar. The tendency for many educators, especially in school-age care, is to be a rule keeper. We have rules and “you will follow them” many educators tell the children. When a real problem occurs it tends to be a social misunderstanding that a list of rules does not address. Sharing a list of rules does not change the social structure of the program. I find it more beneficial to help a child who wonders why her best friend will not talk to her right now. As educators, we can bring children together, and guide them on how to get past a problem with a friend. Then we have influenced the social structure of the group. Engaging with children as a guide creates a caring learning community made up of children who look to help each other. Rules will never do that.
Educators can support children’s activity by working in small groups. Often in school-age programs our work time is modeled after classroom practice or a factory model. I have visited programs where the educators invite 15 or more children to build the same project together. This work did not appear pleasant for anyone. I would encourage all educators to collaborate with four or less children at one time. This advances the educator an opportunity to talk with the children and invites children to talk with each other. Another practice related to work time is inviting older children to guide younger children, acting as a helper and role model. A practice that benefits both parties and builds the strength of the learning community.
The last step I use to support activity is having a group meeting or gathering of some kind each day. The gathering is for children and educators to share news and work with each other. In school age programs, the numbers of children in one program can be very large. How does an individual child share a little of themself in a learning community than can grow to 50 or more children? I think having a community gathering is one answer. This is an opportunity for children to come together and experience a connection by sharing work. Talking about the process of their work and how an idea became a wonderful creation invites children to be an individual and share what is important to them. When children share, other children ask questions and make positive comments about their work, inviting the child to contribute in a large learning community. This is a very important aspect of supporting activity and contributes to the work of all the children going forward.
How is activity cultivated in your classroom?
What are the ingredients of inspiring activity in your classroom?