The Pirate Ship

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Over the summer break I was reflecting on my career working with school age children as I was preparing to return to the classroom after enjoying a sabbatical this past year. Thinking deeply, I realized that how I view education and working with children has changed dramatically since I started teaching many years ago. What experiences influenced this change?

My educational background is in recreation and my initial work with school age children focused on play and the health/wellness benefits it offered. As my career progressed, state-licensing requirements influenced my development as an educator. Instead of focusing entirely on play-based activity, my focus shifted toward curriculum development. Correspondingly, our program leadership at the time encouraged us to create playful activities that blended with traditional educational subjects. This pattern of working and developing activities for children continued for many years, until I expanded my formal education and explored different philosophies of child development.

Through my exploration into new philosophies of child development a process of transformation had begun. The first noticeable change in my practice occurred when the group of educators I was working with started exploring the project approach. Instead of educators planning all of the activities based on holidays, traditions, or time of year, the educators asked the children direct questions about their interests and then created specific projects to fit those interests. This was a small change as adults still generated the work. The children had some input but we were not truly partners in creating and learning. Yet.

Then one special project came along. This project forever changed how I viewed my role as an educator and my work with children. This new idea would influence my career going forward more than I expected. Based entirely on the interests of the children, one educator and a small group started building a large cardboard Pirate Ship. I was fascinated about the project and interested to observe how the work would progress since the educators did not plan the project in advance. This was going to be a true collaboration with an unknown outcome. I was looking forward for the work to begin.

To start, the group collected large pieces of cardboard and started building the ship. Many days passed, full of work, new ideas, and collaboration as the creation of the ship moved forward. Once completed, the pirate ship work evolved into new creative projects like script writing, costume making, and acting. The pirate ship became the inspiration and backdrop for the children to create a play. Once the script, costumes, and rehearsals were complete the children shared their work with younger children in another program.

Watching this project develop from afar, I wondered if we could approach more of our work with children this way? Did we need to create pre-planned and repetitive projects for the children to do when the children have their own ideas and interests? As I started to investigate this idea further I was introduced to the Municipal Schools of Reggio Emilia.

At this point in my career, I had never heard of the schools or the city. Upon reading about the history and practices of the schools I was fascinated and inspired to incorporate the ideas and philosophy into our work with school age children. I loved the idea of being partners in learning and discovery with the children.

Inspired from the research our work in the program evolved. Instead of filling in curriculum boxes each month we began noticing and recording the words, thoughts, and actions of the children. This practice opened my eyes to an entirely new world and approach to my work with children. The depth and breadth of ideas and interests of the children became breathtaking. The time we used to employ for planning was now utilized for examining, thinking, and creating provocations to assist the children with their investigations.

The evolution of our practice, helped build a community of learners that engaged in collaboration and sharing of ideas. New possibilities were being proposed on a regular basis as the children and educators created work that before was about the individual and became about the learning community. Many years removed from the initiation of the Pirate Ship Project, my work with children has blossomed into a time of creative exploration and experimentation fueled by the curiosity of the children.

The learning journey we follow is not based on a predetermined outcome but evolves as a flexible expedition based on the experimentation and wonderings of the children. Pre-planned activities have disappeared as the children have embraced this way of working together. With the children, we have learned that the language of creativity, inquiry, and collaboration is our path to learning. All of the educational milestones we were told as educators to plan for while creating curriculum are now being explored during our learning journey. 

I think this is why I still love working with the children after twenty-three years and cannot see the end to my career. I have the privilege every year of following the children into world of discovery and creativity where I do not know where we are going or how and when we are going to arrive at our destination. It is an adventure I look forward to each day in the learning community.

What have you learned during your journey as an educator that has changed the way you view your work with children?