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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Nudging creativity with nonchalant stimuli

I've already told you that play-based learning is not the same as a free-for-all. Free-for-alls can mean that you miss things, as I explained in that post. But let me get a little more specific about the importance of providing some subtle stimuli for young children's creative play.

It is NOT enough to just dump the same old toys out on the floor, or pull out the same old boxes of equipment, and say that you're providing 'open-ended play' in line with the EYLF (or whatever your own national equivalent for C21st EC curriculum might be). Early Childhood teachers still need to provide creative flash-points for the children. There is still a role for the teacher in EC classrooms. We are not just babysitters, watching attentively lest Little Johnny bumps his head or wets his pants.

It isn't necessarily a case of laziness when ECEs stop putting in. Quite a few have developed an unholy fear of nudging children in any direction at all, lest they be in breach of the 'free play' thrust of the new curriculum. We are told over and over not to provide direct creative models for the children, lest we damage their confidence in their own ability to create anything comparable. (For example, you might entertain the children mightily with your wonderful playdough dinosaur, but you won't encourage them to make their own dough creation.) Overly structured artistic models are more obvious no-nos. (For example, giving children a stencilled picture to colour in, complete with 'here's one I did earlier' for them to copy, is an educational joke- and an unfunny one at that.)

But please, let's have some balance here. There's a big difference between leading a horse to water, shoving its head in the pond and holding it there till it drinks, and setting the horse loose in a paddock without a water trough whilst hoping it rains one day.

Perhaps we could aspire to wandering nonchalantly towards the pond, with the reins held loosely, when the horse looks thirsty. 

Today I witnessed a perfect example of how a well-timed stimulus can nudge a child's creativity to new heights. The fact that this stimulus was 'accidental' and provided by someone other than a teacher is irrelevant. The point is that a stimulus was there to be discovered, and it had a magical effect in changing the course of an afternoon's creative play.

Picture a perfect day at the beach. A 5-year-old girl is making sandcastles with her bucket and spade.

Now, please spare me the commentary about how this is a perfectly wonderful example of age-appropriate child-directed learning, blah blah. Most kids this age can make a fair attempt at packing sand into a bucket and inverting it. Two sandcastles later, Miss 5 was bored rigid and started wandering off down the beach.

Fortunately for the rest of our afternoon, she had only wandered a short way when she came across this, left behind by some previous sandcastle builders.

It may be just a pile of sand with a roughly formed 'moat', but the addition of
shells, seaweed, feathers and many other 'found' objects, plus the 'drawbridge' made of sticks, was enough to have Miss 5 screaming to me to LOOK! LOOK!
The bottle-top 'paving stones' at the opposite side was a particularly nice touch.
Miss 5 spent some time observing this creation. Then she set off on a treasure hunt of her own, returning to 'base' several times with loads of loose materials.

She started by placing some shells and feathers atop the castles she'd already built. 

She even added a few to her sister's castles,
seen in the background.
Not satisfied by this, she kept wandering along the tide line until she found a new 'treasure'- a dried-out sea sponge. Once more, this created great excitement; after asking me what it was and where it had come from, she rushed off to collect some more.

Soon she had created a new 'building site' some way from us.

Now, please note that this is bearing absolutely NO resemblance to the stimulus. Go back and look at that 'discovered' sandcastle with the decorations. All she has taken away here is the technique of using found materials. The actual structure is 100% her own idea.

She worked away at this creation for about an hour, telling us she was making 'the sea, under the water'. No- not a sandcastle. She had moved on from there to something far more original and, to her, intriguing.

This is where the 'unstructured' part comes in. The stimulus is not modelling anything in particular. The idea is to put in front of the children something a little different, a little unexpected perhaps, and then stop leading them. Loosen those reins!

Instead, facilitate whatever they want to take away from the stimulus. That might mean providing information, such as my explanation about the sponge and where it came from. It might mean ensuring that you have similar materials to those used in the stimulus, which are easily available to the children but not thrust in their faces. It might mean allowing more time, or protecting a structure which the child wants to continue working on later.

This particular self-directed 'project' became more and more complex as the hour went on, and I became more and more intrigued by the fact that this child, who had had a somewhat unsettled morning where she really couldn't 'stick' at anything, was so completely tuned in to what she was doing for such a long time.

And THAT is the power of creative play. If you can press the right buttons with your stimuli, you'll be amazed by what you uncover within the children's minds.

NB: Remember- it's not about you. You are not being marked on your presentation of a stimulus; it is not set in stone; if some child comes and moves some of the resources, that may well be a good sign and it is not necessary to blow a gasket about it (if you do feel upset when the children 'ruin' your stimulus, you probably invested too much time or emotion in making it- try to be more nonchalant and just replace the missing items with something else). The main thing is to make it attractive or intriguing to your particular children, without making it overly complex. Less is more!!

1 comment:

  1. Copied from Facebook, as Blogger is misbehaving!! :-

    "Candy, your blog is not allowing me to post a comment so will post it here instead! Great piece about a child's response to a visual provocation and then using that to use her own imagination and create something individual - not a visual stimulus as often provided by adults where children are expected to copy the adult's idea!- Niki Buchan "


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