Part of teaching in a Reggio inspired school is setting the scene, and waiting. Instead of sitting in front of the children and giving a lesson, we are observing to see what the children are interested in. Once we have ascertained what is we grabbing at their attention, we tease at that interest to expand and develop it.
I observed early in the year that my cohort was very intrigued by animals. I am an avid animal lover myself, so this was very exciting to me. I stocked our bin with stuffed animals and our book basket with animal themed board books. After winter break I heard back from many families that their children were expressing interest in the alphabet. This reminded me of a piece of art I had purchased from a local artist when I lived in Oklahoma. It looks like this:
The print has a colorful animal illustration next to each letter, and I had a feeling the children would really enjoy it. I brought it in and stored it in my cubby in the office to hang up during a future planning period. Megan saw it, and also loved it. She asked to make copies, and proceeded to post them up in different areas of our school. I put my original next to the cozy corner in the Nest, as that is where the children and I spend much of our morning. The children showed an immediate interest in the poster, and have been pointing to it every day asking me to name the animals over and over and over again. This type of activity is a form of shared attention, and it supports language development, attachment, and a large number of cognitive abilities.
A week or so later I was thrifting and found some amazing plastic canvas animals. You have probably seen them before, in your grandmother or your aunt’s house, perhaps as ornaments or holiday decor. The ones I purchased look like this:
I introduced them to the children by leaving them out on a table, but when we were through with them, I intentionally stored them in a basket by our animal poster. In Reggio Emilia they refer to the classroom as the Third Teacher. Classrooms are set up in such a way that children can reach materials, manage their interests, make connections, and negotiate the space without constant adult assistance or interference. A very direct example of this is that our books are stored in a basket on the floor. A more subtle example would be my decision to only set out a couple of cars, a very popular item, so that our environment is rich with opportunity to navigate sharing, conflict, and emotional regulation. I was curious if the children would make any connections between the animals in the basket and the animals in our beloved art print. I enlisted our Third Teacher to help support the connection, and have kept the items close to one another since that first introduction.
The children have been delighted to work with both the print and the canvas animals day after day. They are starting to add in animal sounds when asking what each animal is, and seem particularly interested in certain animals such as the panda, the seahorse, the ibis, and the raccoon.
This morning we began like any other. I greeted the children as they entered, and allowed them to greet one another. The children know they are welcome to choose their own materials, and they almost immediately began to work.
GR approached the poster and invited me to share attention with her.
“You’re pointing to an ibis. Ibis. That’s an elk. Elk.”
CW quickly ran to join us, excited that it was time to talk about the animals.
We went round and round the print, and then GR pointed to the monarch.
“That’s a monarch butterfly. Monarch.”
Instead of moving to the next animal I saw GR’s brow furrow. She cocked her head slightly to the right, and her body leaned just a bit. She got down on her hands and knees and crawled over to the canvas animals. They normally sit directly below the art, but we had moved them moments before so that CW and GR could stand as close to the print as possible.
I waited with bated breath.
She centered her weight over her left arm, and began pulling animals out with her right, flinging them this way and that.
Her brows jumped up, and she froze.
She passed an animal between her hands and pushed herself up with her right arm, lurching slightly in an effort to balance her enthusiastic body. Her face let me know she couldn’t quite believe what she had discovered.
She approached me with her find pinched tightly between her fingers and her thumb, her whole body a question.
I offered her a huge smile, and she knew. “Dis.” she said, pointing to her discovery.
“Yes, GR!!! You’re right! That is a monarch. We were talking about the monarch on our poster, and you found the monarch in our basket.”
“YEAH, DIS!!!!” she squealed, her feet dancing beneath her. She pointed back and forth between the monarch in her hands and the one displayed in the art piece. CW clapped with gusto and jumped alongside her.
GR quieted, and she began to work the monarch between her hands, gently fondling it as she ruminated. She stood like this for some time, about fifteen seconds, and I wish I could have been privy to her thoughts. As her eyes soaked in the art print, I felt like I could see the neurons firing and connecting in her mind. Her body was still, but she was beaming with the energy of her own conclusions.
CW asked GR if he could hold the monarch, and she passed it to him without hesitation. He nodded and held it firmly against the print. Her discovery became his, and in that moment both CW and I were students, GR our teacher. GR smiled and nodded, seemingly pleased that CW echoed her understanding.
To me this was a perfect embodiment of what we try to achieve here at Elm House. Had I shown the children that there was a monarch in the basket and on the print, they may have been momentarily intrigued by the notion that they matched. Had I decided the children had played with these materials enough over the last 5 weeks (despite their continued interest) and replaced them, they wouldn’t have been afforded the time they needed for this to occur. Instead, the environment held this discovery, inviting anyone to find it at any moment. By offering these materials over and over, and continuing to wait, this moment was able to be something so much more than a match across materials.
GR learned, consciously or not, that she is intelligent, capable, and able to perceive information of value, even if it was not shared with her by someone older. She learned that she has everything she needs to engage in scientific thinking. She learned that she can teach new things to the people around her, and that their lives will be greater for it. CW learned that his peers are a wealth of information, that he can trust them to navigate this world with him, and that he is welcome to delight in what they discover together. Due to the intrinsic nature of what was learned here, it would have been almost impossible for me to teach these lessons to the children myself. I had to remove myself from the equation, in a sense, and trust in their abilities so that the children had the autonomy to learn these things about themselves and one another. Because these lessons were learned organically, I believe they hold much more weight and truth for the children. What might your child discover given the time and the space? What might you?
Please feel free to share any comments or wonderings in the space below. Do you think this lesson was worth time it took to come to fruition? What do YOU think these two children learned from this exchange?