The Spice of Preschool Life

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By Laura

Another venture into Spicy Work today. For those who are unfamiliar, during Spicy Work there are a few rules:

1. Teachers assign partners.

2. Partners must stay together.

3. Partners can move from one activity to another only when both agree.

It is a classroom tool we use to nudge connection between children (especially those who do not typically play together), to support the use of conflict resolution and negotiation skills, and to provide structured time for dyad/triad interaction.



This last part is uniquely different from our more open morning playtime. Although we often set up dyad or triad “stations” where the number of chairs limits the number of kids who can work in a given spot (and even some solo stations–thanks for the suggestion ZE’s mama!), the rest of the room is more fluid, so two children who are playing together have to negotiate the entrance and exit of peers in their game. It is a tension we hold as preschool classroom teachers between promoting an inclusive community (“Everyone can play!” “How can so-and-so join in?”) and recognizing that children arrive in our space with vastly differing levels of ability and development in terms of play skills and interests. That is, many preschoolers need extra support and scaffolding as they venture from solo or dyad play into the unpredictable realm of small group play. For children who are adept at small group play, Spicy Work might offer them a breather and a chance to connect with just one other child on a deeper level. For children who tend to stick to solo or parallel play (or return to it at the first sign of challenge when playing with others), Spicy Work might encourage them to try out working through a problem with a peer and deepening their skill set and connection.


CS: I want to do mat.

Spicy Work encourages children to talk to each other. In order to decide what to do next, they must listen to each other’s preferences. Time and time again today I realized that the pairs would quickly turn to a teacher to tell us what they wanted to do next. I found myself reminding over and over, “Tell your partner. Let them know what you want to do. Listen to their idea.”

JR really wanted to switch to mat play, but AR was still in to the lego building. I overheard him say to AR, “Do you want to move on? Do you want to do mat?” AR replied, “No. I want to do this.” So JR tried a different approach, “Can we do mat after this?” and AR said, “Okay.” Both were satisfied.


And sometimes this type of negotiation was transferred to the play within a particular station:

MC: Laura! We got mat. Finally. [To CS] I saw OR was on the blue and EZ was on the red, so we could do that?

CS: Or we could do blue [jump], red [jump], green [jump]. . .

MC: Yeah!


During our reflection circle MC said, “The funnest part was the mat.”

One group avoided this decision making almost entirely. After a brief foray at the drawing table, ME, AH and LRK moved on to dress-up/doll play. They stayed there for the remainder of the hour.


AH: We’re making a baby bed.                LRK: We need the curtains around them. No one can see them because we need the curtains around them so no one can take our babies.

Spicy Work can be exhausting. Staying with your partner. Making decisions together. Figuring out a way to work together and have fun. Listening to their opinions, sharing your own. Whew. It’s a lot for these young ones. Sometimes you’ll find the partner pairs resting.


DH: We’re laying down.                 AM: I’m reading this book because I’m tired.

Other times Spicy Work is exhilarating. OR and EZ created an elaborate game in the cubby room “truck driving” station. Although they turned the truck into a boat. As they zoomed around the room deep in dramatic play OR began to echo EZ’s sound effects and musical interludes. With flexibility and cooperation they created an entire narrative that they were excited to share with us during our reflection circle.

EZ: The best part in mine was doing the truck choice. We were playing it a different way, the bean bags were boats and the truck was a boat.

OR: I was falling in the water and EZ was catching me.


EZ: Uh-oh. We didn’t get them. I’ll push the fire button for you. What are you doing? OR: Just something silly on my ship.

As teachers we often assign one or two partner pairs that we guess will need a little more direct support than the others. Today Sarah Lu shadowed WG and SS to help them learn the basic mechanics of Spicy Work and help them stick with it and have several successful play interactions.

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And when Spicy Work was over and we were transitioning to lunch, we checked our lunch helper list and it was WG’s turn. Each day the lunch helper gets the chance to ask one other person to help him or her set out the lunches. WG turned to his new buddy SS and asked him to help. They bounded down the hallway with big grins on their faces ready to tackle another challenge together.


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