It is 11:00 and the Schoolroom children have been playing both in the classroom and in the yard since 9:00. A gentle winding down is beginning the slow transition to story time, lunch and nap. Watching, I can feel the children’s play becoming less vigorous; the drawing table is getting busier again and children are choosing puzzles or tray toys. Children settle in the book area, reading to each other and looking at books; others are chatting at the light table as they build, or playing in the sink. The children know and trust the rhythm of their day; without the teacher saying anything they know it is time to relax and replenish the body with food and rest.
Two little girls wander into the large block area and, noticing the basket of cars, they each grab a small car in each hand. They crawl around in a circle on the open rug driving their cars. One boy, then another, come to see what is happening. The girls’ voices get a little louder and start to be silly, calling the cars “my babies,” occasionally bonking themselves in the head with the cars and laughing “oh, babies!” as the driving gets faster. The cars are now driving up the shelves and across the tops, bumping things along the way. The boys grab a car for each hand and begin to roll around on the floor zooming the cars, laughing and joining in the silly, somewhat random activity. The teacher notices and strolls into the big block area; she pulls out a large ramp and puts it on the floor, looking as if her chief mission is walking to the play sink to check the water. Bella runs her cars down the ramp. Rosie Grace follows her, sending the little cars zooming down the ramp and across the rug. Teacher wanders back over to the block area and puts a flat plastic circle down near the base of the ramp and goes to see how a child is doing at the puzzle table. The red car rolls down the ramp and stops on the plastic spot – “basket!” yells Bella. The boys pull out the other ramps off the shelf; now the cars are going up and down the ramp and the children get more plastic circles to make more “basket” destinations. The silly random nature of the play has become intentional and focused. The children are at work trying to roll the cars where they want them to go and to get them to stop on the spots they have chosen.
The teacher could see that the children wanted to play together and that they needed help finding an idea to focus their play. Knowing that four-year-old children respond best to more subtle and opportunistic suggestions, and often reject direct suggestions, she behaves accordingly. (By four, the children want to be sure the adults in their lives know how big they are and how able they are, so they are quick to say they know everything and can easily feel insulted by the adult’s inference that they might need a little help.) Thus the teacher offers her suggestion and guidance in non- verbal ways. She pulls out the ramp, giving the random driving a focus. She puts some flat plastic stepping spots around as landing destinations, knowing that it will require some skill and control to get the cars to go down the ramp and land on a plastic spot. And sure enough the children slow down and focus their play. Without saying anything she helped the children engage and expand their play; the silly behavior diminished, and the play was sustained with its happy social connection. This subtle approach allowed the children to remain in charge of their play. With four year olds, adult guidance is often just an assist done in support of the children’s successful experience of themselves as playmates. It also achieved the teacher’s goals to lower the classroom activity level towards a graceful transition to a pleasant story and meal.