Preschool teachers value “open-ended toys” like blocks and art materials because the children can use them to support whatever play they have in mind. This snapshot shows, however, that they can also often re-purpose specific equipment if the teacher will give them the space to use their creative ideas.
Several 2-to-3-year-old children are seated out of the rain on the porch, breathing fresh air as they work on puzzles at the table. Others in raincoats are managing rainwater as it flows along a cement curb edging the walkway. The water-managers have thought of a new and different way to use the little plastic brushes and dust pans which are generally used to brush the sand off their shoes or clean up the sidewalk. The children are very engaged and focused on using the brushes to hasten the flow of the rain water as it trickles down the little path and along the curb, or sweep it into the dustpan. The broad dustpan can stop, start, or direct the flow of the water; it also functions as a scoop which the children can use to lift and dump the water over the curb into the sandbox, or around a corner. They catch it, dump it, sweep it, and direct it. As the drizzle of rain increases they catch more, blocking and redirecting the flow and moving up and down the long walk. They are deeply engaged in their own experimentation and glad to play in the harmony of parallel play – each child has his or her own tool to use as their social skills are just beginning to include sharing.
The play has already been going for more than half an hour and the children show no sign of being done. The teacher is nearby speaking to the puzzle makers and keeping an eye on the water crew to make sure they know she is there, but there is no need for her to interfere. She wants the children to know I’m here if you need me, I’m watching you, and will help if challenges arise. The teacher’s quiet presence, her benign watching and protecting in this case communicates You don’t need my help, I see you can manage this activity very well on your own. The child feels I’m big; I can manage; I’m important and I have good ideas. Children squat and move carefully to keep the knees of their pants, their shoes, and their jacket sleeves dry. There is no need to talk; they concentrate and work in silence. It feels like watching a dance; the work is carried out with a little dump here, a rivulet there, a push of water uphill to see it flow down, a step over the water, now a squat over the water to stop it between your legs! Then all of a sudden, like birds taking flight from a wire, the children are done. They drop the brushes and dust pans into their basket and head inside the classroom to warm up and find something else to work on.
This wonderful opportunity to watch the learning process and to see the intentionality of the play took place because the teacher trusted these very young children. Over the months she has taught them some basic rules of the road that facilitated their play, like how to play in wet conditions without getting uncomfortable, and how to make room for other people to work nearby, and that it’s fine to dump water in sand but not on another person. She let them work at their own pace and according to their own interest, and to think creatively about how a small broom and dustpan could be used. (In some classrooms a teacher might only allow the brooms to be used to sweep sand). While she remained quiet and stood back the children were aware of her attention and engagement, which allowed them to feel safe enough to become lost in their play. Children’s play always lasts longer and goes deeper when the activity comes from the child rather than from the adult, and finding a new way to engage with and study natural phenomena is particularly fulfilling.