Rather than argue why rigor and play are not opposing ideas or camps in early childhood education (see Rigor in Play, Part 1), isn’t the best way to demonstrate the point, simply to show HOW we achieve rigor through play?
To do so, let’s pull out some of the key elements from our educational definition of rigor. Let’s start with challenging.
Ensuring that children’s play is challenging requires a few things from us (maybe even challenging ourselves first).
1. Recognizing our students’/children’s current abilities and skills.
This requires we be careful observers and sometimes stay in the background with our mouth’s shut. I’ve seen many teachers, caregivers, and parents really struggle with this part, and I’m by no means immune either. (We teachers tend to talk a lot). Some of our kids will make this easy. Others will insist on us playing with or helping them, which of course you should, just balance that with some thoughtful observation from time to time too. While observing, notice what your child/student does and says.
Maestra Example: You have noticed lately that when Edgar plays in the block center, he only builds his constructions up (vertically stacking blocks of various sizes and shapes) but never out (horizontally). While building, he names a few of the shapes he uses (but he ignores some of the more complex shapes like arches, cylinders, and even some triangles) and counts 1-5 correctly but either stops after 5, starts over, or miscounts after 5, and not in a consistent way.
*My teacher example can easily be a momma example too, though it’s likely our block sets at home are meager compared to those you’ll find in a well stocked Pre-K classroom.
2. Understanding what skills are on the edge of emergence, also known as a child’s zone of proximal development (one of my fave concepts in education).
This, too, depends heavily on the art of observation. In addition to observing what children are doing, we should note what they are not doing yet, specifically what are they trying to do or showing interest in but just haven’t figured out yet or able to do without help yet?
Think carefully about what your child is needing help with during play, because those skills are ones they might be ready to try without help. Think of yourself or your help as training wheels and see if your student/child needs them anymore. (Don’t worry, they’ll still need us for other stuff.)
If your kiddo has mastered a skill recently and no longer needs those training wheels, (after appropriate celebration of course!), then tackle the next skill or present a new challenge or twist in order to keep that play material or scenario novel and challenging.
Momma (toddler) example: I hadn’t done much with Play-Do at home until a few months ago after Aman was 2 (confessions of an OCD mom). We all know if you just give a kid Play-Do, they will invariably eat it, right? So I showed Aman how to roll it into “snakes” and “balls”. Just from seeing me do it, he was able to make his own “snakes” but even now he asks me to roll the balls, so me thinks that next time we play, I’ll make him try and coach him through it. And then, after we’ve lined the balls up by size, counted them, or built snowmen, because that’s what he does, I’ll introduce a new idea. Wait, better yet, I’ll just ask him, “What else can we do with the balls or the Play-Do?” and see where it takes us.
3. Being thoughtful about play materials and their arrangement.
Basically we’ve got to keep things fresh and present them in a way that is new and exciting so that our kiddos’ play can delve deeper or develop more richly. That means rotating and recycling materials, replacing them when necessary, or placing them near other materials that could be paired together for more complex play.
Example: Introducing books and pictures of different types of buildings, especially ones that students may see in their real world, to the block center to encourage more complex block play. I always loved starting with Changes Changes by Pat Hutchins and familiar buildings, but the key is to use those just for some ideas then see what ideas children devise on their own.
Example: Placing plastic letters or a placemat that features letters with the Play-Do to encourage exploration of letters that can be formed with straight or curved “snakes”.
Example: Based on Aman’s recent interest surrounding Daddy’s work, I am adding a stethoscope, a plastic syringe for administering medicine, some empty medicine bottles, etc. to the toy bin that currently holds his twin baby dolls. To really connect to Daddy’s work, I’ll have to add some x-rays or something.
Lastly (for now), we need to offer a variety of play materials that can be used or manipulated in a multitude of ways, and then be open to our children using them in their own creative ways. Even a block, which is already an open-ended play materials, isn’t just a block for building, counting, comparing, or matching. A block can be a phone, a kayak, a figurine, the TV remote, a mirror for Barbies, a fire hose for firefighting. When taught that the possibilities are endless, so are our children’s ideas and thought processes.
Still to come: Why sparking deep, complex thoughts during play will require we all feel a bit uncomfortable?