Blogstitute Post 8: Play: Creating Time and Tools for Children to Synthesize and Integrate Concepts

Here we are, at the very end of our Summer Blogstitute with an amazing and inspiring post from Sue Kempton, author of Let’s Find Out: Building Content Knowledge with Young Children. Through the story of one little boy in her kindergarten classroom, we get an insight into the tools Sue uses to build content knowledge with her students and how she tunes in to each child’s individual learning style.

Thanks for joining us for this year’s Blogstitute. Please leave a comment or ask a question from Sue for a chance to win a package of 8 free Stenhouse books!

Play: Creating Time and Tools for Children to Synthesize and Integrate Concepts

It’s two days prior to the end of our kindergarten school year during choice time, a predictable forty-five-minute block carved into our afternoon schedule where children are free to play with various materials in the classroom. Given the close proximity to the end of the year, our rich choice areas have narrowed from the painting easel, water table, workbench, observation of classroom animals, weaving, and “The Denver Hospital” to blocks, Legos, computer, and the marble shoot. One student, Mareng, smiles proudly as he sits in an oversized chair he independently constructed with big blocks.

Two sets of 11-x-11-inch hollow maple squares stacked on top of one another form the rectangular base of this large throne, while four rectangle blocks (11 x 22 inches) stand on end and flank the sides. They serve as armrests. A ramp measuring the same dimension as the rectangles rests on top of a square with the tapered end pointing toward the sky, creating a majestic backrest.

“What did you build, Mareng?” I ask.

“I built a Lincoln Memorial chair,” he says matter-of-factly.

“Really?” I question, surprised at his response. “Wow! Can you stand up so I can see this important chair?” Mareng nods gently. His eyes light up and a bright smile spreads across his face.

“You built a chair that looks the same on one side as the other!” I say. “That’s sss . . . ,” prompting him to apply the mathematical term we have used all year.

“Symmetrical!” Mareng responds with enthusiasm.

“Yes!  Whatever block you put on one side, you placed on the other side,” I say.

“That’s a pattern!” Mareng declares.

“You’re absolutely right! Can you show me the line of symmetry with your hand?” I ask. He places his arm vertically down the center of the chair, demonstrating his understanding. “And I really like your choice of shapes and how you arranged them. I love the rectangles as armrests, and the ramp for the back of the chair—that’s so cool!” Mareng smiles proudly. “Do you remember the person who sat here?” I query. He stares at me and is quiet. I can almost see the wheels turning in his head. Intuitively, I know he needs a bit of prompting. “It was for Aaabra . . . ,” I begin.

“Abraham Lincoln!” he confidently responds, filling in the rest of his first name and recalling his last.

“Yes!  Do you remember who he was?” I query.

Mareng quickly responds with confidence, “Abraham Lincoln was the president.”

“Yes, absolutely! Do you remember the important thing he did for our country?” I ask, not knowing if he remembers this significant detail.

“He freed the people.”

“Wow . . . you do remember,” I say, amazed with his recollection. “What people?” I ask.

Mareng pauses and looks toward the stack of books I’ve read aloud; they’re standing upright in a tub labeled “Read-Alouds” next to my chair. Depending on our discussion, I frequently revisit content by rereading snippets of these texts, or refer to the illustrations, throughout the year. Repetition of language and concepts helps to anchor existing schema (background knowledge) for children.

Wanting to empower him, I suggest he find the book I know he connects to—that moving illustration of a plantation owner gripping a long black whip behind his back, while African Americans—grown men, women, and children—hunch over rakes tilling the soil. This emotional image is significant for him. I know that, by looking at this picture, he will recall the people Abraham Lincoln affected.

Sure enough, he returns with speed to the same illustration, spanning two pages, in Young Martin Luther King, Jr. by Joanne Mattern (Troll Communications, 1998). “The slaves,” he responds solemnly. “I don’t want that to happen again—I don’t want people to be slaves.”  Mareng’s reflection is powerful and moving.

“I don’t either—that should never happen,” I respond, shaking my head. And, yet I can’t help but think of the horror that is presently occurring across the world. His innocence is piercing.

As he holds this simple text I use to introduce the civil rights movement, two black-and-white laminated photographs fall from the inside cover. One shows the Lincoln Memorial lit up at night with a silhouette of our sixteenth president positioned between the center columns. Small images of people are dotted across the front steps of the monument, creating a realistic comparison for this expansive sculpture. The words “The Lincoln Memorial” are written at the bottom for reference.

The second photograph is a close-up of Abraham Lincoln, sitting majestically in his stone chair, with his full name below. Both of these visuals were continually referenced when we discussed the chronological history of the civil rights movement before the time of MLK Jr. I bend down and pick up the photos, giving him a chance, once again, to articulate his learning.

“Mareng, what’s this?” I ask, pointing to the memorial.

“The Lincoln Memorial,” he says, smiling.

“And this guy?” I ask, pointing to the enlarged sculpture.

He giggles and responds, “Abraham Lincoln.”

Mareng entered kindergarten at the beginning of the year with no preschool experience. He couldn’t identify any letters of the alphabet or recognize his name. He was a quiet child and needed lots of prompting to engage in discussions and express his thoughts. He sat close to my feet in group so I could easily prompt this engagement and support his academic needs.

His parents came to the United States from Sudan and raised most of his brothers and sisters here. Mareng’s primary language was English, spoken by his father, although he spent quite a bit of time listening to his mother’s native tongue, Sudanese Arabic.

I’m reminded of a quote by Nicole Strangman and Tracey Hall I referenced in Let’s Find Out! (Stenhouse, 2014). It expresses that, for children to fully understand, they need time to assimilate and accommodate new concepts. This echoes my belief that children also need different avenues to express learning in order to integrate new material into their lives.

Children process information in different ways. Some need to talk before writing, some need solitude, some need to draw, and some need to build and manipulate objects. We need to provide multiple outlets in our classrooms for self-expression so children can demonstrate understanding.

Mareng, being one of my least experienced children with school, was frequently on the periphery and observed the constructions in small and big blocks. He would then join the other children in their play after it was completed. I have found this is the progression children take when they are inexperienced with materials (e.g., blocks). They observe before they risk constructing something independently or collaboratively with others.

Looking back on the course of the year, Mareng experimented with balance, symmetry, and patterns in Legos and blocks, and learned vicariously from his friends as well. One of the first constructions he built was a symmetrical horse in big blocks, a day after observing Jacarri and Xavier construct one. Two days later, all three created a horse and the room was filled with yahooing, cowboy hats, and twirling pretend lassos!

The boys needed a way to safely mount their stallions and, with prompting, figured out how to make a set of stairs. I reminded them of Trinity, Niehma, and Mya’s idea to layer 5 1/2-x 11-inch rectangles (one to four blocks) in a growing pattern to form steps going up and down to their elevated walkway that stretched from one side of the room to the other. They immediately sought the girls’ support and took their advice.

In Let’s Find Out! I discuss specific “tools” I use to build content knowledge with young children —for example, literature, visual aids, repetition, manipulatives, song, and dramatization. Tools are added sources for developing background knowledge. The richer our schema, the more options we have for comprehending talk, writing, and reading—even play—across all content areas.

Tools can also be used to demonstrate understanding. Mareng could have written a story about our sixteenth president, or painted or drawn him freeing the slaves, but he chose to build a “Lincoln chair”—a symmetrical construction, involving math concepts, that represented freedom for the slaves. He further demonstrated his understanding through a poignant illustration of a time in history, and through talk.

I never knew the depth of Mareng’s understanding of the beginning of the civil rights movement. Dealing with slavery and the role Lincoln played in history was additional content I covered, because it came up contextually, and it was not intended to be understood by all.

What struck me about Mareng’s experience was the depth, and demonstration, of learning that happened just days before the end of school. His learning came together as he integrated social studies content (studied months prior) with math and literature, and independently built a chair that had meaning for him.

Children need time to apply tools to synthesize learning. Play is a young child’s most natural context to integrate concepts and to explore what is meaningful to him or her. It is during this open, flexible period in the day that great artifacts are created, and they have lasting meaning and memory for children. Play is also a critical time for teachers to facilitate concept and language development, nudging children to expand their learning possibilities.

Every child has a discovery inside to be made, and it doesn’t matter when it happens. It could be at any point in the school year: the beginning, the middle, or the very end. Learning shows up in different ways and different contexts. To serve the needs of children we need to listen intently, be present, and ask questions, so we understand the significance of children’s play and the artifacts they produce.

Time and again, I’m amazed at the thinking, planning, and creativity involved in children’s creations. If we encourage expression of ideas in a multitude of contexts, all children can demonstrate understanding in their own unique way.




8 comments July 10th, 2014

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