This is an idea that has been in my mind for the past year, percolating and trying to become a fully formed question. I am entranced by the manifestation that the idea of environment as a third teacher has taken in the form of beautiful activities set out at centres. I am inspired by the beauty of the many such centres available for viewing on the internet. I am captivated by the power of aesthetics and the idea of creating something that will entice children to explore, to create and to think with the materials laid out in a manner that inspires, attracts, and engages.
There is evident in many of these provocations a belief in listening to children and involving them in the learning, a desire to allow for their exploration and creativity and a desire to implement an approach of inquiry and emergent curriculum. I see the deep thoughtfulness of the educators as they respond to the children’s learning.
And yet I wonder…
What is the impact of creating such beautiful arrangements on learning? Will my presentation of materials make a difference in the learning?
As I wrestle with these questions, here are a few of the considerations bouncing around in my thoughts…
What is the role of materials?
I firmly believe in the powerful role of aesthetics, as I have previously discussed in this blog Do I Really Need to Create an Aesthetically Pleasing Environment That Could be on the Pages of a Home Magazine?. Aesthetics impacts people.
In considering if a particular presentation of materials is going to enhance the level of learning, I try to remind myself to think firstly of the materials themselves. In Making Learning Visible, the researchers talk of “intelligent materials…[being] those that invite questions, curiosity, and experimentation…” (p.252, Giudici, Rinaldi, Krechevsky, 2008). They also discuss that, “Whereas some materials guide children in specific directions, others are more evocative and facilitate discovery, explorations, and the creation of stories, metaphors, and games.” (ibid.)
Over the years, as I have watched many children at the important work of play, I have found that it is this importance of the materials themselves that is key. What learning will the materials promote? Will they “raise new questions for the children to wonder about” (Edwards, p.151); are they “providing a next occasion for the children to follow their conjectures”? (Edwards, p.152). To support learning, I try to carefully select materials to present to children that may further their thinking about things I have noticed in their play and in their wonders. I change materials over time to present new experiences, new ideas, new languages. I try to consider (to paraphrase a quote of Stuart Shanker): why these materials for these children at this time? Will these particular materials help to foster a rich culture of learning?
Will the presentation enhance the learning?
I consider and plan carefully the opportunities and materials I present to children. I am always considering the question: what is my goal as an educator in offering particular materials?
Some of the best learning I have been honoured to witness over the years has come from children’s free use of materials and I aim to support this in my classroom. I try to consider how best to have the materials in my environment be supportive of the natural rhythms of learning of the children in my care. Are materials accessible to the children? Can the children use them freely? How will I teach the children to use them and care for them? How will the materials be stored, presented and shared with the children so that they are best able to use them in their creative pursuit of learning?
As I was considering the presentation of materials, I reread this particular quote from Carolyn Edwards:
“…the teacher needs to enter into a kind of intellectual dialogue with the group of children and join in their excitement and curiosity.” (Edwards, p.151)
It made me remember that in my readings of the work of Reggio educators, what really strikes me as powerful is the discourse. Learning encounters and the use of materials are important elements but what stands out to me is relationship and dialogue. My understanding is that provocations result from considering ways to further extend the children’s thinking. It is the relationship with those materials and how we, as educators, engage in relationship and dialogue with children and ‘spiral the learning’ (Edwards, p. 153) back to them through conversation and documentation, that will lead to cognitive growth.
The focus, then, is perhaps not so much on artful presentation as it is on providing the right materials to provoke thinking and on the dialogue of ideas that ensues. Materials are languages, not tasks. Perhaps then, the question should be not how to create a beautiful presentation of materials but rather how do we as educators offer, create and foster the learning that occurs in relationship with the language of materials? I will continue to think carefully about how I foster the language of materials during the time I spend in dialogue, in curiosity, in relationship, in learning with children.
Written by Sandra Rosekat
Edwards, Carolyn. Teacher and Learner, Partner and Guide: The Role of the Teacher in Edwards, Carolyn, Gandini, Lella and Forman, George (eds.), The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation (3rd ed.). ABC-CLIO, LLC, 2012.
Giudici, Claudia, Rinaldi, Carla, Krechevsky, Mara (eds.) Making Learning Visible, Children as Individual and Group Learners. Reggio Children and Project Zero (Harvard Graduate School of Education), 2008.