How Do You Know When To Turn Your Classroom On Its Head?

My teaching partner, Paula, and I noticed a problem: no matter what resources and materials we provided in our dramatic play space, the area always remained empty. In the block area right beside dramatic play, there was always a lot of storytelling, creativity, and drama, but this never flowed into the other space. While we were thrilled to have this kind of drama in the block area, this space is a large and fairly central point in the room, so the noise always seemed to carry. It was also a hard space for one of us to insert ourselves into the play and to help to extend it. With no table in here, it meant sitting down on the floor, and often getting in the way of other children trying to play around us. We also noticed that the play in this block space was becoming rather stagnant. Often students would make this area into a “house” or into the orphanage for Annie, but the discussions were usually the same, and normally once the area was set-up, the play never continued or it ended at around the same point. So it wasn’t bad play, but was it really benefiting kids and resulting in learning?

Paula and I spoke about this on Tuesday, and we decided to make a change. We thought that the draw to the block space might be the two empty shelves, where children often liked to sit and create rooms of their own. We wondered what would happen if we put the missing shelves back, set-up dramatic play into a house (because “family” always seemed to be a popular play option), and even added components from Roots of Empathy to align with our baby visit for Wednesday. Maybe students would sing the doll the songs we taught them, and even interact with the doll on the small green blanket, just like we do when our baby visits. We were super excited about the possibilities and thought that we may have finally solved our dramatic play issues.

Not so much. Unfortunately, Wednesday did not start out as we expected. The wind chill factor made the temperature one degree below the requirement allowed for going outside, so we needed to start our day inside. This meant that the kids did not move around as much as usual, and they had to adjust to a change in routine. We also had our Roots of Empathy visit planned for 10:30, which would usually be right after we come in from our forest time, but would now be right in the middle of play. Would our Roots of Empathy provocation in dramatic play yield the same results that we hoped?

During our morning meeting time, Paula worked hard at inspiring interest in this new dramatic play space, and even picking some excited students that wanted to start over there with the new materials. But they didn’t use the materials as we expected. In fact, all of the kids were more interested in drawing in this space or cutting up small pieces of paper to make drinks for the baby, and it took a long time for anyone to even play with the dolls. While we enjoyed the play that we saw, and especially appreciated the empathy shown in the doll play, these experiences were very short-lived. After our Roots of Empathy visit, even those students that were initially interested in this space didn’t go back to it. 

Once again, we had building and dramatic play happening in the block space, and nothing happening in the corner of our room. Now what? Paula and I stood back and watched the play unfold, and that’s when we started to talk. Should we reconsider this dramatic play space? Is it okay to just have the merge of blocks and dramatic play in the block area, and is there a way that we could work on interrupting this play and extending it? Should we try something else altogether? Paula had an idea. She spoke about opening up the block space, moving down the carpet, and combining it with dramatic play, so that the areas could truly merge. 

I’ll be honest here: I couldn’t really picture what she had in mind. This seemed like an upheaval of at least half of the classroom, and we were about to do this on a day with no outdoor time and about 20 minutes before Paula left for her lunch. Was this a good idea? I wasn’t sure, but I trust Paula, I knew that the room wasn’t being used well in its current set-up, and I realized that if we didn’t make this change now, with After Care in our classroom at the end of the day, we wouldn’t be making this change at all. So I looked at Paula and said, “Let’s do it! Go convince the children that this is the change to make.” This is exactly what she did! 

As with everything, one change inspired many more, and our room design continued to shift for the rest of the day … and even into the next day. But this change in design was exactly what we needed. 

    • Now the blocks and dramatic play are truly combined, and the addition of a table and a few more surfaces to write, gives us more room to easily insert ourselves into the play and extend it. 

    • Now there is enough room between the blocks and the dramatic play space to have many more children in this area at the same time. With students a little more spread out in dramatic play, the volume is quieter, and the play seems to be moving beyond just creating items to engaging with them.
    • Now the dramatic play interest is focused around “a hospital,” which provides many more authentic opportunities for reading, writing, and math than The Annie Play or a house. Each day, we’re also able to watch some short videos and look at some non-fiction texts, which focus on developing new vocabulary that students can use during play.

    • Now the eating table is more removed from the play, which helps students focus on eating. Before our eating table was right next to the block carpet, which often led to students standing up and going to join this block play, as they were so close to it. Now the eating table is near the door, and in front of a shelf, which blocks students off a bit more from the play and helps them remain focused on their food and their conversations with peers. 

    • Now there are more sensory play options in the classroom. Earlier this week, Paula and I spoke about children’s use of the creative table. Often this use is short-lived, and sometimes, even when we respond to what kids like to do (e.g., cutting, pasting, painting, etc.), the table remains empty or with very few students around it. Why? We thought that the block area was so central and popular that it was pulling kids to it, including those kids that like and need these other art and creative options. We also have more Year 1 students this year, than Year 2 students, and we wondered if their attention span may be shorter, and if we need to switch up this space more often throughout the day. Are we also trying to create too many opportunities for longer art projects, when our kids may just need the sensory play and fine motor opportunities provided by this space? With our new set-up, we have our sensory bin, our creative table, a plasticine or play dough area, and another sensory space (which now has kinetic sand), all in one area of the room. We went from two sensory play spaces to four, and especially on Friday, when Paula was away and there was no supply, I noticed just how calming these areas can be. We are also really encouraging students to take items from the creative shelf, so that they can create their own art and fine motor opportunities in this space, and they are starting to do that now. This is great to see!

Our sensory bin was not being used today, so early this afternoon, I added some water beads. This attracted a large crowd. So much oral language as kids talk with each other. A little math talk too. And these water beads seem to be so calming for many. Eventually led to some letter talk, and even some signs for children that were concerned about water beads breaking or being swallowed. Madeline heard the O in No, and when I said that the “N,” had one less line than the M, she made it correctly. Great to see kids eager to make signs for meaningful purposes. Next week, we’re going to continue with water beads but with a small change to encourage even more letter and word talk. SWIPE ⬅️ FOR MORE. #iteachk #teachersofinstagram #sensoryplay #ctinquiry

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The Reggio Emilia philosophy often speaks about “the environment as the third teacher,” and last week’s room design changes reminded me of the value in listening to kids, being responsive to them, and continuing to make changes that are right for the children at that time. Will this design option always work for kids? Maybe not, and maybe even if it does, it will not work for our students next year. But maybe it’s also the dysregulation that can sometimes come before the holidays that makes the additional sensory spaces — that calm many of our kids — that much more important. The block space also allows for some heavy lifting, which is calming for other children. Even redesigning the classroom on Wednesday likely helped settle the play, for the movement of the furniture and the movement of the carpet, provided some gross motor opportunities that those same kids need — and would have gotten — outside. 

Wednesday reminded me of the value in a new perspective and a different pair of eyes. If I was the only one in the classroom, I probably wouldn’t have made any changes, and even if I did, they would have not been the ones that we made. I couldn’t see what Paula saw. Once again, I’m reminded of the power in feedback for educators: not as evaluative but as a way of providing different perspectives and necessary changes for kids. How do we open up our classrooms more for the fresh eyes and important dialogue that comes from observations and conversations between educators? Growing Success tells us about the importance of “assessment for learning” in the classroom. Wednesday made me wonder if there’s an educator equivalent, and if it’s the feedback from others that really helps us change the most. I’m so very thankful for Paula, and the new perspective that she gives me on a daily basis. How do you gain new perspectives?


2 thoughts on “How Do You Know When To Turn Your Classroom On Its Head?

    • Thanks Diana! Paula’s definitely a gift, and I’m very thankful to work with her and learn from her each day. As hard as it can sometimes be, we really have to put our faith in others and hear their different perspectives to often help us change (and for the better)! I’m not sure how we always feel comfortable doing this, but I think it’s valuable to try.


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