Could “less is more” be key to independence?

Yesterday afternoon, just as my teaching partner, Paula, was returning from her lunch, Mrs. Wendy captured and shared this photograph with us.

Bonus points for anyone who can spot me … 🙂

I’ve returned to it a few times since then, especially as Paula and I later reflected on the play in the classroom. Here are some points that made it into our discussion.

  • Our materials have stayed fairly similar since September.
  • We don’t have lots of loose parts.
  • Building materials are a staple in our classroom, with individual buckets of blocks, LEGO, dominoes, and tracks. Cars, marbles, and ping pong balls tend to go alongside these other items.
  • Students each have their own personal spaces, but have learned to connect with each other from a distance. It’s about talking instead of touching. Sharing ideas aloud instead of sharing materials together. Not easy concepts for kindergarten, but they continue to improve.

Over the past couple of weeks since returning to in-person teaching, Paula and I are thrilled with the play that we’re observing. We had to wonder, could this growth speak to the value of “less is more?”

Having spent weeks together in a remote learning environment and connecting with kids virtually as they play, we know that our students are fortunate to have access to numerous toys, building materials, and creative items at home. In the classroom, we wondered if children would be quickly passing over one item and heading to the next. Thinking about my post on February Patience, Paula and I anticipated that the staying power in play would require a lot of our patience. We definitely had moments of this. But in the last couple of weeks — even with a long weekend and a Snow Day — kids have settled into play like never before. This had us wondering, why?

  • Could predictable materials make a difference? Children know what to expect, so they can also plan for their play.
  • Could the ability to return to play each day help with settling it? One of the benefits of having independent spaces with desks, tables, and buckets for items, is that children can save their work from the day before. Obviously if they’ve made a huge marble run or car track, they can’t keep it out, but they can keep the bucket of items to go back to the next day. Revisiting some of this problem solving during our meeting times also seems to help with generating interest in returning to the play and extending it.
  • Could the addition of one small item make a big difference? I was really aware of this yesterday when I gave two children some labels for their LEGO story. At first, they weren’t sure about this, but pretty soon they were labelling more than I anticipated. These labels had them also slowing down and thinking more about their characters, connecting with each other over their stories, and even doing a little reading as they played.
  • Could our provocations be key? We are really thinking about this when it comes to the LEGO storytelling. There are some fabulous short LEGO stories (less than 3 minutes) available on YouTube. Some are creative stories told by kids, and others are remakes of different fairytales. The students love listening to them, and the oral storytelling has prompted more LEGO and block storytelling. This distance dramatic play seems to extend the length and depth of the building play.
  • Could learning how to observe from a distance make an impact? At this age, watching often involves touching. Since returning to school though, our students have improved so much with standing back and observing, sitting down and looking over, and giving feedback orally. It’s taken support, and sometimes a few reminders, but as kids are able to reflect more on what others are doing, discuss building plans together, tell stories together (from a distance), and get new ideas based on what they see others trying (we do love the word “inspire”), they also settle into deeper play.

I know that we’re speaking here from a kindergarten perspective, but with COVID restrictions, independence is key well beyond kindergarten. Whether talking play, inquiry, or project work, how are you supporting independence? Do fewer items allow for more creativity, thinking, and problem solving? I have to wonder what this might look like in your classroom or home. I think that there might be more similarities between grades than we think, and new learning opportunities here for all of us.


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