Letting Kids Be Free — What Benefits Might There Be?

Report cards/Communications of Learning (in Kindergarten) are due, or coming due, to administrators across the province. As I wrote mine a few weekends ago, I often returned to a handful of problem solving expectations in the Problem Solving and Innovating Frame. These expectations span mathematical, scientific, and artistic problem solving skills, and really had me thinking about how students think, explore, and question/wonder as they uncover new learning. As many of my blog readers know, my teaching partner, Paula, and I are incredibly passionate about outdoor learning, and observe and reflect as frequently on the learning outside as the learning inside. Our approach to the outdoors has continued to develop over the years, and I’m wondering if it’s our updated approach that allowed for the learning that we observed on Wednesday.

Paula and I have worked together for the past six years, and while we continue to refine our practice, one thing that’s stayed the same is that we always begin our day outside. We go out regardless of the weather, with the only caveat being if it’s below -15 without windchill and below -20 with windchill. These are our Board cut-offs, and we adhere to them, but try to find another time to head outside if the temperature prevents us from going out first thing in the morning. If not, rain, snow, sleet, sunshine, cold, or hot, we are always outside. This is not recess time. In fact, our kids do not go out during the nutrition breaks, and we actually tend to head inside just as the rest of the school is coming outside. With a 1/3 of our day outdoors — and a long block of uninterrupted time at that — we are really able to support and extend learning in this space, and even attempt to bridge the learning between indoors and outdoors. The biggest change for us in our approach to outdoor learning is that before heading outside each day, we review some documentation from the day before with the class, and share a few provocations to extend the learning for the day. These are not required activities. Students organize and plan for their own learning outside, and we observe and enter it accordingly, but the addition of a few materials and a few provocations can really help inspire what happens in this space.

On Wednesday, I realized that this open-ended approach truly allows students to be thinkers and problem solvers. Wednesday was the last day that we were at school this week, with two back-to-back Snow Days to round off the week, but the storm actually began the day before. It started with some milder weather and a little bit of rain. Since we still had huge snow hills from our last snowstorm, children were now able to experiment with ice, rain, snow, and slush. The Fairies of Dundas got us thinking about a few outdoor choices, which included more baking/cooking with the snow and ice and some garbage collection.

With these ideas in mind, children brought out a variety of cooking and baking materials and a garbage bag to collect litter on the playground. At first, the play outside seemed to focus more on one option or another: either collecting litter or baking/cooking.

But over an hour later, the play evolved, when students started to see the value in cracking the snow and ice for a different reason: to find the garbage underneath it. This was truly a day when we did not want to go inside.

More and more, students were acting as scientists here, as they problem solved with ice chunks that were too big and containers that were too small.

Wednesday was never about us telling children what to do, but instead, giving them the materials, time, and space to explore liquids, solids, measurement, and colour mixing in different ways. This made me think a lot about how I’ve approached these same topics over the years with many other children.

  • I would have set-up centres.
  • I would have required children to rotate to each one.
  • I would have had a sheet for them to document their learning. probably with a need to draw a picture and label it (or label it if they were able to do so).
  • I would have had time limitations at each centre, as they would have never made it to every one if they stayed beyond 10-15 minutes at each.
  • I would have restricted how students used materials, as mortars and pestles will break if pieces are too large and plastic bins will crack if you hit them too hard.

While these considerations might make for a more organized approach to scientific learning, and would certainly help ensure that everyone has done everything, I wonder if the thinking, engagement, curiosity, and problem solving would have been as in-depth as it was with fewer restrictions and a more child-led approach.

  • Maybe the kids wouldn’t have gotten to these same topics on Wednesday.
  • Maybe I would really need them to get to these certain topics by a certain date in order to report on them.
  • But maybe they could have approached these topics in other ways beforehand, or if given more time, would approach them in different ways afterwards.

This freer approach to thinking and learning is a lot messier, a lot less organized, and definitely a lot more challenging to track on a checklist, but I think about the kids that got involved in this play on Wednesday. Some of them would have completely melted down if we gave them a form to document their learning or forced them to make a certain choice over another one. We might have observed that these children were unsuccessful at the task or unable to meet the requirements, but seeing their success on Wednesday has me wondering, would the problem have been with their learning or with our approach?

When Friday came along with another Snow Day, Francesca and the Fairies of Dundas suggested some opportunities to be scientists at home.

How might open-ended learning extend in a new space? How can we further these conversations on Monday? I know that the intersecting expectations in the Kindergarten Program Document, plus the bigger ideas, make this approach a little easier than it might be in other grades. I have to wonder though, are there still ways for free exploration and true play beyond kindergarten, and what impact might this have on student thinking, problem solving, and learning? I’ve heard from parents and educators before that children “constantly need support or regularly need to be entertained,” but what would happen if we didn’t always problem solve for them? What if we presented requests for more with questions of, “what might you try?,” or “what could you do with these materials?” Wednesday has me wondering, if we want kids of all ages to think and problem solve more, how are we giving them enough opportunities to do just that? With even more snow on the playground on Monday, it could be the perfect time for some cold weather play in Kindergarten and beyond.


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