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  • Writer's picturecathybelgrave

Living in the Grey Zone

Last week a colleague and I had a thought provoking conversation about how to support or mentor educators who want to bring more play-based learning to their classroom.

As our conversation progressed we began exploring what it means to be 'child-led'. My colleague pointed out that in our world of education we seem to talk about teaching as being 'child-led' or 'teacher-led'. In reality, we dwell between these dichotomies, something she called the 'grey zone'. In the grey zone, there is the uniqueness of the children, the educator, the way they relate to one another. There are the interests, curiosities and desires of the children, and there is the intent of the teacher.

How do we offer guidance, what framework do we offer teachers who want to implement play-based learning in their classroom?

We are often encouraged to follow the lead of the child, observing and noticing their interests, then inviting them to explore their interests more deeply - thinking, innovating and discovering through their play. What can be neglected or forgotten is the intent of the educator. We are not simply observing the children. We are observing with our intent running in the background of our minds. Each of us comes with beliefs and values that we feel are important to the education of young children, and we use these beliefs and values as the foundation for our intent. We consciously or unconsciously take what we're observing and bump it up against our intent. This is living in the grey zone.

Be self-aware. Be conscious of the lenses through which we watch and listen to children: our values, beliefs, cultural identities, hopes, irritations, expectations, and institutional pressures. We seek to stay mindful of our perspectives, even as we're curious to understand the children's perspectives. ~ Ann Pelo

Living in the grey zone requires us to be aware of ourselves. We are all influenced by our history: the place we grew up, our education, our culture, our experiences. This history influences our beliefs and values and is embedded within our intent. We need to be aware, asking ourselves: Why am I choosing this activity? What am I hoping for?

To live well in the grey zone, we need not only self-awareness, but we need to be aware of how the children are responding. What is capturing the children's attention? What are they noticing? What are they saying? What understandings are they developing? What knowledge are they building upon?

As an example of living in the grey zone, I offer an experience I had when I was leading a workshop with a team of educators. They were exploring fall with the children and wanted a new art activity. They talked about how little attention the children seemed to have, recognizing that the current art projects weren't bringing about the level of engagement that they thought the children were capable of.

My intent was to introduce colour mixing using watercolour paint as a way to bring more wonder, engagement, and discovery for the children. My deeper intent was to support the children and teachers further developing a relationship with the materials and each other.

We began by using our senses to get to know leaves, commenting on colour, texture, smell. Each group of children noticed different elements of the leaves which led to different conversations. As the children began painting we observed the ways they interacted with the pipettes and the paint; we listened to their comments as they witnessed the effect of mixing the colours.

Afterwards, the teachers and I debriefed, sharing our observations, reflecting on what had gone on and where it could possibly lead. The teachers noticed that the children were more attentive and engaged in the activity, and were surprised that the conversations between the children were richer. The children were more curious, exploring the materials for a longer period of time and were sharing more of their personal experience. I observed some of the children's fascination with the pipettes, the colours mixing together, the properties of a liquid pooling on the paper. In sharing our observations, the teachers and I were both demonstrating how our intent had influenced our observations - the teachers noticing more focus and engagement, and how that opened a space for conversation, myself noticing the building of relationships.

We reflected together as to where these observations could lead. What was it that brought about this deeper engagement? How could the children be offered more opportunities to explore the pipettes? What might it look like if the children were offered this painting opportunity again? How could some of the conversations between the children be continued? What evolved was an opening of a bigger space to explore the bigger idea of 'change'. How is nature changing? Do we change?

Play-based learning is the dance of the educator's intent and the children's curiosity, exploration, experience and knowledge building

As I reflect on what happened in that workshop session, I would summarize by saying, the adults entered the activity with a specific intent. Through observation and discussion, we used the children's interests to guide us in deciding what we thought would help the children expand their exploration. The result was a larger inquiry that the children and teachers could engage in for an extended period of time. This was the coming together of teacher intent and children's curiosity and wonder.

So, how to offer guidance to educators who want to bring more play-based learning to their classroom?

Awareness. Be aware of ourselves, the children and the intersection of our intents.

Reflection. Take time to reflect on the experience.

Collaboration. Share and discuss observations with colleagues to bring a deeper understanding of the children, their explorations, and their possible learnings. Use the outcomes of the discussion to develop a meaningful inquiry for the children and yourselves.

By being attuned to ourselves and others, we create an opportunity to be together authentically, cultivating rich learning opportunities for both children and educators.

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