Monday, August 27, 2012

Toy Boat

The beginning of the school year is the perfect time to consider the importance of play in the early childhood classroom and the role that we adults have in creating opportunities for children to make profound discoveries through play.

One incident that I remember, from years ago, always makes this clear......and makes me smile.

I was visiting the Whitney Young Early Childhood Center in Fort Wayne, Indiana and had shared, during my concerts there, a song that I created to celebrate the tongue twister "Toy Boat." At each concert, after singing the song, I led the preschoolers and kindergarteners in a follow-up game.  Children could take turns coming forward to say the words "toy boat," in the microphone, three times.  And, of course, they had to say the words fast.  That's what makes a tongue twister challenging and fun.  It's what makes a tongue twister play.

You know the results. 

"Toy boat, toy boit, toy boit!"

And so on.

In between concerts I joined some of the preschoolers out on the playground and overheard a number of them continuing to attempt to complete the challenge.

"Toy boat, toy boat, toy boit." (laughter)

"Toy boit, toy boit, toy boit." (more laughter)

One little boy ran up to me excitedly and said, "Hey Jim Gill!  I've got a new one!"

I wasn't exactly sure of what he was referring to, so I asked him what his "new one" was.

He looked straight at me and proudly said, "Foy foat, foy foat, foy foat."

I smiled a big GENUINE smile.  Then I gave him a playful challenging look. 

"Oh yeah?  Moy moat, moy moat, moy moat!"

He stopped for a moment.  I could see that he was thinking, just by watching his face.

His reply:  "Doy doat, doy doat, doy doat!"

The young child was, of course, making phoneme substitutions.  Substituting letter sounds like this is a very important early literacy skill.  Beginning reader books, like Dr. Seuss' famous "Cat in the Hat," were created to exercise this ability.

And this young boy just discovered it for himself.  He began by playing a tongue twister and, once playing with words and sounds, began to play with different sound (letter) substitutions.

No worksheet was needed.  No computer was needed.  All the child needed was a caring adult to share a silly word game and some play time for him to expand on that game.

What makes this story so memorable to me, years later, is that when this young boy shared his creation, he not only shared his discovery but his excitement about the discovery.

Play is inspiring.  Not only is it inspiring for children to learn and master a new skill, but the discovery process itself is inspiring. 

No one can say the same about worksheets or “screen time.”    

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Nancy J.

I met Nancy J. at Chicago’s Midway Airport while we both waited, during a delay, to board a plane.  As I was sitting in the waiting area I noticed an elderly woman in a wheelchair inching towards me from over in the pre-boarding area. 

It was Nancy.

Nancy had seen my banjo and wanted to know about my music. 

“I love music,” she said.  “It makes life better.  I’ve lost most of my vision but none of my ability to appreciate great music!” 

When I explained that I create music –mostly musical games- for young children Nancy got a big smile on her face.  When I told her that I was on my way to speak (and sing) with a group of Head Start teachers, her jaw dropped.

“Years ago I directed a Head Start program in Texas!  It was back in 1967, soon after the program started.”

She then volunteered the philosophy that she ensured was the foundation of her program in Texas. 

“I told the staff not to teach, but to let the children play.  Now, of course, we’d step in and help if a child was frustrated or needed help, but my philosophy was – and still is with my grandchildren and great-grandchildren – that children learn ten times as much when playing than they would if we decided what they should learn and if we were simply satisfied with that.  And, more than that, we learn so much about the children by watching them play!”

She went on to describe her excitement, after more than 40 years, for the way that Head Start provided a boost for the entire family through some of its innovative programs and included children with special needs. 

But it was Nancy’s insight about play that was so inspiring to me.  She mentioned, over and over, the fact that play provides an opportunity for us to learn about the children as much as it does for the children to learn.  And, of course, that knowledge makes us better teachers. 

“You just have to watch and pay attention.  I’ve got macular degeneration so I’ve lost my central vision, but I still watch my grandchildren play and learn with my peripheral vision!” 

Nancy ended up reserving a seat on the plane for me so that we could talk throughout the flight.  When I was ready to leave (she was staying on the plane and flying on to Dallas) I told her how much I enjoyed meeting her and talking with her about our enthusiasm for play.

“What a coincidence,” I said. 

“It may not be a coincidence,” Nancy answered.  “It could be that we just pay closer attention to the things that connect us.”