Teachable Moments and the Role of the Early Childhood Educator

What do Early Childhood Educators do?  If children are learning through play, do we really need to do anything?  What is our role?

Facilitating learning through play.

It has been pointed out to me on a couple of occasions by fellow Early Childhood Educators that if we simply allow children to play we run the risk of appearing as though we are not actually doing anything. I can see that this could be true and yet this concerns me greatly as there is actually a lot I am doing in support of children’s play. Part of this is protecting the play so that it is not being directed by adults and cannot be interrupted in any way. Part of this is observing children and thinking about what they might need to support or extend the play further. Part of this is listening and describing the action. Part of this is observing and allowing children to solve problems on their own as they arise. Do I really need to intervene every time there is a disagreement? Perhaps if I wait, they will work it out. And by doing so they may gain a greater sense of competence.

For me listening to the children is critical. What are they asking for? What do they like? What motivates them? What theories are they testing out?  What are they learning right now? What can I bring in for them that might add a new dimension to the play? Are there questions I can ask that will further their play and learning? Are there things they have never seen or experienced before that may interest them? This is where documentation of learning come into practice.  The documentations help me become a better listener. They also help me reflect on my own teaching practices.

When you talk, you are only repeating what you know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.  -Dalai Lama

The environment is something that I am always thinking about. How can I add, change or adapt things in order to prompt children to play in new and different ways? What do children need to take their play to the next level?  How can I avoid interrupting play that is progressing to a more complex level? How can I structure the day so that there are fewer interruptions?IMG_0871

Here’s just one small example of how I see my role.  Most of the time, I am a quiet observer who records the action.  For me, less is more.  It may seem like I’m not doing anything but I feel I’m allowing the play to develop naturally and avoiding interruptions to play until it is absolutely necessary.  Occasionally there are teachable moments and that’s when I get a chance to make a comment.  I do not feel this is my only role as an Early Childhood Educator, but it is one of my roles and if I am paying attention and really listening, that’s when I can best interject in a way that’s hopefully non intrusive.

Two friends D and M are playing in the sandbox.  They are pretending to make food in the play kitchen.

D     There’s no food.

M     You need to use some sand. (for food)

D     Ok.  I’ll get some sand.  Here’s some for you.

M     Ya.  I dropped tomato pie. (the sand represents the tomato pie)  Treasure, where’s my treasure?

M looks for smooth green stones that are buried in the sandbox.  You can actually see her lost green stone in the photo here.IMG_0867

Suddenly the game changes.  They both start to bang the metal colanders on the stumps.  It makes a musical sound and they like exploring the sound. They repeat this several times, enjoying the sounds they can make.

Suddenly the game changes again.  M’s colander falls and she picks it up.  D knocks it down.  M picks it up.  D knocks it down.  M picks it up.  I can see where this is going.  Every time he knocks it over, D laughs and smiles… he thinks this game is just great!  M, however does not look happy.  She is becoming frustrated.

And here we have a teachable moment.

Teacher Cindy “D, have you looked at M’s face?  I notice she is not smiling.  I wonder if she likes this game”.

M  “I don’t like this game.”  (Teacher Cindy’s thoughts: She spoke up for herself!  I like a strong girl, way to go, M.)

I didn’t say anything more.  I felt I had already said enough.

D stops and suggests a new idea for what they can play together. He’s adaptable.  (D really wants to have fun together, as soon as he knows his friend is not enjoying the game, he’s ready to change to something else.)

Let’s look at the learning happening here:

Speaking and listening skills as they communicate about their play

Representing objects (the sand is the food) is the gateway for future reading as they will one day be able to understand that letters represent sounds and a bunch of letters together can make words.

taking on roles as cook, treasure hunter, music maker

understanding feelings of others and developing empathy

-using hands and fingers develops fine motor skills

visual skills are enhanced as they search for’treasure’

exploration of sounds through the sense of hearing helps develop listening skills

-using creative ideas for what the sand can represent like “tomato pie”

-learning cause and effect/gravity “if I knock this over, it will fall down”

advocating for yourself… when I don’t like something I can speak up and let my friend know how I am feeling

smiles mean my friend is happy; no smiles might mean my friend doesn’t like something

As you can see, there is lots of learning happening in this few moments of time and not really a lot I needed to say.

This does leave me with some questions to think about that may guide me in how I set up the environment for future play.

  1. How can children further explore gravity?
  2. How can children further explore sound?
  3. What could be added to the play area that would suggest new roles for the children to take on?
  4. How can children further explore the idea of cause and effect?

How do you see the role of a preschool teacher?  Is it possible we look like we’re not actually doing anything?  How can we help parents understand our role in supporting and facilitating play?  Thank you for reading.


The day after writing this post:

I’m just going to add that I read a post from Teacher Tom after writing the above post and find it quite interesting that we are writing blog posts about such a similar topic.  He explores the definition of “school” and “teacher”.  He also touches on our roles early childhood educators.  I like that he considers his role to be adding humour and an element of fun.  It reminded me one reason I like “teaching” young children.  It is that opportunity to make their first experiences away from home positive, fun and something that can be enjoyable and engaging.  If the first associations a child has with “school” are positive, then I believe it can go a long way towards making the school experience more positive even though the element of play is not always present.  (My hope is that all countries would become more like Finland where play is valued for all ages of children and not just those under the age of six.)










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