More than meets the eye…

A Day at Multnomah Playschool

You walk into our classroom midmorning in January and you are likely to see children engaged in a wide variety of activities.  Some are predictable (children doing puzzles, listening to stories, painting, stringing beads, building a block tower, etc) and some are novel and possibly surprising.  Each offering in the classroom must meet several tests.  First and foremost, it must be enticing and engaging for the children.  And it must serve as a scaffold for each child to assist in climbing the developmental ladder.

You look into the back of the classroom and notice one such novel experience.  There is a group of children gathered around a 600lb mountain of clay on the floor of the classroom!  They are deeply engaged, digging and scraping using their hands, ice cream scoops, and whatever else is handy.  They are telling a story as they move some animals, sticks and rocks in and out of their play.   Their shoes and socks are off, they have clay smears on their faces, their hands are filthy and there are little brown and grey footprints all around.  Their voices and energy move from quiet and still to exited and noisy.  They are laughing.  They are talking intently.  They are arguing.

You may find yourself wondering about the purpose of such an activity.  You can see the appeal to a preschooler, but is it worth that mess?  We think it is.  These children are exercising their bodies and their imaginations.  This huge blob is a perfect scaffold for multiple areas of development.

As the children are telling stories, making up scenarios about dinosaurs, or pirates, or birds that nest on cliffs, they are developing a sense of narrative that will aid them on their path towards literacy.  By engaging in the symbolic use of materials (let’s pretend this is a _____) they are building the same synapses in the brain that will be engaged in recognizing that print represents sounds that fit together into words which will eventually come together when they are ready to begin reading.

At the same time they are flexing their cognitive abilities, they are also engaged in “heavy work”.  To work with a huge pile of clay is so different from a pile of soft playdough on the table.  The clay engages all of the fine muscles in the hands.  Strengthening these muscles will lead to the ability to hold a pencil and control the movements and marks they will need to make in the future.  It also engages the children’s shoulders, backs and core as they dig and move chunks from one place to another.  This type of play activates the proprioceptive system – input from the joints and connective tissue within their frame.  Believe it or not, work/play that engages this system is often neurologically organizing for many children.  It helps them to be fully present in their bodies and develop more facility with managing themselves in space, in relationship to objects and other people in their environment.  It helps develop the child’s ability to regulate themselves physically and emotionally.  Digging holes in the ground, hauling buckets of water, bouncing on a mini-tramp, hammering a nail, sawing a board: all these activities are a so much fun for children, but they are also excellent ways of supporting their physical and emotional development!  It’s like hiding peas and spinach under the sauce and cheese on a pizza!!!  You get all the pleasure of a fun treat, which carries with it an added bonus that promotes long-term health.  Pretty cool.

Simultaneous with all of this, the children are working on their social development.  They must work on communicating their ideas, listening to others, problem solving, negotiating, collaborating, compromising.  (does it sound like our congress needs to go back to preschool????)  They have the support of the adults in the classroom to help them when they are frustrated, help them frame their ideas and thoughts and express them verbally, and of course to help them develop respect for the ideas of others and the patience to wait for a turn which is so difficult when you are so young!

You notice that there are actually four different colors of clay in that pile!  Red, dark brown, beige and grey are all represented.  These are the colors of the earth.  They are also colors you might notice in the skin and hair of the people in their world.  This is a connection to our anti-bias work.  We do not lecture the children, but we do seek ways to allow them to experience first hand the diversity in our world.  Through honest exposure, through supported observation and opportunities to notice and talk about differences, children grow in their world-view and continue to develop respect for all people.

As you can see, there is so much more going on around that pile of clay, beyond just “playing in the mud”.  I will always be in the front of the line of people who will defend each child’s right to play without an agenda and to explore and experience life.  But I also understand that in the busy and demanding world we live in, parents are under pressure quite often to justify what they are doing for their children and explain how this experience of preschool is relevant to their future.  Childhood is a complex web, each strand connected to the other and affecting the overall shape and strength of the whole.  We strive to provide an environment that supports that web, and the wee ones who are traveling along its strands.  We have found over time that this is a journey of growth for the child, the parent and the teacher!  You are warmly invited to join us!