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When I began to introduce more natural materials into my classroom, I was curious about how this change would impact the quality, learning potential, and depth of the play that my students engaged in. I began by replacing existing materials (plastic blocks, toys and baskets) with ones that I thought were beautiful, and whenever possible, made from rock, wood, grasses, cotton, wool and silk. I also set up a number of invitations around my classroom. For example, in my sand table I removed the brightly coloured plastic toys and replaced them with a collection of glass vases and gems. I tried to set things up in ways that I thought would draw the kids in, make them curious and encourage experimentation. Then I stepped back to watch how things unfolded.

As my students began to engage with the materials I sometimes asked them open ended questions about why they thought something happened the way it did or what they might try next. Over time this naturally evolved into whole group conversations each day before we went to work with materials (a part of the day we called Explorations). I really wanted to increase my students’ thinking and sense of purpose as they engaged with the materials and in play.

We sat in a circle so that we could all see each other and started out with simple conversations about what each child planned on working with that day. Gradually these conversations became much longer (about 5 minutes in September and up to 45 minutes by January). We talked not just about what materials they wanted to work with, but where their inspiration came from, if it was something they had done before or a new idea; what materials they needed, who they might work with, etc. We called this time our Planning Circle.

We then began to have a Reflection Circle at the end of our Explorations time. This conversation was one of reflection…. Did the children follow their plan or did it change, and why? What worked or didn’t work, did they have any ‘ah-ha’ moments, what materials did they use and did anything surprise them? What would they like to try tomorrow… an extension of today or something new?

I recorded my observations of the ways that the kids engaged with materials, what I believed they were learning and ways that I thought I could further extend their learning. What I found was that open ended materials were (of course) able to be used in much more creative ways than single purpose toys.

I found that some kids were immediately drawn to natural materials and some weren’t, but that almost all of them were drawn to things that sparkled in the light and that involved their senses. They often went back to things that allowed them to create (interest in building and art materials lasted all year, while interest in puzzles and games came and went). Real materials as opposed to traditional (plastic) toys intrigued them (for example, a single heavy duty flashlight added an element to play for several months).

Beyond all these things, what seemed to make the most difference to my students’ thinking and learning, what took their play to an entirely different level, was not so much the materials that were there, but the conversations that we had about them. Where in the past an interest in a specific play topic might have lasted only a day or a week at most, now their interest and focus on a play topic was lasting several months.

An example of this was the doctor/hospital play that started in November. We had many conversations about what the children knew about doctors, what they do and what tools they use. Often the children would be inspired by each other’s ideas. They were no longer simply playing with the toys in the doctor kit until they got bored with them, they were building an IV stand using a Ziploc bag from someone’s lunch, water, some string, and lots of masking tape (boy, do we go through a lot of masking tape). They built an ER, an ambulance, an ultrasound machine, a heart rate monitor and a maternity ward, complete with incubators for the babies who were born too early. Every day patients died and were brought back to life. The drama was intense, the engagement was high and what they were learning from each other kept building every day.

They were excited by each other’s ideas and spent a lot of time thinking carefully about where they wanted to take their play next. They were interested in reading books to learn more and began coming to school with ready ideas and questions. They approached their friends or me with their inquiries as soon as they came in the door in the morning. Interest, passion, curiosity, excitement, engagement, and learning were all very high and beginning to extend across the curriculum as I began to weave reading, writing, math, social studies and science concepts into their play in natural ways.

With all of this going on it was hard for any of us, including the teacher, to not feel excited every day about what was going to unfold next. The conversations that we were having every day were transforming our classroom community, our play and our learning. I believe that my students were empowered by this process and that they developed skills well beyond any prescribed learning outcomes, including confidence, problem solving skills, social and cooperative skills, creativity, a sense of presence in school and heightened awareness of their own actions and those of their peers… and I could go on and on. I believe that the power of taking the time to engage in conversation is almost endless.