When I was a new teacher, I just wanted the kids to like me. I was funny, made them laugh, and I would select fun activities for them to do… but that was all. I would change the activities when I thought they needed changing. I did not think about why I was putting out material. I just thought, these are fun and will keep them busy. Many years later, after learning from great master teachers such as Patricia Hunter McGrath and Dr. Lilian Katz, I realized there was one fundamental aspect that separates the “greats” from the rest.
Simply said: Intentionality
What is my INTENTION, and how can the materials I offer/present support that?
For example: I had a group of children who were very interested in making sounds by tapping on various objects and pieces of furniture to make various sounds. Rather than tell them to stop, or pull out a few percussion instruments, I asked them what they liked about what they were doing and suggested that they might want to build something with the purpose of only making sounds. They were very excited by the possibility and started brainstorming ideas. They made a list of materials, and over a period of weeks they created multiple “sound machines”. From the moment they decided what they needed, the materials took on a very strong purpose. Scissors, tape, string, assorted pieces of wood, metal plastic and more, they created their own instruments making the sounds they wanted and discovered what would help them do so.
Another example: I wanted to encourage children to learn their numbers. Rather than set up counting markers or number puzzles, I knew they were interested in candy (it was around Halloween!). We talked about where candy comes from, and one child said it came from the candy making factory. This propelled the children to create their own Candy factory. Over a period of weeks they proceeded to invent a variety of candy lines fabricated out of various materials. I brought in recycled candy boxes and various containers to sort what they had made. Their challenge became organizing the candy to sell! They wanted to put prices on them, count how many were going in each bag, count the bags, etc… They were not only motivated to count, sort and organize, but they also wanted to write the names of the candies on labels.
One last example: I saw that a group of children had a particular interest in building very long horizontal structures with blocks. It was the action of making it long that interested them, but we had limited space in which to work. I asked myself, what else could I make available to them to support this interest in length? So I offered them materials which they could use in addition to the blocks to expand the structure while keeping the original composition intact! I presented them with pinecones, twigs and rocks, and they continued working, fascinated with the length of their creation. From there, I asked them to make connections, “What do you think is long like what you are building?” They came up with many ideas, which turned into a further expansion of the project. They drew their idea, then painted their idea, then planned what materials they might need to make their idea come to life in three dimensions.
There are two main steps for applying INTENTION to early childhood education. You begin by observing and recognizing the interest/fascination. Once you have that in mind, you can plan to support their interest and expand on their knowledge base, and THIS is where the INTENTION really comes in. Support and encourage growth curiosity and research, sustained exploration and investigation of details. In the first example, the sound play transformed into learning about vibrations, density, engineering, problem solving and cause and effect. In the second: math, literacy, organization and analysis. The third: measurement, balance, gravity, physics and engineering.
It’s not just about keeping their interest, it is about setting them up to discover and explore new areas of thinking that will aid them in science, technology, engineering, art and math. It is so important to introduce this kind of thinking in early childhood education, and if you begin from a place of interest and follow up with expansion and integration of STEAM concepts, you will create a fun and captivating environment for learning!