Imagine new possibilities

We always jump at the chance to publish Marie Catrett's lovely Reggio Emilia–style documentation of her young students’ learning. Here’s the latest, a photo and video essay on the many uses the children have found for their classroom’s light table. Marie directs Tigerlily Preschool in South Austin.

Agency is the idea that when we act, and act strategically, we effect change upon our environment. Babies are agentive, reaching out into the world, building knowledge, ability, and strength from their own active experience without a negative internal voice suggesting otherwise. “I can’t” comes later when people tell children they are too small, what they want to do is too dangerous, or there’s not enough time to allow for all that pokey trying. But children need thoughtful adults to hold the space for them to explore with the trust and awareness of their own inner judgment. Do what feels right for you in your own body, I tell a child who’s thinking about whether to make the swing go higher. Hold tight with both hands (my rule!), but do what feels right to you.

In my teaching I observe children to understand them better and strive to be a supportive presence that honors the children’s agency.

When things get stuck, I might state what I see: Hmmm, I can’t let you push him, but tell me about what’s not working. This play isn’t working yet, but I know we can figure this out. Then I ask questions. What do you think? How else could you ______? Can you think of another way to _____? How could we find out? And my favorite question for a child who has just made something interesting happen is how did you do that? The response will be wonderfully agentive: Well, first I did this, and then I did that, and then . . . . Wow!

We want children to have a strong sense of agency and from that imagine new possibilities.

The key is curiosity, and it is curiosity, not answers, that we model. As we seek to know more about a child, we demonstrate the acts of observing, listening, questioning and wondering. When we are curious about a child’s words and our responses to those words, the child feels respected. The child is respected. ‘What are the ideas I have that are so interesting? I must be somebody with good ideas.’
—Vivian Paley

When thoughtfully providing children with a new experience to support their continued work, it seems to me that I have a responsibility to provide an introduction that expands rather than limits possibilities. Provide a child with quality materials and give her time to make her own discoveries—the delight of “Look what I just did!” I’ve thought about this idea quite a bit this semester as my children have gotten to know the new light table in our classroom.  

A piece of Reggio equipment that we see in each of their classrooms excited the imagination of North Americans. But the light table, after its purchase, is often misunderstood and underutilized. Think of the light table as a tool that will work independently to teach the children about translucency and opacity. They can do anything on the light table that they might do on any other table. Leave it to the children to figure out what the table is for! It’s safe for them to use either wet or dry media on the table—collage, paint, markers or to build with Legos—or anything. You can even eat there. Note the many uses the children invent. Left to their own exploration, they’ll come to discover what’s light permeable and what isn’t. Our strong Image of the Child and our commitment to children’s agency alert us to back off from providing familiar materials so that children can make their own discoveries.
Seeing Young Children with New Eyes: What We’ve Learned from Reggio Emilia about Children and Ourselves by Sydney Gurewitz Clemens and Leslie Gleim

Here are some of the uses the children have discovered for their light table:

This afternoon the light table became a place to do clay. Viviana did some very fun flat faces, carving through the clay so the light illuminates the features. Stella, busy with flat-making for pizza, gets connected with a rolling pin to see if that tool helps her take clay where she wants it to go.

Shivani (proudly): Guys! Look at the table!
Macky (proudly): It’s a parking lot.
Stella (admiringly): Look at all these squares.


Stella tells me she’s not happy with the way she’s making the letter S. I can give you something to help, I say, using a pencil to make a row of S's. She gets a marker and traces over her page of practice S’s. Actually she gets many markers and does each S in a different color. Writing “rainbow” has become a thing with the group.
Stella: That S is my best one.

Always looking to help the kids find more uses for their light table, this morning I left a basket of very pretty leaves out close by, hoping somebody might notice and combine the leaves with our fantastic light source. Kids did notice the leaves. Viviana decides she’ll draw them at the light table (hooray!) and she begins. Pretty soon somebody thinks that they wish there were flowers for drawing too. I get down the rest of the arrangement, a wonderful assortment of floral shapes and textures. I tell the children that if they see a flower they’d like to draw, they can each take one out of the vase at a time for looking at more closely. One child is pretty certain there’s only one way to draw a flower, making four small circles close together in what looks like a symbolic representation of flower. This is how you do it, she insists, I know because my babysitter taught me. The children consider this. Is there only one way to make a flower?
Marie (gently): I see that is one way to make one kind of flower. And you can do that. And you know what else, let’s look closely at the flowers kids wanted on the light table for drawing because . . . hmmm  . . . oh, I am seeing so many different shapes, I wonder about other ways to make flowers, too?
There is talk about making different kinds of flowers.
Shivani: Look at this flower!
Stella: I like this. I like this drawing flowers.

I am delighted with the latest kid-invented use for our light table. The back story is that in tidying my home I recently came across several spatulas and a big spoon, thought these kitchen items might appeal to the children in the dress-up/pretend-play collection, and added them in. About a week ago kids began making up a game where you push a whiffle ball across the room using the spatulas. This has been called "doing golf." Today the golf game had an entirely new setup on top of the light table, and I see much to admire in the children’s play: inventive use of the table, including making fine use of the on/off switch; "winning" is handled and made inclusive by the children; Viviana’s suggestion that they pause the game to make time to practice; their clear delight with themselves!

We’re continuing to take our time with paper and exploring collage making. I had put out a bin of tissue paper, hoping to encourage more discovery of what kids can do with tissue paper after one child noticed that the thin paper could be squeezed, rolled, and shaped much like our clay. Today kids could keep exploring tissue paper on top of the light table. We can crumple, fold, roll, and tear the paper so far. Viviana combined several pieces and announced she’d made a flower, see?

Stella (carefully covering every bit of the paper with paint, then using a toothpick to inscribe her name): I made the whole world.

Viviana (working with wire after her baby brother’s birth): Come look at the baby I made.

Marie Catrett