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

Something beautiful: A solstice story

To celebrate the winter solstice, Marie Catrett has generously shared with Alt Ed Austin’s readers the gift of this moving story, adapted from a letter she sent yesterday to the parents of her students at Tigerlily Preschool. (It turns out to be a story within a story within a letter within a blog post!) Enjoy—and may your long winter nights be filled with light.


December 20, 2013

I’m still moving through all the layers of the story I’m sharing here today. It touches many different parts of me and my work here. You might already know that Reggio thinking, which I admire so much, began with a school started in Italy built literally from the rubble of World War II. Such a respectful, empowered view of learning arose from terrible circumstances. Of the many stories I'm learning in my own teaching journey, you could say Reggio thinking hooked me from the start as I'm a sucker for a good phoenix tale. . . .

Word had it that at Villa Cella, the people had gotten together to put up a school for the young children; they had pulled out the bricks from the bombed-out houses and had used them to build the walls of the school. Only a few days has passed since the Liberation and everything was still violently topsy-turvy . . .
     I felt hesitant, frightened. My logical capabilities, those of a young elementary school teacher overwhelmed by the events, led me to conclude that, if it were true (and how I hoped it were!), more than anomalous or improbable, it was out of this world . . . maybe someone from Cella would show up. No one did.
     That is why I got on my bicycle and rode out to Villa Cella. I got confirmation from a farmer just outside the village; he pointed out the place, a long way ahead. There were two piles of sand and bricks, a wheelbarrow full of hammers, shovels and hoes. Behind a curtain made of rugs to shield them from the sun, two women were hammering the old mortar off the bricks.
     The news was true, and the truth was there, for all to see on this sunny spring day, in the uneven but stubborn hammering of these two women. One of them looked up at me and waited; I was a stranger, someone from the city, maybe they could tell from the part in my hair or my low-cut brown shoes. “We’re not crazy! If you really want to see, come on Saturday or Sunday, when we’re all here. Al fom da boun l’asilo (we’re really going to make this school)!” . . .
     I had the honor of experiencing the rest of the story . . . and it remained an uninterrupted lesson given by men and women whose ideas were still intact, who had understood long before I had that history can be changed, and is changed by taking possession if it, starting with the destiny of the children.

. . . a new educational experience can emerge from the least expected circumstances . . .

—excerpts from “History, Ideas, and Basic Principles:
An Interview with Loris Malaguzzi,” in
The Hundred Languages of Children: The Reggio Emilia Experience in Transformation

Willa: (Upon arriving, handing me a small gift to unwrap; she and I are holding something wrapped in tissue) Look, can you see a little bit of golden peeking out?

Marie: I can, I can. (We unwrap further.)

Willa: It makes me think of a bird. (Gesturing to the folded paper that is with it) Read the words that tell you about it!

I read the paper to myself.  Here is some of what the paper says: “This candleholder spreads peaceful light from the remains of a brass bomb shell. Handcrafted by artisans of Cambodia’s Rajana Association. . . . ‘When we make jewelry [like this] then we know our country has peace,’ said one young silversmith.”

Willa gives me a hug and skips off to play. I watch the children, holding the candlestick for a while, until I call the children in for circle.

Marie: I want to tell a story that takes place in a far-away place called Cambodia. The people there were a having a big terrible problem where some people thought one thing and some people thought something else. And the people didn’t do talking about it. They got mad, mad, mad, mad and had a war.

Daphne: What’s a war?

Willa: It’s when you get so angry you’re like (waving arms like sword play) and set off bombs.

Marie: Big big fighting, mmmhmm.

Emerson: Yeah, and sometimes wars have those truck things that shoot out bullets. And bombs, they explode.

Willa: [In Cambodia] there were some bombs that didn’t explode, right?

Nayan: And there’s some places far away that didn’t have problems.

Kids name some far-away places.

Marie: This story is about the place called Cambodia.

Nayan: And there was bullet world.

Marie: The people there were having the terrible problems with each other. But then the people thought it was too much fighting and wanted it to stop. The people that thought one thing and the people that thought a different thing started talking to each other. And about how to fix the problems. Like how kids say, “I’ll be nice to you if you’ll be nice to me.” Finally the people did that. They said, “I’ll be nice to you if you’ll be nice to me,” and it stopped the fighting. But, because of all the fighting they’d had, there were still some bombs where they lived. So some people had the job to go find the bombs and put them away so they couldn’t hurt anybody.

Emerson: Spray them with water to try to kill the fire in them!

Marie: Yeah, they have ways to make them not dangerous anymore and had workers to do it. And, the people also wanted to make stuff. So when they had made the pieces of the bomb not dangerous anymore people thought and they thought and they thought. And they thought: hmmm, we had these big problems . . . and now things are better . . .

Emerson: (Really excited) And! And I know! How ’bout they make something out of those bombs?! And fill them up with water so it’s safe!

Willa: Yeah! And the water can just squirt out if there is a fire, (with a button like) push push push!

Marie: They did just exactly that, they did decide to make something good out of the stuff that had been the bombs.

Willa: They made a candle holder! They made something beautiful. This is something that my mother got for Marie that’s really really delicate.

Daphne: Is it her Christmas present?

Willa: It is her Christmas present! I wrapped it.

Emerson: It was in a box, right?

Willa: Yeah, and I wrapped it with blue paper, and I used a yellow ribbon for her.

Marie: We can pass the candle holder around before we light it ’cause I would like to share it with everybody.

Kids pass the candle holder around the circle, quiet and focused.

Marie: Everyone take one little scoouch back so we can light it, all see it, and be safe about the candle flame. (Getting ready to light the candle) Oh, I’m feeling so many feelings! That this candle used to be a bomb for hurting. And then people started talking, and made things better. And then people decided to make something beautiful out of it.

Nayan: Should you light it now?

Willa: It might do burning?

Marie: Well, it can’t do any more hurting now, it’s a candle holder, now that the people have made it into something wonderful.

Willa: It might burn up the metal?

Daphne: Or it might go all over the house?

Marie: Now it can’t be anything but a beautiful candle for looking at. I’m sure it’s completely safe. (Being careful like we are about candles when we light one together, I would add, though in the conversation I am certain the kids are needing to know that the candle can’t be a bomb anymore). This candle has been on a very big journey. It was a bomb, it used to be able to do hurting, but then the hurting stopped and people made it into a new thing, a wonderful thing. And then a mama saw it and thought it would be a good present. To be a beautiful candle to be special at our school. And a kid put it in a pretty striped box and wrapped it up in blue paper and tied it with a yellow string and gave it to me. And I opened it up and learned the candle’s story, and now I’m telling the story of the candle to you children.

Emerson: I wish I had it.

Marie: We’ll enjoy it, all of us together, and that’s the best part now of this candle story. It’s a pretty wonderful thing.

I light the candle and we’re singing together:

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
I’m gonna let it shine
I’m gonna let it shine
This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine
Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine

Won’t let anyone (whsssh!) it out, I’m gonna let it shine . . .
Hide it under a bushel? No! I’m gonna let it shine . . .
Take this light around the world, I’m gonna let it shine . . .

We sing “This Little Light of Mine” with one finger for a candle, the other hand spread behind it, “to shine the light.”

The Something Beautiful candle
Marie Catrett

Learning to document children’s learning (Part 3)

This is the conclusion of Marie Catrett’s three-part guest post on the methods and results of daily documentation at Tigerlily Preschool. If you haven’t already, be sure to read Part 1 and Part 2 first. And feel free to share your own thoughts or questions for Marie by clicking on “Post a Comment” below.

We return for a second visit to the train station. This time Elias is on his feet, exploring everywhere, bursting with excitement.

Elias: (At the station, before its arrival) Waiting for the train to come! Waiting for the train to blow its horn! It’s the train, it’s the train! Talked to the conductor!

I tell the children that I will take pictures of anything they think is interesting. I notice that on our second visit we’re paying more attention to other vechicles and people.

Wyatt: A man driving a truck and a part of the train.
Willa: A train and a honking thing.
Emerson: See a guy driving it.
Waytt: In the back there’s a black part.
Willa: Yeah, that’s where they would sit.
Emerson: For bags!
Willa: Or anybody could sit in the back.

Willa and her mom visit with some passengers from the train.

Nayeli visits with the station master.


Reflecting more about our second trip to the train station, we listen to the recording I made of the train’s arrival.

Listening to the sound of the train arriving at the station.

Wyatt: He said “tickets”!
Elias: Ding ding ding! It’s the train sound! It’s the train! (Running)
Emerson: (Whistle sounds) A train!

Wyatt asks me to play the clip again and again.


Elias notices a stack of laundry baskets near us on the blue rug. Yesterday Wyatt and then Emerson discovered that they could climb into the red basket that usually holds paper for painting. Paired up with my black laundry basket, climbing in and out became a popular thing to do yesterday. It was pretty hard to wait to climb inside; whichever kid was in the basket wanted to have a really long turn. Wyatt told me that he wished we could have more laundry baskets at school, and would I write that down?


I keep what the children call my “Little Notebook” on me at all times, tucked handily into an apron pocket for writing down their words. If I leave my Little Notebook lying around, a kid is sure to notice and come running to me, full of urgency and great care. Here, Marie, you forgot your Little Notebook! Willa led the way in wanting her very own Little Notebook, and now anybody who wants a Little Notebook gets one. I hear a lot of “hmmm, maybe I need to write that down.”


Willa makes notes about a friend’s construction.

Now Elias notices and unstacks these new baskets, climbing inside one.

A “play explosion” then takes place—laughing, hooting, rocking, crawling . . .
After a while I sit again next to Elias on the sofa. He joined in at the beginning for a bit and then decided to watch. We are both transfixed by all the stories that are forming and bouncing off each other in the center of the room. Often four children are involved, sometimes pairing up two and two, then rejoining again as a group. Nayeli, Wyatt, and Willa all seem to take turns leading the play. Emerson is very eager and willing to support the next piece of the narrative, joining in with so much joy.

This play keeps shifting again and again, ending up with “going to the train station.” Nayeli is the driver. They go and go, then all jump out, then jump back in to “drive some more to the station.”


Elias makes up a new song, “The Wheels on the Passenger Train,” which I play on the guitar and we sing together. We add “The Wheels on the Passenger Train” to our song list.


Wyatt starts laundry basket play again and announces that he’s playing train station. I tell him: Come tell me if you’d like to hear the train sounds when you play. Wyatt is excited about this idea and asks to hear the audio clip.

Elias: I have to go catch . . . I have to go!
Wyatt: Quickly! Elias: Ding, ding! (Train horn honks) Ding ding!
Emerson: Again again! We start the recording again.
Elias: Train, train . . . I have to go catch the train! (Train horn) The train!!!
Willa: (Climbing into a basket) I’m a conductor.


Basket play is happening nearly every day, directed entirely by the children. I watch Elias choose to get right in the middle of this joyous, active play and I am delighted to see the connections that train play has created in our classroom. This is my goal for all the kids: our school is a special place that honors and celebrates who you are. And what shall we play today?

We look forward to our third visit to the train station, returning later this month.

© Marie Catrett

Learning to document children’s learning (Part 2)

Marie Catrett’s story continues, documenting the conversations, activities, and discoveries of Elias and his friends at Tigerlily Preschool as they explore the world of trains. (If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.)

Marie: We are on a trip today to visit the train station. Could we take a look at your suitcase?
Woman at the station: Sure.
Nayeli: Does yours have a bar that goes up? For pulling?
Woman at the station: Yes.
Marie: Do you think we could see?
Woman at the station: Okay. (She raises up her handle.)
Nayeli: Like mine!


[Click the play button below to listen to the sounds of the train station!]

Elias (Delighted) It’s the train! The Amtrak train! Look at those tracks.
Nayeli: I see the actual train.
Elias: Is it the 107 train?
Marie: You know, it has a number on it right here actually. One-one-four, this is the 114 train.
Nayeli: Headlights! Here are two headlights and another headlight and then two more.
Elias: The train was blowing its horn.
Emerson: ‘Member I saw a locomotive. I said hi to the train!
Marie: Did it make a noise?
Emerson: I was worried. Went chhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.
Marie: A big noise?
Emerson: A- CHOOOOOOOO CHOOOOOOOO! Maked noise! It made a big noise! A- CHOOOOOOOO CHOOOOOOO! It was a passenger train. A Amtrak train (is a) passenger train. Saw locomotives!

Our first visit to the station. Elias is interested but cautious: he wants to be held by mom during our time there.

Nayeli: She has a suitcase and a pillow! She brought a pillow to sleep with!
Emerson: (The passengers) Went inside to go to sleep on the train. Need to wake up. Snoring. They were snoring.
Elias: Going to have dinner! They’re going to have dinner together in the dining car! Ding ding ding ding!

Back at school, train songs have become part of our song list, and we sing them often, at the children’s request.

Elias: Sing “Engine Number Nine”!

Engine, Engine Number Nine
Going down Chicago Line
If the train should jump the track
Do you want your money back?
Yes? No? Maybe so!


Marie: (Talking to Elias when he selects his Legos) What kind of train will you play today?
Elias: It’s a commuter train. It wants to go to the airport. The train wants to take people to Pei Wei (restaurant).

Elias: The train is coming out of the train station. See, it’s an Amtrak train. Bye bye train! Mmmmmm-mmmmmm (making the sound of the train horn).
Willa: (Running up) I want to come to the train station!
Marie: Oh, maybe you will be an Amtrak train?
Willa: First I need to get far away.
Marie: Maybe we will hear your horn.


Emerson decides to make a train out of clay.

Emerson: Make a track. Tank car, tank car! Make a freight car. Make the freight on it. Make a track . . .


Elias, Nayeli, and Wyatt build vehicles together.

Elias: And big ones, and big ones! (Jumping up with excitement) Are those trains ready? They’re going pretty fast!

Stay tuned for Part 3, coming June 23.

© Marie Catrett

Learning to document children’s learning (Part 1)

A key element of the Reggio Emilia–inspired approach practiced in a number of Austin alternative schools and preschools is the documentation of children’s daily experiences. In this three-part guest post, Marie Catrett provides a case study of the thoughtful and detailed documentation that occurs at Tigerlily Preschool.

This past January I reopened my in-home program, Tigerlily Preschool. I was excited to return to teaching and eager to bring something new to my work with children. Based on a mentorship that had begun in July 2011 with master teacher Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, I was certain that one of the new things I wanted to bring to Tigerlily was the practice of using daily documentation to record children’s learning.

When I made the decision to reopen Tigerlily, Sydney’s first question for me was: how do you plan to use documentation in your program? I wanted to pay attention to this particular group of children’s interests, teach with intention, connect families to our journey, and share my work with other folks who might be interested in a playful, creative, and expressive early childhood experience.

After each day of class, our families and Sydney receive an email that contains photos and conversations that reflect what went on in our classroom that day. Parents read “Our Day” with their children each evening, and together they talk about their child’s journey at Tigerlily. “Our Day” also resides in paper form in a notebook at school so that the children and I can refer to it and remember our history.

Elias is the quiet child in our group, talking most to the grownups in his world. The other kids like to talk to kids. Nayeli’s first words to me at an open house in December were: “Hello. I’m Nayeli. And you’re Marie. This is my new school and all my friends will be here. Oh look, you have animals!” She was not quite three years old. Off she went, creating habitats for tiny toy animals with the blocks, exuding confidence and enthusiasm. Elias was much, much quieter.

A few weeks into our time together, another child, Willa, asked Elias about wanting to play with a yellow toy hammer, a cherished item in our back yard. He replied to her and she came running back to me, remarking on the experience as a special one. “Elias gave me his words.” When Elias speaks, it feels special to me, too.

He is a kid who often prefers to start out watching from the sidelines, engaging in his own quiet play. I watched him, took photos, and tried to understand. Gathering data for documentation helped me to pay attention to the details of his behavior, to see what he was interested in, and to support that interest in our classroom.

Elias spends a long time playing with a particular building block, moving it slowly back and forth in a way I’ve seen him move a Lego piece about. Later in the day I show him that particular block and ask him what it made him think about today.

Elias: Subway train!

Remembering that showing Elias the block prompted the train response to my question, the next day I make this invitation: “I’m going to read Freight Train over here. Anyone who wants to hear the story can come, too.” Elias joins us for story time for the first time.

The early weeks of school go by, and I am busy introducing the children to the workings of our new classroom. By mid-February I find I can easily pinpoint interests and activities that have excited each of the other children but am left scratching my head a bit with Elias. Following my lead, he has engaged in and explored many activities, but I don’t feel that he has truly arrived at his school.

What I most often see him do is carry around either the Lego train set we have, or a long wooden block, or two Legos held close together. He carries them, sometimes making a soft noise to himself. It is a modest activity but always seems to be much richer inside his head than what I see; he’s very focused. I plan to take some pictures of Elias doing this play throughout the morning today.

Elias: Reading Trains! There’s a snow train. There’s a Euro Star. It’s a subway train (the wooden block). Is there a passenger train?
Emerson: A mountain train, right there (in the book).
Elias: It’s a steam train (the blue, red, and yellow plastic train)!
Nayeli: A long, long steam train.
Elias: It (the steam train) has to pick up the passengers. It’s a snow train (the red and green Legos laid end to end).
Marie: Does the snow train make a sound when you play that?
Elias: Makes a quiet sound in the snow. Goes . . . (makes a very soft noise).

Sydney and I discuss what we see here. We are both very excited to hear so much language from Elias! I tell her how much I’d like to offer something that really speaks to him, and she wonders if there might be a train station that we could visit.

Elias returns to the train book, sparking interest from Willa and Nayeli as well.

Elias: (excited, to me) Reading Trains. Look at the wheels (touches the wheels on the toy train and the wheels on the train pictures in the book). (Monorail trains) are upside down trains!
Willa: There’s a train in his hand. Elias is playing with the train.

Willa asks to see the model, takes a look, and then passes it back to Elias. I hear talk throughout the day from the other kids about its lights and the windows.

Nayeli: The train is going choo-choo. I peeked in the windows.

Train play comes outside, too! For a second day Elias and Emerson spend a long time working to pile sand up under a corner of the sandbox.

Emerson: Making a fire, making a fire! There!
Elias: I’m stoking the fire. Where do you want to put the coal? Putting coals into the fire. Here comes the train! That’s part of the blue zoo train. On the track it moves. Trains move on their tracks.
Nayeli: I went on a train with my papa. I said “hi everyone!” when I was on the train.
Nayeli: (sings) Elias, Elias, you shine like a star.
Willa: (also sings) We love you Elias, just as you are.
Elias: I rode on a train outside.
Willa: Was it a monorail train?
Elias: Rode on a Mallard train. Mama rode with me. Went up in the passenger car.


Emerson: Made a passenger train.

Train interest is now very present in our classroom. The parents and I plan what will be the first of three visits to the Austin Amtrak station.

In our program, field trip experiences come in threes. The first visit lets the children focus on the magic of a new place: everything is new! If you see a ladybug on the sidewalk, well, perhaps that sidewalk always has a ladybug. A second trip allows us to test those initial impressions and gather more information. On a third visit, children have become experts about their encounter.

The children and I prepare for our first visit.


Emerson: I made trains!

We make a list of the things the children think they might see. I hope the list will help organize their interest on our visit.

After making this list, Nayeli decides to make her own list. She sits down to write all the words the children have said.

Nayeli: I wanted to write down about what we had to say. First I draw pictures of the trains. Choo choo choo! (makes small circles going up on the top right). Choo choo choo! Choo choo choo! Okay, ah, we said . . . Emerson said . . . (makes left-to-right row of marks on the paper) he would see a locomotive (more marks). I don’t know what Elias said.
Marie: Would you like me to read it to you off of the list?
Nayeli: Yeah.
Marie: “Elias says I will see an Amtrak train” at the station.
Nayeli: (Writing) Elias said . . . I would see an Amtrak . . . at the station.
Elias: (Listening, also looking at the train book) That’s an Amtrak train!
Nayeli: I have ideas on my list. What did Willa say?
Marie: “Willa thinks she will see toys.”
Nayeli: (Writing) Willa thinks . . . she will see . . . toys. (Points to these new marks) This says Willa thinks . . . she will see . . . toys.
Elias: (Looking over the list with us) I will see an Amtrak train. It has windows.
Nayeli: What did Emerson say he thinks he will see?
Marie: (Reading) Emerson says he will see a locomotive.
Nayeli: Okay. (Writing) Emerson says he will see a locomotive. Anything else he said? Okay, anything that I said again?
Marie: Here’s what I have: Nayeli says there will be trains. Nayeli thinks there will be windows and a picture of a train. Nayeli thinks all the people at the train station will need to bring a suitcase.
Nayeli: Yeah, because you will need to pack up your things in it! And there’s a bar to push it where you want to go. If you push it all the way to the bathroom that will be really far!
Marie: Should we write that?
Nayeli: Yeah! (We both write on our lists.)
Marie: Are you finished? May I put your list next to mine?
Nayeli: I forgot to say conductor on it! Con-duc-tor. I write about conductor here. I will give this list to the conductor, so that way the conductor will remember what his name was on it.

To be continued in Part 2, coming June 21.

© Marie Catrett

The playground as classroom

Michelle Mattalino, who contributed this guest post, is the owner and executive director of The Olive Tree Learning Center, an innovative Austin preschool that emphasizes outdoor learning and follows the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education.

On our playground, under the skyward reaching branches of the oak trees that span hundreds of years, I can hear the lilting laughter of children approaching. As the chatter and energy begin to increase, I know the students are about to flood out onto the playground in a wave of pure motion and purpose. Every student has a mission, it seems. Some flock to the trucks, some to the shovels, others to the playscape and swings, and often a small group will huddle in the playhouse. Each student chooses a mode of play, and then, as in a dance, switches partners, materials, and activity levels. It is perhaps the most fascinating part of my day and the main reason I have based my teachings on the child development work ongoing in Reggio Emilia, Italy.

One of the questions I receive most frequently is “What is Reggio?” The succinct answer is that Reggio is your child. Each child is different, reacting and responding uniquely to the environment and community. The Reggio Emilia model provides children with individualized platforms on which to explore and collaborate, along with guides who can hear and receive their experiences and provide reflection and more research to add to their learning; an environment that is carefully crafted with materials, sensory items, and tools to further their discovery; and a community that lifts them up with respect, understanding, and freedom.

Here at The Olive Tree, I have a deep love and admiration for the team of educators (we call guides) whom I am blessed to work with in applying the Reggio philosophy. The guides and I meet extensively to reflect and research on the words and actions of our students. We present and re-present materials, subjects, and topics that the students have found fascinating, either individually or as a group, and provide the children with the tools and structure necessary to further develop these burgeoning interests.

The guides document learning and exploration for the students and parents to see in pictures and written dialogue. This documentation becomes our pathway for further investigation into a topic, choice, or experience. We walk with them along this discovery path, hand in hand, asking questions and documenting the answers for further thought and focus.

At the end of the day, our children always say that their favorite part was playing. Yes, learning is playing, and the playground is where children assimilate all the information of the day through application and practice, whether they choose the trucks or the playhouse or something else.

With graduation around the corner, I reflect on what I would like my students to take with them from their time on our playground. My wish is for all my students to be able to hear their own voices, through a crowd or while alone; to remember that learning is about how you approach and think about a situation or problem, not necessarily how well you perform, and that mistakes are essential to the growth process and should be viewed as opportunities; to understand how to be safe and healthy; and most importantly, to know that they are capable, competent, and powerful in their own right.

Michelle Mattalino