Supporting Child-Directed Play

Delivery Method: 

At the beginning of the school year, a small group of pre-kindergarten children work alongside each other on a large magnetic wall.  Note that while working on a vertical surface, the child’s body does not get in the way, as it often does when working on a carpet or raised platform.  Observe that the children can easily manipulate the flexible, open-ended materials – bendable tracks, movable magnetic letters, numbers, shapes, and supports.  The scale of the large magnetic wall facilitates co-construction by allowing the three children to engage in different activities side by side, remaining out of each other’s way, yet interacting as the moments offer.

The children demonstrate different forms of pre-literacy knowledge, and the teacher works to support each child, while observing and documenting their work.  As the episode begins, Dean writes on the wall with a marker and says, “I’m making my name. I’m spelling something.”  His placement of the letters shows that he knows that written text is conventionally orientated along a horizontal plane. Dean may also intend to differentiate the letter forms by giving them a more jagged, up an down shape that contrasts with the curvy forms of the adjacent magnetic numbers (00:11).

Nate shows that he understands that letters are part of a shared symbol system that carries meaning when he places three magnetic letters on the wall and asks his teacher, “What does this say?” (00:31).  Rather than treat the letters as an invented word, the teacher decides to give each letter name, “Well, it says D, J, M” (00:33).  Nate replies, “No, going that way,” revealing that he has developed at least some letter recognition, since he can match the teacher's spoken sequence to the sequence of magnetic letters.  Moving from right to left, the teacher again names the letters, “M, J, D.”  We learn that the child assumes a group of letters forms a word when Nate rephrases his question more carefully, “What does that spell?” (00:44).  Notice that the teacher acknowledges the child’s assumption as she explains, “It doesn’t spell a word, it’s just some letters.”  She then invites the child to consider if the letter combination sounds like a word by pronouncing the letter sounds (00:50), “MJD”, saying, “dah,” rather than “dee” at the end, as one would say at the end of a readable word.

A bit later, the teacher repeats this strategy.  Nate adds the letter E to the left of his letter grouping and asks, “What does this spell?”  Before proceeding, the teacher asks the child in which direction the letters should be read (“Which way?”), and Nate indicates from left to right.  Interestingly, after she shares the phonetic pronunciation Nate asks, “What does that mean?” (01:38), suggesting that he appreciates that even if it’s an unfamiliar sound, if it is a word it must have meaning.  We are reminded that the young child confronts a challenging task when working to discern letter groupings that convey meaning (words) from those that do not.

Dean might be trying to create an affiliation between height and large numbers as he stretches to place magnetic numbers high up on the wall.  As a strategy to learn about the child’s work, the teacher offers an observation, “Dean, I notice you’re adding a lot more numbers” (01:55).  Dean knows that individual numbers can be combined to make new numbers and he asks, “What does three zeros with a three all add up?” (02:00).  With this question, the child could mean to ask, “What do these symbols say?” or, “How big of a number is this?”  The child adds a couple more zeros, one in the middle that effectively joins the two strands of numbers (02:08) and one on the end to his left (02:14).  Dean assumes that he has changed the meaning of the numbers and asks, “Now what does it say?” (02:22).  He may sense that number combinations are limitless (unlike letter combinations), and he enjoys playing with the flexibility of the number symbols.  The teacher affirms that the child’s revised grouping (10 numbers) carries a new meaning as she says, “Wow, that’s a really big number.”  We speculate whether Dean understands that the value of the number is big, or that it is big in the sense that it takes up a lot of space. And perhaps he knows that 00000 needs some other number in front (e.g. 3) before it symbolizes a lot of something. 

Nate shifts from letters to numbers. He places ‘8862’ on the wall and asks, “What’s that?”  The teacher, instead of giving away the answer, asks Nate, “Can you tell me?”  Alas, Nate replies, saying, “I don’t know” (02:36).

Dean invents a pretend play scenario for his number play.  He says, “I need those numbers to make my huge station” (02:40). Young children often morph numbers and/or words to describe things.  In this instance, huge could indicate height. The teacher might ask, “When you say, ‘huge’, do you mean really high?”  Moments later, Dean adds two more numbers to the left end of his row and says, “I’m making a bigger one” (03:10). What does it mean when a child is equally comfortable adding a number to the front or the back in order to make it “bigger”?  Pre-kindergarten children sort of know that the longer the number the bigger quantity it represents.  Dean seems content adding numbers to the front or the back.  If he wants to make a number that represents a bigger quantity, it would be more sensible to add zeros to the end.

Nate adds more numbers to the left side of his row, perhaps due to limited space, and says, “What does that one spell?” (04:00).  The teacher likely intends to give the children an opportunity to better define what  “bigger” means when she says, “Did we make it bigger?”  Nate runs his finger from left to right across the row of numbers and says, “What does that say?” (04:03).  The teacher picks up on the child’s sense of directionality and asks, “Which way do you want me to read it?” (04:10), and then works to extend the child’s literacy development saying, “Can you help me? What number is on the end?”

Throughout the episode, the teacher sustains the play and supports the children by giving them information and appreciating their competencies.  She assumes that the children are not just playing around and lets them come up with their own objectives.  The teacher knows that something important is happening, or could be happening, and she allows herself to have faith in these ostensibly meaningless activities.  For example, she doesn’t seem to mind that the children’s play with numbers has nothing to do with adding or subtracting.  In this episode, the teacher chooses to support the child-directed play and resists the tendency to try to “bump up” what the children are doing to something that may be more challenging.

Length of video: 5 minutes 21seconds

Keywords: Children-Teacher, Numbers, Literacy, Teaching, Environments