There are several methods that Livingston Street uses to encourage learning and creativity within the group care setting. Some education approaches are obvious (ie. reading books or playing instructional games). Other teaching approaches are less obvious (ie. creating a meaningful teacher/child bond or using certain materials/toys in play). The teacher/child bond is most important because it allows the child to feel safe in the group setting. When a child feels safe and loved, he/she will challenge themselves intellectually and creatively with their peers, teachers, and the available toys and/or materials.
Many of the toys that we offer to the children are open ended. Open ended materials can be anything that does not have a defined and rigid purpose (like blocks, playdough, or sticks). They are objects that can be used in countless ways during children’s play; or in other words, materials that can be transformed. These loose parts provide a blank canvas for children to use their imaginations to mold into new and exciting props. While more defined materials have their place in play, open ended materials encourage a deeper level of play which requires problem solving, communication, team work, and active engagement. When a child engages in this type of creativity and learning, it’s called symbolic or representational play.
Symbolic play is not something all children attain, but it is the crux of what we work with children to reach. There are many reasons why young children struggle with achieving representational play (too much television/entertainment, feeling unloved/unsafe, too much academic instruction, etc.). Yet, it is vitally important to the overall health and mental well-being of human beings to develop and nurture representational thought. Lev Vygotsky, a leader in Developmental Psychology, states, “Play creates a range of tasks that the child cannot yet handle alone but can accomplish with the help of adults or more skilled peers. In play, the child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior; in play it is as though he were a head taller than himself. As in the focus of a magnifying glass, play contains all developmental tendencies in a condensed form and is itself a major form of development.”
Within this framework, Vygotsky explains that there are two complimentary capacities that emerge from symbolic play:
- The ability to separate thought from actions and objects
- The capacity to renounce impulsive action in favor of deliberate, self-regulatory activity
Here is an example of open-ended play in the playgarden at Livingston Street:
In the span of one morning, a single shower curtain goes through multiple transformations. During our morning outdoor time Dee, Meg, and Rose are playing when Dee asks for a blanket for their picnic. They all help spread the shower curtain on the ground. “What can we use for food?” asks Rose. Soon, they are eating leaf pie, stick hot dogs, and a loaf of brick bread. All these materials are found around the playgarden with a little scavenging. After the picnic if over, Meg declares it is time to go home and go to bed. The children drag the curtain to another part of the playgarden that is their house. They crawl under the curtain and pretend to sleep. Moments later, the three children are walking in a line with the blanket between their legs. Stopping in front of Faith, Dee says, “Get on the train. We’re taking you to Africa!” How wonderful that the children have nothing other than a shower curtain or other scavenged materials to use for imagery!
For Dee, Meg and Rose, the play is diverse and alive with new ideas that continue to flow fluidly over time. The learning that occurs is deep, resonant, and meaningful. In this example of representational play, we hear Dee use the word ‘Africa.’ Has Meg or Rose heard that word before? Do they know what it means; and if not, what can they infer from its use? Well, they can discern that it’s a location. They may also understand that they need to travel to get there. Earlier in play, Rose ponders, “What can we use for food?” and the leaves become a pie for the picnic. The imagery of the pie is separate from the actual object of the leaf and yet, the leaf is used as a catalyst in representing the pie. Meg then suggests moving from the picnic to home. With this suggestion, we can assume that Meg wasn’t interested in playing the picnic theme any longer and was ready for a change. She voiced her recommendation and was rewarded with affirmation from the group. Yet, if the group continued to play the picnic theme, Meg would need to delay her gratification of a theme change or play out her suggestion on her own. It’s extraordinary the level and depth of learning that occurs within a group of young people!
In this next example of symbolic play, Daneep creates a new game with rules and cooperative play. Can you pick out what the kids are learning?
Daneep collected bricks from the play area. He brought them to the end of the path where there is a downhill slope. He lined the bricks up tall across the path. Once he had them all standing, Daneep walked to the top of the path and rolled the ball down the slope. Crash! The ball knocked over the line of bricks. With a big smile of satisfaction, Daneep stood the bricks up again for another round. Soon, more children came over to play a game of brick bowling.
By Faith Delozier and Cheryl Demuth