by Travis Tagart
We in the Early Childhood Education field, especially those of us who are trying to professionalize the concept of play-based education, have a lot of fancy words to sidestep the word "toy". Materials, parts, enrichment, whatever you want to call them--I'm talking about the objects in the classroom that children may use to work (play) with.
But what if there weren't any? What if you walked into an early learning environment and just saw... nothing? Such was the case for the children and parents in our program a few weeks ago. You see, we have a group of kids who are specifically independent, whose play scenarios have deepened so much over time that any new toy added to the environment becomes a casualty of apathy.
This will happen to you every once in a while, where you have a group of children so connected with one another that interpersonal play needs no props--children who just want to play pretend. All day. Every day. Children who are far more interested in the imagination they can act out and squeeze out of each other that toys and materials are devalued because, well, they're not valuable aspects of the scenario. Trouble is, if you're like us, you might not realize that at first.
To us, we struggled with what we were convinced were behavior problems. It seemed every day we were losing about 5% of our materials inventory to children just purposefully breaking them, and in a program whose three rules are "Don't hurt yourself, don't hurt others, and don't hurt property", having 1/3 of the rules continuously broken was beginning to stress teachers out. It felt as though the children were being disrespectful because they couldn't take a toy off the shelf without at least attempting to shatter it. Something had to be done.
We brainstormed. Why are they doing this? Maybe they're bored. When are they doing this? All the time! Then, "what are they playing?" Pretend.
All hours of the day--pretend. Maybe they're seeing all these toys, materials, and loose parts as distractions because they think they're supposed to be doing something with them, but they know they don't care about them nor do they want them involved. We observed a bit.
After a transition, the kids would disperse through the environment and take items from the shelves, and immediately be caught up in games of pretend, abandoning what they had just dumped out for something deeper and more meaningful. Then, in the midst of pretend, running around, toys were getting--you guessed it--stepped on. And by the time transitions were started, a good portion of these toys that were only taken from the shelves because the children thought they needed to get something out were being shoved anywhere and everywhere, including the trash. We knew the problem, and we knew the solution, but the solution is a little scary.
We removed all materials from the classroom. The plan was that when the children returned to the classroom, we would continue business as usual, and only fetch toys and materials if a child asks for something. We put up a sign so parents would know we were being mindful, not neglectful. What happened next was unexpected to say the least.
Nobody asked for a single toy or material back.
The books stayed in the classroom.
Art stayed in the classroom.
Blocks, dramatic play materials, and various loose parts--nobody asked for any of it back. This interest in interpersonal prop-free play was so powerful it completely removed the need for exogenous stimuli during the scenarios. It took a whole two weeks for blocks to make a return. Someone even called Nebraska DHHS to complain, at which point we had a lot of unprofessional opinions from a DHHS representative (with no background in ECE) we've never met before telling us how bored our children running around in capes were, because active children apparently implies they're bored in this too-far-gone compliance-based culture. I digress.
We learned a lot about the children in our program with this project. We learned a lot about ourselves as educators with this project. And the children learned what we wish they would have known originally, which is that you don't need to get something out. You don't need to look busy. You can just start by playing with each other. We don't expect that materials have to be part of the equation. That stasis is not the goal. A quiet, compliant, individually engaged, and busy-work-loaded classroom is not our goal, nor our expectation--and that should never be expected of a group of children at all.
You can do this, too, even if your state has a requirement about what needs to be in your classroom. I've helped quite a few programs do this in states like this. If your licensing body pitches a fit, you can pitch one right back, but be sure to be loaded with ammunition--information about what you're doing and the intention behind it. They cannot prevent you from doing what's best for children. Do not live in fear.
Take the leap--you'll be glad you did it.
Our posts are created by several early childhood professionals. Most stories will include the author's name and a link to their "About Me" or the program they own or represent.