On Balance: Parenting and Education

Materials, Provocation, and Autonomy: Listening to our Youngest Learners with Laura Sedlock and Rachel Lowdermilk

April 30, 2021 Blue School / Laura Sedlock / Rachel Lowdermilk Season 3 Episode 2
On Balance: Parenting and Education
Materials, Provocation, and Autonomy: Listening to our Youngest Learners with Laura Sedlock and Rachel Lowdermilk
Show Notes Transcript

This week, Dawn continues her conversation with Laura Sedlock, Blue School’s Director of Pre-primary Programs, and Rachel Lowdermilk, Blue School Pre-primary Teacher. Together they demystify the idea of “materials” and “materials work” for young children, explain how provocation can engage children’s natural curiosity, and share ways that parents can support autonomy at home and as we transition closer to normal. 

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DAWN: Welcome to On Balance, a podcast for parents created by Blue School educators. We know that even in ideal circumstances, finding balance can be a challenge. And as we move into this spring and summer with a hint of hope, we know that more than ever, building close connections and listening to and learning from each other is what will get us through. We see you and we’re here to partner with you.

Blue School is an independent school in New York City that has successfully pioneered a balanced educational experience, empowering children to be creative, analytical, joyful, and compassionate. I’m Dawn Williams, Blue School’s Director of Enrollment, and proud parent of a Blue School graduate. Every week I will be talking to an educator, a Blue School advisory board member, or a special guest about today’s ever changing landscape and how we can help each other find our footing. Whether you’re the parent of a toddler or a teenager or anything in between, we’re glad to be on this journey with you. Together we will find our way. 

Today, I’m so excited to be talking further about Blue School, about early childhood education and about parenting young children with Laura Sedlock and Rachel Lowdermilk!

Laura is Blue School's Director of Pre-primary Programs. She is an early childhood educator and leader with over twenty years experience in preschools, in NYC. Her focus is on creating dynamic, equitable and joyful learning environments, grounded in trust and respect for children.

Rachel has been working with toddlers and preschoolers since 2007. She is passionate about creating a welcoming and nurturing classroom environment that supports children as they develop into deep thinkers and empowered citizens of their communities. In addition to her work as a Pre-primary educator at Blue School, Rachel also consults with Sesame Street.

DAWN:  Rachel and Laura, thank you so much for spending more time talking today. It's really exciting to get a little bit more time and a little bit more of your thinking.

LAURA:  Thanks, Dawn. We're happy to be back.

DAWN: So I'd love to start by digging into this word "materials" and "materials work," which we say a lot at Blue School, and I wonder if you could talk about what we mean when we talk about materials and what you see as the value in or the possibilities with materials work?

LAURA:  Yes, definitely. I would start by saying that when we talk about materials, we use the term very broadly. We are not talking only about puzzles or blocks or paints, although of course those are all really important materials that we use and offer in our classrooms. But materials are really understood as a number of different languages, modes. It could be an object. It could be sound. It could be light. It could be a child's body -- anything that a child can engage with and manipulate or change or transform or use in combination with something else that is both an exploratory process where they learn about the material itself, and it's also a way for them to represent an idea about something to express their thinking.

Very often, children use materials as a way to connect with one another. We, as adults often, in many ways, our primary mode of connection and communication is language. For young children, while language can be so important, there are multiple languages in addition to oral language that they use to connect and communicate with one another and to express themselves.

RACHEL:  And I think the more varied the materials are that we offer children, the more channels we're unlocking for them, in how they're able to communicate, and just the more we're able to learn about children's thinking by offering them just as wide a range of materials as possible. One thing we think a lot about as teachers is finding a balance of offering the same materials over time, which is something that we know helps build mastery. And so as children return to blocks over and over again, they're able to do a little bit more and learn new things, and that, in turn, allows their creations or their structures to be more complex. And we balance that against introducing new materials, which allows for novelty and incorporating something new. When we're thinking about setting up spaces and thinking about setting up spaces in your home, even, I think it's always helpful to think about that balance of returning to the familiar but introducing the novel, as well.

DAWN:  I love what you just said about thinking about setting up spaces and how we use materials when we set up spaces. And I know we sometimes talk about how, in the classroom, materials are being curated or about how they're being put together to provoke children -- or to provoke connection. Can you talk a little bit about what we mean when we talk about provocations? What are your hopes? What is the hope about how children are going to interact with those materials, or what the provocation might do?

RACHEL:  Yes, obviously we can introduce a new material in a basket in front of children, and they can rummage through it and pull out what they want. Or we can so carefully set it up in a particular way that it communicates something from us to the children about the materials. So a provocation might ask a question. It might set up a particular scenario. It might point out a paradox of a material. And none of it is, obviously, a direct question, but it's more a suggestion to the children of, "Oh, maybe you want to think about this material this way," or "Maybe you want to try doing this."

So an example that's coming to mind is last year, a group of children were really interested in balls and ramps, and they were experimenting with rolling balls down different surfaces. And one day, we just had balls of clay out, and it asked a lot of questions, and it suggested a lot of things about those materials. For some children, it became about figuring out whether the big balls of clay moved faster or slower than wooden balls. And then it became a game of smashing, and what shaped clay rolled down the ramps. And so in that particular moment, and there are so many of those moments, it's about us offering the materials in a slightly different way just to maybe broaden how children are thinking about those materials, and to encourage children to think of new possibilities for those materials.

LAURA:  Yes, and I can extend that and add to it in a few different ways. One is that provocations or the materials that teachers offer in a particular way to children, one reflect choices that teachers are making, so it's an intentional choice to offer one thing, as opposed to another thing, rather than giving children the option of choosing anything.

So there are times when it really does feel important for -- you know, many classrooms will have a mini -- we call it a "mini-atelier" or a "mini-studio," where there are materials that children know how to use and are familiar with. It is important that they have autonomy at certain times of the day, of being able to select, to choose the materials that they would like to use in combination with one another, as long as those are materials that they already really understand.

But there are other moments, and I can think of one example which was at the beginning of the school year, not this past year, but two years ago, when after many conversations about diversity, equity, and inclusion and how we are reflecting those values and that lens in our classroom, we were thinking about it in terms of materials and how children respond and engage with even different colors that we offer to them. 

And so we started out a school year in our mini-ateliers of offering only colors that reflected different skin tones, from like the lightest beige to the darkest brown or black. And that became the range of colors that children explored in the beginning of their school year. And that was an intentional choice that we made in wanting children to kind of have that deeper experience with the range of those colors, and also to have access, to have kind of this more nuanced experience with this range of shades that could then represent anyone in terms of skin color, eye color, hair color. And that's one just specific example of the ways that it can be a very purposeful choice that we make, in terms of sometimes limiting, rather than expanding what is possible.

DAWN:  So thinking about provocations and sort of how and why you offer them in the classroom, I wonder if you could share any ideas you might have about how parents might offer provocations in their homes, and what value that might have for children at home?

LAURA:  Yes, first of all I would say that it's important to recognize that the home is different from the classroom, and the classroom is a much more -- can just by the nature of what it is, be a more curated and controlled environment. And you can have designated areas where you're going to put one thing or another thing, whereas I know in my own home, our dining table was the drawing table, was the painting area, was the snack table, and on and on.

And so we don't have that same clarity in terms of what area is for what. I will say that -- and I'm speaking as a parent. I have right now a fifth-grader and a ninth-grader. But at one point, they were young children, and I remember I would do things -- I still would do things that felt teacher-y. Like I would sometimes, if there was a certain kind of paper that we had that no one had used in a while, and it was just kind of tucked into a box in a cabinet, I would just take it out and one day just put it out on the table to see what would happen. And almost inevitably, just the kind of -- it doesn't have to be a new thing that you go out and buy, but kind of rotating through materials that might have been kind of tucked away and highlighting one in a different way. And you don't even necessarily have to call attention to it. You don't have to say, "Oh my God, look, I've put this paper out." But you just put it there. And there's something, it kind of activates their curiosity in a way that will often just lead to a new idea or a new experience or a new way of using it.

I would also say keeping things simple, not having tons of materials out at one time. Children really don't need a lot of stuff. I mean, toys are fun, but they don't need an abundance of them. And even if you -- and actually if you do have an abundance of them, I think having some kind of system for yourself where you can kind of rotate what is available to them and what's kind of more tucked away will lead to greater depth, and I think more sustained play than being able to kind of bounce around from one thing to another.

RACHEL:  Yes, I agree completely. I think giving materials some room to breathe and scaling back a little bit helps unlock some of that potential and some of that excitement that Laura was talking about, just by simply putting that piece of paper on a table. I also think being thoughtful when you are curating like a shelf of materials in your home, thinking about how they can be used together, whether those materials are compatible with one another. And that's something that we think a lot about in the classroom. Like, well, what are the ways, the different ways that these little squares of carpet can be used? Okay, they can be used with these blocks for building, and they can be used for this as a textured surface for crayons. So let's try to group those materials together so that they can be used to complement each other, and that they'll be in sync with each other.

DAWN:  Yes, I love that thought. I'm curious about your thinking about how -- I mean that actually reminds me of how materials can also inspire independence, that a child sees things together and thinks, "Oh, I know what to do with these things, and I actually know how I'm going to pass the time now doing these things." And I know, like I think about that a lot over this past year. Like what are those ways that parents of young children can pre-plan some things for their home that are going to allow their children to have a little bit of independence so they actually might have a moment to sort of step back?

How can materials encourage independence? Or encourage, I guess on the other hand, opportunities for connection between parents and children?

LAURA:  I think it's about how we engage or don't engage with children as they are working with materials. There's like a fine line, or it's a delicate balance between having an awareness of what children are doing as they're engaging with materials, whether they're building a tower or playing with their babies or drawing a picture, playing with Play-Doh. I think it's helpful for them, definitely, to know that there's someone around who is aware of what they're doing. And at the same time, being separate enough so that they don't feel like they need feedback from you or from the grown-up around them in order to kind of feed their interests in moving forward with their experience. 

Children do love to show their grown-up what they're doing, and then also I think when a child is kind of on a deeper level of play, they don't need that as much, that they are kind of in it. And you can kind of sense that when they're kind of more deeply engaged in something.

So I always say to families, and I try to practice this myself, that if a child is playing or engaged or even just looking at a book -- not just looking at a book, looking at a book -- whatever they're doing, I really try to make a rule of not interrupting them if they are focusing or concentrating on something. Of course, unless it's unsafe or you actually need to interrupt them because you need to leave the house or eat a meal.

Their being able to kind of be invested in an experience on their own and sustain that over time, without a lot of feedback is really, really invaluable. And that's something that I think we people -- we need more and more of in our lives. And it's threatened, in fact, by all of the constant distractions and input that we're getting from all aspects of our world and our devices.

And then I think that when you are engaging with them, which I think is important also, that you want to do things like notice what they're doing. You can observe what they're doing, but not ask a lot of direct questions like, "Oh, what are you making right now? How did you get that idea?" 

They don't actually want to talk at that moment, necessarily. They want to do what they're doing. And then the moment for reflection, for talking about it, can come later. I think that's really important, also. So after they build a tower, or they set up a party, then you come over and you play with them. Then you can talk about, "Oh, this reminds me of last weekend when we were in the park for so-and-so's birthday party. And then you can kind of help them make connections between the experiences that you know they've had and what they're doing.

DAWN:  Rachel, did you have any thoughts about that, the sort of independence or the connection or both?

RACHEL:  Yes, I think when I think about some of the ways that we help children build independence in the classroom, I think there's a lot of ways that it can translate into home life. In addition to obviously all the things that Laura said, one of the things we talked about when we spoke to you last time was about looking for the problems that come up in play and using natural problem-solving as a way to help children engage in the learning process. And I think creating a culture in your home life, where children are active problem-solving members of your household, I think goes a long way in helping children feel empowered and capable and, as a result, independent and autonomous beings. Whether it's that something breaks, or something gets stuck under the couch, or we're trying to figure out turn-taking between siblings or whatever it is, using those moments where your child is coming to you with a problem and partnering with them to find a solution and work to a solution together, rather than solving that problem for them, I think goes a long way in helping children develop those skills, to then be able to just do it without needing you.

And I think you then see it translate in play as children just feel like they are masters of their space and able to just grab what they need in order to keep their idea going. And they might not need to come to you to show you what they're working on or to ask your opinion on this thing, that they're the active agents in their play and in their worlds.

DAWN:  And do you have other thoughts about sort of the other side of that? Or maybe it's not the other side of that, but about the idea of using materials for a connection between parents and children. Are there ways you see that play out in the parent/child relationship, or ways we can use that in the parent/child relationship?

LAURA:  I'm thinking not necessarily about connecting through materials but about the role that the adults, parent/caregiver can play in really seeing and hearing what the child is expressing with those materials in a very open way that conveys that you're really listening to them.

I think taking that moment to, after your child makes a drawing, to actually really listen as they tell you what each part is or what they were thinking about, if they choose to. Children can really sense when you're actually really listening and curious about what they're telling you. And to me, that's like one of the most powerful forms of connection.

And then another one -- and this is not as much about materials -- but it's about shared attention. If your child is, let's say you're out taking a walk, and they see -- you know, I think I talked about ants last time, but I think a lot about ants. So if they're seeing ants on the sidewalk, and they are really curious about it. And they say, "Oh, look, an ant!" And they kind of get down, and they start looking at it. If you get down and actually look at it with them, and you really say to yourself, "I'm going to really look at this ant right now. I'm going to see it in the way that you're seeing it or listen to you as you talk about it." I think that children feel that in a -- it's very powerful for them to have that experience with the important grown-ups in their life. And actually I think it's quite rare that we take the time to do that. And I think that's part of why, in our classrooms, they can be exciting places for children because I think those are places where we take very seriously that act of listening and sharing in what children are noticing. And I think that they can feel that.

RACHEL:  And I think there's yet another piece, which is how we as adults can help children see the way that they are connected to the world around them and the way that we make connections or highlight connections between children's work and similarities to other experiences or to the broader environment that they're in, and all of the concentric circles that make up their community. All the moments in which we highlight those points of connection or those points of overlap, I think, are moments that, yeah, strengthen a child's understanding of like their world and where they fit into their world.

DAWN:  Yes, that's really interesting. I've been talking to a lot of families, actually, about these questions of independence or connection following the past year-and-a-half or year-and-a-couple-of-months of being together so much. And I'm wondering if you can share some of your thoughts about ways to support children to become more autonomous? you know, there are sort of these natural ways that in other years children were on their own with a little bit more space between them and their parents or caregivers. They were staying over at their grandma's house, or they were at the other side of the playground with their friends.

And I think now it's about keeping people close and making sure people are keeping good distance from each other, and all of these things that have us very close to one another. And I guess I was wondering if there were even any lessons that you're sort of taking away from the transition into the school year this year? What was separation like? What did that sort of moving into autonomy feel like? Are there any takeaways you have or lessons you could share?

LAURA:  Yes, well, I can answer the second question first. I think that we were -- as many people were, I think, very curious and somewhat concerned about what the start of the school year would be like, or the start of coming to the on-site programs for children who are on-site in person, after having been at home during this very difficult and intense period of time for so many months with their families. And it really changed the way that we -- the whole phase-in process unfolded. We changed the direction of how children and families part from each other, as many schools did in the sense of rather than families or caregivers bringing children into the classrooms and then gradually leaving them there for longer and longer periods of time, everyone had time together outside. 

We were fortunate to have the street closed off in front of the school, and it still is. So they were able to spend time outside, and then the teachers would take children into the classroom. And I think just as awareness, I had this realization as we were planning it of how, in some ways, although it makes so much sense to do it the way that we always had done it, the idea that for a child to actively leave their grown-up and go into a new environment with people they trust, like their teachers, versus being left in that space. It's actually easier to be the active one of taking that step away from your grown-up. 

So we were a little bit surprised and really excited to see how, for the most part, children really responded quite enthusiastically and comfortably to that process. And I think that they were ready. I mean they were excited to be with other children and to have a world -- think, as much as we all love our families and our homes -- it's also really important for everyone to feel like they have a space that's their own or a separate world where they can be who they are in that world, or they can find who they might be outside of their family. And I think that's true for young children, as well. And so I think for them, that was good.

But the other question. If you are at home, I do think that it's possible to say, you know -- and also a little bit depends on how old your child is. I think if you have a three or four-year-old, they are in a place where you can say, "We are going to have different times of our day," maybe have some visual to represent it, so they kind of understand how the time is passing or what it is. But say, "This is a time when we are all going to do our alone things," and then, "This is a time when we're going to do a together thing." So just even in small steps, to kind of start creating those different containers for the ways that we spend our time, whether we are alone or together.

RACHEL:  It's interesting, Laura. It just occurred to me as you were saying that, that actually children and their parents spending time together in the classroom, but independent from one another, has historically been a step in our separation process, and that there's often a period of time where parents are there, and their instructions are to sit in this chair and be as boring as possible and do your grown-up work and be uninteresting, and make space for your child to be. And it's time to do that in our small apartments.

DAWN:  That's really interesting. Rachel, were there any sort of autonomy takeaways that you had this year, that you've witnessed even in the online parts of things?

RACHEL:  The thing that just keeps running through my mind is what we said at the beginning of our podcast episode last time, which is that children are resilient and they adapt, and we adapt. And there are so many parts of this that we have anticipated being really hard and impossible -- like transitioning to online school. And then children have figured it out and thrived.

When I think about children who are going to be coming to the classroom for the first time after so much together time with their families, yes, that's scary and hard. But also the thing we know about children is that they are resilient and they adapt when they are cared for both at home and in the classrooms by responsive grown-ups who are going to figure it out. And we are all going to meet children where they are, and we're all figuring this out together, and we will just continue to do so.

LAURA:  Yes, and I would also add just that I think -- and I can see this actually more as a parent than a teacher, because I think it's easier as a teacher -- that those moments when children need to move into --

Like the transitions or the moments when children need to move into a new space or a new level of -- you know, you're moving into toilet training or you're doing a new sleep routine. Maybe you're going away for the first time and leaving your child with someone else. There's so much -- there can be so much kind of fear and anxiety and concern about how are they going to respond? How is this change going to affect them? Or are they going to be okay?

And it's really, really helpful and important to remember that that's a critical part of life, it's an inevitable part of life, that life is about change. There is so much about it. And as much as we say, that, yes, for young children, they need consistency, and they need things to be reliable, and they need clear expectations. And yes, as much as possible, we want to do that for them, but we also -- and it's such an important part of our job is to help support them through those transitions and those moments of change, and to help them know that they will be okay through it, even if they are not always feeling okay.

DAWN:  Thank you so much for this time. I learn something from both of you every time we talk. I'm really grateful.

LAURA:  Thank you.

RACHEL:  Thanks for having us, Dawn.

DAWN: If you share Blue School’s vision of a balanced approach to learning and living, so that children can be courageous and innovative thinkers, please take a moment to subscribe and listen in on our weekly discussions. You can also follow us on Instagram and Facebook @BlueSchoolNYC, or visit BlueSchool.org for more in depth content. We’re sending support and strength to you and your loved ones as you endeavor to create balance.

If you’re listening to On Balance and are curious to learn more about joining our community at Blue School, please join us at any of our upcoming events, including our upcoming spring open house or at individual online info sessions, where you’ll get to hear about our curriculum and our community, and can take a deep dive into the beliefs and values that comprise the foundation of our school. Just visit BlueSchool.org to register.