Last week I shared the story of Michael, a twelve-month-old in an infant-toddler center in Pistoia, Italy. This week I’d like to share another excerpt from my travel journal:
The hallways of this school were filled with children’s art. There were three-dimensional clay structures of animals, chairs and shoes on the shelves. Black and white drawings of animals and shoes rivaled third- and fourth-grade art. These three-year-old children rocked at artistic representation.
It was obvious that the process of drawing and creating was refined here. In a program where children had hours of free time during the day, I wondered when they learned to draw. Then I watched the morning activities.
Their day started with a short meeting time, after which one self-selected group of eight children went to a table that held white paper and pencils, markers, crayons and chalk, all in shades of pink and purple. The centerpiece of the table was a vase with purple and pink flowers.
In one part of the room, a teacher worked with five children as they created a portrait of their classmate. (There is nothing funnier than watching a three-year-old strike a pose for her friends!) They used white paper and black flair markers (felt tip pens).
The last group of six went into a separate space where a teacher led them through a series of mirror dancing poses.
Each group was focused, engaged and seemed very content to be there. The children at the pink and purple table worked independently, showing each other their work and chatting. The teacher guiding the portraits told the children to be patient and study their friend’s facial features. They were asked questions like “What do you see when you look at her?” and "Do you see her hair? How does it look?” They spent several minutes studying her before they were given paper and markers. One boy brought his work over to the teacher, who commented, “Look again at her hair. Does what you drew look like her hair?”
(Ouch. I was a bit surprised by that critique.)
The teacher working with the mirror dance stopped the children after each pose to see if they were, indeed, mirroring one another. If the poses were not right, she asked them to reconsider and change what they were doing.
These activities were very teacher-directed. I was confused. I thought Reggio-inspired teaching and emergent learning were about letting the child take the lead.
Then it hit me.
Yes, this was teacher-directed; but, unlike us, these teachers weren’t focused on academics. These teachers were spending thirty minutes a day working with the children on the skills of critical thinking and representation. The focus here was not on letters, numbers, colors and shapes. Genius! No wonder these children created such works of art. They have been taught to take the time to look at something and critically analyze it before jumping into creating. Our children spend the same thirty minutes every day hearing that the letter p makes the “puh” sound!
If children are to become independent thinkers, they first need to learn how to think. Teaching letters, numbers, colors and shapes works if we only want to tell children what to think.
Thinking skills enhance the way we live. Teaching them to think gives them tools for life. How do you encourage thinking skills in your classroom? What are your thoughts on teacher-directed activities and the role they play in preschool? I’d love to hear your thoughts.