Be the "Guide on the Side"

Aleksandra and Max

In the world of education, sage on the stage is a phrase that’s sometimes used to describe the all-too-familiar scene of the knowledgable teacher delivering lectures to passive students who memorize information for the sake of spitting it back out again on testing day.  This method of teaching assumes that the child is an empty vessel, waiting to be filled with information, and doesn’t give the child much opportunity to think for themselves.  As you can probably imagine, the problem with this type of instruction is that while the learner may appear to “know” information, he or she doesn’t really learn all that much.

In order to really understand something, humans need the motivation to generate knowledge and meaning through their own experiences, rather than regurgitate information that’s been fed to them.  Back to the world of education, this active form of learning is often referred to as constructivism, a learning theory supported by instructors (or parents) who act as facilitators rather than teachers.  You’ll know a constructivist environment when you see discussion, analysis, prediction, problem solving and posing, active learners, and facilitators who ask open-ended questions.

Huh?  But I’m a parent, not a teacher!

Right!  But there’s a world of research on how constructivist learning environments can foster creative thinking skills, skills that are critical for children to embody in order to thrive in this ever-changing world, and we have the perfect opportunity to steal some good ideas from the world of education and put them to work in our own homes.

Putting it into action

  • Take a step back. If you find yourself on the “teaching soapbox,” find opportunities to be the guide on the side, rather than the sage on the stage.
  • Be an active listener. Listen to your child, and respond to what they’re interested in.  If they aren’t yet talking, follow their gaze and respond with descriptive dialogue about the object/s they’re looking at.  For example, “I see you’re looking at the big, red ball.  Would you like me to bring it to you?  What do you think about it?  Oh, you’re feeling it.  It’s soft, isn’t it?”
  • Ask open-ended questions such as “tell me about this picture,” “what do you think will happen now?” or “I wonder what we could make with this play dough?”  This will empower your child to think independently, come up with novel conclusions, and express his or her ideas.
  • Follow their lead. If your child takes an interest in the birds outside the window, paint a birdhouse together, watch videos of different kinds of birds singing on YouTube, buy a bag of birdseed to feed some birds, make bird noises together, find books about birds at the library, etc.

References:

Wikipedia: Constructivism

Jacqueline G. Brooks and Martin G. Brooks, In Search of Understanding: The Case for Constructivist Classrooms (Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 1999)

Alison King, From Sage on the Stage to Guide on the Side. 1993. College Teaching. v41 no1 p30-35.

Creativity in the Garden

avocado pits small

Spring is here (!!!), and for us that means it’s time play outside and start a garden.

Children learn through play, and for them “play” is “work.”  So this is a great opportunity to let them “play” while learning about seeds, digging holes, packing mulch, and watering.  All you need are some play clothes, a few plants, a pot or bit of land, soil, and a trowel or two.  Not to fret if you don’t have land — this activity can be easily adapted to an indoor space (such a kitchen) or patio with a few pots and a small bit of dirt.

You can start with the following simple instructions, and then go from there…make garden art, build a musical fence, play with the hose, build a birdhouse, look for snails, or collect leaves.  The options are endless.  More inspiration on gardening with kids can be found here: http://www.thekidsgarden.co.uk/

Creativity Connections:

  • Gardens can be a place to gain problem-solving skills. For example, children can explore how deep they need to dig holes, how much water it takes to fill a watering can, and they can make decisions about where they want to plant seeds or plants.
  • Ask the child problem-solving questions such as, “What shall we plant in this large hole?  The strawberries, the sage, or the tomatoes?”
  • Ask the child invention-building questions such as, “What do you suppose we could do with this trowel?”

Time:

  • If you’re planting a pot or two, once you’ve gathered your materials, this activity could be done in 1/2 hour. Children who enjoy the sandbox, may linger over the joys of digging dirt and could use more time.  For a larger garden space, give yourself at least an hour…possibly more. Attention spans can be short, but once outside, time can go by quickly with all of the distractions of bugs, dirt, digging, water, and mud.

Materials:

  1. Planting pots or  a clear spot of earth
  2. Soil
  3. Plants: veggies, herbs and small flowers are great for small hands
  4. Seeds
  5. Trowels:  one adult size and one child size.  Spoons can work too.
  6. Gardener’s knee pad (not necessary, but really helpful) — get two if you can!
  7. Spray bottle: not really necessary for gardening, but little gardeners adore playing with these
  8. Watering can or hose. Small watering cans are easy to find in drugstores as part of sandbox kits this time of year.
  9. Play clothes

Directions:

  1. Talk with your child about what you’re planning to do:  You can choose the plants together or have them ready on “planting day.”
  2. Show your child the tools you’ll be using, and explain how you’ll use them (i.e. dig holes, put plants in the ground, water the plants).
  3. As you’re placing seeds or plants in the dirt, explain the process to your child so that they hear what they’re doing while actually doing it.  This helps solidify their learning.  Also, be sure to ask them what they’re doing, to get their take on it.
  4. Be prepared for a MESS!  It’s inevitable, but also part of the fun.
  5. After the plants and/or seeds are in place, don’t forget to water them.
  6. Once you’re done, recap the gardening process with your child by reminding them of what you just accomplished and asking them what they did, and encourage your child to play in the garden.

Dirt-free Alternative:

If you don’t have a garden, can’t stand the sight of dirt, or you’re facing a rainy day, plant some seeds indoors.  We eat a lot of avocados around here, and a fun, simple activity is “planting” avocado pits.  Check out these simple instructions.  All you need is an avocado pit, 3 toothpicks, a glass, water, and A LOT of patience.  So simple!   Be sure to plant a few just in case they don’t all “pop.”  Ours were planted three weeks ago, and we’re still waiting for them to sprout!