Intrinsic Motivation, Resourcefulness and Open-Ended Materials

‘”Loose parts,'” as mentioned in my blog of May 3, 2013, describes a theory first proposed by Simon Nicholson regarding open-ended materials. These materials suggest no fixed direction other than what is imagined by the children themselves. Nicholson, and others who followed him, proposed that these materials empower our creativity.

Focus and concentration are enhanced by combining loose parts with intrinsic motivation, that comes from within the child.

Over a period of several weeks, I observed one five year old’s interest in fabric. She began by covering her feet in cloth squares and wrapping them with colored masking tape. Image

After several sessions of “shoe” making, she chose cardboard from the recycled materials and placed her shoe-covered foot on top. Voila! They became ice skates.Image

She slid around the room on her ice skates with great pleasure. When she returned for the next session, she chose a large piece of cardboard and began decorating it. Instead of fabric, she cut up strips of available paper and again wrapped her feet.Image

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Having a variety of open-ended materials available allowed her to continue pursuing her passionate ideas. This time she created a snowboard.Image

Her confidence and satisfaction with her projects grew with the challenges she gave herself.Image

An article on intrinsic motivation by the National Association of School Psychologists addresses some of the characteristics that develop when children are self-motivated.

  • Persistence: The ability to stay with the task. A highly-motivated child will stay involved for a long period of time. I’ve observed young children work steadily for 1.5 hours and put their project on a saving shelf for additional work at a later time. They learn persistence when they are successful at a challenging task.
  • Confidence: A developing ability to problem solve is the basis for motivation at this stage of development. Having the self-confidence to know that one can solve a problem motivates the learner to accept other new and challenging situations, which in turn leads to greater learning.
  • Independence: The decreased amount of dependency on adults is another indicator of self- motivation. Children with strong intrinsic motivation do not need an adult constantly watching and helping with activities. Since independence is an important aspect of quality learning, this decreased dependence on adults will greatly enhance children’s ability to succeed in school.
  • Positive Emotion: As written in the article, “The last indicator of motivational level is emotion. Children who are clearly motivated will have a positive display of emotion. They are satisfied with their work and show more enjoyment in the activity.”

Concentration and focus are greatly enhanced when children are self-motivated. Providing a variety of open-ended materials for creative expression expands intrinsic motivation. For children to discover and explore their interests and passions at an early age informs their course of self-study and choices for a lifetime.

 

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Puppets, Puppets, Puppets

“Where are the paper bags“?” a 3 year old shouts immediately upon entering the room. I show where they are kept on the art cart and he brings a handful to the table.

“Where are the eyes? We need eyes, lots of eyes”!” cries another, as I bring the wiggly eyes down from a higher shelf. Some things are purposefully out of reach of the youngest. When it comes to small items, for safety sake, I like to keep my own eye on their usage. While these same materials were used in previous puppet-making sessions, as loose parts they can be used in many ways.

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“It’s a smile, a green smile,” laughs another child placing a piece of colored masking tape directly on the table underneath two pink eyes she’d chosen. She continues taping around her work, saying, “It’s a bus. He’s riding a bus.” I chuckle at the little creature she’s brought to life with only wiggly eyes, tape and her own inventiveness.

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I try not to ask questions that might interrupt or define their creativity, but sometimes I am unable to contain myself. As one 4 year old confessed about his “potty-talk,” “It just popped out.”

“Are you making puppets?” “popped out” to a resounding “Yesssssss” from several of the children.

As paper bags and wiggly eyes have been recently added to our open-ended “staples” in the art cart, I notice the 2-3 year olds choosing them repeatedly. Having materials from favorite activities available and accessible to the children encourages extended focus, exploring, self-direction and independence.

With accessibility and choice, many children are taking greater risks in their puppet making. Previously, only eyes and perhaps a smile were represented by most of the children. Now, they are elaborating on their creations.

They often choose materials that build on their last experience. They also taste (sometimes quite literally) the materials brought to the table by other children. Besides the staples, offering new materials adds excitement. More children become interested in the process as different materials are introduced.

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I watch another 3 year old deliberately choose and place his materials on a paper bag. The face itself was made from a piece of fabric that had been donated that morning by a parent. She was recycling her son’s Rainbow Ghost Halloween costume, which included the striped sheet and wild, fake fur. Colored sticks became the catalyst for the “matching” stripes on his puppet’s clothing.

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It was delightful to witness the creativity shown by the child. This 3 year old had found a way to express himself uniquely. That’s the beauty of open-ended materials. Who would have imagined creating both a smile and striped clothes using the colored sticks.

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I’ve offered some of the same materials for decades and continue to be surprised by how each child uses them. As teachers, we provide the materials and assist as skills are being mastered. The children provide the endless creativity and imagination.

A 2 year old is mastering two skills, stringing beads and cutting sticky tape. Using the beads (also kept high), she made a necklace for her puppet and a shiny pipe cleaner. She then went back to the task of cutting the desired length of tape without tangling it. Children often take natural breaks and work on another part of their project. Those who persevere with neither breaks nor success have an opportunity to learn a new feeling for their emotional literacy vocabulary: frustration. This then becomes an opportunity for group learning, with the children volunteering what helps them when frustrated.

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Having observed these young children stay focused on their puppets for almost an hour of joyful creating, I felt hopeful and optimistic about the state of our future world. I couldn’t help but think of how this self-directed play could be added to their repertoire of peaceful expression in their lifetime of learning toolbox.

SUGGESTIONS:

Your open-ended supplies, such as colored tape, wiggly eyes, feathers, string, yarn, oil pastels, paper, paper bags and markers can be supplemented with gathered and parent/community donated materials.

Families are very willing to bring in offerings for the children’s art making. You may want to post or let parents know of your wish list. Beautiful wrapping paper, small cardboard boxes, packing foam, anything that does not dictate how it is to be used is a resource for the children’s creativity.

We do not need to constantly change the loose parts, fearing the children will become bored. Their resourcefulness will utilize the same materials in many different ways. They have the capacity to expand their art-making as far as their imaginations will take them.

Product Recommendations from Discount School Supply®:

Rainbow or White Paper Craft Bags

Colored Masking Tape

Black Wiggly Eyes – 1000 Pieces

Super Feather Classroom Pack

Colorations® Acrylic Yarn- Set of 12

Colorations® Outstanding Oil Pastels – Set of 28

Lightweight Construction Paper, 9″ x 12″ – 500 Sheets

Colorations® Mini Dabber Dot Markers – Set of 24

Observing and Sharing Competencies

Our school was recently graced with early childhood expert Deb Curtis, who did a presentation for a staff development workshop. One aspect of her “thinking lens” for reflection is that of children’s competencies. (Harvest Resources Associates)

Observing children’s actions through the lens of what they were capable of, including what we don’t initially see as such, sparked my thinking.

While we often share with parents and other staff members anecdotes about children’s learning, less often do we bring the children themselves into the conversation. Since Deb’s presentation, I have been increasing my comments directly to the children.

In particular, I am noticing the growth in what they are able to accomplish. Sometimes I offer them a memory, such as, “I remember when you were learning to cut tape. It’s not easy to work with sticky masking tape that often gets stuck on the scissor or tangled before you can attach it.”

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“You were so proud. I remember you shouting, ‘I did it!’ You kept cutting more and more pieces, and shouting, ‘I did it!’ each time. Then you learned to use the tape to connect tubes. Your smile was just as wide as when you learned to cut tape. And now, you can create amazing designs with those same materials. You’re still using tubes and tape. But, look what you are able to do with them!”

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From making designs with tubes and tape, this same child stretched his exploring to create designs with the tape itself.

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Another child, who had recently become interested in recycled materials, quickly began to expand the size and purpose of his art. He went from handheld objects to those he could put his whole body into.

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E-mailing home photos and text of observations and appreciations widens the circle of encouragement. It brings in the perspectives of the parents and family members and strengthens the bridge between school and home.

By modeling appreciation for their growth and authenticity, we give children a framework for valuing their own experience and learning. Hopefully, it can assist in creating a structure not based on comparison with others, but rather on appreciating their own interest, progress and mastery. By doing this, we help set our children on course for a lifetime of authentic learning, as well as greater inner peace and happiness.

GUIDELINES:

1. Observations:

Making time to observe the world of children and what they are mastering is invaluable. While I am privileged to work with small groups, where witnessing each child’s learning is simpler, the classroom teachers have observations built into their schedules. Hats off to the leadership of our director!

For those of you who are interested in this practice, I have a couple of suggestions:

  • Work with your teammates to create a regular observation time. You could observe a small group of children, while your teammates have the remainder of the children in your outside space. While a 1/2 hour is recommended, even 15 minutes will be of benefit.
  • If separating the group to be observed is not possible, have your teammates be responsible for the majority of the children while you observe a smaller group. Trading off being the observer will keep things fair.
  • You might want to wear a sign that designates you as an observer so that the children get used to your silent witnessing. At first, they will likely ask you lots of questions and try to engage you. You can let them know that you’re doing important work: watching all the amazing things they do. You can tell them that you’d be glad to share your observations with them afterwards.

2. Recycled and Open Ended Materials

The same recycled materials can be an ongoing source of engagement for children. I remember thinking that the children would never stay interested in toilet paper and paper towel tubes. I am happy to report my error. These easily collected loose parts remain favorites.

For lenses of observation and many other wonderful ways of viewing children’s play as connected to learning and development theories and research, I enthusiastically recommend Reflecting Children’s Lives: A Handbook for Planning Your Child-Centered Curriculum by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter (Redleaf Press, 2011).

Young Children as Collaborators with Parents and Teachers

I have been reviewing manuscripts written for or with my now-adult daughter from when she was a young child. One is called “Tell Don’t Yell.” In total transparency, twenty years ago, I often expressed myself through yelling when I was frustrated.

People who know me now are amazed that I was ever less than peaceful. Back then, I was less than peaceful, both inside and out. I had to learn how to find the peace I now teach others.

My motivation for change was my beloved 8-year-old daughter’s response to my behavior. “Mom,” she said one day, “Tell don’t yell. When you yell, I feel like you don’t love me anymore.”

Tears spring forth from that memory, which sparked a journey into becoming a more loving parent, a more compassionate teacher and a better person.

“Tell Don’t Yell” was a one of the manuscripts we wrote together. Our collaboration built a bridge between us that my yelling was knocking down. Effective communication between adults and children is something we all desire. Yet, old patterns and habits can be a roadblock.

I can still vividly recall when I attempted to hurry her morning cat-play, so that she’d get to the school bus stop on time. I was sprouting an abundance of words that began to grow louder as my efforts became less effective.

At the exact moment before my amygdala took over and my intellect lost control, my daughter took the cat off her shoulders.

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She stood and looked up at me, her earnest little face illuminated. She spoke aloud her young child wisdom, as if reading a page in our collaboration:

My mother yells too much.

She yells in the kitchen.

She yells in the hall.

I’d be on my way to school right now

If her words weren’t blocking the door.

With that I laughed, hugged my brilliant co-writer and reached for a pen to capture her exact words.

Her words stayed with me until, with consistent motivation and innovation, I learned to tell, not yell.

We all thrive on loving connections. If there is a disconnect between ourselves and our children, we are very capable of initiating a reconnection. While we often feel uncomfortable, ashamed or embarrassed at momentarily “losing it,” we need to forgive ourselves for not being the perfect parents or teachers we’d like to be and move forward. One thing I know to be true: we will always be given another opportunity for more generative communication with our children.

Guidelines for Collaboration:

  • Writing a story or book together is one form of adult/child collaboration.
  • Making up songs together are another way to collaborate. (See June 4, 2013 blog on Spontaneous Song)
  • Improvisation or puppet shows can be extremely fun activities for both adults and children. Here is one activity you can add to your collection of tools.

 Let’s Trade Places (You Can Be Me, I Can Be You)

  • Have the child play the part of the parent or teacher; the adult plays the part of the child.
  • Use a current topic/issue: such as “getting ready for school” for parents; “clean-up time” for teachers.
  • Set the scene: you can have the children determine where it takes place, what has just happened or is about to happen.
  • Allow the children as much responsibility as possible for setting the storyline. With very shy children, they may need prompting. Sometimes, having an extroverted child in a “director’s” role will move the improvisation along. You can also ask for audience suggestions as to “What Happens Next?”
  • In expressing yourselves from each other’s point of view, you come to a better understanding. I’ve had a very accurate mirror of my behavior reflected by children who pretend to be Elyse. Humor is so important when initiating change, reducing conflict or finding creative solutions.

In our collaborative story, Arianna was my teacher. I had daily homework: practicing telling, not yelling. Loving her as I do, I was a very willing and successful student.

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In the years following our collaboration, I’ve dusted that retro chalk dust off my hands and learned to be an effective communicator, especially when frustrated.

Peace in our homes and classrooms begins with us.

Peace,

Elyse

Next Blog: Playing with puppets and children. You’ll receive detailed activities I used in teaching an adult class, Puppetry and Its 500 Hats, at a local university.

YOUNG CHILDREN AS MENTORS

 

“But I don’t knooooow the marriage dance,” the 3 year old lamented, interrupting the ”wedding” in the dramatic play area. “Now I can’t get married!”

The wedding party stood frozen. What would happen next?  I continued to observe as the “groom” stepped forward saying, “It’s easy. I’ll teach you.” He gently took her hand.

She began to follow his lead and soon they were co-creating their dance. The others smiled and went back to work, laying down a paper aisle for the reunited couple.

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Children often naturally mentor each other. We, their teachers and parents, can support and encourage them by noticing.

I witnessed a more-hesitant child focusing on a very skilled classmate. The girl was designing a process for making a stuffy. When the shyer child was asked if he’d like to make one, he shook his head vigorously.

“But I don’t know how,” he qualified. I waited to see if he’d ask or if someone would volunteer to help him. He glanced at the others who were all attending to their own work, but seemed unable to ask for help.

I paused, and then asked the girl, “When you’re finished, would you please teach your friend what you’ve discovered? He’d like to make a stuffy, too.”

She agreed, and with great patience and generosity, mentored him. He was then able to join her in celebration, joyfully parading their stuffies around the room, singing with glee.

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As I was writing this blog, two alumni appeared at the cafe. I asked the siblings if they had ever taught each other. They each nodded. The older brother then demonstrated by placing a green clown nose over his own.  He just happened to be carrying it in his pocket after finishing a week of clowning camp!  I love synchronicity!

From that same deep pocket, he withdrew a pack of cards. He then mentored his sister through clowning tricks he had just mastered.

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GUIDELINES FOR TEACHERS:

  • NOTICING:
    • “Catch them doing good” is what I first heard it called, while I was teaching language through the arts in a public elementary school.
    • Call gentle attention to a behavior we value through oral appreciation of what we have observed.

“I noticed that when your friend felt sad because she didn’t know the dance you taught her. Now she, too, knows how.”

  • INCLUSION:
    • Partnering children of different practical or social skill levels encourages scaffolding and greater participation. It contributes to an inclusive environment.
    • When a child asks for help, encourage a child who has mastered that skill to be a teacher. “You were able to figure that out. Can you now teach your friend what you’ve learned?”

As teachers and parents we have ongoing daily opportunities to create a more-peaceful and integrated classroom, family and community.

FOCUS AND CONCENTRATION: Enhanced through the Expressive Arts

Once motivated, a preschooler’s ability to focus and concentrate can expand far beyond our expectations. At times, it is the mastery of the skill itself that attracts a child’s attention. Learning to cut sticky tape at 3 years old can be frustrating, yet the challenge is also exciting. Once the skill of cutting tape is learned, it opens the door to a new world of connecting.

I am often amazed at how a young child can stay focused on the project of his or her choice. My classes are for an hour and a half. During one session, I observed the progress of a 3-year-old girl choosing her materials from the recycling boxes.

Green plastic berry baskets first caught her eye. When there is a limited amount of one item, I usually tell all the children to only take what they need. I suggest starting with one or two.  As we get to know the children, we can discern who might need prompting about “supply and demand” and who has made an intentional choice. In the case of this 3-year-old, I observed her careful selection of four berry baskets and made no comment as I continued to observe.

Her interest moved to segments of cardboard fruit holders. They’d been given to us, just that morning, by a teacher who offered her caterpillar project for expressive arts repurposing. Four blue cardboard ovals were chosen. This child had something in mind. She then chose the color of her tape and scissors with as much attention as she did the other materials.

After carefully cutting pieces of tape, she used them to outline the top of the berry baskets. I noticed that as she progressed from basket to basket, her estimates of the length of the tape that would fit each side of the basket grew more exact.

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She’d stop taping now and then to work on another part of the project. She decorated, also very precisely, the cardboard fruit ovals with sticky jewels (see “Sticky Jewels,” blog; July 5, 2012) and then placed one oval in each basket. Then she’d return to the challenging task at hand, the tape trim for the baskets, with renewed concentration.

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I’ve attempted to teach this concept of “taking a break” from an arduous task and working on another part of the project. This child innately knew what to do.

She continued with her project for 50 minutes. When it was time to return to the classroom, she placed the four baskets, with great care, in a little shopping bag to take home. She looked up, smiled, and joined her classmates at the door.

TEACHER SUGGESTIONS:

Materials:

  • Keep recycled materials fresh.
  • New and interesting items for repurposing can be gathered by the parents and from your own and other classrooms.

EFFECTIVE PROMPTS I’ve used with children:

  • Take what you need and save some for your friends.
  • Start with one or two. After you connect them, come back for more.
  • “No collecting without connecting” began as a necessity because the children filled their pockets with the treasures from Expressive Arts.

ADDITIONAL SUGGESTIONS for teachers:

  • Being able to play with the materials in the room but needing to connect them in order to bring them home becomes the motivation for building with the materials. (See “No Collecting Without Connecting” blog; April 25, 2012)
  • As we get to know the children, we can discern who might need prompting regarding selecting materials and who has made an intentional choice. In the case of this 3 year old, observing her careful selection of four berry baskets, I made no comment.
  • When a child is able to master a skill or has found his/her own way to accomplish a task, we teachers can remember this for later.

I plan to be able to say to this savvy 3-year-old, when a classmate has become frustrated with an extended project, “Remember when you were making the berry basket art and you had four baskets to trim with colored tape? I noticed that you would stop and work on decorating the cardboard ovals with sticky jewels and then go back to taping. I liked how you gave yourself a break from the very hard work of taping. Do you think you could help your friend to learn how to do that with his project?”

  • Peer mentors are often more effective than our own instruction. They may be thinking, “If my classmate can do this, so can I.”

My next blog will be on Young Children as Mentors.

Love,

Elyse

Postscript: Upon seeing these photos, the 3-year-old’s dad said jokingly, “I love that she’s got her bike helmet on while using the scissors. Safety first!”