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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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).

A B C D: Fostering interest in reading and writing through the expressive arts

Inside one of the art cart’s drawers are the alphabet beads. The children use them in many different ways, connecting them by elastic string or pipe cleaner if they want to take them home.

I observed one three year old begin by writing an M on a piece of Manila paper. Matching an M from the letter drawer, he shouted enthusiastically, “M for me!” Indeed it was, as M is the first letter of his name: Matthew.

His delight was evident as he proclaimed, “I’m sooo happy.”

“What makes you so happy, “I asked? “School!  I’m so happy with my teachers and my friends. School!”

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He began using other letters, sounding them out and laughing. “This is a wacky game,” he stated as he realized the letters formed funny sounds. I was amazed at his ability to sound out the random letters. I asked if he did this at home. He nodded.

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He then noticed and asked about the letters on our art cart of loose parts. (Loose Parts: See blog of May 3, 2013: Open Ended Creativity)  Children from previous years, also interested in letters, had used colored tape to make the first letter of what was contained inside the drawers.  As the materials often change, at times the letters do not match.

“That’s an X,” said the boy, clearly puzzled, as he looked inside at the envelopes.

“Do you want to help me change the letter,” I asked. He did and directed the making of an E.

“You did it,” he cheered as the E became recognizable.

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I like to have letters, in many forms, included in our art cart of loose parts. Those who are interested will choose them, others will choose additional materials. As I see the children each year they attend preschool, I’m privileged to watch their interests grow and change.

One child who made letters using colored tape when he was three, (Photo in blog of May 3, 2013) now, at four, is able to sound out and write the words “Justin’s heart for mommy” on a large sheet of construction paper.

The heart activity emerged when I was asked by another child to draw them a heart. Instead, I showed her how to create one of her own by folding a paper in half and drawing and cutting on a curved line. Those interested mastered cutting along the drawn line and unfolding the paper to discover the heart. “Draw LOVE on your heart, “ Justin said. When the other child wasn’t interested in writing, he decided to make a heart of his own. Image

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When left to pursue what engages them, the children have a diverse range of interests. While these two children were very interested in letters, others are not. Those who develop their interest early become the teachers when their peers are ready.

Later, when other children ask me how to form letters, I ask those who have mastered the skill to teach their friends. (blog of August 1, 2013: Young Children as Mentors)

On the preschool level, readiness is the key to mastering new skills. Being able to make choices according to individual interest paves the way for a lifetime of learning.

GUIDELINES FOR PARENTS AND TEACHERS:

In blog of April 8, 2013, I wrote of setting up open ended materials and tools for working with colored masking tape, elastic cord, glue sticks, scissors, etc.  I keep the loose parts in an art cart but, there are many other options for containing materials.

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Having letters and/or numbers also available as loose parts will offer additional opportunities as their interest in reading and writing grows. Children who may not appear to be interested in writing, may surprise us by their interest in forming words and names when letters, such as the alphabet beads, are available in your expressive arts center.

Being able to work with many open ended material, and having them available to use in different ways than traditionally intended, furthers children’s creativity. Their confidence is built by our recognition and appreciation of how they express themselves.

Working within small groups, where we can be present as a child’s ideas emerge is another joyful aspect of teaching young children.

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Colored Masking Tape – 1 Roll (Item #34CMT)

Supply Cabinet (Item #X9510JC)

Set of all 10 Packs – Colorations® Colored Pipe Cleaners (Item #IPCSET)

Colorations® Construction Paper Classroom Pack – 2500 Sheets (Item #MAJORPAK)

Preschool Puzzles – Letters, Numbers and Signs – Set of 6 (Item #PREPZST6)

NEXT: More on larger projects with loose parts and recycled materials

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!”