An adapted version of this article appeared in Teachers Matter Edition 52 - October 2021 The information in this article is elaborated in detail in my book: Edu-Chameleon - Leverage 7 Dynamic Learning Zones to Enhance Young Children's Concept-Based Understanding. For more articles by Lili-Ann go to: https://authory.com/kriegler-education
Imagine you enter a preschool or early primarysetting and find children at a water tray table actively pouring turqoise-coloured water from one container to another. They have access to tubes, funnels,straws and other containers of all sizes from thimbles to a 400ml measuring jug. The activity is fun and absorbing.
Do you ask yourself,“Why is it there?” There are many answers. It could be as simple as a teacher finding the bits and pieces in a crate neatly labelled, ‘water play’ in the storeroom. At the end of the week, the activity is disassembled and placed back in there. The play is an interlude and not connected to anything beyond the immediate sensoryenjoyment.
Free play like this is a highly valuable learning zone allowing children to observe and experiment with materials, which gives them control over their own time and space. But if left at that, their learningwon’t spiral upwardand their opportunity to master important concepts may be lost. By five years of age, our human brainsare already 90% formed, so these years are criticalfor learning, especially conceptual language learning.
Even though concept formation would seem to be the core work of early educators, play is such a key theme in early years’ frameworks that some teachers sufferdecision paralysis about how and what to teach young children. They are regularly warned not to engage in a top-downcurriculum.
If kids need to play, how do we teach them?
The fear is that as we scaleup the cognitive expectations, we drag childrenaway from what they want to be doing. Of course we want children to be motivated and follow their own interests and goals. But we also want them tolearn stuff, so structured learningis vital. What is neededis a framework of presentation modes that respect the roles of both student and educator. This article proposes seven different learning zones withinwhich teachers can confidently monitorand present learningcontent.
Agile Teachers Preschool and early primary teachersare adaptive and able to present contentto children in different ways at different times. They can follow the child, but they can also attract the child to followthem! Within educationsettings teachers regularly change their proximity to the child. Maya Angelou, the US authorand philosopher says,“When we know better, we can do better.” Imaginean agility wheel which, like a pie graph, maps seven different zones. Each zone denotes a different learning relationship between the teacher and the studentwith different degrees of involvement and direction. Sometimes, in the larger triangles of the agility wheel, the child has more freedom to follow his or her own goals and there is less or no direct mediation from the educator.In the smaller zones, or triangles, the teacher mediation is much closer and the content more directive and specific. Teachers can assess what they need to teachand plan a particular method in advance,or in a moment they can dramatically pivot from what they are doing to employ an alternative zone, technique and strategy. In each zone, the role of the educator and the studentis clearly defined. What are the Seven Zones? • Free Play • Mediated Play • Embedded Concepts • Concept Clarity • Closed-Ended Mobilisation • Open-Ended Mobilisation • Auto-Generative Creativity
The water activity above can help to explore the zones. Perhaps the teacher didn’t randomly select it. Rather, the water play is part of a well-planned projecton the value of water as a life source on our planet and it is the startof an intensive and structured investigation. The next stage of the project will not be to pack it away,but to ask children to tell us what they are doing and sharetheir ideas about the water. In this mediatedplay, the teacher is closer in proximity and assesses the level of children’s vocabulary, asks questions, and might even add more materials. But the flow is still in the direction of the child’sexploration. Adding to the initial water investigation, new activities are provided elsewhere in the room. In these activities materialsare purposely selectedto surface embedded concepts. There might be melting ice and a place to draw or write on a small blackboard using only water and a small paint brush. The information about states of water which freezes or evaporates is not directly taughtbut is latent in the activity and ready for childrento wonder about and discover.New vocabulary is made available in the immediatecontext. This vocabulary includes contentwords like evaporate, condense, volume, liquid; but also process words like plan, predict and compare, alerting students to their thinking processes.
At a stage when the experimentation and discovery are advanced, we entera zone of concept clarity. The logicalrelationships are so well understood that students can confidently articulate them.
The educators mobilise the information in either closed-ended tasks, where the outcomes are known and predictable, or open-ended challenges, where children might solve small (or large) problems in a variety of ways. They can explore them in movement,mathematics, dance, music, science and stories!
An exampleof a closed-ended mobilisation might be a maths challenge to find out precisely how many smallcontainers of water are needed to fill a large one. There is only one answer, but there is learning alongthe way, because if the small ones aren’tfilled to the brim, they aren’t full, and the correct outcomewon’t be reached.
In two examples below, students are encouraged to draw and paint their understanding about water. In the triptyche, they demonstrate how animals use water on land and in water and the also indicate how it is reticulated to their homes via networks of pipes.
In the secone group of paintings, students study the photographs of patterns of water and recreate them in individual paintings.
But an open- ended project to make a raft so that some toy animals make it safely across the pond, might result in many wonderful inventions, solutions, paintings and stories. Throughout the seven zones children’s mastery of conceptsis scaling upwards. Their knowledge is being connected both within and across the different activities, experiences, discussions and challenges.
Several of the children determined to creat a water dance. This is completely open-ended as they developed their own choreography, including the popular hip-hop Worm move they were obsessed with at the time.
In this painting, a family is swimming together. Several of the painting techniques have been included. The father's total reflection is included and there is a sense of his importance with his arm curved around the entire family.
After all that, they go back to free play, but this time, they use all the knowledgethey have mastered along the way. When they create something you haven’t plannedor even imagined, using the collaborative learning that has been consolidated, the students enter the realmof auto-generative creativity. So not one or two, but seven learning zones, give teachers permission and options to add important learning to free play, but also to make formal learning look and feel like play.
Lili-Ann Kriegler Lili-Ann Kriegler (B. A Hons, H. Dip. Ed, M.Ed.) is an education consultant and author ofEdu-Chameleon. Lili-Ann’s primary specialisations arein early childhood education (birth-9 years), leadership and optimising human thinking and cognition. Her current part-time role is as an education consultant at Independent Schools Victoria and she runs her ownconsultancy, Kriegler-Education. Find out more at www.kriegler-education.com