A Natural Path to Learning

By Kelsie Castro

“Life itself is your teacher, and you are in a state of constant learning.”

– Bruce Lee

Sitting in the backyard after lunch, I was intrigued by a voice that called to me from inside our tunnel. 

“Hey, Kelsie! We are going to collect berries and count them!” 

Looking over, I noticed Wyatt and Benton gesture to me as they gathered wood planks and crates for their idea. Climbing up onto one of the crates, Wyatt excitedly pointed out the berries that he and Benton were so determined to collect. Stopping only to count how many they had, and to strategize how to get the highest and biggest ones, the two of them pulled down the vines around them. Vines in hand, they carefully plucked off berries, growing their collection with each new addition.

Leaning into the space where they were working, I watched for several minutes as Wyatt and Benton used their berries to practice so many of the math concepts we had been hoping they would try. Counting, sorting, investigating, and collaborating the whole way through, the boys had created the perfect math lesson for themselves. The most interesting piece however, was that it was happening outside of the “math time” we had planned for them.

This experience wasn’t the first time that my co-teachers and I had noticed lessons happening outside of our instructional times. In fact, we had seen this same practice during many of our other open exploration times as well. From children collecting and counting acorns all afternoon, to them turning games of hopscotch into letter explorations, we were constantly seeing things we were teaching in the classroom being filtered (with much more enthusiasm) through their play.

But why were our children so much more engaged and excited to learn and explore in these moments?

As children enter kindergarten, a big shift occurs in the way that their learning is viewed. We no longer embrace the play-based learning strategies and open explorations that are so common in preschool. Instead, we tend to opt for a more focused and often times drill-based practice that involves more teacher guidance and far less freedom of expression. As a result, learning becomes teacher-dependent, building on the words and lessons of the teachers rather than the interests and experiences of the children. 

Even at our school, one that observes the constructivist and Reggio-Emilia philosophies, this image of what kindergarten should be has proved challenging. Just like many other teachers, we spent the better part of our summer planning how we could fit all the concepts that needed to be covered into our school year. We researched the standards, discussed how we could meet those expectations, and worked to develop routines that would give our whole class the chance to explore these new ideas together.

We’ve tried different strategies to balance the guided learning moments with self-guided experiences, and we’ve looked at how we could incorporate other opportunities for the children to just play. But even with taking all these pieces into consideration, we still found ourselves struggling to find the balance between meeting the expectations of a kindergarten classroom while still honoring the natural learning we all value so greatly.  

What’s interesting about this however, is that we make ourselves far more worried about these expectations and how we are going to meet them than we need to be. While we are stressing about how to create lessons that make sure our students are meeting standards, children are exploring all those ideas naturally through their play. All around us in so many different ways children are exploring the math, reading, writing, science and social studies concepts that we want them to know. They are meeting standards, exceeding standards and often working on things that our current set of expectations for them doesn’t even ask us to measure. They are trying new things, taking risks, working out ideas, thinking critically and having so much fun while they are doing it. They are not just hearing or seeing the lessons but feeling them with their whole being, and as a result are motivated to do more and to learn more.

When we experience moments like the one with Wyatt and Benton, we are jolted out of this kindergarten readiness haze and forced to look at the simple fact that children are natural learners. If we take a moment to pause and look around in those moments when we believe children aren’t learning, we might be surprised by what we see. Children gathering acorns, creating hopscotch, building, drawing, and even pretending can all become lessons if children wish them to be so. The only thing that truly holds them back is whether or not we believe in the things they can do on their own, and whether or not we make space for that natural learning to take place.

So next time you are thinking about creating a lesson for a child or engaging them in any type of learning experience, pause and ask yourself…

What inspires this child/these children?

What do they naturally gravitate toward?

What time and space can I provide for them to explore these concepts in a more authentic and natural way?

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