hey T-Tom: learning is no accident

Teachers who plan amazing environments for children are absolutely influencing learning.
Here's the thing:
I adore Teacher Tom.
I admit it. His photo on his blog with his fabulous red cape make me think that he wears it everyday. He IS a sort of Super Hero for early learning educators - at least via the blogosphere. Tom is a rebel in the field of early childhood, an inspiration to help us think about This Rule and That Policy, and a never-to-be-questioned supporter of children being allowed to BE children.
One of my favorite posts of Tom's is when he wrote about 2-year-olds using hammers:  
However, in Tom's post today, I don't know that I agree with his theory that a play-based teacher steps back and lets children "learn on their own." Here's the full read of Tom's 'Teaching a Play Based Curriculum' [Tom's posting was in response to Emily at The Natural Playground who posted 'Is Free Play Teaching?']

Tom offers that he and his Co-op parents prepare the environment -  "Every day, I strive to make sure we have some way for kids to build stuff. Usually that means some sort of blocks. I also want there to be a sensory exploration going on, an art project, a couple fine motor activities, something over which to puzzle, and at least a few conversation starters. I try to make sure there's a place to learn with one's whole body, a way to get messy..."

This sure sounds like he and his parent group have intentionally planned for what they deem as important for young children to experience on a particular day or over a period of days.
This sure sounds like Tom & Parents have thoughtfully supplied - or taken away - materials and explorations that would provoke open-ended or creative interest and inquiry.
Tom writes that in his daily work with children, he thinks of himself as "an artist...a shopkeeper...a mad scientist...a game master...an interior decorator."
This sure sounds like he is intentional in what he is doing, preparing, and availing for children.

The role of the teacher is so very significant. I believe that this sort of Intentionality is one of the richest, most respectful gifts to offer to children in their play spaces. Teachers have afforded the environment and materials truly a central role (that 3rd teacher in Reggio doctrine) and in turn allow the day to mysteriously unfold with children engaged by choice and self direction.

My point to challenge what Teacher Tom was writing is that when the environment and materials are so thoughtfully offered as they have done, that learning  - in essence - IS planned.

What I mean by that specifically is that YOU KNOW that amazing engagement, curiosity, and invention will happen:
YOU KNOW that children will explore color at that art project, or explore speed and distance at that ramps with balls area, or use descriptive language like Squishy or Gloppy or Super Cold at that sensory table filled with glue, cornstarch + water.

So, sure, the exact learning is not planned as teachers look forward to children using materials in unexpected ways. Maybe children want to use pinecones or branches to paint with at that art project, or use aluminum foil hand-made balls at that ramp area, or add mud to the sensory table. Maybe.
Sure, I get what Teacher Tom was saying. The exact learning is not planned. The exact math concept of one-to-one correspondence is not taught, the exact science concept of examining the properties of liquids is not taught, the exact small motor concept of writing the letter A is not taught. However...
In the most wondrous play-based schools like Teacher Tom's - learning is no accident.


  1. Yep, the plan is for them to learn, but what they learn is up to them! Thanks for the incredible response! =)

    1. You rock, Tom. My Zella blog has been asleep for a bit so your post was a perfect opportunity to wake up :)

  2. Great post Jeanne - going to share & tweet. You are so right about the planning & I defy anyone NOT to plan in a preschool room & stay sane, never mind how the children would end up feeling, Kierna

    1. Thanks Kierna and I agree absolutely! The idea of "winging it" is more frightening to me to imagine children attempting to navigate their day in a "whatever" kind of space. Cheers.

  3. All I can say is...Fantastic!

    I'm going to reference your ideas here in my training conference this week on Intentional Teaching. Thanks Jeanne!

    1. Scott - thanks so much, and of course you know I love your blog equally right back. Glad you can share some intentional teaching ideas that I am sure I have lifted from others over the years :) Have a wonderful conference!

  4. Agreed. Setting up an environment that is conducive for valuable and varied learning experiences is extremely important! Obviously if we did nothing, children would still be learning through their play, however, it is also how the teacher then reacts to the children's actions within that environment, questions their understandings, hears their wonder and interest, sees their responses to the space and equipment and responds to their questioning, that can really help children form connections between what they are experiencing and what they are learning and thus help to consolidate the learning.
    Great post! Debs

    1. Debs - I agree right back! The teacher role does not stop at set-up. The scaffolding and knowing when to provoke and when to leave things be is an art itself. It is also one of the most exciting parts for me as a constructivist educator, so I am in sync with all your comments. Have a great day!


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