In The Process Of Trying

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Trust in the natural development of children through play means that we allow that learning to be theirs, give them the full control of the process and how they internalize the learning they take away from “their” play.

Many higher level concepts are learned through play, often times a child is unable to totally verbalize what they fully understand after repeated encounters through play.

This does not negate their level of understanding of the concept. This is why quizzing and testing are not valid methods to use when attempting to measure understanding and mastery. Simply observing a child at play will give you a much fuller scope of their level of understanding of the world around them.

Other times children are chomping at the bit to share the details of their new discovery. Being there to receive this verbal processing without hopes of pushing or pulling them past their current understanding allows the child’s learning to unfold as they explore the process of learning. Often just having space to think, or hear themselves verbalize their understanding causes them reach a higher level of understanding. As the adult, I often repeat their words back to them, or notice when they are wondering something.. ” Oh you were wondering if the rock would hold the water in?” This interaction is always a reflection, never an interruption as the child is at play and is meant to echo their current path to understanding, not alter it.

This type of authentic learning unfolds in layers, with each layer it is sweeter, it is deeper, it is more filling. By allowing children plenty of time and space to play around with ideas, make new discoveries, and connections we provide the perfect recipe for learning.

A story of learning through play:

It was the first really hot day, so in no time the children began asking for water. Cheers filled the playground as the first drips of water flowed from the pipes, it had been a long winter with very little snow, so the return of this natural loose part was highly anticipated.

The flow of the water immediately generated interest, busy children moving about all with their own ideas and methods of exploring them.

One child, in particular, noticed the water draining from the sand pit, ” Hey the water’s getting out a-dare!” he shouted as he ran off, he returned toting a heavy rock walking in a sort of rocking motion in order to balance the weight of the rock as he transported it from clear across the playground. He was visibly intrigued by the route the water was taking as it left the pit. He squatted close to the edge of the pit and quietly watched the water curve around the surface of the stumps and trickle down between two. ” It’s gonna flood the school!” he said in a voice that revealed a bit of anxiety and fear, at this point I was not sure if the feeling was fear or a part of a dramatic rendition of fear. I asked myself ” Is he really scared that the school would flood? I didn’t dare interrupt his process to ask the question for only he really needed to know that answer. I was merely a bystander to this unfolding of discovery.


He purposefully wedged the rock in the space between the two stumps, then waited and watched. A few seconds passed before he noticed that the rock only created a new path for the water to flow. Water began to trickle down and around the sides of the rock. This both seemed to frustrate and fuel the desire to figure this out and solve his problem.

He scanned the playground and when he spotted a pile of blocks, he was off again, this time returning with each hand stretched across a block. swinging by his side as he made his way back. Noticing the space under the rock, he began to shimmy the blocks under the rocks edge. He repositioned the rocks a few times after assessing how it’s placement altered the flow of the water. when he was satisfied with their placement he returned to source additional materials to dam up the flow of the water.

The flow had now become a trickle, but the water was still escaping. He had added bricks, smaller rocks, and packed sand in the cracks of it all. In the end, he never stopped the flow of water, Many adults would see this as a failure, some would even see this as an opening to “teach” him by doing it for him, asking him leading questions or just telling him he can’t stop the water.

He had a goal that he didn’t reach, but if you look a little closer and observe a little longer, it wasn’t stopping the flow of water that would deem this a success, it was what he learned in the process of attempting to contain the water.

He added to his layers of understanding about the properties of water, it’s power, and how it’s path adapts to its obstructions. He learned that his ideas were valuable, that it’s OK not to solve the problem on the first try. His urge to figure this out pushed his physical limits as he carried heavy materials, he planned and thought through his plan adapting as he gathered new information about the water patterns, he felt a sense of purpose as he worked.

The space between this encounter and the next will be the time to process all of this new understanding When he returns to this play, he will be starting from a new point of understanding, he will have a much deeper relationship with the water. I hope he doesn’t figure it out anytime soon because there is so much to be learned in the process of trying.

Kisha Reid is the owner and director of Discovery Early Learning Center: A
Place for Childhood a wonderful play-based program located in Poolesville
Maryland. She has been in the early childhood field for 27 years and continues to actively work in the classroom with children 3-5 years old. Her passion for authentic childhood has led her to found an advocacy group called Play Empowers which focuses on promoting developmentally appropriate play based education for young children.

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