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Encouraging reluctant students to play and stay in the block center

  • 1.  Encouraging reluctant students to play and stay in the block center

    Posted 04-13-2019 09:56 AM

    I am working on (my first) action research project in my kindergarten classroom. My problem of practice is that despite my large block center (which has loose parts, fabrics, approximately 300 unit blocks, books, writing tools, plastic animals, etc. - yet not overwhelming), there are many students (mostly girls) who if they try it, don't return. I asked the students to draw for me what they like/don't like about visiting the center. The most common answers (across 3 different classrooms, I should add), were 1. I might get hurt/have gotten hurt 2. People yell at each other and fight 3. People don't like my ideas. I really don't know my next step for this, because #s 2 and 3 are able to be solved by students in other centers, and don't cause students to never visit them again.

    I am hoping that someone has been able to work through this problem and can offer me some advice. I want everyone to gain the skills that the center provides!



    Kelly Bhatia
    Kindergarten teacher
    William J. McGinn,
    Fanwood, NJ

  • 2.  RE: Encouraging reluctant students to play and stay in the block center

    Posted 04-14-2019 07:08 AM
    Hi Ms. Kelly,
    Love what you are doing, and how you are gathering children’s input to try find a solution! I would start with observations: how are children using the area? Do they use appropriate (indoor) voices? Kind words? Are you seeing children being excluded from group play in the area?
    If these things are occurring with some frequency, I would suggest trying a group discussion to problem solve and asking for solutions from the children if possible.
    When I was working as an assistant teacher in the 3’s class, the head teacher and I would sometimes feel frustrated by “battles” becoming the only play theme, and switching “manipulatives” would not help. Our best solution was to engage in more modeling during free choice play; “ let’s have a birthday party for the t-Rex!” “I’m going to build a zoo for the animals.” To attract girls to an area, adding animals- especially stuffed animals, mixing in “ manips” from dramatic play, and having a teacher playing along we’re a few ways to get girls in the act. Conversely, we found placing building tools in the dramatic play area as a regular part of the “house” theme was a great way to get more boys into dramatic play.
    Hope these thoughts are helpful.
    Margro Purple
    Rockville, MD

  • 3.  RE: Encouraging reluctant students to play and stay in the block center

    Posted 04-14-2019 08:02 AM
    This is such a complex scenario that you described.  First and foremost it reminds all of us with preschool and prek how critical it is to ensure that all children know and understand the rules of a center and how to build the understanding that the center areas are intended to be inclusive for all children.  It is also a reminder to all of us that a child's negative experience in a center can prevent them from trying the center again for many years to come.  It is critical during the early years that when there is conflict in the center that the teachers help support the repairing of the relationship between the students in the center.  The relationship you are repairing is not just "we are all friends" but it is "we are all members of this classroom and that we have rules to keep us safe and we act kindly toward each other."
    I would consider limiting the block area to 2 or 3 students.  For some of our students we have them roll dice and that is how many blocks they can chose to work with and then they build on their mat (most students know that work on mats is consider personal work and not to be disturbed.)  Students are also given an opportunity to choose a control card with samples of items that they can build - this helps get them started.  Finally we have also read a story and used that as a starting point to help students get started in the block area.

    Annemarie Maini
    South Orange Country Day School
    South Orange NJ

  • 4.  RE: Encouraging reluctant students to play and stay in the block center

    Posted 04-14-2019 09:34 AM
    It sounds like you have a a great block area.  My guess, and your student's responses show, that it actually does feel overwhelming to some of the children.  Some are telling you that it doesn't feel like a safe place to them and some have the feeling that it can get out of control at any moment.  That tells me that the rest of the room really works for most of the children and in general they feel safe and comfortable in your classroom. Some have suggested limiting the number of children in the block area--maybe to 4 children.  It might be helpful to introduce this new protocol at a group time, explaining that some children might feel more comfortable building when there is less noise and activity.  You also might sometimes--not every day-- move some of the building materials to another area so there would be two building areas, one smaller and one larger. The smaller area might feel more inviting to some. I love that you're thinking so deeply about this and have included the children's voices in your inquiry.

    Aren Stone
    Child Development Specialist
    The Early Years Project
    Cambridge, MA

  • 5.  RE: Encouraging reluctant students to play and stay in the block center

    Posted 04-14-2019 10:58 AM
    This is such an exciting discussion! Kelly, I hope you continue to update us with your inquiry process.

    I want to add a few points to the other excellent ones already made. I have noticed, through my own teaching as well as my daughter's preK experience that centers become "culturally marked." Certain kids, certain genders, informally "own" the center. In the block area, it can often be marked as boy territory, but if you look further, it may be a certain group of boys. In my daughter's case, I noticed that she never used the writing area. For her it was "marked" as the territory of a group of older (as in 1/2 to 1 year older) girls, who always headquartered there, and she didn't feel the area was hers.

    Of course the big concern is that the children who don't go to the center don't get the benefit of the learning there. It is important to work on issues of classroom as community and help the children engage in solutions to the social parts of the problems. At the same time, we need to remember that children have a right to privacy, and to have some parts of the day where they choose their play partners. This is a standard that often gets overlooked, yet the behavior of the children is telling us how badly they need privacy and choice in social engagement.

    My larger pedagogical concern is that the concept of centers or interest areas lends itself to isolating one "discipline" from another, and

    provides a ripe target for social marking.

    Against standards, I arranged my room to have all materials accessible, but in movable bins. Even the wooden blocks fit, by kind, into a series of crates. In order to play with anything, a child, or group of children had to move the materials where they wanted them. For us, this worked well, though adult support in terms of how and where to set up play was needed at times.

    Because block play is so critical, it is necessary to have a lot of blocks, as previously suggested, so different projects in different areas can be supported. I also began to introduce block play to circle time, both to illustrate concepts in a book, and to make read-alouds interactive. (For example, The Bridge is Up!, Babs Bell, was a well loved book, but it turned out no child had ever seen a drawbridge, and they had no idea what they were for or how they worked.)

    Once the group has used blocks in a totally different context, in this case, circle time, which is often well within the comfort zone of girls, and the concept of "center" has been disrupted, because the blocks are now being used in a different place, often different social groups will mix it up and keep playing as a free play extension of the group time.

    Karen Lefkovitz
    Independent Consultant
    Philadelphia PA

  • 6.  RE: Encouraging reluctant students to play and stay in the block center

    Posted 04-15-2019 08:44 AM
    Karen Lefkovitz, I love your way of thinking about this!

    Aren Stone
    Child Development Specialist
    The Early Years Project
    Cambridge, MA

  • 7.  RE: Encouraging reluctant students to play and stay in the block center

    Posted 04-26-2019 01:51 AM
    Have you thought to create a large group activity to show how to share blocks while playing with others? Sometimes younger children need to experience it in larger or small group setting with an adult before they feel comfortable doing it themselves. For example, I noticed my children while excited about some new foam blocks I had brought into the classroom, had a hard time trying to figure out what to do with them. So since we are learning about bees and co-operation, I decided to have them build a bee hive together with the foam blocks. I put on a short song as a time limit and they set to work and spoke with their friends and I would remind them of working together and indoor voices. By the end of the 3 minutes they were so excited to show me what they did that it carried over into free play, They now use the foam blocks more and bonus they want to work TOGETHER and build things. :)

    Temesha (Ms. Tessie) Ragan
    Family Child Care IF Facilitator
    Perfect Start Learning
    Family Child Care Provider
    Edwards, CA