Have you ever noticed how children enjoy playing with a cardboard box? A brand new item just arrived at your house, maybe it's a new toy - the toy is fun, but the box it arrived in holds so many more possibilities, so many more things to discover! A simple pleasure.
We want to give the world to our children but sometimes we give too much... this is true in early childhood classrooms as well. When you visit a prospective child care center or preschool, pay close attention to the organization of the classroom environment and daily schedule. As I mentioned in a previous post, early childhood classrooms are very busy, sometimes hectic places. The organization of the materials, as well as the amount "stuff" that's out to play with, influences the children's activity level as well as their ability to play in constructive ways.
The phrase "Less is More" works perfectly here. The materials and toys in early education classrooms should be carefully selected and displayed, but not available in large quantities. Less encourages children to invent, combine, and be creative with the materials on hand, rather than move from one thing to another in a fast pace. Less materials, less clutter, less transitions in the daily schedule, helps tone down simple, sometimes chaotic play and promotes more meaningful, purposeful play.
During your visit to an early childhood program, check out the dramatic play or housekeeping area... open up the little cupboard or the pretend oven to see what's inside. Is there an abundance of play food, dishes, and props, looking as though they were just randomly tossed in there at clean up time? Are the baby dolls dressed, is their hair combed, are their faces clean? Young children enjoy taking the clothing off of a doll but often have difficulty putting it back on. So having lots of baby clothes available just makes more "stuff," not more play. Educators who support constructive play may provide fewer props and take the time to carefully display them (e.g., the fruits and vegetables are sorted into different baskets). There may be less dress up clothes - to promote more pretending and minimize quick changes. Educators will also take the time to dress the baby dolls so they look inviting and are ready to be "undressed" again.
One time in which "more" actually seems to be better is at Snack time. I've visited many preschools and observed snack times that provide a pre-determined amount of food for each child. Everybody has two apple slices and two crackers on their napkin. In many cases the child didn't even get to put it there - the teacher put the apples and crackers on the napkins before the children arrive to the snack table. But by providing more for the child to do - passing platefuls and bowls of food around the table, requiring a child to use tongs or serving spoons, we're supporting the development of self help skills, self regulation, the ability to identify food and utensils, and helping children learn how to be considerate of others. Be an informed consumer when you're shopping for preschool....know what to look for and why. If you see a classroom with many toys, and a bounty of "times" in the daily schedule, don't be impressed too quickly. Transitions from one "time" to another (circle time, small group time, computer time, book time, snack time, etc,) make for a fast paced classroom. Observe how the toys are being played with - consider how quickly children are moving from activity to activity. Sometimes toys are there to keep kids busy and entertained, but something more could be (and should be) happening - especially when there is less.