In the Oak Classroom this year we have a little corner that we call the Practice Spot. It’s a tiny table, just big enough for two child-sized chair. In front of each chair there’s a rectangle taped out on the table, just the size of a certain kind of tray. And there’s a shelf next to the table, exactly the size to hold four trays, each with a single activity on it.
The rules in the Practice Spot are different than in the rest of the room. Other places in the room activities and materials are open-ended (meaning there’s no single “right way” to use them), but here they’re closed-ended (there’s only one way to use them). In the rest of the room you can take toys to new spots and combine them with other materials however your creativity dictates, but here you must keep the tray in the spot and put it back as soon as you’re done. In the rest of the room children are welcome, nay encouraged, to work together on activities, but here there’s a one-person-per-activity rule.
The intention is to have a particular spot in the room where children can be organized—where they can organize their thinking by organizing their behavior. This kind of activity is championed in Montessori schools; at CCS it’s one of a number of approaches we use to support children’s cognitive development.
To see the benefits of the Practice Spot and its activities, take a look at this game I made last week. (You can make it too! More or less for free!) It’s a coffee can with a slit cut through the lid (I taped the edges of the slit, to make it more visible) and a bowl full of those plastic caps that come on the tops of plastic milk containers. Take a look at the activity in action:
One of the things you’ll notice is that the activity has a “right way” to use it, but it doesn’t require any instructions. Most children as young as two years old look at it and immediately know what it’s for: obviously, you push the milk caps through the slit. These kinds of activities that “talk” to children help them be organized and calm in their play, because there’s no uncertainty in it. It’s so obvious, in fact, that when the caps spill on the tray this child doesn’t hesitate to carefully put them all back into the bowl, without anyone telling her to. It’s just clear that where they’re meant to go.
You’ll also notice how hard this child is working simply to get each cap into the can—she really has to push! She’s building fine motor skills—hand strength and coordination. Fine motor skills are an important part of development in and of themselves, but they’re also a crucial precursor to literacy: you can’t write letters if your hands aren’t prepared to hold a pencil and make an accurate mark. But in this activity we don’t have to encourage children to do hand exercises; it’s fun enough that this child immediately takes off the lid and does it again! In fact this video was taken the fifth time in a row the child did this activity, and she did it three more times after.
The fact that she keeps doing it again and again is called “intrinsic motivation.” In other words, she keeps doing it because it just feels really satisfying. That’s not an accident, of course. Your brain is set up to reward you for figuring thing out—it’s one of the things that makes our species so successful. You get that little thrill of pleasure every time you think, “Oh, so that’s how it works!” For an adult it might take a big experience to get that feeling—solving a complicated problem at work, for instance. For a two-year-old it can be as simple as figuring out where a puzzle piece goes, or how to take off the lid of a coffee can.
Also, it doesn’t hurt that this particular activity makes such a satisfying sound every time a cap drops in. Did you notice how this child says, “There! I heard it!” about 7 seconds into the video? In fact, this activity brings out a lot of language for this child. “Push! Push!” she says again and again. “I’ll try this one.” “Now, open!” “Spill, spill, spill…” Simple activities can be great ways to boost language development.
And what about problem-solving? Did you notice what happens when she can’t get the white cap in at first? She tries several different hand/finger/arm positions trying to get it in, before switching to another cap. Then she comes back to the white one at the end, and gets it in right away. That experience is a tiny life lesson: that persistence pays off, that regrouping and trying again leads to success. Lots of little experiences like this add up, and generalize to much more complex experiences, like learning to read, or learning to make friends.
Organization, fine motor skills, problem solving, language development, persistence… Not a bad list of skills for a game made from stuff foraged from the recycling bin!
We rotate new activities into the Practice Spot every few days. Some of them are specialized toys, but most are simple and home-made: little toy bears that can be put onto spots that match their colors; a matching game made from pictures from a catalogue; a shoe-lace and a card with holes punched in it. And we’re always on the look-out for more easy-and-cheap-to-make activities that are fun for kids and support development. What games have you made for kids? Share your ideas in the comments!