Lynnette Arthur: Welcome to Episode One of the Powerful Pedagogy Podcast with us today we have the amazing, just experienced author of Choice Time, How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, Renée Dinnerstein is it Dinnerstein or Dinnerstein?
Renée Dinnerstein: It depends on which part of the family is speaking, but we say Dinnerstein.
LA: Okay, great. All right. And you have over 50 years experience working as an early childhood educator you’ve taught you know, in Rome, you’ve taught in New York and so right now you are a consultant to several schools in terms of, you know, their curriculum development or just sort of how they can deepen play. And so what I’m hoping to impart to people from you from your wisdom is just sort of I’m sure, you know, just through this pandemic, play has changed a lot in the classroom. We’ve gone through, you know, having centers where multiple children can join in and collaborate together to having desks where children have to sit there, you know, alone and just sort of play with their own toys and, you know, just lack of sharing, because we have to wash everything you know, before we exchange it. And so, I’m just wondering just sort of what you seen, or just maybe you can speak to just sort of how important choice time is just in general or what inspired you to even write this book about the importance of choice time?
RD: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. This is a delight. I actually want to start speaking by reading something aloud that I read in the New York Times yesterday that just popped out at me, not in the best of ways, but and I want to preface this by saying that it’s a teacher that’s been quoted for thought of this and it’s not the teacher that I’m so annoyed with. It’s more than the mentality that is driving this type of thinking. Alright, this was an article about how teachers are dealing with coming back after the pandemic. And it mainly it mainly focused on upper grades but then there was a kindergarten teacher. And it said, and I won’t say the name “Miss B, remains optimistic. About her students progress, and was grateful recently to be among a group of teachers who received recognition from the district for their work during the pandemic. She knows her students aren’t all where they shouldn’t be academically. Though she has found herself reteaching lessons from the fall, like how to write words on the correct lines of their handwriting practice paper. Quote, I’m still committed to coming in every day, trying to push and pull the greatness in and out of them, she said I just still worry how many of them are going to be prepared for first grade?” And that’s just what I fear. All right, this is exactly what I fear. All right, this idea that these children who have been separated from each other who have maybe had family members sick or even dying, and who haven’t had opportunities to socialize to, to get into discussions to get into fights to get into to interact with other children their age. are being looked at as having a deficit that needs to be made up and, and and they have to be prepared, prepared, prepared for the next grade. This kindergarten, these are five year olds that we’re talking about. And so the question I ask this, why is it important or is it even appropriate for them to be writing their names on lines? What is appropriate for these children? At this point, what is really appropriate for children at this point? I wrote my book about choice time because well I mean, first of all, I hadn’t any intention of writing a book. I was a classroom teacher for many, many years. And when I was out of the classroom, I became acquainted with a new kindergarten teacher and the school where I had taught who wanted to do choice time because the school that she was in before didn’t allow it, and so the principal of my school, she she encouraged this teacher to reach out to me and we sat and we spent a lot of time talking about what is choice time what you know, what should children be doing, then what’s the teacher’s role, et cetera, et cetera. And then she invited me into her classroom. And eventually she left the classroom and became an editor in Heinemann. And she’s the one who really pushed me pushed me pushed me to write the book, you know, and it was an interesting experience because it took it took a year to write and I had to really rethink what I did in my classroom. What is it that I did and what am I seeing in these classrooms that I’m that I’m going to but I would say that like, I had my class in a public school for two years. I had them for kindergarten, and then I had them again for first grade, the same children. We looped up. And the last few years that I was teaching, that’s when things like guided reading level books were introduced into the into early childhood, you know, into I don’t think pre K but into kindergarten, and I completely refused to do it. I spoke to my principal, I said, I’m not doing it. I’m just not doing it. I said this is probably the last time that they’re not going to be put into these ridiculous groups like this and there are more important things for them to be doing and you know, and I did an hour of choice time every day. Took them outside to play every day.
LA: You were able to do an hour of choice time in a public school?
RD: I insisted. I mean, I mean, my school that I taught in there very much connected with the reading and writing Institute at Teachers College. All right, and they have been for many years, and I’ve actually done work in their summer programs and in different presentations there. But more of not about reading and writing but more about play and choice time. But because it was the school that that was so connected to Teachers College, we did do a reading workshop, sort of in my class, and we always did a writing workshop but this is before these units of study came into play and, and these benchmarks, et cetera, you know, it was much more of an inquiry based writing, you know, and much more of a social kind of reading together and looking at books together and just like that, I don’t know if I get away with that anymore, but I guess because I was there so many years. I did get away with it and also listen to you. And I ran my my choice time, very much like a workshop in that we always had and I still tell teachers to do that. I think it’s a good idea to do that. We still we met together and talked about something, maybe a better news center, maybe about something that I noticed the day before, maybe a new material that I was putting out just like five minutes or so.
LA: We do that in my classroom now. Yeah, like sort of a Guided Discovery of just sort of any new materials or just sort of any of the centers that were introduced.
RD: Something together, and then they went off to the centers that they chose to go to. And that was their sort of independent reading, independent writing. It was their independent play, you know, they went up to the centers, and then we gathered together again, at the end, first year meeting, we always had a share meeting at the end. And it wasn’t something where everybody shared something but were maybe one center was focused on or something that one particular child noticed or it was short, focused meeting at the end. And one thing that I’ve recently seen videos of a really interesting program in China, and I hope I don’t mispronounce it, but Anji play. Are you familiar with that?
LA: I’m not.
RD: Oh, you must it’s it’s all about play. They call it true play. And the children are outside for a good part of the day with with unstructured materials. And teacher what teachers are doing is they are recording what children are doing.
LA: And documenting the whole.
RD: But something very interesting that they do that I’ve been sharing with teachers is that when they come in after they have their lunch or their snack, whatever, they have a share meeting but their share meeting is the teacher projects, something that was that that was videoed, and the children who were playing they’re come up to talk about what they were doing. And then the children who are sitting and watching ask questions or show things. They say things they’re noticing. And that’s what it’s about, you know, like so much about the play is also I mean, there’s so much I was thinking this morning about one particular word, the word cognition. Alright, when I read this, this little blurb from the Times. And I wrote down I went to the dictionary on Google, and if it will, let me see what they say that cognition and “cognition is the mental action or process of acquiring and understanding through thought, experience and the senses.” That’s not what children are going to get when they sit and write their name on a dotted line, but that’s what they’re going to get. They’re going to get a greater sense of cognition, when they’re playing. You know, when they’re really when they’re interacting with each other many things.
LA: You said so many things when they die, like I’m like, Oh my gosh, like and I think two of the things that stood out is one, when you were teaching, you sort of had to advocate for your students and sort of fight for that choice time. And I think if we can encourage teachers now, to do the same things, you know, just just sort of, if you see the need for that socialization is lacking, especially in this pandemic, you know, fight for a fight for those choice times fight for those, you know, moments that that the children can socialize. We understand now as early childhood educators that exposing children to each other is so beneficial from a very early age, right helping them It helps them gain self confidence. It helps them navigate the world also helps them overcome any sort of feelings of shyness, children thrive on interactions that help them grow. So I’m wondering, you know, sort of what happens when a pandemic puts socialization on the backburner, right? So I think in short part of what I’m seeing in my classroom is they adapt. But I also think that the long term impact is still unknown. And you said something else that struck a chord, because I was going to ask you just sort of how choice time could possibly be tailored to meet the needs that children have during this pandemic. And you said something about sharing what they’re doing on screen with each other and allowing those children that created whatever in that area to be able to talk about it and I think that if you for classrooms if you still have to separate children or keep them three feet apart or keep them. You know, I think now the CDC is sort of, there’s new guidelines every single week, but for my classroom in particular, my children are young, they’re under five, so they’re all unvaccinated. So we still have a three feet rule, but doing something like sharing what two children I allow two children in the center, whereas before I used to allow four and five, but allowing sort of what those two children might be doing in that center, posting it up, you know, showing it on you know, the the bigger screen and allowing them to share their experiences that possibly could you know, just sort of be facilitate dialogue between them in the classroom and just help them make them help make them feel connected to what their their counterparts their peers are doing in the room.
RD: Right. So, yeah, I think we really have to think about what it is that we want for the children when they come back. And I think what you said the the need, it’s so difficult now and it’s difficult, it’s difficult for the children it’s difficult for the teachers you know, so but I think that it is just so important to set priorities. Right. And I think at this point, the priority is not in catching up on your ABCs or your whatever is on catching up on all of the social interaction that was lost. During the pandemic, and also the confidence to explore, to inquire to, to try out new materials to and I think all of these are things that teachers really should think about, you know, should should plan their centers so that children have all of these different materials that they can really explore with and that interact with, they haven’t it’s just so sad to think about how much interrupting they’ve lost. I think that a lot of I mean, actually I think other things should be done too. I think there should be a tremendous amount of singing. I think there should be a lot a lot of singing. I think that singing brings people together. I mean even you think about people working in fields and singing together or going on a growing on a boat and singing together or it brings people together and approach children together. And if and there’s so much learning that goes on through singing, you know, I mean.
LA: Can I just tell you like it was a joyous moment when I was sort of given the okay to sing in my classroom again, when we first returned during the pandemic in the middle of it. I was given you know, sort of strict instructions, you know, and again, I work at an independent school, but I was given strict instructions on no singing, you know, and my new that’s such an integral part of my classroom. You know, it teaches language you can there’s math, there’s you know, there’s literally there’s so much in sync, right? And so you take all these dynamics, no singing my students, I had 12 students in the room by myself, I usually have 21 So we had 12 and they all had their own little desks to take a toy out and play at their desk with the toys. And, you know, for months, you know, it was like this No singing, they were at their own desks and trying to find ways for these children to still connect and interact. It was in so challenging, but you know, there are ways around it and so like you said, like, little things, you know, that we sort of take for granted like as much as we can re implementing these things into our classroom re implementing, singing, re implementing, like the sharing of work that is being done at a center, re you know, just re implementing like just sort of all of these socially competent behaviors, right.
RD: And now that the weather is good coming into spring and the weather is nicer getting outside a lot also you know getting outside that’s another thing. You know, in my book, I don’t want to keep going with my book but in my book I talk about two different kinds of play. Alright, free play, where children there’s no agenda, nobody’s setting an agenda. The children set up their agenda totally. You know, the things that they use are totally up to them. And what I call unfortunately, I would change the name again now, but guided play because I think it’s been mis understood. I mean, I think that teachers adults should never guide children’s play, then it’s not play anymore. All right play is something that they just do on their own. The guiding part is in setting up centers and putting out material and that’s the guided part of it, you know, so you know, there’s the play that they do inside the classroom. And then there’s that play that out to a play which is really super, super important. Another thing that I know that I think about things that I noticed when I go into schools, right? And one thing I notice is that many teachers sent home sent home like weekly newsletters to the parents, which is lovely, right? And they’ll say what they’ve been doing in different areas of the classroom. And so what do I see, I see, well, this is what we’ve been doing in reading or literacy. And this is what we’ve been doing and writing and this is what we’re doing. And the very last thing. The very last thing is choice time and our inquiry projects. Now that is a very strong message to both the parents and the administration school as to what’s important in that classroom. And I always try to encourage teachers and say, put this first because this is what’s so important for children. In the book I say that play is that children will I don’t said it’s, it’s you know, been well said that children learn through play, but play is the engine that’s pushing that learning that’s driving the learning, you know, and so I think that it’s really important to make that very clear. The other thing to make clear is not to just say have children learn through play, but to be able to articulate how they learn through play and why they learn to play, because we want play to be honored. And if we just say children learn through play, it’s not going to be honored. But if we can really say what it is that children learn through play, how do they learn through play? And there’s a lot that’s written about it’s very easy to become to become educated on that. You know, and I think that gives much more strength to being sure that children are getting what they need, when they go into school.
LA: Right. And it helps validate that that argument that you know, play is actually the work of children. Right. So letting the community letting parents know all the math that has been learned by working in the block area, right, all the science that has taken place by working at the water table, just sort of all the problem solving and you know, the higher thinking that is taking place at some of these areas. If we if you push it out there it sort of just provides a lens, a perspective on just sort of the importance of it. You know, and it is we know that plays the work of children.
RD: I think that’s the key to this coming back from the pandemic is that children well, first of all, I think we have to respect what they’ve gone through and and acknowledge it, you know, I mean, can push it under the rug.
LA: Now you can and I feel you know, I think right now they are sort of kids haven’t had to share with each other and they haven’t had to talk to unfamiliar adults. Right. So I think you know, while all children are different and transitioning back in person sort of was a child to child, it varied. But I think one of the things I did see and you hit on this is, you know, whereas before, I wouldn’t be as involved in their choice time decisions, I can how to play, but I have to say Renee this year in particular, I noticed that a lot of the children like they they weren’t sure how to use Legos, how to click them together. You know, like there were there were things that they sort of had hadn’t done, and so not guiding their play, but there was this this facilitation that was sort of needed, so that they could so that they could sort of maximize some of these materials like learning how to stop learning how to just learn how to build learning how to, you know, share learning how to collaborate, you know, some of these skills, which I naturally just sort of add time unit in the past so it’s like okay, it’s there. Like they’ve been having playdates they’ve been doing this, like they understand the basics of what it means to play with a friend. This year was very different. Like I was getting children who had literally just been home with their grownups. Some who maybe had siblings but also a lot who were, you know, only children and just home we used to playing with an adult so there definitely was this learning curve I saw and sort of once we facilitated the beginning of the year, like okay, you know, here’s the material. This is just sort of, you know, Guided Discovery here are here’s a couple of ways you know, abstract ways you can make use it. Can’t wait to see what you come up with. But we sort of then we move back.
RD: Yeah, yeah, there’s something actually as you speak, it makes me it makes me think about some possibilities. So, for example, one thing that I’ve done in classrooms that I’ve visited right, at the beginning of the year, is have a group, whole group block building experience. Okay, because so many of the children have never still haven’t played with blocks yet. You know, haven’t had that right.
LA: Right, especially the larger wooden blocks the hardest.
RD: Yes, That’s what I meant, these are the big blocks. All right. So the way we do it is each child will get a chance to go and pick a block any block they want, any shape they want. All right, they go like in twos and they go to the blocks and then put it back with them. Okay. And then I would have one and so I would put one down in the middle and I think about you know which one do I want to put into I want it to stand or straight, they put it there. And then I’d say Well, next person, I said, you put your blog down anywhere you want, but this one rule, it has to touch my block. It just has to touch it. And so we keep building that way where each child goes up and it has to touch a block it has to touch and so and then we talk about as it’s going what it’s looking like and and you know and actually I think it was in your school I did it one of your kindergarten classes were one of the children’s had I think that’s the Eiffel Tower. So so we didn’t that with blocks, but I can see I think that can be done as a group thing with Legos. It can be done as a whole group thing with a big piece of paper and everybody has a different crayon and somebody goes to go and we’d see what happens at the end when everybody makes something and then they go up. So they’re becoming familiar with with manipulating the materials in a supported environment and the whole group. Alright, they’re also getting the sense that we can look what happens when we work together with somebody and we make something together and then they can go off to their groups to wherever it is, you know, and then that’s when as the teachers we observe them and we see what they’re picking up what they’re not picking up what we have to follow through when we meet with them again, you know, that’s we learn then that’s what we need to do as educators. So we’re all learning together, the children and the teacher.
LA: Yes, I agree. So some of the main points, I just want to run it back, you know, just for all the teachers that are out there listening right now, some of the points that I’ve taken away from what you said is one we really have to advocate for our students. They need choice time they need these moments of socialization. And yes, there’s the academic piece, but research shows that you know, plays the work of children and, you know, the social piece actually helps all areas. The other thing is, you know, there are ways to facilitate, you know, or reintroduce materials that these children may not have been exposed to in a way that is still open ended in a way that still facilitates creativity. And the other thing is finding ways to share the work that is being done. So even if you know sort of we have, you know, something happening at dramatic play and two kids at the water table. How can we you know, share what is being like bridge the gap of sort of what is being done by these teams of children, and that there are still ways. So absolutely, absolutely. This is great.
RD: Can I have time to read another quote?
LA: You absolutely have time.
RD: Okay, so this was a study that I was reading. This is a little part of the study. It the title of the study is The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent Child Bond, focus on children in poverty. And I think that all children coming in now are children who are in a certain kind of poverty, a poverty of socialization, and so we have to consider that all children coming in or just about all children have some are coming with it needs of a certain kind of poverty. So this is just a little part of it. “Opportunities for play and social and emotional learning enhance school engagement, quite simply school engagement occurs when children succeed academically, have other non academic opportunities for success such as creative arts and physical education.” And this last part is what really stood out to me “and consider a school a place in which they feel safe and enjoy spending time.” I really thought that was an important ending of that.
LA: It’s huge. And part of why I also wanted you to be our first podcast guest, Renée is is the work that you do and is the fact that you advocate so hardly so hard, in terms of, you know, getting this this play back into the lives of our students in the schools, whether you’re an independent or whether you have public schools. You know, it is so vital and I think especially now it’s even more vital but you know, just in talking to you I literally was having flashbacks of when I came back. And we like everything was packed up. You know, they weren’t able to use the block area because wood couldn’t be, there was the belief that wood couldn’t be like, I guess decontaminated or, you know, it was just sort of like, you know, everything that they didn’t know, they didn’t know and for the baby dolls they were in a basket in the corner for like, three quarters of the year and my students would ask like, you know, Miss Lynnette net can we get the baby dolls today and I had to tell them like, I’m so sorry. No, you can’t. And just even that like saying no, you know, but then it was like, Okay, but what can we do? Like maybe we can make baby dolls, maybe they can make their own. You know, like there there are, you know, there have been sort of inventive things that I think teachers have come up with. But I just in talking to my colleagues and my counterparts, I think we’re all seeing this, what the pandemic has done, you know, in terms of the lack of socialization, the lack of sort of interacting and we’re all wondering the long term impacts and we’re all just sort of, you know, questioning, what could we do now to make up for that, what could we do now, to sort of, you know, bring that learning back, you know, bring it just make it natural again, we’ve spent a year telling children to stay away from each other. And now we’re slowly and surely reintroducing, like, No, you can share.But yeah, it’s vital.
RD: And I have a particular passion for kindergarten, maybe because I was a kid and I feel like that’s the grade that’s being that’s being trampled on a bit. In public school, at least.
LA: What is your main concern like when you do think of kindergarten?
RD: Well, I My concern is that that it’s being it’s being thought of in the way that we’ve thought of first grade many years ago. And and that there’s this hysterical feeling that we must teach kindergarten children to read at a certain level to write certain things to be able to put spaces between their words to be able to some will absolutely but, I think that kindergarten is not first grade. It’s, you know, first graders also early childhood quite truthfully, but kindergarten certainly is early childhood. In New York City. By the way, kindergarten is no longer part of the division of early childhood. Is that amazing?
LA: Really, really?
RD: Only pre K 3k and 3k not kindergarten. Which means that they that you know, if there is a teacher or principal who has no background with early childhood, they can turn it into anything they want, you know, they can turn it into a completely academic year. So I fear for that. You know, I feel like that’s I feel like children are missing out on so much when that happens, you know, and so that so I feel like a particular I feel like an advocate for all children, but I feel a very strong advocacy for kindergarten children.
LA: Absolutely, because kindergarten is sort of when those first you know learning how to read, you know, sound symbol correspondence like a lot of that starts in kindergarten. What advice or what would you say, for teachers who are sort of trying to let parents know the importance of sort of what they’re doing and how they’re allowed and just the fact that, you know, yes, children do need the academic piece, but for teachers who are trying to really advocate like, you know, they also need to play too, and for parents who are like, you know, well, you know, I want my child to, you know, they missed a year so they need to catch up. What advice would you give in in that scenario, to sort of just reassure parents that it will happen?
RD: I think that I think that that, first of all documentation is is a real key, you know, that whole idea of making learning visible. I think that that’s a real key. I just read some article about the difference between documentation and display, so I think teachers often will make beautiful displays but they’re not really documentation and documentation really shows the growth of a project or play, whatever it is that you’re that you’re documenting, and it has teachers reflections written, it has children’s reflections, it’s not just, it’s a bigger thing. It shows the progress, right, as opposed to the product of it. And I think if if parents could see that, all right, and if teachers would be very explicit in like that, you know, I’m I’ve been watching James and Janina building with Legos and I’ve seen so much happening here. First of all, socially, I’ve seen them have to, they had to really work out some differences of opinion and without stepping in the way they did it on their own, but they were also figuring out what size Legos they needed, which ones didn’t work, they were doing lots of mathematical work here, etc. You know, if it’s something to do with that has to do with letters or like having like an in my kindergarten class, we have this and I set this up with the children and ABC center. So it had all sorts of materials. It had different letter, magnetic letters, it had tracing paper, it had carbon paper, which nobody knows about carbon paper anymore, but I used to type with it, you know, and so the kids call that magic paper, and then I brought a overhead projector there. And so they were a it’s the letters with like floating around the ceiling there and they would do things and they would taking surveys and you know, like finding it. They were greeted alphabet shots, and they were going around the classroom, taking surveys of how many children’s names began with an A and how many began with a B, et cetera, et cetera. They were writing the names down in the different boxes on this. And so they were playing nobody told them what to do. All the materials were there. They were ABC books there, etcetera. They were playing there. They were making up what they wanted to do if they wanted to play school, they played school, whatever it was that they wanted to do there. But it was so much learning taking place. There was so much academic learning taking place. So things like that. And also I think that there were things that teachers could do to introduce letters and sounds in ways that are not play but playful. So for example, doing a names like what’s most important to children, their names, their names, so starting by doing a name study and let’s look at Lynnette’s name. What do we notice about it? How many times can we clap to it when she has a two clap name and wonder if anybody else has it to clap name. And and how many letters is there anybody you know? And can we find that let’s see if we can find the little tiny word inside it. Or what you know, whatever. And so, if you focus like a different day on a different name, and then start making comparisons between doing so much more work than if you’re doing the letter of the day or like practicing writing the letters, they’re doing just so much work and so much more learning is so much higher level learning so it’s a matter of thinking about that, thinking about how are you going to do it when you’re going to present the children and doing it in a playful way. Play and playful
PA: Renée you are amazing. Thank you.
RD: Thank you for inviting me
LA: Thank you for joining us today and if you all are interested in learning more Renée has a blog investigating choice time inquiry, exploration and play at https://www.investigatingchoicetime.com. So whether you’re a parent, educator, or advocate of young children, Renée’s website and blog is a great resource for you to gain ideas and just learn from so.
RD: Thank you so much for doing this. It’s so important what you’re doing.