How Children Really Learn

The classroom seemed quiet, even though rice was everywhere on the floor, and nothing resembled the set-up of activities that teachers had carefully arranged.  Yet, every child was fully engaged in important play.  I stepped back for a moment to watch real learning taking place.

This was the stage:

  • Chairs were lined-up in a long row as seats on a plane traveling to China.
  • Our housekeeping area was set up as a Chinese restaurant.
  • Our big table was a travel agency, and children were selling tickets for the plane ride, counting money, and studying a satellite map of China.
  • At our smaller table, scissor cutting, hole punching, ribbon and bead stringing were everywhere, as we made Chinese lanterns.
  • Rice, gold coins, jewels and sparkles were in the sensory table with scoopers and sifters of various sizes.

Then, this is what I observed:

  • Children were very focused at the table making lanterns.  After all, scissor cutting and hole punching is challenging (and fun).  The ribbon we were using to decorate the lanterns was wide, so a child decided to cut the ribbon lengthwise.  He was determined, and was doing a very good job.  Suddenly, he had an epiphany; the seats on the plane had no seat belts, and the ribbon was perfect and needed for seat belts.  He cut the right lengths, became the pilot, and strapped everybody in.  All of the passengers agreed that this was important.
  • At the same time, children were using chopsticks at the Chinese restaurant in our dramatic play to feed our baby dolls. They held small bowls filled with pom-poms, and carefully fed the babies with chopsticks.  Then, they put ‘Gloria’ into a chair to feed her.  And then, they pretended to feed each other, taking turns being the baby and the parent.
  • At the big table, children were selling tickets to the plane ride to China. There was intense negotiating over money, and counting out tickets.  Tickets and money were everywhere.  Children counted, but they argued.  They then figured out a way to divide the money and the tickets.
  • Children at the sensory table sifted through rice to find gold and gems. They compared scoopers and sifters, and figured out which ones worked best to collect either gems or gold.  Trial and error, and persistence paid off.

Children learn through hands-on experiences.  This day, I observed critical divergent thinking, which is so fundamental to success.  In every instance, the children were in a situation where they had to figure out what to do.  I observed math, science, language, motor skills, negotiating, giving, and sharing.  Yes, the classroom seemed quiet because children were hard at work.  Enthusiasm + hard work = success.  That’s the magic formula in my classroom.  That’s also the foundation for life skills.  Today these children notched one in their belt.

It was a great day for children.


About Jennie

I have been teaching preschool for over thirty years. This is my passion. I believe that children have a voice, and that is the catalyst to enhance or even change the learning experience. Emergent curriculum opens young minds. It's the little things that happen in the classroom that are most important and exciting. That's what I write about. I am highlighted in the the new edition of Jim Trelease's bestselling book, "The Read-Aloud Handbook" because of my reading to children. My class has designed quilts that hang as permanent displays at both the National Liberty Museum in Philadelphia, and the Fisher House at the Boston VA Hospital.
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35 Responses to How Children Really Learn

  1. frenchc1955 says:

    Thank you for sharing an excellent example of teaching and learning.

  2. What a great bunch of kids! This sounds so ideal!

  3. reocochran says:

    I love the days teachers like you set up multiple centers with all kinds of focused learning. We used our sensory table every day, changing it for every book-driven theme. In the Autumn, farming equipment digging in the corn we would buy at the supply center. Once we swept it up, we would store it in a tub and when the first snow fell, we would sprinkle it for birds, squirrels and chipmunks in the area in the other side of our playground fence, Jennie. 🙂
    I love your Chinese lessons you shared here! I hope this will remind child care providers, teachers in their own homes, and other non-professionals who may have forgotten about “hands on learning.”

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you, Robin. Hands on learning really is the best. Your corn is a perfect example. My next post is about a Chinese restaurant and all the learning that happened. Stay tuned!

      • reocochran says:

        Ooh, I love international lessons which I must admit we didn’t often get to these, Jennie. I had a visually impaired student so we used more tactile art lessons and tracing letters in shaving cream, sand and with playdough. The Hispanic child had me figuring out the Spanish for Weather Bear’s various clothing items, days of the week, areas of the classroom and other things (toys). Sometimes this is how we adapt and expand our lessons and subjects, learning which ones really had a great result, right? 😉
        This helps me now with a variety of ages and interests in my grandchildren, Jennie.

      • jlfatgcs says:

        Right on, Robin. Now, that’s a flashback phrase to our past. Came right out of my mouth, or I should say fingers. Ha!

      • reocochran says:

        Oh, Jennie, so funny! I still like to hear, “Right on!” Which my hippie son who has a wife and combination family says this slogan often it is very life affirming to hear one generation pick up a positive comment and continue it. 🙂

      • jlfatgcs says:

        He is right. Right on, indeed! 😀

  4. Sue Ranscht says:

    And this is how self-esteem is really developed. A child tries, struggles, succeeds, and learns. Self-esteem comes from the inside, not from the outside. “Good job!”, participation awards, gold stars, praise — all that stuff is just recognition, nice to have, but insubstantial.

  5. Tanya Cliff says:

    There is so much to love about how you set this up. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Sounds like a wonderful learning experience!

  7. What a wonderful story! I love hearing about their learning. Thanks for liking my post

  8. Thank you. What a perfect example of using all the senses and involving children in creative play. They learn by making their own decisions and working things out. I wish my kids could have had you for their teacher.

  9. Nicky M says:

    It really was a great day for the children – all that thinking, enhancing imagination not to mention social skills when negotiating ticket prices! Rewarding for you also – you may not see the difference you’re making to these children’s lives yet, but know you’re shaping a future generation. Job well done 🙂

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Thank you for your kind words, Nicky. I love those days where great learning like this takes place. Those children return to visit years later, even into adulthood. I do hope I am shaping a future generation.

  10. Grandtrines says:

    Reblogged this on Still Another Writer's Blog.

  11. That kind of freedom to create is so crucial. I love how in Finland pupils do not face any stupid tests or exams in the first ten years or so (until 10-11). The best education system in the world and here in the UK the govment introduced more testing…crazy.

    • jlfatgcs says:

      Yes! And in Finland there is no formal reading instruction until age 6. They have the highest reading proficiency in the world. It is crazy. I teach in a private school, so I have more freedom to really teach. Thank goodness!

  12. swamiyesudas says:

    Reblogged this on lovehappinessandpeace and commented:
    I counted 7 Lessons in 1 Period! ‘math, science, language, motor skills, negotiating, giving, and sharing!’
    Phenomenal and Stupendous!
    My Kudos to the Teacher and the Students!

  13. swamiyesudas says:

    It would have been nice to see some pictures of that session! Do post them! 🙂

  14. frenchc1955 says:

    Hi, I have nominated you for the One Lovely Blog Award! The information can be found here:

  15. Pingback: Saturday 7 – Space, Time, and Raspberries

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