When Children Have the Freedom To “Be”

While this is a post I wrote about play performances with children, it is really about far more.  Oh, yes!  It is about believing and taking risks.  It is about freedom and encouragement.  It’s my philosophy of teaching. 

Paying attention to children and what they like is the key to their greatest learning experiences.  It’s called emergent curriculum, and this is much like how it happens:

“Imagine being on a quest with a group of children, walking through the woods, and suddenly discovering something shiny on the ground.  You pause to look, brush away the dirt and leaves, and uncover a hatch.  You stop, knowing the excitement is just the beginning, and ask questions.  Oh, those “W” questions lead to hours of wondering and predictions.  At last, you open the hatch and discover there is no darkness.  There is light and a beautiful stairway, leading to the joy of learning.”

In order for emergent curriculum to happen like this, I have to be open and let my instincts be my guide.  Of course, it is the children who always start the ball rolling.  And, a play performance can often be that shiny hatch, what the children want when they are involved in learning.

We studied Fairy Tales recently; reading stories, telling stories, writing stories, using props, learning about different characters.  The children deemed Goldilocks a “not-listener”.  They were right.  We then voted on the Fairy Tales we liked the best, and one was The Three Little Pigs.

The children were interested in the story and the characters.  After reading different versions, we debated on what the wolf really did.  Did he eat the pigs, or did each pig rush to the house of his brother when the wolf was huffing-and-puffing?  Hands down, the popular choice was the pigs running away.  So, the only thing left to do, in order to make this thinking and studying work, was to become the characters ourselves.  That meant a play performance.

After all, isn’t that what a good book ultimately does?  The reader becomes the characters.

Costumes?  Oh, no.  The only thing we needed were the pig’s houses.

We placed the straw house and the stick house atop our classroom tables, and the brick house alongside our loft.  Children chose to be pigs, wolves, and sellers.  Then, I stood back and watched amazing things happen.

Jayden, one of the quiet and younger children, and only three-and-a-half years old, decided to be a seller.  When the pigs came to buy his straw, he belted out, “I don’t think that’s a good idea!”  When the next group of pigs came to buy his sticks, he said, “That is NOT a good idea”, with the confidence and determination of a real seller of sticks.  I could hardly believe it.

Wolves and pigs nailed the words they wanted to say, and became the characters.  Even the old sow, the mother pig, had a grand performance.

Why did this play work?  There were no costumes, no set lines to say, just the children wanting, needing to do this in order to go along that stairway in the light, under the hatch.

I have watched far too many plays with nervous children worrying if they mess-up their lines, and plays that focus on the costumes.  It makes me sad.  It has nothing to do with learning and developing self-esteem.  What do children really need to experience?  Self-esteem, bravery, and joy.  Those will be their foundation.  I know this to be true; it all started with Kevin…

Kevin was what teachers refer to as an “observer”, a child who watches others, usually at a bit of a distance.  He was painfully shy.  Even talking with his teachers was not easy for him.  Kevin was in my summer camp group, and we did a play performance at the end of each camp session.  Kevin decided he wanted to be a dog in the play.  We sneaked into the storage room so children could pick anything they wanted to make their own costume.  Kevin found a piece of brown card stock paper, cutting out a small triangle.

“It’s my tail”, he exclaimed with a satisfied look on his face. “Do you need anything else?” I asked.  “No, I’m all set.”

When the play began, Kevin walked onto that stage with tall shoulders and a big smile.  Of course, no one could see the tail, but that didn’t matter.  Kevin knew it was there.  He was terrific in the play.  We did another play, with children wanting to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.”  That is one difficult song!  Yet, the group was sure, mainly because one boy was quite a gifted singer.  The plan was to have him in the front, and the other children behind him holding the American flag.  We practiced.  It worked.

As we lined up behind the curtain, ready to begin, the boy panicked and refused to sing.  He was in tears.  Before I had a moment to help out, Kevin stepped forward and quietly said he would sing.  Kevin!  He was wonderful.  The audience cried silent tears.

That’s what happens when children have the freedom to be, and the support to ‘just do it’.

Today Kevin is in a top college, a math and science guy.  He wears a big smile, and he has a knowing warmth about him, much like someone who has had a few life experiences under their belt.  He has, indeed.


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.
This entry was posted in Early Education, Expressing words and feelings, Imagination, Inspiration, joy, Love, play performances, preschool, Teaching young children and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

92 Responses to When Children Have the Freedom To “Be”

  1. Very inspirational, Jennie.

  2. willedare says:

    I LOVE you blog posts. I am sharing this one with a friend who teaches college. Sometimes he finds it challenging to discern any authentic flicker of curiosity in his students which he can then (hopefully) help to fan into a flame…

    • willedare says:

      Oops. I hit “post comment” before noticing that “you” was supposed to be “your” in my previous comment.

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you, Will! Tell your friend that while recognizing the interest isn’t easy, preschool or college, here’s what I do: I automatically assume they are interested, because I am. This may sound small, but it is huge. That means any question, any look is a positive for me, and fuel to move forward. That might mean forward in the sense of the project, or forward in the interest of the student. Everyone wants to jump on the bandwagon. Make sense? Let me know if this is helpful.

  3. Opher says:

    I can picture it in my head Jennie! Fabulous.

  4. Mike says:

    There’s no doubt in my mind that play time is vital to a child’s normal development.

  5. ren says:

    I wanna play in the play toooooo!
    Oh what fun, Jennie! My friend was recently gifted a ‘stage’ for her toddlers. I am forwarding this to her for more wonderful performance ideas. Thank you.

  6. This is a wonderful post! Three Little Pigs is a favorite in our house too.

  7. Freedom to be is a precious gift. Nice job, Jennie.

  8. beetleypete says:

    To see Kevin develop from his dog tail to top student must be so rewarding. As always, an inspirational post, Jennie.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Jennie says:

      It is truly rewarding, Pete. I just wish teachers could recognize the little things in children, because they are actually the big things. I’m glad you enjoyed this. Thank you.

  9. Mireya says:

    You are very right. The system is terrible in that children are taught to listen and the teacher teaches. I find this so boring. I much rather have conversations with them and have fin. Each year the students send 4 weeks working on projects for open house and like what…they should do this every single day with math and writing. But no they have to be busy with boring paper work and tests.

    • Jennie says:

      Yes! The “I am the teacher and you are the student” doesn’t work. I learn from my students. Really. So, if education can be more of a dialogue, the learning soars, and students are actually eager. The first school to address this problem was Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire. They invented the Harkness Table method, a round table unlike rows of desks, where learning is engaging. It works. I champion the Harkness Table in my preschool classroom.

  10. I’m not sure if the system is broken or if it’s more ‘teacher training’ is broken. Who taught you to look beyond? And to value that? Maybe it’s the inspirational sort of teacher we should nurture but forget to.

    Not sure at all, Jennie.

    • Jennie says:

      Very thought provoking, and excellent questions, Jacqui. I think the system looks at the end result, performance and how we score/rate with other towns, states, and countries. Schools are too test driven, so that diminishes what teachers want to do – teach in the ways that children learn and thrive. So, teacher training is often academically focused, and when it’s child focused it’s often on special needs.

      That leaves most students and teachers in the dust, doesn’t it?

      Finland is #1 in reading, and we’re something terrible, like #26.

      Who taught me to look beyond? It was a moment, a little boy I had not connected with. I had only been teaching for maybe 10 years. It was nap time. Everyone was sleeping, except the two of us. Somehow we looked across the room at each other and smiled, simultaneously. That was it. That taught me to look beyond. I connected with this boy. It was a great moment. And since then I’ve always looked at children through their eyes.

      Children inspire me. I inspire children.

  11. Ritu says:

    I love this Jennie!
    Giving them freedom to think and express gives so much more to them, skills-wise!

  12. Great post, Jennie. It’s so wonderful when the kids grow up to be good and successful people.

  13. dolphinwrite says:

    Excellent observations, Jennie. As one who has taught the older students, usually 4-8, I have also wanted to hear their viewpoints, constructing some lessons for variety and creativity. On occassion, I ask them what they think a “good” assignment might be, and at times, have followed their ideas. Also, I have created some assignments with open expression so they can design the work. I do believe, that the teacher leads the class, that it is important that the students gain from the teacher’s experience and knowledge, and as the curriculum must be taught due to administrative decisions, we do so with the best of our abilities. The two go hand in hand. Thanks so much.

  14. Darlene says:

    Another amazing story about how to engage children and the result of that engagement.

  15. You know Jennie, not only did you encourage those ‘shy ‘students of yours by letting them be and use their own imagination.. But you still know what they are doing and how they progressed in life today..
    Now that is something special in itself.. You See each child as perfect, nurturing and guiding them… What a treasure to the education system you are Jennie…
    So wish more could be like you..
    Love and Blessings my friend.. ❤ SO enjoyed

  16. Dan Antion says:

    These wonderful moments stick with children throughout their lives, Jennie. Thank you for giving them these experiences.

  17. jofox2108 says:


    It reminds me of one year’s nativity play in a different school 20 years ago. It was a traditional play with the children improvising their lines but still following the story. We were in front of an audience of parents…

    Mary and Joseph inevitably knock at the innkeeper’s door in Bethlehem and ask if he has any room. “Oh yes!” the Innkeeper bellows with a giggle “We’ve got loads of room!”. He then does a hugely theatrical bow and tries to pull them through the door. A small scuffle ensues as Mary and Joseph remonstrate with the Innkeeper in angry whispers about “That’s not the story” and “We’ve got to stay in the stable”. The scuffle is stopped from descending into minor violence by a cough and some raised eyebrows from me and a hard look from our Deputy Head (an ex-nun with a temper). After which the Innkeeper sullenly mentions the stable and events continue to unfold.

    The Innkeeper had special needs and a wicked sense of humour. He hadn’t done anything like that in rehearsals. Although, as a new teacher, I nearly had a heart attack, it turned out to be a highlight of the play!

  18. Dear Jennie… everything about this post and how you set it up is purely wonderful. What a nice finishing touch to let us know how Kevin turned out. I really love what you are doing. Happy New Year hugs!

  19. When I was working with struggling families, Jennie, one of my tasks was teaching some children to use their imaginations and play who’d never had that opportunity. It was amazing when they suddenly understood the delights awaiting them. Your kids are so lucky to have you. 🙂

  20. Wonderful post, Jennie! Between the examples in your post and all the comments, there is so much of value here. I plan to share it with my son, a professor. Hope your new year is off to a great start!

    • Jennie says:

      Thank you, Marcia. I know what you mean about the comments – wow! I hope your son likes this. I have teachers at prep schools who are reading this, too. The school year is off to a busy start. Lots of happenings ahead. 🙂

  21. dolphinwrite says:

    Sound words of advice. Pay it forward.

  22. Norah Colvin says:

    Ooh, Jennie. I love this post. It gives me goosebumps.
    While the entire paragraph this statement comes from is wonderful, to me these words say it all: “At last, you open the hatch and discover there is no darkness. There is light and a beautiful stairway, leading to the joy of learning.”
    Everyone needs to find that stairway, wherever it is.

    • Jennie says:

      Yes, they do need to find that stairway. Especially teachers. Honestly, I feel that I’m headed down that stairway with children every time I read aloud. Thank you, Norah.

  23. Reblogged this on Smorgasbord Blog Magazine and commented:
    Another one of the inspiring posts from Jennie Fitzkee, a pre-school teacher for over 30 years. Jennie talks about developing an emergent curriculum which allows the children to lead the way with their insatiable need to ask questions… She also shares the success stories of this method of teaching rather a one size fits all policy. One that like many of you I suffered from, especially as I moved through 7 different schools with 7 different curriculums.. all rigid. #recommended.

  24. Sue Vincent says:

    Such a heartwarming post, Jennie, and shows so well that children learn best when they learn how to explore their own worlds.

  25. joylennick says:

    A great post, Sue.Thank you. What a wonderful teacher Jennie is! I so agree with her strategy. I had an abysmal education: (seven different schools). but, fortunately, caught up in adulthood.

  26. I love this! What a wonderful gift to give children – to be themselves ❤

  27. Pingback: When Children Have the Freedom To “Be” ~ Jennie Fitzkee | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

  28. Nice one ❤
    I too have written a post for children. Do read and share your views. https://mesmotsbysazz.com/2019/01/11/paper-planes-dreams/

  29. This is the way teaching kids with, as business people say “sustainability” 😉 Thank you for sharing, and have a nice weekend, Jennie! Michael

  30. dolphinwrite says:

    This is such a good topic. I’ve dedicated my site to encouraging kids to understand and think for themselves, good teachers able to bring forth what is already in the children but needs support. Thank you again.

  31. milk and bottles says:

    Amazing amazing keep the great work

  32. frenchc1955 says:

    Jennie, this is beautiful

  33. Thank you for this post!

  34. Loved your post. I’d be delighted if you check out mine on a similar topic

  35. The road to performance can be tedious and difficult, but not without satisfaction and fulfilment, a creative teacher is a child needs to make it easier and fun !

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