By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. Many, many years ago, when I discovered emergent curriculum and specifically the Project Approach I was teaching early childhood education at a large community college. I wanted my students to understand how a topic worthy of further investigation can emerge from hands on experience. I wanted the topic to be something that I could connect with and that I could feel passionate about the possibilities for investigation and discovery. When I settled on rocks, I was thrilled because I had a great collection, many childhood memories and soon found that there were so many resources for children to support a rock project or inquiry. I began to amass rocks, books, and various other materials including clipboards, measuring scales, magnifying glasses and more. I packed them up and headed to work only to be confronted by the reality that my class was up four flights of stairs and I did not have access to an elevator. I was lucky to encounter a colleague who helped me up the stairs with all my stuff. At the top of the stairs, he turned around and said, “Diane, couldn’t you come up with a lighter project topic like feathers”? That was over twenty years ago, but the problem still lingers on as often I find myself with a large suitcase to lung along the streets downtown, as the university I now teach at is expansive. While it is so important for students and educators to have first hand experiences with materials, I continue to cart massive amounts to classrooms when I teach and to various venues when I am presenting professional learning opportunities. The challenge becomes even more challenging when I am asked to present out-of-province or out-of-country. I recently returned from the beautiful province of Saskatchewan and the amazing city of Adelaide, South Australia. While, I still love rocks, I have now found inspiration in a much lighter material – buttons!
I have written about buttons before, both from a historical and play perspective and as a basis for learning stories. In Perth, Ontario and North Battleford, Saskatchewan, we spent the first part of the professional learning session playing with buttons and the second half documenting the learning. I was very grateful to Kathy Bolesma who created an e-book of the documentation so that I have a lasting memory and I love the title – Beyond the Button!
Collections of buttons as loose parts are wonderful to share with others as a means to illustrate the value of open-ended materials. Aside from being light and easy to transport (“have buttons will travel”), they have so many possibilities for play! They can be sorted, classified, counted, used for design and art creations but at the end of the day, they all go back in the same container. Button experiences are influenced by interests in schemas. Cindy Green, my co-presenter in many professional learning experiences, and I adapted a chart from the work of Chris Athey and others on “Buttons by Schema”. Jean Piaget, the famous cognitive constructivist, thought that, as organisms, humans are constantly adapting to their environments. These processes are the building blocks of knowledge or schemas. According to Piaget, schemas evolve from ‘assimilation’ and ‘accommodation’ – assimilation takes place when a child absorbs new knowledge and fits it into what is already known; accommodation occurs when the new knowledge challenges the ‘old’ to such an extent that the ‘old’ knowledge is changed in some way, to make the new and old fit together and make sense. Chris Athey carried out much research about schemas, which she explained as patterns of repeatable behaviour into which experiences are assimilated and gradually co-ordinated. What I am learning from Cindy is that schemas are very important part of our work with children. Others will even go as far as to suggest, “Understanding and celebrating children’s exploration of schemas enriches their spirit, art and lives”.
I appreciate the work that I do with Cindy and with all the educators from around the globe that I have had the privilege of meeting as they have enriched my spirit, my art and my life. Buttons in particular, have helped me make important connections with my thinking and with others. Buttons connect especially in Reggio-inspired practice. In Adelaide, the participants were able to make connections between our experience and the principles of the Reggio Emilia Educational Project.
In Ontario, Saskatchewan and Australia, there were multiple sectors represented in the audience of participants. Administrators, directors, primary school educators, educators from child care and early childhood education students were together in one room. Often times in one day, there was a mix of contexts but the buttons facilitated connections. These wonderful diverse, colourful discs of plastic, metal, wood, bamboo and even coconut, became a metaphorical bridge that brought participants together in a common, relatable experience.
During the button experiences, we always ask participants to spend time with the buttons in silence so that there is an opportunity to be more mindful and focused as the buttons can evoke memories,. Memories of special people, outfits, and hours spent playing with our grandmother’s button box. I can still picture the old cookie tin that contained my grandmother’s buttons. I never met her, as she passed away, when my mother was a teenager but I played for hours and hours with those buttons. When I became an early childhood educator, I asked my mother if she still had the tin. She did and recalling the memories of my childhood I brought them to the program where I worked. Years later, when I left, I forgot to retrieve the buttons and hadn’t thought about them until recently. I am sure they are gone now but I have now started my own cherished collection for my future grandchildren. They may not be my grandma’s buttons but they will be someone’s grandma’s buttons!
What I have learned it is never too late to make these button connections as buttons transcend age, geography and culture. These simple but complex orbs of potential serve as reminder of the capacity of educators to learn from experience and take ownership of their own professional learning. These knobs of various sizes and shapes, tell us that it is through play that children construct knowledge. The more we play with buttons, the more we learn.
We see a child who is driven by the enormous energy potential of a hundred billion neurons, and by the incredible curiosity that makes the child search for reasons for everything, and who has all the strength and potential that comes from the ability to wonder and to be amazed. A child who is powerful from the moment of birth because of being open to the world, and capable of constructing his or her own knowledge. Carlina Rinaldi, Re-Imagining Childhood, p. 15