Think of the thrill of a child who discovers a salamander under a rock. Picture a child who transforms and gets lost in imaginative play. Picture the sparkle, the focus, the persistence, the social interaction and the confidence that blooms.
Engagement is “the amount of time children spend interacting with their environment (materials, peers and adults) in a developmentally appropriate manner” (McWilliam & Bailey, 1992). When children are engaged, you will notice that crying, aimless wandering and physical aggression decrease and improved behavior results.
What Does Engaged Learning Look Like?
One way to think of the process to achieve engagement is to think of providing a balance of novelty and predictability. When we go too far in the direction of predictability, we can squash excitement, passion, collaboration and creativity. When we go too far in the direction of novelty, we may not meet a child’s need for routines and predictability to feel safe and secure.
So, first think of a scale with a bucket on each end and ask yourself . . . Shall I add a few novel ideas? Do I have consistent routines as the backdrop for novelty? Maybe I could add learning routines that spark interest, enthusiasm and connection.
Four Techniques to Try Today
1. Add Movement
- Circle Time: Try a “Hello” song that involves movement choices. For instance, as you sing a quick “hello” to Sarah, ask her to choose a movement for everyone to do, such as clapping, waving, stomping, wiggling. This way all children are involved, get to move and you also build a sense of community, which is so important to engagement.
- Story Time: If you are reading a book about the wind, supply feathers to blow as an introduction. When the book describes walking through mud, invite children to take a minute to “walk through mud” and experience the story along with listening. If a character is waking up, invite children to stretch and yawn, to keep them engaged.
- Add a step stool to stand on and jump from when children share ideas at circle time. Put it in the middle of the room for free play for a quick boost of action.
- Do puzzles on tummies on the floor instead of at tables. Maybe even keep the pieces on a table to have to retrieve after finding success with one piece.
2. Integrate Visuals and Props
- Activity time: If you want to collect green items in the room, supply a flashlight to hunt for them, turning it into a mission instead of an “assignment.” Make an official class “pointer” together to use for the “Weather Reporter” job.
- Have a special box or container to keep items that relate to a story that will be read. Use them as you talk about the story after reading it.
- Have a Mystery Box to build suspense at circle. Give clues to what is inside. Include children in the process.
- Have a special puppet that has a certain role: loves to count, gets carried away saying sentences using a letter sound, or looks back at the class from the teacher’s shoulder during group walking through the halls.
- Use cheerleader pompoms to practice cheers that help them to listen to the sounds of letters.
3. Create a Community-Building Routine
- Create a “Greeter” classroom job so that every morning at circle each child gets a “High 5” or wave from a peer to start the day.
- Put special rocks in a bucket and recall special memories from the day.
- Create “Thankful Thursdays” and brainstorm together who they might like to sing a song for, make muffins for, or send a picture to.
- Sing each child’s name in a “Good-bye Song” to end the day together.
4. Encourage Open-Ended Discovery
- Create a discovery corner. Invite children to bring in natural items. Paint rocks with water to see their brilliance, display an empty bee’s nest with a magnifying glass.
- Have a tub or a table with changing options to explore textures with scoops: rice, beans, popcorn, shredded paper.
- Never underestimate the value of a really good selection of dress-up items. Go to second-hand stores for the really interesting and inventive items.
- Paint a bowl of cooked white rice to see texture and brilliant colors.
- Set out common materials with something new to figure out how to use together. Mix blocks with a package of sponges or take puzzle pieces out of their boards to use with play dough or tracing materials.
Let your creative juices flow to capture the hearts and minds of preschoolers. Balance novelty and routine. Use movement, visuals, exploration opportunities and a strong sense of community to engage your preschoolers. These are a catalyst to a child’s participation and engagement and can increase a child’s ability to process information, improve memory and create shared enjoyment among all. Remember that being responsive to children’s ideas, interests and feelings is the “yeast that makes it all rise” and the “spice that gives it unique flavor.” Stir it all together for robust learning and authentic engagement.
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