Friday, April 28, 2017

Open-Ended Baking: A Sweet and Savory Tale of Child-led Play

Guess what?  I learned something new about myself: I am a fan of open-ended BAKING opportunities!!  Who knew?

Up until the tale I'm about to share with you happened, I believed baking was a time for children to learn about following directions, and definitely not a time for leading with their own ideas.

Baking was a time for my inner-control freak to come out, guilt-free and take over the job of leader.  I was, after all, teaching children how to follow a recipe, we HAD to do it right....right?


Open-ended baking can be a thing.... in fact, it SHOULD be a thing!

What does open-ended baking look like?  Does it look like what it sounds like?

YES.  Yes, it does.   As with all open-ended opportunities in my program, open-ended baking involves no adult expectations or direction.  The children are given the freedom of time, task, technique and most importantly, TRUST.   My job is to be in the moment,  quietly following their lead, gathering ingredients they may decide they need.

Truth be told:  as I was setting the environment in which this tale begins, I was expecting the children to have engaging conversations about the smells and loads of fun "pretend" cooking.  I NEVER anticipated this was going to turn into the EMPOWERING experience that it did.

Here is the tale of how open-ended baking happened organically in my program:

A couple of weeks ago,  I set the environment at my play school with a large bowl of flour, small cups of water with pipettes in them, a bottle each of oregano, basil, garlic powder, paprika and a salt grinder.  I added a plethora (don't you just love that word?) of mixing bowls that I have collected over the years at various thrift stores, as well as spoons.  My expectations involved rich conversations, sensory exploration, trial and error, mixing, blending and grand imaginary play.  I then stepped back and patiently waited for a child to discover what I had placed on the table.

The first discovery.
The gears were turning as this child slowly took in the contents of the table.  Her eyes soon brightened and she called in the troops!

Right here, with this itty bitty bit of exploration, this child was already declaring this day to receive the coveted title of "BEST DAY EVER!".

Creating a plan, instigating that plan...then changing the plan to make it better:
In this child's original plan, water and seasonings were important, but who cares about flour?!?  She later learned, after an exciting discovery was proudly announced, that perhaps she needed to tweak her plan.

During the first twenty minutes of exploration, the rich conversation revolved around the smells and the textures.
I was hearing things like:

" smells so good in here."
"Hey...what is that smell I'm smelling?"
"Feel mine!  Mine is so soft."
"Mine isn't soft, mine is really really sticky!"
"Hey guys...wanna smell this?  It's the best ever!"

Over time, their interest in what they were actually playing with peaked...and someone said "Denita!  What is this stuff?"

I have never met a child who wasn't proud to own words. They listened intently as I told them the name of each seasoning.  Immediately following my desciption, the conversations I was over hearing were along the lines of:

"Can I have the oregano when you are done?"
"Where did the basil go?  I really need it."
"Boy.. you can really smell the garlic"
"I think mine needs just a bit more of the salt."

As more time passed, curiosities grew:
"Is this stuff spicy?" (referring to the paprika)
My reply "You know what?  I am not really sure.  Why don't you taste it and find out?"
Eyes got HUGE as he replied "WE CAN TASTE THIS STUFF!?!"

"YES!  It is ALL edible.  That means you can taste it!"

The children were now not only freely exploring with hands and noses, they were also exploring with mouths!  SO EXCITING!

The richness of the conversations just continued to intensify.

It was during this sampling frenzy that this discovery happened:

"I MADE DOUGH!  GUYS!!  THIS STUFF CAN MAKE DOUGH!!!  Wanna know how?!?!  I can show you!!!"

After this "aha moment", came another one:
 "Denita!!!  We can bake this and see what happens!!! This really IS the BEST DAY EVER!!!"

I immediately set the oven to 350, grabbed my cookie sheet and some parchment paper and waited for the products of their open-ended baking to fill the pan.

Learning from others!  
After the child declared he had made dough, this child quickly re-thought her plan, tweaked it and made it BETTER!!

Self Regulation and Conflict Management 
Shortly after dough was discovered (no less exciting than when gold was first discovered) rollers and cookie cutters were requested.  
Notice how many rollers are on the table?  One.  I call this purposeful conflict.  I intentionally put one roller out to see if 1) they could handle the conflict this would cause 2) if they would have the self-regulation to handle waiting and 3) if anyone would think to ask me for another one.  Guess what?  They made ONE ROLLER WORK.  They all were able to patiently wait their turns.  I was beyond impressed.

Motor work
Loads of muscles were used as dough was rolled, kneaded, punched, pulled and otherwise manipulated by little hands.

Freedom of Technique
Each child discovered their own, unique technique to control the dough, and get the results they were hoping for.

"Denita!  Look! I made a pizza!!" 

 Once the pan was full, into the oven it went.  I set the timer for 10 minutes and hoped for the best!  I anticipated there were about to be many lessons learned about failing... I couldn't have been more wrong.

While their creations were baking, this child thoughtfully made a pizza sauce to accompany the anxiously anticipated delicacies.  
When that timer beeped... holy cats!  IT WAS THE BEST MOMENT EVER!!

Let the tasting begin!!!
This child is exclaiming "HEY!  They are actually really good!"  AND... THEY WERE!!!  I WAS SHOCKED! No lessons about failing to be learned so far!  They tasted like really good bread sticks you would find at an Italian restaurant!

Learning from failing.
Look closely..... see the sauce?  The verdict?  Too salty.  He followed that up with "Now I know what to do next time."

This very play was repeated that week, and on Tuesday of the following week as well.

Every time they baked, they learned something more and tweaked their "recipe" ever-so-slightly.

They commented on things that happened last time, reminded each other not to do particular things because "remember what happened yesterday...."

When their creations came out of the oven, they learned to tear off their bites, so then they could share tastes with each other and compare the results.

They learned that just because the salt grinder was fun to use, does NOT mean you should use it a lot!!!

They learned that too much water makes a sticky dough, but that problem can be solved with more flour.

They learned that paprika is really fun because it makes the dough red. Unfortunately, the paprika didn't make it past the first day... it was a hot item!

They learned that sticky dough on fingers washes off quite easily.

They learned to ration the flour last Thursday, as we hit the bottom of the bag.  They learned how to help each other out when in a pinch.

On Wednesday, I changed it up!  Instead of the oregano, basil, garlic combo.... I put out mini chocolate chips, sugar and cinnamon with the flour and water.  SWEET FLAVORS OH MY!

The child in the gray shirt was the last to realize what was out on the table.  By the time he joined the fun, there were no bowls for him to use.  The child in red, thoughtfully said "Oliver!  You can work with me!  We can be a team!"


Self Control

I was so impressed with the control the children displayed.  They had FREE REIGN of these ingredients, yet they very thoughtfully added the best part (the chocolate) and were careful not to hog it all.  This served as yet another reminder that children CAN BE TRUSTED.

Then came the favorite part....the tasting.  GUESS WHAT?!?!  These were really tasty too!!!  WHO KNEW open-ended baking could turn out so well?!? (side note:  the sweet version needed a hotter oven:  375)

As the children were comparing their baked goods, plans were made for the next day.  "Denita?  Can you get us some sprinkles?  We think these could really use some sprinkles."

So...of course I added sprinkles to the mix on Thursday!

Comparing and Contrasting
When Thursday's batch came out of the oven, the children just wanted to look at them all.  "Guys!  Don't eat them!  Let's just look and see how different they all are!"  
This was an extremely rich moment as the children commented on how the cookies were alike, and how they were different.  What stood out the most were the three that are more brown than the others.  
"What made them more brown? " 
"OH!  Cinnamon!"  
"Look at how pretty this one is with the sprinkles, and that one is with the sugar on top."  
THEN, it was finally time to TASTE!  After much sampling and comparing and commenting, everyone decided that Elsie's tasted the best.  So, I said "Elsie, do you want to tell them your secret?"  (she sprinkles more sugar on top of hers when she puts it on the pan!)  She was so empowered by the fact that everyone agreed that hers tasted the best that of course she told them her secret!

When I consult with providers, I always get asked "when do you know when it's time to move on?"  It's simple, you follow their lead.  You listen to the children, you look for the joy.

Judging from my observations, there is no end in site for our open-ended baking days.  I foresee this continuing on until the end of the school year.  And honestly, observing them lead this open-ended baking opportunity brings me great joy and reassures me that I have done my job, and done it well.

My observations have told me, loud and clear, that these children are confident, they aren't afraid to try new things, they are kind and compassionate.  They have self-regulation and can handle conflict with impressive ease.  They have impressive vocabularies and understand the meaning of countless words, they can express themselves with words instead of hands even in the most heated moment of conflict.  They know how to make a plan, instigate that plan, and fix it to make it better.  They know how to pick themselves up from failing and try again.  They know about teamwork and are able to collaborate ideas with others.  ALL of those skills were demonstrated during their open-ended baking.

They are amazing, capable people that I am blessed to have in my life.

So then, I encourage YOU to change your thoughts about baking experiences with children.  Put ingredients out that go together and follow their lead.  PLEASE KNOW that your results could and SHOULD be different than mine.  Forget you read this, and keep your mind open to the ideas of YOUR CHILDREN!

About the author:

Denita Dinger is a popular keynote speaker, trainer and consultant on the topic of transitioning from a teacher-led philosophy to a play-based, child-led one.  Denita's presentations are REAL, humorous and inspiring.

Denita is the co-author of three books:  "Let them Play:  An Early Childhood UnCurriculum", "Let's Play" and "Let's All Play".

To book Denita for your upcoming conference or to spend a few days coaching your staff, contact her at

Learn more about Denita's philosophy on her many Facebook pages:
Play Counts  (Denita's Consulting Page)
Kaleidoscope Play School  (Denita's Play School page)
Camp Empower  (Denita's School-aged Summer Camp page)
Embracing Play Podcast (Denita's Podcast, co-hosted with Beth Wolff)

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

What Child-led Means: An Empowering Story about a Quarter and a Dime and So Much More

Many educators struggle with what "child-led" actually means.  I used to struggle with what "child-led" actually means.

In my 19 years as an early childhood professional, I have learned what it DOES NOT mean:

It does not mean that the interests of children are considered when a teacher writes up their lesson plans (that will be strictly followed), complete with prescribed objectives and outcomes.

It does not mean letting the children lead until the schedule says it's time for learning.

It does not mean letting children choose the color of paint they would like to paint the fish that was cut out by you and fits perfectly into your underwater theme of the week.

It does not mean that the theme of the week, which all children must participate, is dinosaurs because three out of ten children love dinosaurs, therefore it's a child-led theme.

I have learned what it DOES mean:

To borrow the words of Bev Bos, child-led simply means 
"The children are the curriculum".

The box that can come to your program every month is NOT the curriculum.
The heavily suggested curriculum you feel forced to follow by your STAR rating program is NOT the curriculum.
The skills that someone, who, in many cases, knows nothing about child development, has declared indicates "kindergarten readiness" is NOT the curriculum.

The CHILDREN are the curriculum in a child-led program.

The job of the teacher in a child-led program is to set their adult-expectations aside, and follow the lead of the children.  The job requires teachers to go above and beyond to meet children WHERE THEY ARE and scaffold from there  Teachers in a child-led program must have a solid  understanding that each child is in their own, unique place and there is NO SUCH THING as "one-size fits all" in early childhood education.

When all of the above is done correctly, learning can be and usually IS, as beautiful as this story:

Oliver's mom taught him a new skill: how to make paper flowers.  From that skill came the realization that he could make fans.

About an hour into our time together this morning, Oliver helped himself to the construction paper, and began to make fans.

It was clear that he was quite proud of this new skill of his.  Through my quiet observations, I noticed he had developed some techniques that were quite impressive.  This is a child, who, upon starting in my program in the fall of 2014, could not stay focused on a task to save his life.  His thoughts were everywhere, and his body was a tornado.  So to watch him now, develop a plan, execute that plan and stay focused throughout all of the steps, is hugely rewarding.

Through all of his progress, I remained beside him.  Scaffolding as necessary, coaching when needed and lovingly following his eclectic and amazing mind.

After a good 30 minutes of fan-making, Oliver had an impressive collection of handmade fans sitting before him.

"Oliver?  What is your plan with your fans?"
Shrugged shoulders
"Well.. what are the possibilities?"
He and I then went back and forth dreaming up possible things he could do with his fans, and then I said "or your could sell them."

He paused, and then his face LIT UP:  "I can sell them?  I never thought of that!  I want to sell them, but not for pretend money.  I want to sell them for real money!"

At this moment Bennett approached Oliver and asked if he could have one of his fans.  Oliver politely let him know that these were not something you could just have, these fans were FOR SALE.  And then Oliver added in a quick "For real money.".

Bennett looked at me and I said "Yep.  Oliver is selling these beautiful fans.  So when you go home tonight, get a quarter out of your piggy bank and bring it to school tomorrow."

Oliver piped in "A quarter?  No.  I was thinking more like two dollars."

My reply:  "Two Dollars?!?  That might be too much, and then you won't sell them at all."

So then Oliver said "Okay.  A quarter.......(pause)......and a dime."

Bennett replied "I don't have any money.  I have a wallet though."
Oliver's eyes widened "YOU HAVE A WALLET?"  And then a conversation began all about wallets.

This is where the teacher's role in a child-led program is SO IMPORTANT.  While the boys were side tracked with their conversation about wallets, I grabbed my phone and quickly texted all of the parents in my program.  I informed them that Oliver had been diligently working the majority of the morning on paper fans that he is selling for a quarter and a dime, so, if they are so inclined, and happen to have a quarter and a dime handy, Oliver would be SUPER empowered if they bought a fan.

I then said "Oliver?  Do you want to set up a shop in the entry way for when the parents come to pick up?  Maybe they would buy some fans?"

"That's a GREAT idea, Denita!  YES!  Let's do that!"

And so Oliver got to work writing his own sign (my program is based on MEANINGFUL LEARNING.  The children write WHEN THEY HAVE A REASON to write.  And that reason is NEVER just because it says it's "writing time" on our schedule.  In fact, our schedule is simply: "PLAY.")

He grabbed a bucket for his fans, and went to the entry way to set up his shop.

The first few parents that arrived did not have any money to buy a fan, Oliver came back inside, all deflated.

I said " many parents are here?"

"Just two."

"Oliver!  Go back out there!  There are a lot more parents yet to come!  Sometimes moms don't have any change, but SOMETIMES...they do!  You don't want to miss the opportunity!"  He begrudgingly headed back to the entry way.

About two minutes later, Oliver came BURSTING back into the room.  He was BEAMING, and in his hand was a quarter and a dime.  "I SOLD ONE! I SOLD ONE!  LOOK! LOOK!"

In the end, Oliver sold all but two fans.  He took home a handful of cold, hard cash.... but most importantly, he took home an EMPOWERED SELF.

With a fist full of money, Oliver went home EMPOWERED.
I thank God every single day that I finally figured out what "child-led" TRULY means.  I am so grateful I was able to throw away my teacher-controlled lesson plans and trust children to lead me.

About the author:

Denita Dinger is a popular keynote speaker, trainer and consultant on the topic of transitioning from a teacher-led philosophy to a play-based, child-led one.  Denita's presentations are REAL, humorous and inspiring.

Denita is the co-author of three books:  "Let them Play:  An Early Childhood UnCurriculum", "Let's Play" and "Let's All Play".

To book Denita for your upcoming conference or to spend a few days coaching your staff, contact her at

Learn more about Denita's philosophy on her many Facebook pages:
Play Counts  (Denita's Consulting Page)
Kaleidoscope Play School  (Denita's Play School page)
Camp Empower  (Denita's School-aged Summer Camp page)
Embracing Play Podcast (Denita's Podcast, co-hosted with Beth Wolff)

Friday, February 3, 2017

The True Kings and Queens of Themes: Children

I am a former "Queen of Themes" who has proudly stepped down from her thrown.  

For those of you that are new to me, here's the abbreviated version of my journey, with an option to read more:

For the first 11 years of my career as an early childhood professional, I was addicted to themes (read about it HERE).
I was a stubborn and proud of my teacher-led preschool program.  (read about it HERE)
I THOUGHT I was running a child-led, play-based program.  (read about it HERE)

What I know now, is: I WAS WRONG.

Luckily, for the children in my play school, I made changes.
I am incredibly grateful for my theme-filled past, however, as it helps me spot the themes that now occur organically in my TRULY child-led program.

In the past, I chose the themes.

I chose them in August.

I chose them for every single week from August-May in AUGUST.  Yet, I thought I was considering the "current" interests of my group. 

I admit that some of "my" themes were based on the interests of the children in my program, but the majority were chosen because of the clever ideas I came up with to execute said themes.  I considered myself to be the "queen of themes".

NOW, I know that
CHILDREN are the "Queens and Kings of Themes", I just wasn't giving children enough credit.  I was blinded by my own need to express MY creativity, that I wasn't allowing children to express theirs.

I'd like to share the themes that were led by the TRUE Queens and Kings of themes in my program.  These themes all occurred during the morning of February 2, 2017, and were all led by children.

Theme One:  Sewing

Before:  I would have done a week-long theme on sewing.  The letter we would have focused on was "s".  I would have had all sorts of books available about sewing, opportunities to sew, we would have rhymed with sew, we would have sewn with a variety of materials:  cooked spaghetti, yarn, string, skinny strips of fabric.  Weaving would have been incorporated.
Number of children participating:  EVERYONE.  No one had a choice to not participate. It was meaningful to no one as the idea belonged to me, not the children.

Now:  One child in my program has made an old slipper into a stuffed animal.  He used the stuffing from one of his torn stuffed buddies at home as filler for his monkey slipper.  He has brought this "stuffed animal" to school several times.  Yesterday, when he arrived, he was really wanting to get rid of the "sock" part of this stuffed animal (the part of a slipper that comes up on a child's ankle).
Together, he and I problem solved back and forth.  I offered an idea, he shot it down, he offered and idea, we discussed the possibility of that etc. (COLLABORATION at it's finest).  FINALLY, we agreed on an idea.  We would pull out some of the stuffing, in order to make room for the sock part to fold into the slipper (he did not like the idea of cutting it off).  He would then sew the slipper opening closed.  I gathered a REAL needle and thread, and together, we sewed until I knew I could trust him to use caution and complete the project successfully.
Number of children participating:  ONE.  No one else was even aware this was going on.  This was a meaningful moment for ONE child.

Theme Two:  Valentine's Day

Before:  I would have spent a week or two focused on Valentine's Day.  The theme would have ended with a traditional Valentine's Day filled with repeated requests to "sit still", "don't eat all your candy now", "listen for your name", "make sure your bag is open so a Valentine can be placed inside", "sit still", "sit still", "don't eat all your candy" etc. etc. etc.  aye yi yi!
Number of participants:  EVERYONE.  No one had the option to not participate.

Now:  Valentine's Day is handled completely different in my program now.  It is child-led.  Children are welcome to bring full, unopened boxes of Valentine's to school.  They can then play with them to their heart's content.  Books are read that talk about the traditional Valentine's Day.   Children spend the majority of their time ripping Valentine's apart, stuffing them in envelopes, practicing writing each other's names etc.... all in their own time, and their own choosing.
On this particular day, Feb. 2, Zoey (who is in her third year in my program) walked into school carrying a file folder full of papers.  It turns out that the day before, her mom took her to Target so she could choose what box of Valentine's she wanted to bring to school this year.  Upon entering the store, Zoey announced "Mom, I want to make a Valentine for Denita and Elsie."  Her mom said "Sounds good.  Let's go and choose some supplies."  Shortly after, Zoey decided she wanted to make a Valentine for everyone, she did not want to buy a box of cards.  And so.. that is exactly what she did.  She returned home and went to work, constructing 12 Valentines because she was INTRINSICALLY MOTIVATED to do so.  This was genuine, straight from the heart.
Number of participants:  One, but in a way, it involved everyone as Zoey handed out a Valentine to each child.  The children had the opportunity to express gratitude and feel special.  Zoey, was EMPOWERED by HER thoughtfulness and ideas.  Zoey has the rest of her life to have to do things other people tell her to do.  At the age of 5, she should be allowed to experience autonomy.

Theme Three:  Shadows

Before:  Since this was in celebration of Ground Hog Day, I would have spent a week learning about ground hogs, yet not a single child would have actually gotten to experience a ground hog.  I would have focused on the cutesy songs about ground hogs popping out the ground.  We would have colored carbon copied ground hogs that were found in the latest teacher's magazine and we would have glued them to a craft stick and stuck them in a styrofoam cup.  Shadows did not come into play for this theme until my journey towards a true play-based program began.  My first step was ditching the ground hog and focusing on shadows.  Shadow play would have been a part of the environment for one week.
Number of participants:  Everyone. No one had the option to not make a ground hog, and later, not play shadows.

Now:  I simply re-arranged the room the evening before, leaving a bare wall for shadow play.  I then added a lamp, and waited for a child to ask why there was a lamp sitting on a table.  When that moment happened, thanks to the natural curiosity of children, I simply turned off the overhead lights, and turned on the lamp.  The why, was quickly answered by the children:  "Look!  Shadows!!"; "My shadow is small here, but it's big when I walk over here!"  "My shadow looks like a witch!" ; "My shadow is nice."  etc. etc.  As the children were exploring their shadows, the book "The Dark Dark Night" by Christina Butler (that we had read the day before) came into their play.  One child did mention that it was Ground Hog Day, and he explained it to empty ears.. no one, not a single child cared.  What they DID care about, however, were the shadows they were making.  Shadow play continued until someone requested the projector.  I switched out the lamp for the overhead projector and shadow play continue with an added element.
Number of children participating:  Everyone.  No one was forced, but all were naturally curious and had to experience and discover their shadows.

Theme Four:  The Mitten

Before:  I would have led the children in a theme based around the classic book by Jan Bret:  "The Mitten".  We would have explored, in depth, each animal (even though we got to touch, smell or hear none of them), we would have made construction paper mittens, we would have acted out the story (not organically, but led by me, assigning roles to the children).  The letter "M" would have been the focus for the week.  Stations would have been set up all related to the story, "The Mitten" in some way.
Number of participants:  Everyone.  No one would have had the option to not participate.

Now:  While the lights were out, and some children were still exploring shadows, and projection play, one child asked for the finger lights (we had played with them the day before).  After playing with the finger lights for a while, one child wondered what would happen if we put a finger light inside a balloon.  And so.... like all wonders that happen in my program we tested it to find out.  We learned it was awesome.  The process of getting the light into the balloon (I held the balloon open with my fingers, while one child pushed in the light), gave ME a wonder.  SO... I added on to the moment, I extended the learning and simply said "I wonder what else we can fit inside a balloon."  There were several "takers" to my wonder and they were EXCITEDLY gathering items they predicted would fit into a balloon.  SO, I quickly grabbed ANOTHER balloon, and held it open, while object after object was tested.  Some fit, some failed.  After about four items made it inside the balloon, I blew it up.  I held it up to the light and we "oohed and awed" about the affect.  I then released the air (resulting in a stretched out balloon that suddenly had room for MORE) and the children gathered more items.  I repeated the process one more time.  Then I added this:  "Hmmmmm..... boys and girls, I wonder what would happen if I tie the balloon and then....... POP IT!!!!?"  SQUEALS of delight followed that wonder.  So, I quickly tied it, grabbed a pin, and gave plenty of warning to ALL that a balloon was about to be popped (not every single child was a part of this...and I wanted to give fair warning).  "POP!!!"  EVERYONE inside the balloon FLEW all about the room!!  This was quickly followed by "DO IT AGAIN!"  And so, the whole process was repeated.  When we reached the "pop" stage, I asked who wanted to have the honor of popping the balloon (I like to hand moments like this off to the children as much as possible in order to empower them with ownership).  After the second time, I said "Boys and girls.  Does this remind anyone of one of our favorite books?!"  "The book about animals squeezing into something very small......."  One child's face LIT UP and he said "The book about the white glove!!!"  (aka: "The Mitten").  After doing the balloon thing one more time, that child said "Can we read "The Mitten" now?!"  YES WE CAN!
Number of participants:  The number of children participating varied throughout this play.  I have eleven children enrolled in my program, ten were present on this day.  The number of participants varied from 8 to 3.

No... your eyes do not deceive you... that IS a big stuffed mouse from Ikea (if you have heard me speak, you know all about those) INSIDE a balloon!!!

So proud.  This child just successfully shoved a frog shower puff into the balloon!!

I handed the process of holding the balloon open to the children.  THIS IS HARD WORK!

Theme Five:  Outer Space

Before:  I would have done a week-long theme on outer space.  We would have talked about gravity, and of course, experienced it.  We would have imagined everything else.  We would have focused on the letter "O", possibly "A" for astronaut.  We would have explored lots of books and pictures.  But nothing would have been real, and none of the children were ever very interested, but I did it none-the-less because it felt like a right-of-passage for all preschoolers to learn about outer space..something that even adults can't really comprehend.
Number of Participants:  Everyone.  No one would have had the option to not travel to outer space with us.

Now:  After the balloon excitment, one child meandered back to the overhead projector.  He proceeded to figure out that the magnatiles would work on the projector, and he built a rocket ship.  Another child noticed, and "hopped aboard", declaring to everyone that he was about to blast off into outer space.  He was quickly empowered as other children grabbed hold of HIS idea and they too took off for outer space.  The children shared all the info they knew about space travel that they had gathered from siblings and parents, sparked by their own questions.
Number of children participating:  Two - six.

This child is trying to move the rocket by pushing it up.  Prior to this, the children standing at the projector were making the rocket ship blast off.  This child has yet to connect the cause and effect factor of playing with the overhead projector.

I didn't have the heart to tell them that they weren't all in the rocket, and that they were about to burn up.  Sigh.
Theme Six:  Birthdays

Before:  I never did a theme on Birthdays, as I wanted each child's actual birthday to be something special.

Now:  Birthdays happen pretty much daily in my program.  Someone,, creates a birthday cake out of SOMETHING.  On this day, Ellery created a birthday cake with flubber, using scissors for candles.  He made it for his friend, Zoey.  (perhaps because she made him a Valentine?)
Number of children participating:  Two.

Theme Seven:  Puppet Theater

Before:  The puppets would have come out for a two-week appearance (just the one's that I allowed the children to play with...aka: the "cheap ones").  I had a huge stash of puppets reserved for special appearances ONLY.  Some puppets were only seen once a year, and they were only run by me.  WHY?  Because I didn't want the "magic" of puppets to be spoiled.  (hand to forehead...what on earth was I thinking?!?!)
Number of Particpants:  Again, EVERYONE, as no child had a choice.  (This is painful for me to reflect upon.  I gave children no choice.  None.  I worried something fierce about the child that might be bored, or might not want to participate.. and so, participation was mandatory, whether they liked it or not)

Now:  The puppets were "set free" almost two years ago.  ALL of the puppets.  Even the super expensive ones.  It was the best decision I ever made.  Puppets are the tool some children need to open up, and express themselves.  Puppets are the catalyst of imagination, and a peek into the soul of the children who are timid or shy.  Puppets belong IN THE HANDS of children, not to be reserved for the hands of teachers only.
On this particular day, the puppets were not in the environment, but since the children in my program are empowered, they are not afraid to ask for what they need.  One child wanted to put on a puppet show, and so he asked for what he needed:  the puppets.
At first, all of the children, every single one grabbed a puppet.  This left NO ONE to observe the puppet show.  Oliver (whose idea this was to begin with) was so incredibly sad.  The other children heard him, and demonstrated AMAZING compassion.  It looked like this:
"Awe man!!  Now there is no one to watch my show!  This was the worse idea ever!  WHY did I think of this idea!"
Within seconds of this, one child said "I'll watch your show!", and they headed across the room to grab a chair.  This was followed by several more children saying and doing the exact same thing.
Number of children participating:  Every single one.  And they all had a choice.

Theme Eight:  Teacher Pride and Reflection

Before:  I was so proud of my clever ideas.  I thrived on thinking of outside-the-box ways of bringing themes alive for children.  I had a plan, and we stuck with the plan.  Children learned that I was in control, and their job was to listen and do what I said.  I was proud of the children who listened to me and followed directions so well, and frustrated those who wanted to ignore my directions and do things their own way.

Now:  I am incredibly proud of the clever thoughts and ideas of the children in my program.  I am constantly amazed at the natural flow of child-led play.  I love observing, and reflecting upon how one idea leads quite naturally, and sometimes bizarrely into another idea or theme.  I am constantly in awe of the number and variety of themes that we visit on a daily basis.  There is no pattern, there is no right or wrong.  There are days where the themes visited are countless, while others, all the children participate in the same theme for almost the entire duration of our time together.
I love my job of quiet observer and facilitator.  I love following the unpredictable lead of children, I love TRYING to predict what they may do with various materials I place in the environment.  With that said, I love it even more when they bamboozle me with their amazing, unfenced ideas.

Indeed, children are the true Kings and Queens of themes.

About the author:
Denita Dinger is an internationally-known speaker and author who loves to share humorous, intentional and inspiring keynotes and workshops to anyone who has young people in their lives.

For more information, contact her at:

Follow her on Facebook at Play Counts as well as her two program pages:  Kaleidoscope Play School (her child-led play school) and Camp Empower (a school-aged summer play camp) and her podcast group:  Embracing Play Community.