What is an invitation to play? podcast header

What is an invitation to play? [Podcast]

This week on The Preschool Podcast, we chat with Julie Hansen, Early Years Consultant and Founder of Inspired ECE. We discuss invitations to play and how educators can best facilitate these in their classrooms.

Invitations to play are a collection of materials for children to explore and discover that reflect their thoughts and ideas. These materials can be anything. Julie loves loose parts because they are open-ended. They can be recycled materials, open-ended materials such as stones or pinecones, and mixing in art materials such as clay. Allowing children to have independent discovery of materials in a space is crucial. So is being mindful of children’s development in our setup and having a broad range of materials so the children have new things to explore. If a childcare program does not have a large budget they might be able to share or borrow materials from others.

Educators can use observations of play to cue interests and provide invitations that support development. They can have little notepads to jot down observations of children at play and quotes from the children. We have to be open to learning alongside children and looking for opportunities for extensions. For example, if a child is playing with play dough, think about what can you add to that to extend learning?

When engaging with the children, remember you are playing as well and will discover new things. You might see a child using materials in a way you did not realize they were at the stage to do.

If I have one wish for our sector it is that we can slow down and be in the moment. When we do that it is incredible what we are surrounded with each day.”

Julie Hansen

Start small. Sit down and immerse yourself in a group of children. See what they are saying, how they are interacting, and go from there. There is no wrong way to approach inquiry-based learning.

Julie’s recommended resources:

Podcast episode transcript

Julie HANSEN:

Are we open to learning alongside our children and exploring ourselves, with materials? So, really looking at possibilities for extensions.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: 

Julie, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!

HANSEN:

Thank you so much for having me!

SPREEUWENBERG: 

We’re delighted to have on the show with us today Julie Hansen. She’s an early years consultant in British Columbia, Canada. We’re going to be chatting with Julie today about invitations to play. Welcome, Julie, to the Preschool Podcast. So great to have you. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you, your background and how you got into the field of education.

HANSEN:

Thank you so much. I’ve been an early-childhood educator for 23 years. I have quite a diverse background in the field. I started out as a director of a preschool and then moved into supervising infant-toddler, [age] 3-to-5 programs, after-school care programs and then into center management. And I started my company, Inspired ECE, 13 years ago where I travel around the country and zoom around the country facilitating workshops for ECE’s [early-childhood educators], family childcare providers, administrators and students.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And what are some of the topics or themes of your workshops and training programs?

HANSEN:

I have a variety of topics, anything from invitations to play, to connections, to nature, to looking at infant-toddler workshops and engaging experiences in programs and activities for that age group, and then moving into areas like more management and administration. So, effective communication, early-childhood education; thinking about things like supporting educators in the transition to leadership; and also thinking about defining yourself as a leader. So, there’s a really broad spectrum. And all of my workshop descriptions can be found on my website.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And you mentioned that one of the things you work with folks on is invitation to play, which is what we’re going to talk about today. Let’s start off with the simplest of questions, which is what is an invitation to play?

HANSEN:

I would say it’s really a collection of materials for children to explore and discover that really reflects the children’s thoughts and ideas. And for us as educators, to use our observations of children at play, to see cues of their interests, their ideas that really promote us in developing these invitations that will support their development through what we choose to put in our environments; and how we are setting up these materials for children; and creating that wonderful sense of wonder and discovery within our program spaces.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And so let’s talk about that. Clearly, materials is a key part of invitations to play. What kind of materials are we talking about? Any recommendations for the environment and how that relates to invitations to play?

HANSEN:

Sure. So, I mean, materials can be anything. I really love loose parts because they’re open-ended and it’s really up to the children or how they manipulate and use them. So, that can be recycled materials; that can be natural materials such as pinecones, stones, twigs, things like that. And then mixing them in with art materials such as clay, or also incorporating things like a free art shelf into your program space. So, really looking for opportunities for children to have independent discovery of the materials within a program space.

So, the learning in early year settings is not solely derived from the educators. But the children are able to explore and discover what we provide. And being very mindful of development with our setups and invitations and also our environments, as well. And really looking at the key interests of the children and having a broad range of materials. So, the children always have something new to explore.

And we’re also extremely fortunate in Canada to have a lot of childcare resource and referral programs. So, if a childcare program isn’t able to have, or does not have, a large budget, they can also go to these types of organizations to borrow materials, as well, to enhance their environment and their invitations.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, that’s a great way to share the materials amongst multiple programs, yeah.

HANSEN:

Absolutely.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

What should educators be doing during this time? You mentioned observations, any thoughts there?

HANSEN:

Yes, I really like to encourage educators to have little notepads around your program space so you can jot down anecdotal observations of the children at play, as well as direct quotes from the children. Educator engagement is extremely important. So, are we open to learning alongside the children and exploring ourselves, with materials? So, really looking at possibilities for extensions.

So, if a child is, say, interacting with some Play-Doh, what could we add to that Play-Doh to extend the learning? Would it be some loose parts? Would it maybe a roller? So, always looking for opportunities to extend learning with materials from our original experience for children. And observation really helps us with that.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

So, some of our listeners might be thinking, “Well, if I’m working with preschool schoolchildren, how do I go about being open to learning along with children?” Can you touch on that a little bit and how I can best do that in a practical way, as an early-childhood educator?

HANSEN:

Sure. So, when you’re engaging with the children, whether it be with materials, you’re playing as well, you’re going to discover new things. You might see that a child is using the materials in a way that you didn’t know that that child was at a developmental stage to do. You might also hear a child say something that will spark creativity for yourself to extend the learning.

I also love opportunities for scaffolding, for us as educators, to enhance children’s development when we’re engaged in those materials. And I think – I’m talking about being open to learning, as well – really looking at how are we challenging ourselves as educators to create enriching experiences for children. Does that mean that maybe we will take an idea that we have gotten from an engagement or an experience with a child and then look at how we can create it even more opportunities within our environment for the children? Or are we going to say, “This is the way I’ve always done it, so I’m going to continue to do that”? It’s about challenging ourselves, I think, and being open to the learning that comes on from reflecting on experiences that we’re having the children, as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

And if we just want to touch on that a little bit more, how do you typically go about your workshops in talking to early-childhood educators about this and sort of upscaling on this ability to record observations and make those improvements and changes?

HANSEN:

So, we talk a lot about observation in many of my workshops. And I really feel like it’s a foundation of being an early-childhood educator. And so thinking about, what do you see, what do you hear, what do you notice when you’re engaged with the children? And then jotting down those little anecdotal notes, taking pictures. Documentation is also a wonderful form of making those observations visible. And then looking back at some of that documentation and going, “Okay, how can I extend this? How can I further the learning for these children?”

And really being present. If I had one wish for our sector, it’s that we would slow down. We would be more present, we would be more in the moment. And when we do that, it’s incredible for us to see all of the learning encounters that we’re surrounded by each and every day.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah. And what about for somebody who’s new to this? So, maybe they’ve been to one of your workshops or another one on this topic; or they’re listening to the Podcast today and they want to go into their classroom and start implementing this tomorrow. Any recommendations for folks that are new to this to kind of get started without getting too overwhelmed?

HANSEN:

Absolutely. I always say, start small. Sit down, immerse yourself in a group of children. Listen to what they’re saying, watch how they’re interacting with the materials and then go from there. Maybe it’s something like, I can give you an example: When I was a supervisor in an infant-toddler program, we noticed that a lot of our toddlers and infants were crawling on the chairs that we had in our program space. And so the team members and I looked at each other and said, “Okay, they’re interested in exploring the concept of climbing.”

At the time, we didn’t have a climber in our program. And so I went over to our CCRR, our local childcare resource and referral program. I borrowed a soft climber, I brought it into the program and the children began to climb on that. And it was wonderful because it was Velcro and we could change the configurations and move it around and challenge them and provide new opportunities.

The children were not climbing on our chairs anymore because we met their need. We saw the need, we identified that through observation. We didn’t look at it as, “Oh, they’re climbing on the chairs and that’s negative.” It’s, “This is what they’re trying to tell us.” And we figured that out through observation, communication and connection as a team. And it was an absolutely wonderful experience to see these children now have the resource, the materials that they needed to discover and work with that skill and the skill of climbing.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. Yeah, and it seems like it’s almost less about what are prescriptive things that you’re doing, but almost more of like your mindset and how you’re approaching things.

HANSEN:

Absolutely. And there’s no wrong way to approach inquiry-based learning. Every educator is an individual, so the way that you interpret is going to be different. And I think that’s wonderful and beautiful for children because they get all these new opportunities from each and every educator.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, totally. And I assume this is something that you get better at with practice, as well?

HANSEN:

Oh, of course, yes. And what I also love is the connection between educators, the sharing, the mentorship. I know that’s what I love now at the stage of my career that I’m that I can support and coach and mentor educators from my experiences that I’ve had for many, many years and the learning that I’ve had. And I can share that with them and hopefully inspire them to move forward in their daily practice.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Yeah, cool, cool. Very interesting. And so you’re d working with folks primarily in Canada, is that right?

HANSEN:

Canada and the US, yeah. And then internationally, I’m mainly on my Instagram. But I would love to expand [those] workshops to be international, as well.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And when folks reach out to work with you, what’s typically the challenge they’re facing where they say, “Hey, we would love to spend some time with Julie”?

HANSEN:

It’s a broad range of things. For educators, it’s getting inspired, new ideas, the sharing of technique or looking at their program space through fresh eyes and getting inspired. And I love it when I get feedback of, “I couldn’t wait to get back into my program space after your workshop. I was I felt so rejuvenated and excited to try these new strategies.”

And then when it comes to administrators, it’s about team dynamics and looking at things like… I talk about setting boundaries. I talk about also time management, things like that. And also one of the workshops that I teach is about having a positive outlook as an educator. So, then there’s the side of, how do we take care of ourselves so that we can care for others?

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Love it. If you had to recommend any professional development resources for our listeners in relation to invitations to play or otherwise, anything you might suggest they check out?

HANSEN:

Yes, I absolutely have a wonderful little list here. So, ECE Honestly Podcast is absolutely phenomenal. And then the Everything ECE Podcast, as well. And www.FairyDustTeaching.com is a wonderful resource. And on Instagram, The Curiosity Approach is a wonderful Instagram account that I follow and really, truly enjoy.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool, some good diversity of things there, in terms of podcasts and Instagram. And what about yourself, Julie? If our listeners would like to get in touch with you or learn more about your work, where can they go to get more information?

HANSEN:

Just to my website, which is www.InspiredECE.ca.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

Cool. And just before we wrap up, any parting thoughts for our listeners here today?

HANSEN:

Just be present, be in the moment and engage the children. And really be curious yourself and as a lifelong learner.

SPREEUWENBERG: 

I love it, good stuff. Well, thanks, Julie, so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today. It’s been great having you as a guest!

HANSEN:

Thank you so much!

Christie White

Christie is a Senior Content Marketing Specialist at HiMama. She is passionate about children's development, parenting, and supporting the child care industry. She has been working to support child care centers with their events and marketing for almost a decade. In her personal life, Christie lives in Stouffville, ON with her husband Kyle and dog Tucker. She enjoys going for walks, baking, cooking, and watching reality tv!

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