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Playing Catch: A Metaphor for Child-led Learning

Sydney Gurewitz Clemens, a celebrated early childhood teacher who embraces the methods of Reggio Emilia and Sylvia Ashton Warner, has just given the educational community a wonderful gift. To announce the publication of her new book, written with Leslie Gleim, she is offering a free download (in pdf format) of all six parts of her new book co-authored with Leslie Gleim, Seeing Young Children With New Eyes.

In her book, Ms. Clemens describes child-led learning in "Negotiation: Tossing the Ball" (I:7). Her metaphor of playing catch is used to describe more than an exchange of ideas; it is the basic tenet of teaching with the child-led approach. The child tosses the ball to us by expressing their interest, sharing their ideas and questions. We toss the ball back by offering resources, asking more questions, and responding with our own ideas. It is through this game of catch that we inspire the child to do their own learning, to search out their own resources, and to develop skill. Each new resource raises the skill, and directs the child further. The child initiates the game and puts the ball is in motion. Tossing it back is almost effortless. We just have to bounce or deflect it in a way that keeps the ball moving back to the sender. So we offer a resource in order to encourage curiosity and not to end the game.

It is important not to overwhelm the child with resources, just as it is important not to pander to them and offer them only abridged children's material. It may not be as easy to read an issue of National Geographic as it is to scan the pages of Ranger Rick, but that does not make it less interesting to a child. My students use resources designed for all ages and levels, often reserving their greatest enthusiasm for material more advanced than their reading level.

Often tossing the ball involves my asking the child how to find the resource. I might respond with "Great question! How are we going to find out?" The child might suggest the internet, even a specific site, and that is where we might begin. Here I have the chance to discuss the perils and convenience of Wikipedia, and how to best use such a site by finding other links there. Then I might coach my student through an advanced search, and guide them to choose a variety of search phrases. Or the question or interest might lead us to a specialized library or bookshop, or a fabric store, or a box of art supplies. "How can I make my own wizard costume for Halloween?" took us to all of these places.

More important than the next resource is the next question. Hopefully the first search leads us to a more interesting question, and then to a more interesting resource. I am always hoping to find a primary source in the mix, and do my best to guide my students to that awareness. There is no greater source than a primary source, because here the student can truly become the researcher, using the same techniques of a professional historian, scientist, researcher, or author. I define primary sources and offer examples in my book Education Uncensored (p. 134).

When one of my very first homeschooled students had her high school graduation party (yes, homeschoolers have graduation parties and they have proms too), she thanked two people: her mom and me. I was surprised. It was not the first time I had been publicly thanked, but I did not expect to be singled out in a huge crowd of well-wishers made up of teachers, relatives, and friends. Her mother had given her endless support and had been the strength behind their decision to homeschool through high school. I had just been one teacher. My student explained her reasons as she thanked me for what I had given her: resources. She had thought you could find the answer to any question in one place, and that just one or two resources were enough. But whenever she asked me a question we started with one source, and then found another and another, each one more interesting than the one before, until we were gazing at the original art from the period, or reading an ancient tale, or finding correspondence written at that time. I had shown her an endless array of resources, which gave us continued delight. We had enjoyed our game of catch!