Structuring School Opportunities

Professional Education

Leadership in Workstations

When children are truly free to do as they wish in a thoughtfully prepared environment, we gain an opportunity to evolve in our professionalism.
Loris Malaguzzi (1920-1994)

We have to let children be with children. Children learn a lot from other children, and adults learn from children being with children. Children love to learn among themselves, and they learn things that it would never be possible to learn from interactions with an adult. The interaction between children is a very fertile and very rich relationship. If it is left to ferment without adult interference and without that excessive assistance that we sometimes give, then it’s more advantageous to the child. We don’t want to protect something that doesn’t need to be protected. — Loris Malaguzzi, Child Care Information Exchange, 3/94, p 55.

I don’t see how to address the topic of our intentions with children without including the contributions of Loris Malaguzzi, who has demonstrated what happens when we think that teaching is mostly about our learning. Here is what he said about the learning strategies of teachers at the time of the emergence of the Municipal Schools of Reggio Emilia, Italy.

“To learn and relearn with children is our line of work. We proceed in such a way that the children are not shaped by experience but are the ones that give shape to it. There are two ways in which we can look into children’s learning processes and find clues for supporting it: one is the way children enter into an activity and develop their strategies of thought and action; the other is the way in which the objects involved are transformed. Adults and children go about their learning differently: they use different procedures, honor different principles, make different conjectures, and follow different footprints.

“Our teachers do research, either on their own or with their colleagues, to produce strategies that favor children’s work or can be utilized by them. They go from research into action (and vice versa). When all the teachers in the school are in agreement, the projects, strategies, and styles of work become intertwined, and the school becomes a truly different school…

“This whole approach causes children to be better known by their teachers. Therefore, they feel more open to challenge, more able to work with their peers in unusual situations, and more persistent, because they realize that what they have in mind can be tried out. Children know that in pursuing their goals, they can make their own choices, and that is both freeing and revitalizing. It is, indeed, what we had promised the children, their families, and ourselves.” — Hundred Languages of Children, Third Edition, p. 61.

Create the Gap

The children think that what they have in mind can be tried out.
I realize I continue to pound on about how fundamental it is to not make habitual mistakes that push, bend, or manipulate children in any way. It is an aesthetic of being we gift the children, the families, and each other. What a struggle it can be. It’s helpful to remind ourselves what comes later, in a month, or six months, is so much better if we don’t worry about inserting what we are thinking.

Maybe as colleagues, we can help each other refrain from disruptive speech and actions to allow children the opportunity to choose to act freely in their own way in a space of common regard. It’s healthy to laugh together about how hard it is. Every day we can practice habits of acting with integrity, especially practicing when we are upset, distracted, or challenged.

I like to think that workstations time, this place of freedom for children to play with a rotating set of materials, as a place of freedom for the professional development of teachers. No tuition expense for this college. Get the children busy as the previous pages have shown, and we become free to focus on documentation, sit down, and let the children to give shape to the experience of this moment. Of course we have to make mistakes, let a “good” jump out of our mouths or forget the camera. I find it quite a treat to relax, create a gap, and be present as children be themselves.

Aligning our words with our values

Before getting into nuance, I would recommend letting go of the most destructive mistake of being forwardly authoritarian — controlling, steering, guiding, or edging things in one’s own way.

Workstations is a perfect time for practicing Enterprise Talk, which is more fully explained in that article listed in the menu. The prohibitions of Enterprise Talk — No Directions, No Questions, No Praise —are designed to stop habits of being on the pushy side. If we find ourselves about to give casual directions (“try it this way), ask nosy questions (“where does this one go?“) and offer reflex praise (“good job“), we create a gap, a bit of silence, to reconsider the impulse and think of a fresh way to be.

Blurted directions, questions and praise, no matter how well intended, may cause harm as manifestations of our privilege. Often people do to children, what they would never do to their adult friends: “Do you need that much glue?” Imagine what it would be like to say,“Where does this one go?” to guests in your home. Without meaning to, a bit of pushiness can deflate a child’s life force. Stopping for a moment and inventing another way enables authentic alignment of our words with our hearts.

Break New Ground

Workstations is worthy of trying to include in the school day, even though it probably isn’t appropriate in the many marvelous schools for privileged children. The best schools I visit don’t need it; they can afford to have other intentions. I include workstations for mathematics and design as a systematic way to immerse four-year-old children, who have less than ideal backgrounds or wealth, in the experience of being a member of an interdependent community discovering the dispositions to learn in school.

I admit I write from my privileged, white, male, English speaking, academic way in a corner of the United States, yet I am firm in my belief that fifteen minutes a day in workstations is exactly the kind experience that honors and creates the culture of a school. I want to shout out how it is possible to create the spaces that Loris Malaguzzi describes for ALL the children of the world in the less than ideal conditions we have.

The best, most endowed spaces for young children, are not what most children, or their teachers, will ever experience. I’m working here to create free guides for the nuts and bolts of building democratic spaces with meager resources and inexperienced staff. Most people stand today looking across a chasm between what they have and what they see in the lovely pictures, unable to actualize the aspirations from exhaustion and low wealth to do the best for the children they love and care for.

How do I create my dream school? How do I get better when I keep being told I have to fill out forms all my free time, attend days upon days of training, and get push-back when I let children do what they naturally want to do? How do I learn to behave as this ideal, inspired, inquisitive, risk-taking leader I keep reading about? How can I create democracy and community here today given this spot I am in where everyone is telling me what to do and not giving me opportunities and agency?

We have to make do with few resources in authoritarian, stifling organizations—the very antithesis of what Loris Malaguzzi was describing. Given all we have to do each day, it’s difficult to discover how to be personally authentic, how to evolve a dream environment given only a flood of primary-colored plastic in catalogues, or how to create a culture among the children that energizes and sustains their best work. How can I get a chance to sit and watch? Ever?

Workstations Creates a Culture

If this is you, I offer this independent activities section which others my support since in looks like academics-STEM-school-readiness. It might maximize your chances of getting support and even money. I invite you to get these specific materials, uniform cardboard boxes to begin, and hang tags from the ceiling. One never knows what is going to happen. The children have to adjust to this new freedom to be silly or whatever and you have to find the things that interest them, keeping the time short so it doesn’t get too crazy.

Gradually, probably in three months, you’ll be able to discover the way to have the children sufficiently engaged to pull back and watch what happens. For sure it won’t happen right away. When you get to that future place where you can sit down, you’ll have created an opportunity to practice being the facilitator you always wanted to be, one who listens, responds, and documents. Workstations is a chance to embrace uncertainty, and gradually become a fully present generative leader—intelligent, kind, and responsive. Truly, it’s a gift to children who haven’t had this kind of thing in their lives.

The Beautiful, Magic Educator

Maybe you have seen experienced educators fluidly and spontaneously do exactly the right thing at the right time. I was amazed the first time I saw it. I thought how fortunate the children were to be in that school. That sparked the course of my life.

Being a teacher is amazingly complex. There is no right way and no right technique. Each educator brings intuitions, desires, and values that are much deeper than could ever be articulated. Each here-and-now moment with young children is uncertain, and each encounter is a challenge to be present, authentic, and intentional. That’s why people can be so different and be great educators, each in their own way.

Agnes de Mille Leaps in the Dark has a whole book on it.

Donald Schön has likened professionalism to playing jazz. The professional brings the most skilled intentions forward from years of practice in a unique moment of improvisation upon a framework acquired through reflective practice. Professionalism depends upon bringing to this moment a previously considered and practiced way of being along with a willingness to let that go and be changed right now by what is happening.

The metaphor I use to remind me is feet. Feel my feet inside my shoes. Now be weightless I flash in my mind the image of floating like a balloon in the empty blue, so the slightest breeze from the child guides where I go.

a bright yellow balloon floating in a blue sky

Assert Our Role

The educator’s job is to act courageously in the present moment toward values we are continuously evolving through dialogue with others.

Missing from that sentence is the necessity of implementing anyone else’s right way or following anyone else’s prescriptions, published curriculum, or “research-based practices.” We do not expect doctors and architects to do that, for they are professionals; a set of procedures won’t do. We expect them to bring their wisdom and experience to act in the best interests of the client.

The best words I have found to describe the work of an early childhood education professional is to pursue, in concert with colleagues and families, an aesthetic ideal. We’re never going to get to an ideal place, but we know when we have taken steps that are better. I tell if something is better if two things occur simultaneously.

  1. I am acting in a way that is authentic. I am being truly me, as best as I know me, in this moment. I often know when that happens because I see better. I can see others more vividly. My awareness is broadly distributed. I have forgotten myself.
  2. Alongside my awesomeness is the children’s awesomeness. I perceive a generative energy — it seems like a humm — in which children are being the best they can be, together, with each other. The values and ideals I list on the Speaking Up for Children pages come alive in the eyes, voices, and energy of the children.

We need to stop being constricted by forces that do not represent our clients.
No one can tell anyone else how to be an educator.

Practice Time

Fröbel (1782-1852)

Here is a way to practice authentic generativeness right now. This topic of Mathematics and Design can offer something specific to add to your tool box of clever things to say to children, then set you free to improvise.

Over 180 years ago Friedrich Fröbel published ideas for the education for the very young. Building on his experience in Switzerland with Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, Fröbel evolved spaces, manufactured materials, and wrote guides for others to create active spaces for children. He showed how to utilize free work (Freiarbeit), even though it wasn’t really free, it was a revolutionary way of thinking of pedagogy. When I explored Fröbel’s work, I found a gem that applies to this topic of leadership in workstations.

Froebel differentiated three realms, three ways we can regard phenomena.

  • Forms of Nature, the natural and familiar of daily life
  • Forms of Knowledge, the conventions of logical thought, our mathematical concepts, tools, and symbols, which allow us to express relationships in more complex ways
  • Forms of Beauty, a sensitization to aesthetics, the satisfying and transcendent expressions of design, harmony, symmetry, pattern, and movement.

Fröbel wrote that the three realms are mental constructs, not the way things really are. In other words, these are cultural ways we have evolved to think about reality in a relative, not absolute, sense. If we regarded phenomena one form, it could narrow a child’s experience. If we played with all of them simultaneously, they could allow children to gracefully incorporate into their lives all manner of diverse knowledge and experience. “The ultimate lesson of kindergarten was straightforward: the world (nature), mathematics (knowledge), and art (beauty) were interchangeable, and their perceived borders were misleading, artificial constructs. A chair might become numbers, numbers art, and art either or both.” — Norman Brosterman, Inventing Kindergarten, p. 39.

seedHere is an example. This seed in the absolute sense is ultimately incomprehensible. We have no way to understand everything that it is. Magic might be the most reasonable way to describe it, yet we can regard it’s manifestation through the three realms.

  • Forms of Nature: We have a seed,
  • Forms of Knowledge: with five sections, five inside and five outside,
  • Forms of Beauty: expressing tension, at once comfortably snug and straining to open; we could dance the story of the seed becoming moist, bursting open, and coming to life.

Viewing the world as a child might, this seed is one experience not requiring any thought more than it being another one of those magic things that are everywhere. We can use the realms, however, to offer distinctions for children to reconsider phenomena, to open possibilities, and to stimulate creativity. Nature, knowledge and beauty are one — flowing together — in, out, and through — reminding us of the preciousness of life.

shellsI invite you to try using the forms to enrich your commenting about what children create at workstations. For example, here is an image of a child’s arrangement of shells. Using Fröbel’s realms as inspiration I can offer ways for the child to reconsider what they have done. We could pause and describe this one event through each realm from our own point of view

Nature: “I’ve seen a pansy shaped like this one and an iris like this one. This one is smiling. These nested ones look like stairs or a path. I have a path at my house made from pavers like that.”

Knowledge:  “I see numbers here: 4. 3. 4. 3.  Two are fours and two are threes. You’ve got fourteen shells arranged in four sets.”

Beauty: “I see beautiful floating stars in the night sky. Happy stars are shining down on you.”

None of those statements pretend to describe the child’s intention. Like you, I have no idea of what was going on in the child’s mind as these were invented. The possibly exists, however, that I could find out more about what she was thinking, if we could have had a deep conversation at the time. The trick is how to get it started. I know that, “Tell me about your picture” doesn’t work, because of my video research. The best way I have found to open up a deep conversation with anyone, no matter how big they are, is to share something about myself. Something unusual works the best. If I model making a disclosure, I optimize the chance for a return disclosure. The comments above do just that. I have found this the best way to open a conversation. We could have a mutually beneficial conversation if we were able to be with each other in a space of reciprocity. This also teaches language.

Languages of Mathematics

I am reminded of Loris Malaguzzi when he offered the poem Hundred Languages of Children.



Although Malaguzzi did not specify shells-on-felt as one of the hundreds upon hundreds of languages of children, it indeed is one of those languages he was talking about. Those of us who have been inspired by him and others at Reggio Children often don’t see a way to actually enable children to use materials languages. They never have explicitly said how to do it.

Several years ago when my sons were interested in climbing, I went with them and the leaders of the Garfield Outdoor Program to climb Mt. Baker, near Bellingham, Washington. As we walked up the steep snow slopes the guide showed me how to plant my lead foot and not transfer my weight until after it was in place. I knew I could walk up the steep snow slope, but this oddly new way of walking worked better than I ever could have imagined. I was surprised that I could climb snow slopes more efficiently and for a longer time. The method, passed down from climbers long before, helped significantly, but I still had to do the climbing. It was timely and changed my perspective.

I want to do that kind of thing for you now. I offer the realms as a way for the child to realize shells-on-felt is a language. You get to take your own steps and see for yourself if this works or not.

I look closely and wait. I try to stop my adult agenda. I try to be present. I try to become expectant to discover the meaning in the moment. I trust that something may emerge by my offering a bit of slow time in which I can express with my body that I care. No words. Then, after sufficient pause, relying on the insights I have gained in my personal relationship with this child, I comment upon the arrangement of shells as if they were speaking directly to me — not the child speaking. The shells are talking, so listen up, Tom. Being as present as I can be, I wait expectantly for something to emerge.

That’s what happened as I wrote the words back there about the shells using the three realms as a guide. I have often found that a narrowed focus gives rise to creativity. With those constraints I had the opportunity to think in new ways, to say things I have never said before, and to invent expressions of my own truth from an altered perspective. I would call this way of responding to design a reflective provocation rather than a procedure to follow. Fröbel’s forms can guide the formulation of reflective provocations as well as give children pause to consider shells-on-felt as language.

Contrast that with You made flowers. You worked hard. Isn’t that pretty. Can you tell me about it?

Reflective Provocations

Here are examples of children’s designs, a five-year-old, then a four-year-old, and finally a three-year old. I  challenge you to comment in the language of arrangement, opening yourself to allow the arrangement to speak to you and then try your hand at creating reflective provocations.

If you see something in the arrangement that reminds you of nature, something in the world we often see, then say how you see that.
If you see something that is mathematical (numbers, sequences, pattern, sorting, shapes, concepts, etc.), then this is a chance to describe that knowledge.
If you see something aesthetic, a form of beauty, you can talk about that.







Leadership in workstations depends on the momentary awareness of that brief gap between the brain’s buzzing thoughts and the next impulse. The professional allows a bit of space—a pause, a freezing of time—to open this moment to be with this child. If we stop fast reactivity, we can try something new, and probably foster an awesome exchange and maybe learn a thing or two. No habit shifts quickly. We simply keep on keeping on, practice practice practice, creating these relational spaces, thinking of the balloon in the blue, and being influenced by the children.

a bright yellow balloon floating in a blue sky

Next Group Games