Structuring School Opportunities

Natural Progression Experiences

The children usually know a lot more than they can talk about.

Children have been doing and watching every day. They do things with ease that they haven’t practiced the words to describe. Things happen around them, and they take it in. For example, they may know how to open a bubbles jar and blow bubbles but may not have the vocabulary or be able to describe the sequence in words. Natural Progression Experiences provide a routine opportunity and a humorous provocation for children to express that knowledge in language.

Convention for Leading

Let us assume that the four children I meet with tomorrow all know about opening a package that comes in the mail, and I want to use that sequence for a Natural Progression Experience.

To prepare, I think through the entire progression of opening that box and dealing with the bubble wrap and tape inside.

I put what I need in a shopping bag or bigger box with what I use at home—all the materials I think will be needed from beginning to end, such as various kinds of scissors, a safe box cutter, recycle bag, garbage bag, etc. The idea is that if a child mentions something is needed, I have it handy to pull out. Otherwise, I keep everything hidden from view. I also add some silly stuff that is related but obviously wrong, such as butter knife, can opener, tape roll, which I may pull out for fun. I prepare the cleanup materials, too. The box has to be flattened and the heavily wrapped and taped object inside dealt with, too. That’s part of a natural progression.

I retain control of the materials so the children talk, not show me. The children naturally want to get their hands on it to demonstrate. That’s the normal way to communicate and not the abnormal, difficult way to communicate using words. For young children, it’s really hard to restrain their hands and only speak about something they can do so well.


Since birth children have been very busy using the middle area of the brain getting their muscles going and using the posterior portion of the brain to comprehend language. At this age they are relative beginners on the language production, in Broca’s area back in that muscle part. Movement and understanding can proceed rather independently, but language production doesn’t develop at the same rate without someone listening to them.

Natural Progression activities initially hinder the motor cortex — not using the parts of the brian in the top image — and tease them into using less well developed language areas of the brain — using the complex brain area integration in the lower image. At this point in their lives, they really can’t do both at the same time. Give them something in their hands, and they don’t usually talk. This unusual control of the materials may take some getting used to, but they’ll soon learn the game, because it’s fun, and they learn that they get a full chance to handle the stuff soon.

Video Examples

In these three videos I demonstrate natural progression activities with the same group of children. I was a visitor to the classroom and didn’t know them well at all, unfortunately. I had asked permission to tape a small group of children whom the teacher thought warranted additional experience with English. I wanted to create videos to show my college class a way to create a time for language learning children to express themselves joyfully. So, at a time when most of the children were outside, I set up my cameras and microphones and the teacher brought me four children who had never seen me before. I chose materials that I guessed they would all know about. It was important to try to show how a culture is built over several sessions when the membership is held constant. These three sessions are one week apart.

I recorded four sessions, but you only see three because one of the girls in the first session could not continue. I arranged for a substitute girl who continued through, so the group could be consistent. You may gather that something is odd about the children shouting “banana!” to me in Natural Progression 1: Box of Bandages below. The three returning children remembered the banana I used previously, which instead of opening it by peeling, I squeezed really hard, and it squirted all over. I gather that banana mess was a memorable experience.

Natural Progression Possibilities

Opening any box or container; cleaning anything they know about; brushing teeth; putting on clothing items; replacing batteries; preparing any fruit or vegetable; making toast; sweeping; mailing a letter; making tea; using a juicer; blowing bubbles; locking and unlocking; grating cheese; inflating with a pump; making a sandwich; dressing a doll, and thousands more ideas await.

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