If you’re interested in what I’ve been doing for classes this quarter, I recorded myself rehearsing a final presentation for CS224U, Natural Language Understanding. I feel like I really fly through this material, but it might give you a sense of my work.
I’m just finishing up with finals week now and will hopefully have more to write over the upcoming break. In the meantime, I thought I would reference you to some work I did this quarter. Specifically, I ended up doing 2 final projects and 1 term paper. 1 of those projects is still ongoing, so I haven’t posted anything for it, but the other 2 are pretty much complete and available for you to look at. Here are links and snippets for each of them (you can also find them on my writing page, along with various other things I’ve worked on):
This paper was written for CS378, “Phenomenological Foundation of Cognition, Language & Computation.” I was interested in the use of Twitter for political activism (such as the Egyptian protests) and thought that there were interesting questions about identity and commitment in that context. I take some ideas from network models to understand the roles that individuals have in terms of concrete actions, and I connect that to some empirical work on types of actors in activism on Twitter to understand where identity comes from.
This paper was written for CS224W, “Social and Information Network Analysis.” The question I had going into this was whether we could quantify how information overload might be reflected in changes in internet usage. Particularly, Neal Gabler here complains that we can’t grapple with big ideas and are stuck in the constant flow of unimportant data. I tackled this hypothesis by looking at Delicious data and seeing whether the distribution over bookmarks has changed from year to year. If he’s right, we should see more bookmarks happen sooner and less of a long tail. The basic result is that over 3 years, things look pretty much exactly the same, and I also try to come up with a model to explain the data.
Today in CS378, Fernando Flores came to speak with us. I would give an explanation of the class and his work, but I don’t think I can. The class has largely been taught without giving definitions or explaining concepts, but instead discussing ideas and trying to tie them together into a holistic sense of what’s going on. In any case, I took some notes (mostly quotes and paraphrases) on interesting things that Fernando said in the same spirit that Terry Winograd explained after class that he took notes in: you definitely can’t recompose anything that Fernando said from them, but they might be interesting things to think about and digest. Also note that this isn’t of general interest. There may be some people who would enjoy these notes (such as my Uncle David, who introduced me to this field and Terry’s work), but flip on past if you like. I’m not really going anywhere with these notes beyond what you see.
- we are already thrown into our normative context
- a lot of philosophy is based on truth
- in reality, you “bring it forward” with you with logical performance
- not processing information; more interpretation, performing as a minister
- email is treated like “information” – there are no commitments with it
- synchronization of people is dependent on the commitments they make
- in Mexico, they don’t have a culture of commitment; by workshop, they figured it out
- commitments are for humans: can’t really be automated
- so far has failed in politics: it’s about hope, image, not commitments
- how does such an efficient society end up with such messed up government?
- short answer: politicians don’t distinguish between promises & expectations
- politicians do things in public life that are very different from private life
- 3 ways for a promise to fail
- 1) competence – within a domain, can you do it?
- 2) sincerity – you can lie all you want
- 3) care – caring about the person, which is context-specific
- trust is an assessment
- unfortunately, we are thrown in culture of trust – “thrown assessment”
- “The Tea Party is a mood against Obama”
- this is pre-history; it’s a sentiment
- Occupy Wall Street is using the financial system
- “Projects need to be related to the concerns they are”
- so we’re objective to the point of our experience
- in World of Warcraft, he had a “poverty of world” – not something you can do strictly by description
- can reprogram your history with games
- problem with the US today: we’re based on ideas of social mobility and life always getting better
- this may not be true anymore
- can the internet bring the “disposition of being” universally? (question from Kevin, not me)
- technology affects people in different places differently
- Heidegger’s concern: we have a metaphysical blindness of the west in how we conceptualize language
- most people think that language is about passing information
- some take the commitment interpretation
- astronomy: “how do people with such poor instruments have such big interpretations?”
- “what ar the central concerns of people?”
- we’re trying to build tools, but we’re in a history
- 3 concerns to care about
- 1) care – issue, not a problem
- 2) wonder – mood, questions
- 3) dwelling – being mortal, having an identity in a culture
- “thinking is synonymous with calculation, not mood or listening” – this is a mistake often made at places like Stanford
- “we need to bring sacredness back to tradition”
- Churchill did this, to create unity
- you can guarantee success, but you can all be on the same page
- US has a problem of mood right now
- we’re realizing we’re not the world power and can’t solve everything
- design is manipulating us for care – anticipating ready-to-hand
- but we can’t always anticipate
- wonder has to do with design because we deal with materials with properties we don’t control (Dean)
- accidents need to coalesce in a space, and they develop a possibility
- “a little bit of whim, a little bit of contingency, and a little bit of wonder”
- a big question with the internet has to deal with identity
- “the essence of language is poetry” – not logic, not precise in concept
- Steve Jobs built a sentiment that no one else has
- “Who said that geniuses and good people need to be saints?”
(This is the final paper for the class that I have been writing all these journal entries for. It’s probably a little spotty, and I’m not really proud of it, but I think it hits the highlights in the literature)
At Bing, children as young as 3 regularly engage in pretend play, and the school’s philosophy and design encourage it. In west room, a kitchen area lies in the middle of the classroom with toy babies, costumes, and various utensils. Outside, playhouses are equipped with pots and pans, sinks, and brooms where, on most days, children will be outside making mud pies out of sand and water. Sometimes they play alone, but often they’ll play with other children, requiring coordination and maintenance of their play. In their pretend play, children pretend to be in fictional worlds and act out events. They might think of themselves as airplanes, use sand as flour in cooking, or play as a family with parents and a baby. Through play, children may engage in social negotiation, work through emotional problems, reason through complex situations, and more. One particular skill related to pretend play is theory of mind.
Theory of mind is the ability to impute mental states to the self and others (Premack & Woodruff 1978). Consequently, reality alone doesn’t determine one’s mental state, and different people may have different representations of the world. Previous research suggests that children don’t establish this skill until they are 4 or 5, yet children in engage in pretend play as young as 3. Children may pretend that a stick is a gun, which requires a conception of an object than one determined strictly by reality. In play with others, children interact with the imagined worlds that others have in mind. Pretend play seems to require skills similar to theory of mind, yet their development doesn’t occur simultaneously.
Although some argue that children have already developed theory of mind before engaging in pretend play, others argue that children only exhibit a primitive version of theory of mind in pretend play. Bing’s philosophy of play as learning believes that pretend play allows children to practice and learn about theory of mind. In this paper, I will explore some of the issues and competing theories in how pretend play and theory of mind are related and the evidence for these claims.
Experimental paradigms for theory of mind
Before discussing the competing theories, I want to give an overview of common methods of testing children for theory of mind and point out some of characteristics of these tests.
First, the appearance-reality task tests whether children can distinguish between the appearance and true nature of an object. For example, a child is presented with an object that looks like a rock. After the child states that it’s a rock, he or she then learn that it is actually a sponge. Studies have found that children younger than 4 ½ would respond to the question, “What does it look like?” with sponge more often than rock. This result seems to show that young children can’t maintain distinct mental models for the true identity of an objects and its apparent appearance.
A more recent study by Hansen and Markman (2005), however, discovered that this result came from task demands. Children often have difficulty understanding and remembering details in experiments, and in this case, questions about what an object “looks like” can be understood as a reference to reality as well. After correcting for these difficulties, they found that children as young as 3 could distinguish between appearance and reality. Thus, by this measure, children demonstrate theory of mind by the time they are engaging in pretend play as well.
Second, the false belief task tests whether children can maintain a counterfactual state of the world. For example, a child is presented with a Band-Aid box. After the child states a belief that there are Band-Aids inside, the experimenter shows that crayons are in the box. When 3 year old children are asked, they report that their mother would know that there are crayons inside. This result seems to show that the 3 year olds don’t understand that others can have a mental model of the world that’s inconsistent with reality.
Third, the interpretive diversity task is related to the previous task. The same child is also asked what he or she thought was in the box before, and these same children will fail and say that they thought crayons were in the box. This result seems to show that they can’t reconcile their previous mental state with the facts of reality and revise their memory for one consistent interpretation.
These particular tests don’t necessarily measure the same type of theory of mind that we see exhibited in pretend play. Even so, several of the following studies discussed will use and build upon these tests.
Do children see pretend play as theory of mind?
In the introduction, I noted the similarities in the characteristics of pretend play and theory of mind. Even so, the standard measures above indicate that 3 year olds haven’t developed theory of mind yet. A possible explanation may be that children don’t treat their pretend play as having emerged from mental states.
A key factor of theory of mind is that a person must understand that his or her actions come from a mental state. One interpretation is that pretend play gives children practice with these mental representations, which Lillard (2001) calls the Metarepresentational Model of Pretense. A common method of testing understanding of pretense is to describe an actor with contradictory mental states and actions, then ask the child which corresponds to the actor’s pretense. Lillard considered the role of knowledge in pretend play with several experiments. In one, a child watched a doll jumping up and down like a rabbit but was told that the doll knew nothing about rabbits. When asked if the doll was pretending to be a rabbit, 4 and 5 year olds correctly said no, while 3 year olds said yes. This suggests that 3 year olds don’t treat pretense as a product of a mental state. Instead, their interpretation from reality alone fails to account for this ignorance on the part of others.
However, other studies have disputed this and similar claims, mainly on the difficulties of task demands. Some concerns are that the relative saliences of the mental and real states aren’t balanced, and that the wording of the questions has some bias. Custer (1996) responded to the above study by changing the paradigm by presenting the pretense and asking about the mental state (instead of presenting the mental state and asking about the pretense). For example, a child was shown a boy pretending to fish with a boot, then asked whether there was a boot or a fish on the end of his hook in his mental state. The results showed that 3 year olds did better on this pretend task than they did on a corresponding false belief task. Given that, children show more advanced understanding of the mental nature of pretense than they can on typical theory of mind tasks.
Lillard (2001) pointed out that this result may only demonstrate that children are aware that pretense and reality are different; knowing that, they simply pick the alternative, which happens to be the mental state. Instead, she proposed the Twin Earth model of pretend play, where children are in an imagined world similar to, but not precisely the same as, the real world. In this theory, children haven’t necessarily developed a mental representation of the world of their play and only realize that their pretense is something other than reality.
This debate about whether children actively use mental representations in pretend play (and are simultaneously developing theory of mind) continues as no study has conclusively argued in either direction. Common difficulties with these studies are the numerous other interpretations of children’s behavior and other possible cues that may lead to it. Even so, further research should work towards where causality lies between pretend play and theory of mind.
How does pretend play correlate with theory of mind?
Even if we can’t explicitly link theory of mind to pretend play, we can try to find correlations between them. Taylor and Carlson (97) correlated theory of mind and pretend play in a study of 152 children, 3 and 4 years old. For theory of mind, each child was measured on false belief, appearance-reality, representational change, and interpretive diversity tasks. For their level of pretense, each child and their parents were interviewed on the presence of imaginary preferences, and each child was tested for preferences in toys. From these measures, children were grouped into high and low fantasy groups, which roughly described their engagement in fantasy in play.
They found that high fantasy correlated significantly with ability on theory of mind tasks for the 4 year olds, but they didn’t find any such effect in 3 year olds. One explanation offered by the authors is that the measures used weren’t appropriate for 3 year olds, a common difficulty discussed earlier. Still, I noticed other issues with this study. One is that the measures for pretend play were indirect: instead of an ecologically valid method, such as observing children in a classroom, the preferences were determined in experiment rooms without actual play. A second issue is that children were tested individually, which avoids any social factors in play. Even so, the correlation in 4 year olds is significant and suggests that these abilities aren’t entirely disparate.
Given how broad the types of pretend play are, we can better understand the importance of pretend play in theory of mind by considering specific aspects of play. One particular factor is how children play together. To construct a fictional world with others, children must form some idea in the minds of others, and working flexibly with those representations helps to perpetuate play. For example, I once observed Cyrus and Jackson in a tree playing “clones.” Although they were fighting other children, Cyrus also found “clone berries” that he had picked off the tree, giving them to Jackson and me to eat. In the middle of our meal, however, several children came nearby, and instantly, Cyrus used the “clone berries” as “clone grenades,” and Jackson immediately understood and began throwing them as well. When Olivia came and wanted to join their play, Cyrus made her a princess and assigned her the role of collecting the very same “clone berries” that he was using as grenades. At this moment, Cyrus wasn’t simply pretending the berries to be something else; he was actively maintaining 2 different fictional identities of the berries for 2 different people who each construed them to be different things.
A study by Schwebel, Rosen, and Singer (99) considered the social factor specifically in how pretend play might lead to development of theory of mind. Although most of the discussion above focused upon the role of mental representation in pretend play, this study focused on the difference between social and solitary pretend play. They observed 85 preschoolers, coding and rating their ability in play. They then tested them on the appearance-reality task. They found that, even after controlling for verbal intelligence, social play correlated positively with performance on the appearance-reality task. We discussed the limitations of the appearance-reality task above, but controlling for verbal intelligence helps to mitigate: better verbal intelligence should have accounted for difficulty in understanding the task demands.
The first result that solitary play didn’t correlate with theory of mind suggests that simply construing objects as something different than reality doesn’t effectively indicate any awareness of mental states. Though this theory alone isn’t surprising, it’s interesting that this came from the appearance-reality task as the measure for theory of mind. The result from social play, however, is more encouraging, and it places special importance on this type of play. Overall, this study suggests that specific properties of pretend play are more useful than others in developing theory of mind, and pinpointing those may help us understand what this relationship is.
We have discussed some of the competing theories and evidence to understand how theory of mind and pretend play might be related. Pretend play seems to show some of these skills in understanding the mental representations of others, and although correlations between these have been found, the direction of causality still isn’t known. We hope that pretend play encourages children to learn theory of mind, but it’s also possible that theory of mind is a prerequisite for pretend play, and studies so far simply haven’t tested children in the correct manner. In spite of this uncertainty, pretend play offers the most complete experience children receive in flexibly using these skills, and the earlier emergence of theory of mind-like abilities in pretend play can help us understand how it develops.
Custer, W. L. (1996). A Comparison of Young Children’s Understanding of Contradictory Representations in Pretense, Memory, and Belief. Child Development, 67 (2), 678-688.
Hansen, M. B., & Markman, E. M. (2005). Appearance questions can be misleading: A discourse-based account of the appearance-reality problem. Cognitive Psychology, 50, 233-263.
Lillard, A. (2001). Pretend Play as Twin Earth: A Social-Cognitive Analysis. Developmental Review, 21, 495-531.
Premack, D. & Woodruff, G. (1978). Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behaviour & Brain Sciences, 4, 515–526.
Schwebel, D. C., Rosen, C. S., & Singer, J. L. (1999). Preschoolers’ pretend play and theory of mind: The role of jointly constructed pretence. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 17, 333-348.
Taylor, M., & Carlson, S. M. (1997). The Relation between Individual Differences in Fantasy and Theory of Mind. Child Development, 68(3), 436-455.
(This is my last journal for the class)
This week, I was in the language area, but with low interest in writing stories and having Christian nearby as well, that ended up being a small part of my actual focus as I drifted around. Instead, I want to focus on a longer interaction I had with A..
I was initially in the music room looking at the chicks with C. when she said that she was going to go out to the monkey bars. At that point, A. asked me, “Do you know what the monkey bars are?” I was curious as to why he would ask me such as a question, since I would assume that he would think I must know, so instead of just saying know, I instead just asked him if he could tell me what they are. He explains in reasonable terms about what they are and how children interact with them, and we briefly discuss his own ability with the monkey bars. Although this initially left me confused, my interpretation now is that this was how A. was initiating conversation. Aware that C. would no longer be the focus of my attention, he picked up on the most immediate discussion point and threw it out there for me to engage with him on. This particular question was somewhat awkward as a starting point, but A. did demonstrate an ability to discuss in a context-sensitive manner. Forman points out that “…we need to make a shift in what we believe a question to be…,” and he continues to discuss one possibility that a question is “an implied failure to communicate” (79). Between adults, A.’s question would simply whether one knew what monkey bars are, but to A., this question had a much different purpose, being primarily communicative instead of focused on the actual knowledge. Moreover, it worked as we began to talk as we walked out of the music room.
A. was holding a photo from a vacation in his hand, and we walked over to the mailbox on the shelves, and he put it in. He tried to close it, but the flap flopped back open, and he soon realized that he couldn’t stand there forever to hold the mailbox closed. He first asked me how it closes, so I explained that most mailboxes have clasps on them. From there, he pointed out the one clasp on the flap, and I agree. He then commented that the clasp has nothing to attach to, so he put together all of the details to understand exactly why the mailbox wasn’t staying closed.
Next, he asked me why the mailbox had nails sticking out of the bottom of it. I honestly said that I didn’t know in the moment. He responded relatively quickly and told me that they’re to attach the mailbox to the wooden support below it. I was again very impressed by his ability to demonstrate this knowledge, though I’m still not entirely sure where his comment came from. First, it could’ve been prior knowledge. A pattern I noticed in his speaking manner was that he often asked “why” or “what” questions for things he asked seemed to know. Like how he began our conversation about monkey bars, perhaps those are the sentence forms that he feels comfortable speaking with. Second, he could’ve reasoned through it in the moment, which I think would be a great inductive leap to make in understanding the physical relationship between the parts and the purpose of the nails. In either case, he was able to carry on at a very high level of functioning.
From there, I saw an opportunity to scaffold his engineering talent and asked him if we could use anything to close it. He immediately said tape but then retracted it. When I asked him why, he pointed out that if it’s taped, we can’t get anything into the mailbox. When he floundered on other solutions, I suggested that maybe we can use string, so we went over to the craft area to get some string. Meanwhile, he still pulled two pieces of tape, and we returned to the mailbox to close it.
He told me to pull the string through, and I talked through with him exactly what he wanted, which turned out to be the string through a small hole on the side. Because of how the yarn is braided, I ended up pushing the first bit through, then allowing him to complete the rest of it. After that, he taped the flap anyways so that the flap remained partially open. Although I had had a particular solution in mind, he clearly still had his own vision in mind that he executed.
Later on, he said to me, “The string is just hanging there. Do we even need it?” On that point, I agreed with him, and he removed the piece of string. When I asked him how someone could put something into the mailbox if it’s taped, he simply said that one can just take the tape off.
Overall, I’m impressed by his ability to work through a particular goal. Although his method didn’t quite match up with what he had said, he continued to work towards it and think critically about the purpose of various objects present. From my end, I think I ended up being the most helpful to him in my confusion about his mental state and purpose and in my ignorance about how to proceed, so I feel like I did the right things if perhaps for the wrong reasons. My confusion drove me to ask him questions that demonstrated his thought process, which hopefully helped to solidify those. My ignorance gave him the opportunity to think and work through various problems instead of me just telling him what he needed to know or what he needed to do.
I don’t know if I can aptly distill my experience at Bing into words other than to say that it has been very good. As I mentioned early on, my interest in children is almost exclusively on cognitive development, but interacting with them has reminded me that there are other important parts of development as well, such as social skills and emotional maturity. Although my mindset is still to compartmentalize these ideas, there really is a lot of connection between these different topics that gives a better total understanding of where a child is overall and how he or she can best be supported.
I’m not sure if I had expectations of the capabilities of 3, 4, and 5 year olds, but whatever they were, they were shattered. Perhaps the only thing that I feel I had right coming in is that children are strangely competent and incompetent in various areas, sometimes at the same time on what seem like very similar things. The best example in my mind is their language development, which is in many ways very sophisticated, but is also often not at all translated in writing and reading. They can recognize the first letter of another child’s name, but not be able to spell or even write the letters for their own name.
I feel like I’ve grown quite a bit from this experience, if only to have bought in to Bing’s philosophy about a play-based education. Even beyond the ability to understand children better, both in academic and real-life settings, and use that in the future, the basic skills to engage with and help the children feel like they’re more generally useful in interacting with all people, adults or children. Although I don’t think I’ll ever go through conflict resolution in quite the same way with my roommate, I think the mindset and determination to really understand the motivation of others and express those very explicitly makes sense. These journals have caused me to think harder about why certain interactions happened as they did and try to do better in the future. After spending the past few years at college focusing so specifically on my own cognitive development in classes, this class was a good reminder that just like the children, I have other things I need to learn along the way, too.
This week, a short staff gave me the opportunity to stay in the art area again, though the more significant interactions happened incidentally in that area. A flower was put out, but only Nicole went by to make an observational drawing. Instead, children came to and went from the craft table and painting easels, where they interacted with each other.
An. and L. were at the craft table when L. saw a friend (S.’s sister, I think) walk in. While L. went over to give her a hug, An. looked at them blankly and seemed unsure what to think of it. When L. came back, she immediately said, “You’re my best friend. She’s just my friend.” Although I was struck by the empathy, I was even more surprised that L. said this without having apparently seen An.’s expression. My sense was that L., instead of reacting, anticipated this feeling of minor jealousy, which requires more active awareness.
The closeness between them likely facilitated this reaction, but two more incidents revealed how sensitive they were. C. had taken an egg in a cup outside, and shortly after, we all saw her rush inside, crying and running to Karen. They all paused midway through their work and watched C.. The conversation roughly went:
L.: I never saw C. cry like that.
An.: Yeah, I wonder what’s wrong.
B.: Maybe she want her mom.
An.: Why does she want her mom?
B.: Sometimes they cry when they want their mom.
L.: But she came from the sand area.
The conversation continued between them as they explored possible reasons for why she was crying. On the one hand, they themselves seemed outwardly unaffected by C.’s state, though perhaps non-verbal cues and expression also develop over time. Even so, they all empathized with C., which fascinated me from a theory of mind perspective. They explored hypothetical situations of what potential causes, considered how those would affect them, and reasoned that against C.’s observed behavior. This process of thinking made me realize how tightly connected several aspects of development are: in empathizing with C., they needed to project themselves into her point of view and reason through counterfactual worlds to guess what had happened.
This ability to take another perspective happened in a less emotionally involved situation soon after when Ae. had brought in a beetle in a plastic egg. Thankfully, it seemed as though most of the children hadn’t developed any sort of disgust towards it and eagerly looked at it. Ae. pointed out that “It can’t get out because it’s slippery,” watching the beetle desperately try to climb the sloping sides of the egg. When the excitement died down, he put the top on the egg. At that point, I mentioned something like, “The beetle might get lonely inside the egg because it can’t get very far if you close the egg.” What followed was:
J.: We could let it out in the classroom. (Pauses) It would be a giant world.
Me: Why would it be a giant world? It’s not giant to us.
J.: Because it’s so small. The room would be giant to it.
In this case, I was impressed by how she not only took the mental perspective of the beetle, but also absorbed and considered its physical shape as well. In fact, the perspective of it being small required that she, in some sense, imagine the beetle trying to interact with the room, either walking through it or using the objects in it, since the perspective of being close to the ground doesn’t necessarily make the room big.
The conversation continued when Al. jumped in with another comment:
Al. (with a disgusted look): It could get into our food.
(Several other children looked disgusted)
Me: Yeah, that wouldn’t be very good. I don’t think I would like eating a beetle.
Another child (from the background): Frogs eat them.
Me: That’s true. Maybe if we were frogs, we would like to eat them?
This particular idea had much wider agreement with the children, which I think has 2 interesting aspects to it. First, we discussed in cognitive development how children form a “belief-desire psychology.” Presumably less advanced than empathy, infants slowly develop the ability to distinguish their own preferences from the preferences of others, reflected in having different desires. In this case, that resulted in understanding that as a frog, they would like the beetle that they typically don’t like. Second, this particular example seemed easier to engage in since it was closer to a fictional situation. They weren’t necessarily projecting into another person but simply imagining a hypothetical world. This sort of thinking seems closely related to the dramatic play that the children are, of course, wonderful at. This particular example is the most direct link I’ve seen between their play and the skills that emerge from it.
The last episode I want to relate came when L., J., and An. were painting. S. came in, walked up to everyone, and said, “You can’t talk.” After he left, J. came to me and said, “He said to me ‘you can’t talk,’ and I didn’t like it.” I asked them why he might have said that, and when no ideas came, I proposed that maybe he didn’t want to talk to anyone and therefore didn’t want anyone to talk to him, either. L., very acutely, responded instantly, “Then why is he saying that to us?” When the subsequent discussion didn’t enlighten us, I suggested that someone go out to ask him why he said that. J. chased him down, came back, and told us, “He says he’s ‘laning’.” An., clearly unsatisfied, asked what “laning” was, which I had no answer to and proposed that perhaps this was just some game he was playing.
J. then went out again and came back with a new revelation. “He says it’s too loud, and he wants it to be quiet.” We all accepted this, but since it still didn’t answer our question about “laning,” all three went out to talk to him after finishing their paintings. The final revelation came when they came back and told me that he was “laying eggs” and needed quiet for that. After class, Peckie confirmed this with me since S. had found something that needed quiet to lay eggs.
Although their process didn’t engage with possibilities as deeply as the previous events, they demonstrated the same empathy and were concerned for why S. was behaving as he did. The problem solving began from their own discomfort but soon became focused on trying to understand what S. was doing, and this time, they talked to him directly to get an answer.
This week was also my first chance to run a snack table on my own as Peckie was filling in at another table. For the most part, I didn’t find it too difficult to maintain control, except when there wasn’t any particular topic to focus on. A big difference from usual was their willingness to engage with me. When Peckie is there, the children will often come forward with their own stories or observations, which becomes a point of discussion. This time, however, I felt as though I needed to be more directed in asking about what they had done, and between their reluctance and less familiarity on my part about them individually, we drifted between topics quickly. It didn’t help that the chosen book was the very short “Tough Boris,” and the post-book awkwardness was a little tricky to work with.
The Schickedanz reading this week, however, brought up the good idea of discussing the book after reading. In past readings, I’ve struggled to know when to inject my own observations and discuss the book while reading. Although intended to get the children more involved, “stopping to point out word meanings detracts from the pleasures of hearing the rhythm and rhyme” (Schickedanz 226). I’m also unsure how sensitive the children are to the difference between my comments and the actual text of the book. In the future, I’ll probably try to push discussion to the end and see if we can cover the same content as I would have during reading.
This week, I was out on the back 40 where I saw both a mix of typical outdoor play and another more structured activity. For the morning, Peckie setup a station on the picnic bench where the children could squeeze oranges to make juice using a large juice squeezer. With the somewhat finicky cone, a separate cup to catch the juice, and a mechanical handle, the squeezer was a good activity to understand the mechanics of the device and develop the appropriate motor skills to operate it.
When multiple children were sitting around to operate it, they invariably managed to organize themselves into taking turns without any prompting from any teachers. The closest to a slip-up that I saw was when S., who had previously gotten accustomed to doing many in a row when he was squeezing by himself, squeezed two oranges in a row, but when A. caught this, she insisted that they all do 2 at a time, restoring balance there. An even more surprising act was when N. was helping another child use the squeezer. Noticing that the other child was having difficulty, N. helped to push down the lever, doing most of the work. After that orange was done, N. gave another orange to the child, saying, “It’s your turn because I did yours.”
Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember once playing a computer game at school with 2 friends where we took turns on levels. Since I had played it before, I “demonstrated” by playing the first level, then played the second level as well, since the other one was just to show them how it was done. In that instance when I was 5 or 6, I only demonstrated selfishness that I didn’t see at all with the squeezer. Overall, I needed to do little to oversee the activity. Other than offering baby wipes to children as they came up and cutting more oranges for them to squeeze, I could be passive through most of the activity.
A major part of this activity was the children teaching each other how to use the squeezer. As the Tudge and Caruso suggests, “Teachers should avoid suggesting solutions to children” (214). Not only does this suggestion prevent me from intervening incorrectly, it allowed for them to work together to make juice. “When children try to achieve a shared objective… they must … try to adopt an agreed-upon strategy for realizing the goal” (213). In this case, it was turn-taking and juice-squeezing skills that needed to be organized. Overall, my role was largely in support to make sure that the materials were always available and appropriately used. Although juice-squeezing isn’t really conducive to elaborate structure or creativity, it does set forth a clear objective for them to work together on.
During my time outside, I witnessed two extended periods of dramatic play. The first was between two girls in the kitchen area outside. The main focus was around a pot, which had mostly red water, sand, and flowers and was being stirred. The first quote that caught my attention was when one said, “Here’s some sand” and proceeded to dump it into the pot. Although perfectly accurately, this struck me as strange because it showed how fluid reality and fiction were to them. Unless they truly wanted to cook with sand, I would imagine that the conversation would also maintain the fiction of what the sand represented, such as cinnamon or flour. Were they not so engaged in their play, I might have asked them what the sand was as I suspect that the fictional nature of the sand was never precisely determined. That hypothesis, however, comes only from my realization that children’s fiction often isn’t as complete as I would consider to be substantial otherwise.
Another interesting moment arose when they had a minor conflict about who got to use the wooden spoon. Until then, the wooden spoon had been used for stirring, but the girl who was stirring wanted to take it away to get dirt while the other took over stirring. The details of the conversation are lost to me now, but it came together after a slight pause, and one proposed, “How about whenever you go away, I get to use it, and whenever I go away, you get to use it?” “Okay, this spoon is for dirt,” the other said, offering a plastic spoon for her to go foraging with. Having seen and experience instances where children want to keep items for themselves simply for the sake of having them, I was again surprised by this deal, which engaged real conflict resolution and reimagined the purpose of objects in their fictional play.
After snack time, I stood by a tree where C. and J. had climbed up and were playing “clones.” Although most of the play was focused on shooting the other team from their vantage point, there were some notable distractions, such as when C. randomly offered J., “Take a soda. It’s a clone soda.” Curious why he had qualified it, I asked C., “Is a clone soda different than other soda?” He hesitated, then said, “No it’s sweeter.” Satisfied, he continued his distractions by proposing that the tree had “clone berries” that he began handing out for us to eat. The interesting twist came when the other team came close, and C. realized that it was no longer time for dining in the tree; the same berries became “clone grenades,” which he began throwing down onto the ground. The final transformation came when O. joined their play, and the “clone grenades” went back to berries (I think) that C. passed to her to gather in her satchel.
The big lesson for me from these examples is simply how fluid dramatic play can be. When I think of fiction, I imagine a fixed setting where a plot is played out. For the children, however, objects can constantly change identities and other children can come and go, and these modifications always happen in a way to continue the play in an engaging, if unexpected, direction.
This week, I was in the art area where most attention was around drawings of the chickens. We put Fluffly and Sparkles into a box on the table, where the children could make observational drawings. A. was one of the first to draw, and she drew and finished quickly without getting stuck on any particular details. After getting the letters to spell out Sparkles, she began to look around for some sort of cue or acknowledgement of her work. Curious to see what she would do on her own, I continued to talk to other children and watched her out of the corner of my eye. She briefly went back to add a beak, then appeared to be done with it. She then pulled out another piece of paper and traced over her previous drawing in a different color, labeling it as Fluffy. Afterwards, she went over to paint and ended up with 2 very similar paintings, both with large vertical bars of colors covering the entire canvas. The biggest difference between them was that the second painting used fewer colors than the first.
My sense of A.’s development at this point is that she’s perfecting the skills she has developed so far into specific conceptions of her art. Whereas other children were working hard on the fine motor skills to control the pencils or were looking for confirmation that they had indeed drawn a chicken, A. worked swiftly without difficulty. Although she did pause briefly for approval, she continued on without it and repeated the same activity again. The reduction of the color palette for her second painting suggested to me that she had developed particular preferences. Although this feels like a narrowing of creativity, her choice to use more colors in the first painting makes me think that she is still willing to explore various mediums. To summarize, I was impressed to see A. work towards a goal in her art across drafts and show greater persistence and control than most of what I observe in the classroom. In future interactions, I feel as though I can explore her goals more than I do with most children; we’re mostly told not to ask questions such as, “What are you drawing?”, but perhaps a situation will come up where I can discuss these ideas with her and put words to her goals and actions.
After snack time, I went outside, where I saw four or five children playing in the back near a tree. Without prompting, one of them came over to see and asked if I wanted to know what they were doing. Going to look, they placing strands and wads of tape on the tree, which was explained to me as a “trap.” Even now, it’s not clear to me how sitting on some tape would be anything more than annoying, and given how tenuous I thought the idea was, I decided not to ask them about it. Instead, I asked them who the trap was for and proposed that maybe it was for the teachers. This idea initially gained no traction, but over the next few minutes, their story turned into one of trapping the teachers.
The potential different effects of these two questions (what the trap did and who the trap was for) revealed to me the difficulty in furthering fictional play without hijacking or breaking it. Had I asked how the trap worked, I’m skeptical about whether they could have given me a sufficient answer. Later, when Jasmine asked one of them how a piece of tape along the railing of the bridge would trap the teachers, Jasmine ended up providing most of the details of how the tape was a sensor for whether the moving agent was a student or a teacher. This detail, although more complete, did little to further their play and closed off their imagination in what it could be. Going back to how the trap worked, I felt that I could have provided some interesting story for them, but that wouldn’t motivate further activity, and if they were unsatisfied with it, they might find their play pointless and move on. On the other hand, providing a target for the trap seemed to give them something concrete to work towards in unifying their efforts towards a common goal (trapping me).
I was particularly impressed by how the play developed socially. K. and S. came over expressing concern that they were hurting the tree. When Nandini articulated their concerns and asked for a solution, Daniel proposed they instead setup the trap on the bridge, which they all enthusiastically went over to build the trap together, K. and S. included. From there, trap making accumulated several other children as they worked towards a common goal. Although they weren’t coordinated, their work did require specific interactions, such as having one child hold the tape, another pull the tape, and another cut the tape. Asking around for tape or scissors and trying to avoid trapping each other (while keeping me in) all required that the children engage with each other. Overall, their play required little encouragement, and my role as a target allowed me to stay involved while passive and “trapped” by them. As Stephens describes, “… children learn to internally ‘police’ their own behavior so others don’t have to do it for them” (181). Although this fictional play didn’t obviously have the same dramatic characters as most described in the reading, all of the children did accept roles as “trapmakers,” and these roles required cooperation without any input from me.
This week, I stayed mostly in the sand area with Seyon, where the big activity for the day was a volcano. That morning, Seyon had snaked the hose through the sand with the end in the middle of a packed pile of sand, and slowly trickling water through the hose caused water to slowly seep up to the top. When Seyon left to greet students and build the same setup in another room, I was left to watch over and organize this activity on my own, which was quite difficult because I didn’t know what the volcano was supposed to do.
Before most of the children arrived, I had some difficulty dealing with K., who insisted that the hose be at much higher pressure than the millimeter turn at the faucet that Seyon had instructed me to put it at. I had to watch him closely to prevent him from running past me to the faucet, and we ended up in a silly battle where he would turn the pressure up, and I would turn it back down. Unfortunately, I didn’t seem to have any particular authority over K. in this situation, which was probably fair. He had done the volcano before, whereas I knew nothing about it other than Seyon’s instruction. His awareness of that fact made it difficult for me to forbid his behavior, and it persisted even after he went in to speak to Seyon about it. Ultimately, Nandini and Jasmine put an end to it by pointing out that children weren’t allowed to use the faucet: only teachers could.
A more central issue that came out of that conflict and the activity over the day was how exactly to regulate unstructured activities in a structured environment. We intend to provide opportunities for children to explore different activities, and often, that requires some design from our side. When these activities become more complex, however, it seems reasonable for children to lack the patience or trust to see everything through. Griffith points out, “Activities that require teacher assistance and supervision have in common the problem that a child cannot invest enough of himself into them independently so that they become creative” (137). I think this idea extends beyond creative activities into play. Although I would want to encourage them to follow through with an activity, children need to explore on their own, and they often seem to gain more through their own tangents.
In the case of the volcano, it took some for the water to reach a point where it would be active. Meanwhile, the children were getting impatient as the volcano remained dormant. Several wanted to increase the water pressure, again bringing me back to the issue of how much to control their play. When the volcano was finally active, many children had passed through and lost interest. Although it was a shame to lose them, those who remained had quite a bit of fun with it. Uncertain about what was supposed to happen still, I mainly observed as Seyon covered the top of the volcano with sand, causing various leaks to appear. This quickly turned into an activity of covering up the leaks, which the children became very engaged with. This particular approach seemed effective in helping to direct unstructured play: Seyon primed the environment in some small way, attracted the children’s attention with some observation, and allowed them to engage with it as they wished. I imagine that had they wanted to see the volcano explode, that would have also been a viable progression in their play.
This bubbling was the first part of the volcano, but when the water became to overflow, a stream formed from the top as water ran down the side of the volcano, causing the sand to erode and cave in. Seyon pointed out that this was “stage 2” of the volcano to the children, but when the children decided to stop the stream, we didn’t intercede and insist that they see it through. Although it was heart-breaking to me because I wanted to see what would happen, the children had managed to develop it into their own activity, such as catching the water at the bottom and pouring it through the top of the volcano again.
This week provided my first opportunity for conflict resolution when B. and R. both saw a treasure bubble out of the volcano at the same time and insist that they each deserved it for seeing it “first.” The first thing I did was to take the treasure out of their hands and hang onto myself so that they could focus on the situation and not having the treasure itself. Squatting down to their level, we discussed various options for solving this problem, such as allowing one of them to have it and then working together next time to find another treasure for the other. R. pointed out 2 more treasures that appeared in the volcano and cleverly proposed that B. could have those because “two is more than one.” Although the self-interest here was obvious, I was still impressed when B. refused. In the end, I asked Seyon to join and help, and he proposed first that they break it in half with a hammer. That didn’t immediately get traction, but he then proposed that they throw the treasure back in for someone else to find next time. I was shocked when they accepted.
Seyon dug the hole, I threw the treasure in, and the children enthusiastically covered it back up, talking about how they would remember where it was to find it next time (by the way, did they remember to look for it?). Thinking about it now, I still don’t really understand what they really wanted, though hindsight has given me a few ideas. First, I think they were overly optimistic and excited to find it again. In that case, perhaps their goal all along was simply the process of finding the treasures and not the treasures themselves. That is somewhat supported by their greater enthusiasm for this idea rather than splitting it with a hammer. Second, they seemed to have some concept of fairness, though perhaps bordering on spitefulness. Throwing it back in seems equivalent to being the child that didn’t receive it in a deal, but they also didn’t want the other to receive it, which makes sense. In any case, I was surprised that the conflict ended up not being centered around the treasure at all, since they both happily went away empty-handed.
Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to observe any block building this past week since I’m only in the classroom once a week and was mostly in the sand area. Even so, I have had a chance to observe the children on the hollow blocks outside on the patio previously. As blocks, they have similar properties of composition and creativity as unit blocks do, though the scale makes them appropriate for different types of activities. Particularly, I think the larger scale allows them to interact with the blocks as structures for themselves. Instead of having miniatures, the children are capable of building obstacles, structures, and scenes that they can inhabit.
For example, last week, there was a popup cylinder on the patio that the children were playing with. This was combined with the hollow blocks, used to stabilize it from rolling, which the children crawled through. Although these types of structures require the same knowledge of balance and construction that unit blocks do, they deemphasize the finer motor control to perfectly balance two pieces in exchange for ability to create their own playground of sorts. Another child ended up building an entire fort with a roof and space to crawl through.
My limited observation also suggests that the hollow blocks are also used in a more directed manner than the unit blocks. Whereas the unit blocks can be used to progress through carrying, building, enclosures, and other stages, play with the hollow blocks always seems intentional, whether using them as a dock to fish from (2 children from the first week) or objects of their play. In these cases, the learning with and use of the hollow blocks is intended to support other behavior instead of building for its own sake.
This week was the first opportunity I had to work closely with Peckie, my liaison teacher, as we both supervised the patio area. This situation was helpful in gaining insight into the design of the activities, the background of individual children, techniques for interacting with children, and other perspectives on observed behavior.
Peckie pointed out that the workbench area was unique to our classroom in being a regular activity. When I first came to the classroom, I was surprised that it was there since it seems like a particularly dangerous activity. Helping several children make things, however, I was surprised how deliberate their work was. For all of them, they looked to me to hold nails with pliers. I’m not certain where this behavior comes from: it’s possible that the teachers have, until then, always watched closely and insisted that the children have a teacher help them. A more generous possibility is that the children are aware of their own motor control limitations and can’t go forward without it. In either case, the workbench doesn’t seem like the right place to necessarily push them to become more independent.
Woodworking as an activity has several qualities that make it similar to other activities in the classroom but unique as well. Like blockbuilding, woodworking is the composition of bigger things from basic shapes, though the purpose seems to be somewhat different. A strength of blockbuilding is that it provides “…an excellent open-ended medium for communicating and playing out their ideas for developing cognitively, socially, emotionally, and physically” (130). Although I haven’t yet been able to interact with children playing with blocks, the readings suggest that the play aspect is central to blockbuilding: the blocks become symbols for other objects, and children can engage with others around these manifestations of their imagination. Woodworking, however, seems to be a largely solitary activity (except for the assistance from teachers), and the real education comes from learning how to use the medium. That quality seems closer to playing with clay, where the manipulation of the material is the main limit instead of imagination. When I was helping one of the boys put together a box, he clearly knew what he wanted but had difficulty getting there. First, the nail split the wood we were working with. He quickly realized he could use another piece to connect the wood instead, though hammering those pieces together without support was more difficult. Throughout this work, I remained relatively passive, helping him when he needed another pair of hands but otherwise allowing him to explore the properties of the materials and develop solutions on his own. I was surprised at his persistence in not being dissuaded by the failures and difficulties.
Another activity on the patio was at a table with trays of water and vials. A particularly interesting situation Peckie setup involved packing peanuts. Earlier in the week, the children had discovered that one type of peanuts dissolved in the water. That day, those were available in one bowl, and in another bowl were peanuts that didn’t dissolve in water. A. came to the table first and knew that the Styrofoam was supposed to “melt” and pointed this out to me. He took several pieces from the bowl with non-dissolving peanuts, placed them into vials with water, and jammed them to the bottom. Over time, he seemed to notice that they weren’t dissolving and used tongs to continue to jam the peanuts further into the bottom of the vials. When I asked him, he confirmed that the peanuts were melting, but he was clearly dismayed that it wasn’t happening. Although his behavior seems paradoxical, it really isn’t so surprising that he could maintain a belief clearly inconsistent with reality; that mistake doesn’t disappear with maturity. In this case, however, it strikes me as inflexibility in his representation of possible objects. To me, it seems obvious that the different packing peanuts were different, but to A., all of them were the same and had the same properties.
O. (I think) came to the table next, and she reached for the peanuts that melted first. She mentions how much she likes to get the peanuts “soft” and dissolves around 10 of them in vials by submerging the peanuts and shaking it up. She then does this to a few in her tray, which has accumulated some amount of water. At this point, I reach for the other packing peanut, give it to her, and ask her if it will melt as well. She drops it into her tray where it stays intact. She first dumps a lot more water into the tray, then tries to place a piece of partially dissolved Styrofoam into it, which I thought was amazingly creative and am still impressed at. Finally, she breaks it into smaller pieces, which she seems satisfied with.
Clearly, O. was more creative and persistent in trying to make the Styrofoam melt; I’m uncertain, however, whether she truly had a better understanding of the peanuts than A. did. O. seemed to resolve her problem by breaking it into smaller pieces, which is qualitatively different but does reduce the peanuts to some degree. I regret not discussing with her more directly whether she understood the difference between the peanuts. Her choice of multiple interventions suggests that she knew that there was some difference in the process: placing dissolved Styrofoam in the other specifically seems like a way of inducing properties in one object from another. However, her ultimate belief and goal to dissolve the peanut remained the same, and I’m uncertain whether her resolution of breaking up the peanut physically was truly sastifying to her.