When all the shelves are empty

A cat playground.

A cat playground.

When all the shelves are empty, we know the children's minds and hearts are full.

Over its almost seventy-five years of operation, the school has amassed a large collection of found materials and beautiful things. The staff and parents are constantly on the look-out for materials that are interesting to the eye and hand while open-ended enough to spark the imagination.

We look for sets of 5 and grow the collections from there, because we know that this will inform and shape the children's idea of number. We look for rich colors and textures because with these the children will begin to categorize and sort. We look for shape and line because then the children will create radiating lines and use these to represent parts of the whole. They will create messages, filled with meaning and story, written across the carpet, wooden floor, tables, and trays. The bench is used as a mountain or a bed, the chairs become platforms for constructions.

We will change all the materials on the shelves every 6 to 8 weeks, but in between the big change-overs, we will replace bowls and trays with other materials based on the children's interests or needs. The bowls, baskets, bins, and trays are as carefully selected as the materials that will fill them. These containers are also used as part of the constructions and with these children experiment with height, perimeter, hidden spaces, and placement.

Without picking up a pencil, without using a worksheet, without direct adult instruction -- these materials and the children's imagination leads to exploration in quantity, attribute, position, movement, direction, order, sequence, and pattern. These are the stepping stones, literally (because of course there are stones) and figuratively, for building mathematical understanding number, patterns and algebra, measurement, chance and data and space.

When the children are given free rein, their imaginations begin to create stories of houses and castles, of dinner guests and parties, of danger and safety. Stories and "pretend this is..." fill the room. There is no talk of number, or maybe there is! How many knights have a place at the table? How many pandas can sit in the nest?

When the shelves are empty and there is only room for children's feet to step, step, step across the room, we are doing our jobs.