Who decides what you can and cannot do?

Published by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2008 at 03:47 PM

A visitor stands in our classroom, surrounded on all sides by children at work. A child in a sparkly purple cape is painting at an easel. Three children sit with their heads together over a book. A child is making a book next to another child making a set of cards. Two children sing and dance on a stage, while another pretends to film them. Two children with clipboards are sketching a telescope near where a small group of children are working on a very large construction.

They are in the midst of a months-long project on space. They are three and four years old.

The visitor stands with her hands on her hips, slowly shaking her head. “This topic,” she says, “is too complex for preschool children.”


A visiting educator shakes her head as well. “Children should do projects on things that are in their own backyard! Children can’t visit outer space!”


Adults, especially educators, do like to decide what children can and cannot do, what they should and should not learn.

So I tell them this story about one of our students and her father.

A three-year-old girl jumps up and down with excitement in her kitchen at home, greeting her tired father who has just arrived home from work.

“Daddy! Daddy! Let’s look at the stars!”

He is tired, and he just stepped through the door. He sighs. But of course he loves his daughter, and he has been putting her off for a little while. “All right, sweetheart. Give Daddy a minute.”

She careens around the room in excitement, bubbling over with talk and gestures.

A little while later, he zips her into her jacket and lifts her up. Gives her a hug. They open the door and step out into their backyard.

“Daddy!,” she cries, pointing excitedly. “Orion!”

He raises his eyes, then looks back at his tiny daughter. His heart swells. “Where, honey?”

“There! Those three stars are Orion’s belt! And look, there’s the Big Dipper!”

Overwhelmed, he lets her slide to the ground. He crouches beside her. He lets her show him the stars.

Who gets to decide what we’re interested in? Who gets to decide what we can and cannot handle? what we can and cannot understand? Who stands between us and what we want to know and tells us where we’re not allowed to wander?

Yes, space is very far away. But it’s also right in our backyard.




Comment by Juliann on November 7, 2008 at 02:38 PM

great question - I just wrote about it on my blog and it was just what I needed to rev up my energy for a rainy friday
thanks again for your wonderful provocations

Comment by Meg on November 7, 2008 at 03:37 PM

A child can handle any subject when they are interested. They may not GET everything, but they can certainly explore it for all it's worth.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2008 at 04:59 PM

i noticed that naysayers liked to play it from both sides. first, they said that the subject was too complex and preschoolers could never understand it. then, when we pointed out the tremendous amount of knowledge they had accumulated -- constellations, planets, the sun, telescopes, microphones, the space shuttle, etc. etc. etc. -- they said that we must have been forcing them to memorize so much information.

when forced to come eye to eye with our own prejudices -- about what children can do, what interests them, how and why they learn -- a lot of adults, even educators with years of experience teaching, just slam the door. they can't accept what's right in front of them.

these children explored an interest that they wanted to learn about, took it in the directions that most interested them, and they "got" a tremendous amount. when one visitor expressed disbelief -- comparing their project to a theme (sun, moon, star?) -- i asked a few children to tell her what they had been learning about. they enthusiastically began talking about their favorite constellations. one three-year-old jumped up and ran to the library to bring back a book with a large illustration of his favorite constellation, Taurus. he told her all the information on the page (although he wasn't yet reading). the other children told about *their* favorite constellations, the stories behind where they got their names, etc. then they dragged her across the room to show her our telescope and explain how it worked. they they talked about how astronauts travel in space and showed her the child-size space shuttle they were building. well .. eventually she was forced to admit .. maybe this wasn't beyond their abilities after all.

Comment by Meg on November 7, 2008 at 05:04 PM

And the best thing of all - is that this knowledge will stick with them.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2008 at 05:10 PM

yes!!! i still talk to children who are now nine years old who were part of that group; they *still* remember what they learned, and they *still* get excited talking about it.

the most important take-away wasn't, of course, all that knowledge about astronomy, space travel, etc. -- it was *you can learn about anything you want.* and they still remember that, too. ;^)

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2008 at 05:25 PM

juliann -- thank you!

shoot, you've figured out my whole deal -- provocations. ;^)

have a great weekend, and thank you for the wonderful mention on your blog!

Comment by Kerry on November 7, 2008 at 05:40 PM

I remember this happening to me when a group of my four year olds had a passion for dinosaurs. We were in the midst of NAEYC accreditation at the time, and I remember one of the visiting specialists advising me against this "unit of study" because "it's not real to the kids - they can't see or touch dinosaurs, so they shouldn't be studying them." The truth is, these kids were going to learn, talk, and play about dinosaurs regardless of what I did. I was merely the facilitator. You can't stop kids from learning, and why would you ever want to try? One of the best things preschool kids can take away from these projects is the desire to learn more, and the knowledge of how to go about it. It's priceless and empowering!

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2008 at 06:00 PM

kerry, it never fails to amaze me that the same people who tell you dinosaurs are off-limits want you to get your kids excited about studying .. shoes. string. balls. huh? maybe we can't touch a dinosaur, but certainly while studying them we can learn about archeology, tools, rocks, fossils, grasslands, etc. etc. etc. etc. during the course of *any* line of study you are going to be learning about things you *can* touch. if a shoe is worthy of study (yawn), why not a spade and a rock hammer? dinosaurs are just so gosh-darn exotic that children have no prior knowledge to share, you know. oh wait, they have read umpteen books about dinosaurs, seen movies about dinosaurs (cartoon movies that introduce nice misconceptions that can be teased apart), they've visited the natural history museum. and in discussing dinosaurs, they are reading, listening, watching, researching, building, measuring, drawing, painting .. oh, but that's not the best kind of learning. stop. start over with something simpler. get your kids excited about .. shoes. balls. string. forget about their incendiary interest and try to create excitement around a topic that bores the teachers to tears, let alone the kids. SIGH.

Comment by Michelle on November 7, 2008 at 06:33 PM

I struggle with moving beyond the backyard... since I do think it is important to know all the birds at the feeder vs dinosaurs in the museum... but that joy of knowledge for knowledge sake is hard to argue. I see it in myself all the time... for example with a desire to learn Italian vs a practical foreign language like Spanish. Something about it being exotic makes it more enjoyable... less 'casue I should.

My kids 5 and 4 are fascinated with knights, castles, princesses... you know all that fantasy play. Their books on the subject are mounting without me thinking too much about it... yet I've been holding back let them dive full force into the topic on a 'real' level... thinking it is too far above them. Understanding the feudal system, classes, etc... but maybe not. Maybe we will run with it a bit more and see where it goes.

Comment by Diane on November 7, 2008 at 08:13 PM

Hey! Can we do the wave again? Because I'm cheering loudly in my living room again for this one!! : )

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2008 at 10:22 PM

michelle - i know what you are saying. and children have so *many* interests -- and you are in the position of choosing which interest to feed. so choose the one that appeals to you the most -- the one that has the most possibilities for field work, the one that is most accessible, etc.


on the other hand .. when we were in the midst of doing projects with classes of children, we were told "absolutely, these are taboo topics -- stay away from these." and then we began studying reggio. and i am thinking right now about a particular project called "the amusement park for birds". and we started discussing, hey, we've been told this is "wrong" but what if we just do it anyway and see for ourselves. we'll find out. what's the worst that can happen?

and so we loosened our control on project topics .. and it was like the school became alive. we were no longer tamping down students' interest in the "wrong" topics; we were supporting them instead. and very very quickly we realized -- wait a minute. number one, there is no far-away topic that can't be traced right back to the familiar. (at least, we never found one.) number two, there is no far-out topic that isn't comprised of *everyday, accessible* building blocks. the experts are right -- you can't go to outer space. you can't go see a dinosaur in the petting zoo down the street. but .. the fact that those things *are* inaccessible means that children keep feeling until they grab the accessible part of that topic.

there are many good reasons to stick with a local, accessible topic. but .. you shouldn't be afraid to give something different a whirl. after all, if it doesn't work, you'll find out for yourself and you will be a better teacher/facilitator/parent/co-learner for the experience. no matter what happens, you'll be much more educated yourself in the process of facilitating project work. and your kids will learn, i guarantee it. will someone tsk-tsk over it and say the time would have been better spent studying your neighborhood grocery store? most definitely. but i won't tsk-tsk you. ;^)

another element we aren't really discussing -- older children. read about project learning with younger children (preK and K) and you will hear this advice repeated over and over. but what about older kids who have been learning through projects since age 3? they won't be mesmerized by balls and shoes forever. eventually you have to cut the leash and let them run.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 7, 2008 at 10:23 PM

diane - are you kidding? i think we're perfecting the two-man wave. ;^)

Comment by sarah on November 8, 2008 at 03:34 AM

Great post! Very wise.

Comment by Thimbelina on November 8, 2008 at 10:20 AM

What a great post, it is amazing when you let children of this age pick a subject what it is they actually want to learn about. Space is my 5 year olds favourite subject at the moment, I wonder if you could post more on what kind of projects they could do on space.

Comment by JoVE on November 8, 2008 at 02:17 PM

You know what I see in these reactions (of your experts, not the commentors)? I see fear that they are not needed. I used to teach at University. In England, where until very recently seminar groups were taught in your office (bigger offices than American universities but still we are talking fewer than 10 students in an undergrad seminar). Around the time I started teaching (1995 ish), those days were numbered. But I did my own undergrad in Canada so I didn't even know what to do with a group that small. I quite happily taught seminars with 25 students. One of my senior colleague wondered how I did it. I explained that I split them into smaller groups and got them discussing particular issues in the reading and then floated between groups making interventions as necessary. I also explained that it was important to let them get started because if I was in their group they were too worried about saying the "right" things rather than having a discussion. He looked at me and said "What do you do? Sit in the corner and knit?" (He didn't know I was a knitter and had a bit of a weird reaction a month or so later when I was knitting in a department meeting but that is another story). The point is that he thought that if he wasn't in there actively doing something with the students during the whole seminar, then he wasn't teaching.

Another colleague (from another institution) explained it by contrasting two modes. His examples (of famous people) won't work because they are UK examples that you won't know so I'll try to substitute. Ah, I've got it. There is the Tiger Woods method and the orchestra conductor method (sorry, can't think of one; use your favourite). Tiger Woods works really hard preparing but on the day he still has to play his best game. He has a bad day. The thing doesn't work. The orchestra conductor does a lot of work preparing and knowing about the piece and how to bring all the players to their best performance. One the day of the performance, the conductor could have a heart attack and die. You could put anyone up there in front of them and the orchestra should still pull off an excellent performance.

I think your method is much more like the orchestra conductor. You know a lot about what resources are available and are able to gently direct kids when necessary, making little suggestions, providing "provocations", providing resources they might use, making sure they don't get frustrated. And then you step back and watch them perform. When those visitors come in, it looks like you are "sitting in the corner, knitting". The activity in the classroom seems to be going on without you being part of it.

Those other teachers only feel like they are teaching if they are actively doing things with the kids all the time. If they are in control. Swinging the golf club, so to speak.

The fact is, Tiger Woods' coach is probably as important to the quality of his game as he is himself. We just don't see him on the day. And he doesn't get the glory.

Sorry to have gone on so long, but I think that is what is behind their resistance. And sometimes our own, in our own homes. Knowing that can help us figure out how to be a teacher differently.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 8, 2008 at 02:25 PM

thank you, sarah.

thimbelina, as far as project-based learning goes, rather than planning things out from the beginning, you would support your 5yo's interests and let him take it where he would. so .. letting him choose books at the library, giving him a space to work and plenty of art materials at the ready (including recycled boxes etc. for building models -- search for "recycled" on this site), and if possible an empty space for creative play so he could have a place to act out the things he's learning. you supply materials and space, then you gently keep him on track by reminding him of his plans and documenting his work. if you get stuck, we can talk! ;^)

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 8, 2008 at 02:40 PM


yes, i've written before about teachers feeling so uncomfortable about trying these methods because they feel they "aren't doing anything". i remember one teacher who was astounded at the idea of simply sitting quietly and documenting what the children were doing. she said, "if my principal comes in and sees me just sitting and not teaching, i'll be fired!"

"to teach" is seen, both by traditional educators and *those educated by them*, as an active pursuit in which the teacher controls much -- the setting, the material, the delivery, the assessment, etc. to move to a way of teaching in which the student's contribution moves to the forefront and the teacher's role becomes less emphasized does not make the teacher's role less important -- it's more important! it takes more intelligence, more sensitivity, more social skills, more everything to teach in this way. it takes more humility as well, as the vast amount of your efforts are hidden from sight, like the bulk of an iceberg.

your colleague's reaction of "what do you do? sit in the corner and knit?" is perfection. as though getting the students to do most of the work of learning isn't a good thing!

your description fo handling your seminars is also so similar to how we worked with young children -- them in groups of generally 1 to 4 students working on different lines of inquiry, us moving about the classroom suggesting, listening, reminding, .. orchestrating, as you say.

much of the work of this type of teaching also involves *thinking* -- away from the kids as well as in the moment. a love of research and learning in the *teacher* leads to an ever-improving conductor.

in school-based education, what can bring about a sea change in how we define teaching and what we value in a teacher? certainly most of the new teachers emerging out of university today embrace the old ways -- it's what they are familiar with and what they plan to perpetuate. in general, they loved school, which is why they became a teacher; they will be unhappy and defensive if asked to change. some small percentage hope to be different, bring about change, improve on the less-than-stellar experiences they had in school. of the 1 in 3 new teachers (is that the correct estimate? it's the one quoted to me in the recent past) who quit in the first three years, what percentage of them are the old-school type and what percentage are frustrated want-chang'ers?

in *home*-based education, we can change our attitudes and see immediately the difference in our students and ourselves. we can read about a philosophy on friday and start implementing it on monday. this reminds me of running a small, private school. there was no red tape, no long delays while possible plans were discussed to death. there was inspiration followed immediately by action. mistakes were not only tolerated, but encouraged -- after all, it's how we learn!

Comment by laeroport on November 11, 2008 at 08:27 PM

Lori - I read this the other day and was so struck - it is a brilliant post. I'm just now getting back to let you know that.
Thanks for the inspiration... daily.

Comment by Lori Pickert on November 12, 2008 at 04:12 AM

Lori, thank you so much -- that makes my day!

Comment by Renate on April 14, 2012 at 08:18 AM

Hi Lori :)

I love your blog!

I'm from Belgium and stumbled upon your blogposts about project based learning. I'm a mom of 2 gifted kids and school can't still their hunger to learn, when they come home they always want more, more, more! At school they learn the basic things like regular math and spelling etc. Homeschooling is unfortunatly not easily permitted here.

So after school, at home, I try to get them out of the regular learning pattern and into a more natural learning style to meet their needs. I think Project Based learning is a perfect natural way for gifted kids, because it is led by the intrinsic motivation of the child. The problem with gifted kids is that their brain sometimes wants more than their little bodies can do.

For instance: My 4 year old just started to teach herself how to write, but now she wants to make a book about her favorite movie (Winnie the Pooh). This is an Englisch spoken movie with Belgium subtitles. Her plan is to write down all the subtitling, so she will have the whole story :) Of course this project is way to big for her. I have made some suggestions but she is very persistent in her idea. How can I bend her idea into something that is more doable without spoiling her 'flow'?

I know your posts are already a few years old, so I hope you will still be aible to answer!

Greetings from Belgium!

Comment by Lori Pickert on May 15, 2012 at 04:50 PM

hi renate :)

my apologies for being so tardy with my response!

my advice in a situation like this is to simply support your child to do what she wants to do. if the project is too big or undoable, let her figure it out on her own. that's when you can step in to help her (if she needs help) deal with her frustration, consider her other options, and decide what to do next.

i'm curious to know if she continued with her project - please update me! :)

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