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January 17 2017

How early childhood educators turned a problem with princesses into endless possibilities


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If you’ve spent time with preschool-aged children in the last few years, you probably understand that the characters from Frozen, Disney’s highest-grossing movie of all time, are forces to be reckoned with.

That was certainly the case when the movie’s two princesses, Anna and Elsa, made their way into pretend play at the MacEwan University Child Care Lab School’s Dolphin Room (for two-, three- and four-year-olds). While there was no question the characters captured the children’s imaginations, the two princesses were also the root of a seemingly unsolvable problem: in the children’s eyes, there could only be one Elsa and one Anna. That meant only two children could play at one time and when others wanted to participate, there wasn’t room. Educators found themselves soothing hurt feelings and solving Frozen-related problems multiple times each day.

“It seemed like we were working our way through who would be Anna and who would be Elsa, all day, every day,” says Kayla Ursuliak, an educator in the MacEwan Child Care Centre and alumna of the Early Learning and Child Care program.

To banish or not to banish?

Banishing Anna and Elsa from the Dolphin Room might seem like a logical adult response. But that’s not what happened.

At the end of a particularly trying day, the team of educators in the Dolphin Room—Kayla, Erica Schaly and Brittany Aamot—were talking about the problem while tidying up. The only characters that resonated with the children were Anna and Elsa, and everyone seemed to be stuck.
 

“ Valuing children and their work—playing is a child’s work—means taking their issues seriously” Brittany Aamot 

 
The educators knew that Frozen was an important part of the children’s lives at that time, so they listened even more closely, trying to understand the play and the problem from the children’s perspective.

“Valuing children and their work—playing is a child’s work—means taking their issues seriously,” says Brittany. “Frozen was part of their lives, and finding a solution with them instead of for them was really important. It was also empowering—for us and for the children.”

So the educators asked themselves what the children were trying to show them through their Frozen play, and found a possible connection to what was happening in other parts of the room, where children were playing out stories about going places and seeing unusual things.

“We knew that it was the magic, the beautiful songs, the costumes and the sparkle that really hooked them into Frozen play—it hooked us too!” says Kayla. “But during that conversation, we also realized that the children were fascinated by the idea of adventure.”

How textiles ended Elsa’s reign

Knowing that, the educators came up with a plan. Inspired by a conversation during their weekly meeting with the centre’s teaching mentor, they filled a chest with glittery, rich fabrics (carefully making sure none of the fabrics were blue so nobody could claim “Elsa”) and let the ends of each flow out of the chest. It was an instant hit.

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“The children were engrossed,” says Kayla. “At the end of the day, we realized we hadn’t needed to solve a single Elsa or Anna problem.”

Then things snowballed. The educators began bringing chapter books into the centre, responding to children’s fascination by carefully selecting stories filled with the magic and adventure they had enjoyed as children—The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Peter Rabbit, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Introducing new stories and characters led to more pretend play.

“Anna and Elsa slowly disappeared into the background, and children started creating bridges between different stories,” says Kayla. “More characters were involved in the play, the children were playing together in big groups, and we were working and playing alongside them—they inspired us as much as we tried to inspire them.”

It wasn’t unusual for the educators and children to make their way through several chapters a day, mapping out complex storylines and developing new characters together as they played. And those same storylines and characters led to new play and more adventures.

Beyond the drawbridge: Taking the adventure outdoors

In January, when they reached the part in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe where Edmund realizes how long he has been looking at a “world of snow” and “what a relief those green patches were after the endless white,” the room’s three educators looked at one another and realized the potential for a series of field trips to the frozen winter of the city’s North Saskatchewan River valley.

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A few weeks later, children were rolling down hills, making and discovering footprints, and documenting everything with individual digital cameras, an experience that continued as the seasons changed to spring and then summer.

“Experiencing that together with the children was so valuable and brought me back to my own childhood growing up on an acreage,” says Jennifer Sibbald, who joined the Dolphin Room team when Kayla went to work with the younger children in the lab school. “After the field trip, the children were so engaged by looking at their photos that I decided to try projecting the images on the wall of the Dolphin Room at the end of the day so that the children and families could revisit them together.”

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The inspiration and connection that came from those field trips led to more and more creative play, and a growing sense of community.

“This project brought our team, the children and their families together as we investigated adventure,” says Erica. “It strengthened our sense of community, and it will always have a place in my heart.”

While the story of unfreezing Frozen happened slowly over a period of months, it was certainly no accident.

A new dynasty for early childhood educators

The educators were using principles they learned through Play, Participation and Possibilities: An Early Learning and Child Care Curriculum Framework for Alberta, which they co-created alongside faculty members in the university's Early Learning and Child Care program.

“So much of what goes on in children’s play escapes us,” says Dr. Jane Hewes, associate professor in the Early Learning and Child Care program and co-author of the curriculum framework. “As adults, we tend to romanticize young children’s play, valuing it mostly as positive and innocent, but play isn’t always like that.”

Children often explore big themes and powerful emotions during spontaneous free play, she explains, and this can create all kinds of issues for educators. Seeking a deeper understanding of children’s perspectives, the way these educators did when working through their issues with Frozen is a central idea in Play, Participation and Possibilities.

But the approach is neither simple nor easy. It’s deeply reflective and highly skilled work, says Jane, and acknowledging this changes how we’ve traditionally looked at early childhood learning in fundamental ways.

“Being able to do this type of work while making sure that lunch is on the table and that children have their mittens on when they go outside takes great skill,” she says. “It requires people who have a deeper knowledge of what’s going on in early learning—who appreciate the importance of the early years, who understand how children learn and who know how to follow their lead. That’s what using a curriculum framework is all about.”

The process of writing about it was equally insightful, says Jane. She and colleague Pam Whitty from the University of New Brunswick invited Erica, Brittany, Kayla and Jennifer to co-author an academic article, “Unfreezing Disney’s Frozen through Playful and Intentional Co-authoring/Co-playing,” recently published in the Canadian Journal of Education.

“Working alongside these thoughtful and dedicated early childhood educators inspired our scholarship,” says Jane. “The remarkable capacity of young children to engage authentically with rich literature in their pretend play became clear through our collaborative effort to capture it in writing.”

What do the educators hope comes from sharing their experience?

“This project is very close to my heart,” says Brittany. “I hope people read the article and recognize the endless possibilities presented when adults recognize and value what children find important. I believe that wherever we find ourselves—in a playroom or the river valley—that problems lead to possibilities.”


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