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Role of the Adult


Framing: Three Approaches

Three teachers using the same materials can (and almost certainly will) create dramatically different experiences for their children.

The way teachers frame the experiences will differ significantly - the questions teachers ask, the things they expect children to do, what they want children to know and to learn, and whether the activity is a choice for the children will all vary among teachers.

Let’s look at an example.
This is a fairly common activity in early childhood classrooms because it’s dramatic and interesting and gives children a glimpse into the wonderful world of chemistry and change.



  • A container or jar
  • Pie plate or bowl
  • Water (some sites call for warm water, others make no distinction)
  • Oil (vegetable or baby oil)
  • Food coloring

These same materials can be used in many different ways, depending on how the teacher frames the experience.


Fireworks in a jaw


The Demonstrator

The demonstrator thinks of teaching as transferring knowledge from the teacher to the child.  This teacher fills children with information. The Demonstrator controls the materials, shows children what to do or does it for them, and then tells them what to learn from the experience. The experience is a lot like a show for children. They watch, but do not participate.

Typically, the Demonstrator arranges the children in a group around him/her at a table or on the floor. The children are expected (and usually know) not to touch the materials on the table (or each other) and to wait quietly for the teacher to show them the lesson.

  1. The Demonstrator then follows the directions listed on the site while the children watch:
  2. Fill your jar 3/4 of the way full with warm water.
  3. In a separate bowl, mix 3-4 tablespoons of oil and several drops of different colors of food coloring (I used 4 drops of each color: red, yellow, blue, and green).
  4. Use a fork to gently mix the oil and food coloring together.
  5. Gently pour the oil mixture into the jar.
  6. Watch what happens—the food coloring will slowly sink out of the oil and into the water.  When this happens, it will expand and begin to mix with the other colors.

Often, the demonstrator explains what s/he is doing, talks about the materials, and probably asks children questions like,

“What colors do you see?”,

“What’s happening now?”, and

“Isn’t that neat?”

Then, the Demonstrator will explain (as states), “The Science Behind It: Food coloring dissolves in water but not in oil. Because the oil is less dense than the water, it will float at the top. The colored droplets will begin to sink because they are heavier than the oil. Once they sink into the water, they will begin dissolving into the water (which looks like a tiny explosion).”
The children are often delighted by the changes they see and the reactions of the materials. Most are likely excited and fascinated, though some are squirmy and disengaged. The lesson is over and the teacher will clean up.


The Director

The Director values following rules and directions. This teacher believes children need to be actively involved in their learning, but that they need a teacher’s help to be successful. She expects the children to follow directions given by the teacher, but wants the children to have more involvement in the experience than the Demonstrator.

The Director has a plan and expects each child to perform a specific task like measuring, pouring, stirring, etc. The Director makes sure each child performs the role and does their job correctly.

The entire experience is planned, and all of the materials are measured, organized, and laid out for easy access and use by the children. Typically, this teacher has a schedule for children to take turns so everyone can engage in the experience. The teacher will prepare the materials, call over the children whose turn it is, have them participate, clean up from that group and then prepare materials for the next group.


The Discover

The Discoverer values the process of learning over all else. Activities in the Discoverer’s classroom are often messy, hands-on, child-directed, and often, loud.

For this activity, the Discoverer is quite likely to put out the water, containers, oil, and food coloring initially and then will likely add other materials: corn starch, paint, corn syrup, baby oil, vinegar, milk, and/or whatever else is on hand.

For the Discoverer, following a particular set of directions or making a particular thing happen is not as valuable as what the children might invent and discover through exploring their own permutations of the materials.

The Discoverer encourages children to make many combinations of the materials and asks questions to get them talking about what they discover. The Discoverer is often curious about the different ways the materials interact in each child’s bowl and tends to point out differences to the children. He or she will frequently allow children to dump their concoctions and make new ones.

In the Discoverer’s class, this activity will most likely be a center option for children, and children will come and go as they choose. The Discoverer teacher may limit the number of children able to participate at one time, but will offer the center for several days until all children who are interested have participated fully, and until interest in the activity begins to wane. Often, each time a child comes to the table, they will discover something slightly different. The Discoverer is likely to change the materials slightly each time the activity is offered and will make changes in how and what the children do each day.

Which kind of teacher are you?

Freedom and Preschool

“Which one is yours, honey?”
“I don’t know, Daddy. They all look the same.”
-Overheard in preschools everywhere

Freedom. That’s such a culturally significant term here in America. We value our freedom above most things.

Yet, we often forget to give our children much, if any, freedom. Children are rarely afforded choice – their clothes are selected for them, foods are prepared for them and adults often tell them that mom and dad are not “short order cooks.” The phrase, “You get what you get and you don’t get upset” is commonly heard in preschools and homes across the country. Children are told where, when, and how to line up, wash their hands, go outside, go to sleep, wake up, use the restroom, get in the car, start playing, stop playing, clean up…all with limited choice or input from them.

In schools, the topic they’re studying, the books they’re listening to, the activities they do, the materi-als (often, even the color of the paint) they’re allowed to use are all selected by an adult.
Often, adults give children a model of something to make along with the materials and instructions, “Make it like this.” Children receive the message that they are not trusted to make their own artwork, to be creative, to innovate. Instead, the teacher is the impetus and the children are, essentially, the paintbrush for the adult’s artwork or project.

An example:

  1. Cut paper plates in half.
  2. Cut semi-circles of red felt.
  3. Give children green paint.  Have children paint only the “rind” (the outside of the plate) green.
  4. Have children glue the red felt to the plate (do this after they paint the rind so it looks neat).
  5. Have children put dots on the red felt (for “seeds”).

It’s cute. The adult has some control over what the children do and learn. Here, the teacher knows the children are being exposed to some specific concepts – watermelons, the words “rind,” “seed,” and “semi-circle.”  It’s all under control.

But, the child isn’t invested in this activity. This is the adult’s activity. The child is not much more than a paintbrush for the adult’s vision.

It doesn’t even look like a watermelon, does it?

Picture of real watermelon

You don’t have to be controlling to be in control.

Tinkering and other open-ended learning opportunities are all about freedom. Offer children a wide range of materials and let them select what to use, what to make, and how to make it. Relinquish some control to them. Remember that you don’t have to be controlling to be in control. You can still talk about shapes. You can still work higher-level vocabulary into your interactions with the children. You can still introduce specific concepts. You just have to grab opportunities to do so instead of making them happen with your artwork…I mean, the children’s projects.

STEAM-Rich Environments

By Kat Lai, M.A. & Jennifer Malhoyt-Lee, M.Ed.

The environment you create in your classroom will have a significant impact on what children do, what they notice, and what and how they investigate.

A STEAM-rich environment has:

Inviting and ample space for children to explore STEAM

Interesting and engaging learning opportunities

Interesting and compelling open-ended materials that children can investigate freely

Pictures of science and scientists

STEAM-related opportunities throughout the room as well as a dedicated space for STEAM activities

What kind of materials does a STEAM classroom need?

The materials you set out for children will impact what they think about, the connections they make, and the things they learn. The materials you will need will depend entirely on what you’re doing…AND the materials that you have will guide you in what you choose to do.

You might not know what to have for dinner, but you look in your pantry and fridge and find spinach, chicken, garlic, cheese, apples, balsamic vinegar, pears, and bread. There are a lot of combinations using those ingredients that might make a tasty meal. Everyone who looks at that list would come up with a slightly, even a dramatically different meal. The same principle applies here.

Materials do not have to be expensive to be effective. Consider all the things a child might do with cardboard boxes, pipe cleaners, tubes and some tape. For my classroom, I went shopping in my kitchen cupboards, in my father’s garage, and I asked parents for donations.

Many of the items you have in your pantry at home can make excellent materials for investigations. For about $15, you can stock your school pantry with flour, salt, water, food coloring, spices, seltzer, and vinegar. These items can be used in hundreds of different investigations.

Parents are also an excellent resource for items. They will often bring in recyclables or other materials if you ask them to. Even families without many resources often have lots of stuff at home they’d be happy to donate or lend to you.

In the pictures above, the children were interested in machines and switches. Light switches were constantly being tested. As part of a larger investigation, we turned the dramatic play area into a machine shop. You can see that we added some light switches and outlets. This is because the parents were doing a renovation project and they donated the old ones. Parents also donated old VCRs (remember those?), toasters, and other machines, and the children dismantled them with screwdrivers to see the inner workings. Parents will often donate quite a lot. This Investigation provided weeks of STEAM learning, fun, exploration, dramatic play, and discovery.

Here in South Florida, you can find AMAZING resources at places like Resource Depot (in Palm Beach) and Trash to Treasure (in Broward). Sometimes you have to buy a one-year membership for $25. These places have TONS of materials that can make an investigation interesting and engaging for children.
The way you organize the materials, how you design the “invitation” to play with them, and how accessible they are to children greatly impact what children do with the materials, what they
wonder about, the questions they ask and how they PLAN to find answers to their questions. Be prepared. The amount of materials you have, the quality of those materials, and the better organized they are for easy access, the more complex your “meal,” or in this case, the investigation can be.

These images from show how a teacher can design a fantastic investigation for young children using inexpensive materials and some innovation, creativity and time.  Look at these pictures and think about your own sand table. Notice what the children are doing and think about how children might respond if you put these materials in your sand table. I hope these spark some ideas for adapting this for your students.

This is another exercise where the materials make an enormous difference…and where the parents can be involved. In this case, my director’s husband worked in a seafood market. He brought in some lobsters, squid, fish, and seaweed during our Ocean Investigation. The children spent hours touching, squeezing, exploring and INVESTIGATING the creatures. They made an AMAZING number of discoveries and had thousands of wonders. It was an incredible day. Using real materials is far more meaningful to children than just using plastic toys. This investigation was significantly more powerful than looking at lobsters online, reading about them in a book or playing with plastic toys.  Those experiences can also be valuable, but whenever possible, make it REAL!

One model laboratory school used many reusable and recyclable materials to add some STEAM to their playground.

Adopt a reuse-and-recycle mentality. Ask for donations, shop at stores like Habitat for Humanity ReStore and get materials like PVC pipe, buckets, tiles, flashlights, light switches, and old CDs. Finally, read and think about Building Blocks of STEAM when you create your classroom materials wish list. This document provides a framework for building meaningful learning opportunities with young children. Most of all, have fun creating a STEAM-rich environment for your students!

Guest Contributor

Jennifer Malhoyt-LeeJennifer Malhoyt-Lee 
Over the past 20 years, I've had the great joy of working with nearly every age group from 3 year-olds through adults. Exploring Science can be exceptionally fun for everyone, and nature is by far my favorite teaching tool. Animals and plants inspire wonder and invite true experiential learning. Creepy and cuddly, I believe in the inclusion of insects and animals in the classroom is essential for developing respect for and understanding of the natural world.
One of my fondest teaching memories was watching the excitement of four year-olds as they observed a praying mantis pod break open to release dozens of tiny mantises. My hobbies include nature walks, spending time in botanical gardens, and visiting zoos, aquariums, and science museums.

 The Power of WOAH!

Behold the WOAH! Face

Young children do not always have the most extensive vocabularies.  They cannot always articulate what they want, what interests, them, or what they want to learn.

One of the superpowers of preschool teachers is the ability to interpret children’s facial expressions and body language.  We tend to know before someone is about to cry, before a tussle over a toy is about to happen, before a squeal of mirth is about to come.  We tend to be highly intuitive and very much tuned to the children in our classroom.

Sometimes, though, in our attempt to care for the social and emotional needs of our children, in the hustle and the bustle of the shoes that need tying, the books that need reading, the endless sweeping and cleaning, the lesson plans that need writing, the anecdotal notetaking, the interacting, and all the other amazing things that we do, we forget to look for one of the very most important, beautiful, and special faces.

The Woah! Face sets my teacher heart on rapid.  This is the face of a child who is transfixed, so excited, so interested, so fascinated, and so desperately wanting to learn.

The Woah! Face sets my teacher heart on rapid.  This is the face of a child who is transfixed, so excited, so interested, so fascinated, and so desperately wanting to learn.

It doesn’t really matter what he’s doing, this is the moment for a teacher to be by his side.  This is the time when that brain is ready, willing, able, excited to learn.

When you see the woah face, to the best of your ability, drop everything you’re doing and get over there.  Don’t jump in and interrupt the beautiful moment, but be physically, mentally available.  Be ready to ask a question, to answer a question, to mirror the woah face…and best yet, to be wowed yourself.  When you see that face, watch and be present and be ready, but wait.  Let the woah settle down, but before the interest wanes completely, ask a wonder question, or make a statement about how exciting the discovery is.

Young student with Deep Concentration Face in classroom

The Woah Face’s cousin – Deep Concentration Face... such an incredibly valuable moment here as focus, determination, persistence, and foundational chemistry skills are all developing.

If you’re not seeing WOAH! happening, that’s the time to start bringing in new materials to explore.  Often, very simple learning opportunities like providing colored water, pipettes, and test tubes can bring about epic Woah Faces.  Because these children are so very young, they have limited experiences with the world and it doesn’t take expensive, brightly colored, beeping toys to bring about wonder and excitement.

How do you bring the Woah Face out in the children in your classroom?  Leave us a comment!
Have a wonderful learning opportunity you’d like to share with our community?  Send an email with an explanation to  You could be our next guest contributer…WOAH!

Young student with "Did You See That Face" in classroom

This is another cousin of the Woah Face – this is the DID YOU SEE THAT?! Face. This one can be an invitation to join in the play, facilitate some thinking and to share in the woah.  It’s a great face, too!


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