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Rocking through Early Learning Standards

by Diann Gano, M.Ed


Rock balancing or CAIRNS has found its way into our play again this week!

Stacking and balancing rocks encourages math and science investigations that are always developmentally appropriate. My adrenaline starts flowing and a smile grows on my face when a two-year-old child exhibits an innate sense of how to balance many more rocks than her much-older peers. Children have their own unique gifts; we just need to give them opportunities to discover their strengths and talents.

For the record, environmentalists strongly discourage this practice because it disrupts the natural order of nature. I get that. When we are hiking or playing in the woods, we follow that rule. Our outdoor classroom has a dry creek and wonderful rocks collected from parking lots and estate sales. These are our math and science rocks that are used for play.

Children who are math-and-science ready are great problem solvers. When our friends explore the concept of stacking, they make observations, collect data and investigate shapes and sizes and weight. We count, we estimate, we balance, we hypothesize. It’s science, math, language and play all wrapped up in the beauty of nature. Nothing makes me happier than finding hidden stacks of rocks somewhere in our play yard—stacks that have been left behind by inquisitive children who didn’t need to please anyone but themselves.

Two-year-old Lauren created the “ant house” above. I love that she decorated her house with flowers. I watched as she wandered over to the sandbox on the other side of the play yard to return with a handful of sand to sprinkle on the roof. I love that intentionality and vision. I love that she is barefoot with a toenail that is black and blue and may fall off, evidence of some already-forgotten adventure that didn’t go as planned. I love that she is laying the foundation for later learning in math, science and engineering through play.

You can call it STEM, STEAM or STREAM, but it’s basic childhood play. It’s long hours of uninterrupted exploration as a child works to bring an idea to fruition. It’s the brain on fire, building the synapses of learning. It’s the cement in the foundation of a lifelong learner—the evolution of a visionary, problem-solving, risk-taking master.

I often hear early educators worry out loud about meeting the benchmarks or standards required by their programs. My tip for this is to bring in natural materials, give your children TIME to play, take photos and sit down with your standards. You will be shocked at how easy this can be. Engaging young children in daily problem-solving activities will help them develop the processing skills that pave the way for future lessons in math and science. This rock-stacking experience is all about shapes and spatial reasoning. This is geometry! This is engineering! This is spatial orientation as our rock stackers exhibit an understanding of location and ordinal position. Our young stackers are often meeting standards and benchmarks before they have the vocabulary to tell us what they are doing. They gather data about their surroundings as they figure out how to balance a specific rock in the stack. And if that rock won’t balance, they’ll try another. This is organizing data and information. They are busy making predictions about outcomes by playing with rocks.

Always bear in mind, however, that brain development varies in children.

Some children may not yet be ready to meet certain standards. Some may be advanced in one area, while others may be advanced in another.

This is when you are smarter than the standards! You can’t teach a rock to balance if the rock can’t balance. You can’t teach a brain a concept if it isn’t developmentally ready to process that concept.

This is why it’s important to reassure parents that their children will be just fine in life, regardless of their child’s test scores on any given day. You can look parents in the eye on Parent Night and share all of the standards that their children have mastered through play. Then you can assure them that play is laying the foundation for the brain development and problem-solving skills that will serve their children well throughout their lives.

So bring in the math rocks. Your students will soon be sorting, comparing and working with attributes. This is an early educator’s dream.

Best of all, it’s fun! Fun for the child, a true delight for the teacher to behold and such wonderful food for the brain.

Stay safe and keep on rocking on!

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