Conceived and originated at Virginia Chance School, our industry groundbreaking Soft Start Program has been highlighted as a best practice approach to learning and published in the book (action item #4): The Curious Classroom: 10 Structures for Teaching with Student-Directed Inquiry by Harvey "Smokey" Daniels. Soft Start is now fully integrated through the entire Elementary Program.
Soft Start began at the K-1 Level of Virginia Chance School as an intention to be mindful that curriculum is everything that goes on in a classroom from a child’s arrival to his or her dismissal. Our four-teacher team wanted all parts of our day to be purposeful, meaningful and based on both individual children’s needs and the needs of the group. The half-hour or so from the beginning of carpool to our Morning Meeting was not working for us as teachers or as classes for a couple of reasons. One, it was, at the time, designated for free-writing. The children came in, sorted their belongings, signed in, and then quietly found their writing journals. However, we noticed the students’ desire to greet one another, and many of them did not seem to enjoy this writing time. We did not want writing to feel like a dull task but a powerful tool for reflection, expression and communication. At the same time, we also wanted them to cultivate relationships and be a strong learning community. Second, we noticed that our schedule did not always allow for an unstructured, yet purposeful play or discovery time for the children, and we believed this was very important to provide for our age group.
The four of us collaboratively brainstormed together, discussing our pedagogical wishes for our classrooms and possible solutions for using the morning time purposefully, as well as how to incorporate play and self-directed inquiry into the day. We came to the conclusion that transitioning into the school day with an open-ended, playful, exploratory time would provide for both relationships and child-centered learning. We believed that this was an answer to our observations of what the children needed and that this time would also benefit the children by priming their brains for the rest of the school day, as research has taught us how play allows children to practice prosocial behaviors, ignite their imagination and creativity, explore the world around them, and engage in reasoning. We decided to call this time, “Soft Start,” after one of our teachers, a native of Scotland, described how the Scottish schools use this term for how they ease their Kindergartners into the academic school year. Their “Soft Start” begins in September by introducing one academic area into the daily schedule and building expectations until the children are fully immersed in their academic work by winter break. We decided as a team that we would use the name for our ease into the daily academic work in our K-1 curriculum. -
Planning and implementing Soft Start began by us asking a few questions:
- How can we invite the children into open-ended play and inquiry?
- What kinds of materials do we want to offer each week?
- Where will we store the materials so that the children can easily access them daily?
- What will the flow of our Soft Start time look like?
- What will be the signal that Soft Start is over?
- What will each teacher’s role be during Soft Start?
Combining our collective training in early childhood education, the Reggio Emilia philosophy, and Montessori methods, we decided to first change our classroom environment to be more conducive for exploration, investigation, and creation. We moved furniture around until we had distinct learning areas: a studio space for writing and art, a construction area for building, a Peace Corner for times you want to be alone, a sensory table for tactile exploration and imagination, and shelves for “invitations,” materials purposefully chosen that invite the children in to apply or extend their knowledge, abilities, or imagination in some way. After our room was rearranged, we began choosing materials to place in each area. We agreed that the materials in each learning area needed to be unrestricted. We wanted the children to be able to use them creatively and for various purposes. For example, in the blocks, we placed two sets of high-quality wooden blocks and a sundry supply of accessories, such as blue and green glass stones, creek rocks, sticks, animal and insect figurines, and clipboards for drawing block designs. In the studio space, we put in an abundance of art supplies, including oil pastels, watercolor paints, high-quality black felt tip pens, crayons, markers, tape, glue, scissors, colored pencils, an assortment of paper, and envelopes. We also added in other types of materials for open-ended use, such as flowers, raffia, yarn, popsicle sticks, corks, and beads. We included a big tub full of recyclables for the children to create with, as well, which overflowed with paper towel tubes, bottle caps, tissue boxes, and clean cottage cheese containers and another large tub full of fabric scraps. These spaces were intended for the children to have creative freedom where they could explore different materials and use them in new ways as their imaginations inspired them. And they have! Children are natural creators and those learning areas have been teaming with imagination and transformation since we began Soft Start.
Here above, the children created bouquets of flowers to decorate our work tables and serve as centerpieces for lunch time.
Here above, a small group of children brought out our building materials to the large area rug so they could work in a bigger space. More children joined them until they had an imaginative story unraveling about a magical Kitty and Dog world. They explored these open-ended materials by independently and collaboratively building and then creating a story together.
The learning areas are open and available to the students every morning during the 30-45 minutes of Soft Start. We also set out “invitations” each morning, as well. These materials are chosen by the teachers to provoke deeper examination of a topic related to an emerging interest among a small group of children, a subject we are studying as a whole class, or a seasonal event. An example of an invitation is when our classrooms studied birds during our Theme Study. Theme Study is a time of the day in the afternoon when we investigate a science or social studies topic based on the children’s questions through Project-Based Learning. At this point, the children had just been visited by Raptor Rehab, a local large bird rehabilitation center. Raptor Rehab had brought with them a red-tailed hawk, two peregrine falcons, a turkey vulture, and a barred owl. The children had made scientific observations of our bird visitors by sketching each species in their drawing journals. During Theme Study that week, we continued our investigation of birds by researching different birds’ wingspans and identifying flight patterns. With all this learning under their belts, we planned some invitations for Soft Start over the following weeks that would prompt the children to look more closely at different species of birds. One of the invitations was used to examine the shape, colors, lines, and features of birds’ bodies. We offered four bird figurines as models, a supply of colored clay, magnifying glasses, and wooden shaping tools for the children to achieve this goal. The children had to really notice where eyes were located, how many toes the birds had, the shapes of the tails, and the types of feather patterns and colors. This activity not only allowed the children to begin to find out about different types of birds and their distinguishing characteristics, but they also had to slow down, keenly observe, and relook in order to accurately shape their clay into birds. We asked all children to visit this work one time so we could guide them through the process of looking and forming. Then, we offered the work for independent use the rest of the week.
Another invitation’s objective was for the students to look closely at the distinct feathers of various bird species. We set out copies of photographs of real feathers, magnifying glasses, colored pencils, white drawing paper, the children’s drawing journals, and the book, Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart and Sarah S. Brannen. Again, we invited each child to visit the materials with a teacher first to practice the looking and drawing process, and then the invitation was set on a table during Soft Start for the remainder of the week as an independent choice.
Photographs of the children interacting with these materials, as well as samples of their work, were added to our Theme Study board to document our continuous learning. They were placed next to the section of our “I Wonder” web that contained the children’s questions about different birds’ appearances we had recorded in the beginning of our investigation.
As teachers, we are the facilitators of the students’ open-ended play and inquiry during Soft Start by providing the time, space, and materials. We are also the instigators of their learning going deeper by providing avenues for investigation. But often, we are the observers and responders of an unexpected current of interest and energy in the classroom. If we pause and take notice, we can see child-initiated inquiry in action and reflect on how to support it. A story from one of our classroom newsletters illustrates this:
The week started off with a student bringing in a real peacock feather to share with the class. We were all naturally very interested due to our study of birds. However, she had learned to do some fancy tricks with it: balancing it on her nose, her palm, her forehead, even her tongue! She generously shared the feather with peers during Soft Start on Tuesday, and the number of friends desiring to know how to do the tricks grew so much that at Morning Meeting, she raised her hand and said,
“Well, as you have noticed, many people are wanting to perform with my peacock feather. I am hoping we can continue this outside and put on a circus for Ms. Isham to make her feel better.” (Ms. Isham was very sick this week and out for 3 days!) To organize the circus, she created a list of performers and took it out to the playground. The whole duration of our recess, the children practiced 6 very specific balancing tricks with the feather, along with a magic show by 2 students, and 1 cartwheeling routine. I videotaped each part and at the end, the children wanted to make one more clip all together, saying in unison, “Feel better soon, Ms. Isham!”. Looking closely at this Tuesday morning, you will notice so many necessary and amazing skills being practiced: organization, writing, social cooperation, collaboration, negotiation (there were some disagreements while they put the circus together, but they settled it all without teacher assistance), performance, and empathy! The children were noticeably proud at what they had accomplished, so I changed the writing assignment for our Writer’s Workshop time to allow for journal writing so they could reflect on what they had done and then represent it through writing and drawing.
1st: “On the playground, we made a circus and I balanced Sophia’s peacock feather on my head.”
2nd: “On the playground, I did a magic trick and I played in the cabin with Abby.”
3rd: “On the playground, I directed a circus with my friends and balanced a peacock feather on my nose.”
This applied example is the reason we decided to change our daily schedule, rearrange our rooms, and provide the children time to socialize, play, and explore. A child had a special interest she wanted to share with her friends which then led to a group of ten children using the Soft Start time, space, and materials to interact collaboratively and creatively. They engaged higher-level thinking to organize themselves both logistically and socially to put on their circus. Furthermore, they naturally incorporated writing as a powerful tool to maintain order as well as to then reflect on their triumph afterward. This story is an example of the type of meaningful, purposeful, child-centered play and inquiry we dreamed of when we set out to make our changes.