WHY IS BRAINSTORMING SO IMPORTANT? BECAUSE THE creative and critical thinking skills children use to brainstorm are core ingredients to every area of curriculum and development. No matter what experience a child meets along the way, if she has the ability to think open-endedly, flexibly, and critically, she can deal with the task at hand. Brainstorming invites children to use information, think about it, and create it anew. Young children use essential communication and expressive language skills to present their ideas, thereby expanding vocabulary and creating phrases and sentences. When they see their thoughts written on an experience chart, children begin to make the leap from the spoken to the written word.

Brainstorming also enhances social skill development. It is a collective process that encourages the best of the character development traits and skills we want to teach children at group time and all day long. When brainstorming, children hear different ideas and learn how to listen to each other-valuable receptive-language skills.

Open-Ended Questions and Props

Open-ended discussions are the heart of group-time brainstorming sessions. Because there are no right or wrong ideas in brainstorming, children quickly learn that everyone's ideas count. This enables them to experiment with ideas without the fear of being wrong. When children feel comfortable taking risks, they begin to use higher-order thinking skills such as application, analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

Let's look in as one preschool teacher and her class brainstorm at group time:

"I was walking in my neighborhood park yesterday and look what I saw. " The teacher draws a picture of a dog. "How do you think he got to the park? What do you think his name might be?" Slowly but surely, the children start to raise their hands and suggest things. "Maybe his owner is sitting on a bench not far away," says Jerome. "His name could be Rusty," offers another child. "He might be looking for his owner," says Alicia.

"Those are great ideas," says the teacher. "Let's write them down on an experience chart so we can 'read' and discuss them later." Later, during activity time, children were back at the chart, adding illustrations to their ideas and pointing out the letters and words they knew.

From ideas to Print

In this brainstorming session, the teacher set the stage for thinking by providing a drawing and a question. She then made space for the children to take over the thinking process.

Experience Charts

Playing the role of moderator, the teacher encouraged the children to verbalize their thinking as she recorded their ideas on an experience chart. This process of writing down their ideas is a key step in helping children make the connection between their spoken words and the text.

Experience charts are also validating for children. Even though they can't read, every child knows which idea has his name after it on the chart. Experience charts provide the link between the concrete expression of a voiced idea and the abstract representation in print-an "I said that?!" experience for children.

As children go back to reread the chart (independently or with you), they pick up on key literacy elements. They may notice their names and other words that have the same letters in them. They may also find words that look the same. "see, I found this word 'the' five times on the chart." "Look! Jason's name starts with the same letters as mine, Jasmine."

Here are a few steps to follow in creating exciting and engaging experience charts:

  • Write exactly what each child says, word for word. (Children know when you have changed their words!)
  • Add simple pictures to illustrate words on the chart. When children go back to read it, they can use the picture-clues to help them make meaning out of the print.
  • Talk as you write. Tell what you are writing, including the punctuation at the end of the sentence. You might say, "Reggie was so excited by that idea, let's put an exclamation point at the end of the sentence."
  • Invite children to add drawings to illustrate the chart. Older children can write their own names and words if they like.
  • Make a variety of different experience charts throughout the day. You can use them to record children's ideas and predictions, write "thank you" notes or shopping lists, record memories, and even write a classroom newsletter.