Life is a series of challenges. Challenges urge us to make an effort, to take action, to use our minds, bodies, and hearts to their utmost. Think about how you gently challenge children every day in your classroom. You ask children to try to button their jackets or tie their shoes. You encourage them to try a puzzle piece another way if it doesn't fit or to guess how many steps it will be to the top of the stairs. A gentle challenge can encourage a child to look at something in a new way, to try something just a bit difficult.

As teachers, we have often seen those delightful "ah-ha" moments when just the right question or the suggestion of a new material has taken a child to the next step of understanding or accomplishment. Challenges for children can take many different forms. We can challenge children with an activity, a material, a thought, a problem to solve, a question. These challenges happen throughout the year, rather than as part of your start-of-school agenda. In fact, if you look at your daily activities as things that emerge from children's interests and choices, you are already on the road to creating a program that challenges children from where they are to where they can go!

Challenge Through Enrichment

It is important to note that in challenging children, we are not escalating the curriculum--we are enriching it. When a child learns a skill such as counting from 1 to 10, we don't automatically start him on 11 to 20. Instead, we challenge him to USE the numbers 1 through 10 in activities that show his understanding of how the numbers work and how they are used in daily life.

We can challenge children by helping them use the higher-order thinking skills of application and synthesis. It is through the process of applying what she has learned to new situations that a child makes the knowledge her own. For example, you might ask children to apply their knowledge of 1 through 10 with buttons. You can ask them to estimate how many will fit in a small container. You can challenge them to sort/classify the buttons and encourage them to notice how many more or less are in each group. You can even take the learning one step further by asking them to make a survey graph of the number of buttons each of their classmates is wearing.

When we ask children to synthesize what they know about something, we ask them to put parts together into a whole. You might ask, "What can you do with 10 buttons? How many ways can you use 10 buttons?" Children may discover that the buttons can be used to measure things, as a form of "cash," as building tools, or as collage-making materials!

Knowing What Time Is the Right Time

It is important for us, as teachers, to know when to challenge. This involves a mixture of observation, timing, and intervention. Your role includes being both an observer and a facilitator. As an observer, you need to watch for the teachable moment, that moment when you can see that a child is ready to try something in a new way. Patience is an important attribute to develop as an observer We all know that sometimes it is faster and easier to just step in and show children how to do something the "right" way. But that is not how children learn best. Stepping in too early can block children's thinking and dampen their spirit. So take a moment, stand back, and appreciate where children are. You might notice that Jeremy's block tower keeps falling down after a certain height because of the way he is placing the blocks. This could be the moment to step in with a gentle nudge, asking, "Do you notice that the tower keeps falling down? What would happen if you tried a different size block on the bottom?"

Watch for children who are repeating the same activity without variation or success. They are ripe for challenge. Also watch to see what children are interested in. If you notice that a child prefers to play with blocks, use them to introduce a new challenge in thinking and learning. Children's interests can propel an activity to higher levels of thinking almost instantaneously!

In your role as a facilitator, you are watching for the right time to ask a provocative question. The type of question has a strong influence on your ability to challenge a child to think in new ways or test their knowledge. Open-ended or divergent questions that have many possible answers invite children to think and experiment. These are the "What might happen if ... ?" or "How many ways can you ... ?" types of questions. These leave the door open for children to use their own thinking to create new ways of looking at something. (Often, their ideas are much better than anything we can think of!) Interestingly, it is through the combination of open-ended questions, observation, and then further questioning that we can get a glimpse of each child's developmental level. The questions themselves can be the best tool for deciding how far to challenge a child. Notice the child's interest in each question. Stop when he is getting disinterested or frustrated.

Questions That Challenge

Perhaps you are introducing a new material to children and you would like to both challenge their thinking and assess their developmental level. Here is a series of questions to use:

  • What can you do with this?
  • How can you make it work or move?
  • Can you try using it a different way?
  • How many different ways can you use it?
  • If the child is stuck, you might ask:
  • Can you use it as a measuring device?
  • Can it make a sound? More than one sound?
  • Can you find something else in the room to use with it?
  • What can you do with it now?

You can move into specific curriculum areas by asking:

  • Will it float or sink in the water table?
  • Can you use it in the dramatic-play area?
  • How can you use it with art materials?

Changing the Variable

Studies in neuroscience tell us that a frequent change of materials, experiences, and environment provides novelty for the brain. Attention is drawn to things that are unusual or new. Since focused attention is needed for learning to take place, it is important to take a familiar activity or a newly acquired skill and apply it to new situations and/or materials. In a scientific experiment, this would be called "changing the variable." This is when you change one part of the experiment to explore how it affects the results. You can apply this same principle with the activities you present. An original activity can be experienced again and again in a modified form. This not only provides novelty, but also important opportunities for challenging children to use an idea in practice and application. Doing activities in different ways also invites children to use flexible and fluent thinking skills. This is the ability to see many possibilities or view objects or situations in many different ways. Research tells us that the ability to think flexibly and fluently is an important precursor to later school success.

A "Changing the Variable" Activity

You can start with a wonderful activity and give it more meaning by inviting children to apply what they have learned to new settings or with new materials -"changing the variable" of the activity! Here is a way to take a simple art activity and challenge children to apply their knowledge to increasingly more diverse settings and materials.

Crayon Rubbing Variations

  • Invite children to explore a variety of textured materials. Ask them to notice and discuss similarities and differences in the objects and to sort them into groups.
  • Introduce paper and crayon and demonstrate how to make a rubbing by rubbing the side of the crayon over the paper placed on top of a textured object.
  • Encourage children to make rubbing pictures with their materials.
  • Challenge children to look around the room for one bumpy and one scratchy (or any other texture) object to bring back to the table and use in their rubbing. Ask, "How are they the same or different?"

You will be asking children to apply what they have learned about texture in the original activity to the room around them.

  • Another day, invite children to take paper and crayon outside to find textured things on the playground. You will be challenging them to apply the knowledge to an even larger frame of reference.
  • For "homework," challenge children to find two textured objects at home to bring in to school for the creation of a giant class texture rubbing mural. You will be asking them to look at their home environment with new eyes!

Choosing Challenging Activities

Activities, just like questions, need to be open-ended. Children can work through them at their own rate and be challenged on their own levels. Look for activities that empower children to make choices as to what materials they use and how they use them. In this way, you are introducing an idea and standing back to see where they go with it. Then you can step back in whenever you see they are ripe for a challenge. Art, block, and sand/water activities are prime choices for these kinds of activities because of the diversity of materials found in these areas. Sometimes the challenges can be individual questions in a one-on-one situation. But often you can challenge children in small or large groups by the types of activities you present. In my kindergarten class, I introduced what I called the "Challenge of the Week" every Monday and set aside our Friday group meeting time for sharing the results. I passed out grab bags filled with recycled materials and challenged children to make something with the contents. If we were studying a particular subject such as dinosaurs, children were encouraged to use the contents to design their own dinosaur. At the Friday gathering, each child would share his creation with the group. Another weekly challenge included "How many ways can you ... ?" activities. I would provide an object for children to explore and brainstorm to see how many ways they could think of to use it throughout the week.

Taking Challenge Outdoors

Your outdoor-play area provides a particularly rich environment for children to meet physical and social challenges. As you well know, your outdoor-play space can be used to intensify experiences in both areas of development. Physically, children have the opportunity to test their strength and coordination in ways that cannot happen indoors. Whether they are climbing, running, balancing, or throwing, children tend to challenge themselves most freely on the playground. As you watch for safety, lend physical support, and encourage children outdoors, you'll notice that some are more cautious outside than in. These are the children to gently challenge in gradient steps. Look for the children who are the "watchers," not the players. Join them in the watching. As you observe the others playing, invite them to talk about what they are seeing and what they would like to do. You may find out that they are afraid of getting hurt or worried about "failing" at a game or activity. Then join in the play with them. Choose something small to do first and then gradually add more complexity. Through modeling, you will have helped them make the first step toward being a player too!

The social "climate" outdoors can be warm-if not downright heated! Many children use the playground as a place to release pent-up feelings. The challenge for children is in how to release that energy without bothering or harming others. In this case, you can set an outdoor challenge before going outside. Have a quick meeting with children to discuss what they plan to do when they get outside. Ask them to tell you what social challenges or problems have occurred lately and invite them to suggest how to deal with them. By involving them in thinking about the challenges of social interaction before they go out, you will be setting the stage for more conscious play.

When Is a Challenge Too Much?

There are signs to watch for to see if a child is ripe for a challenge or going over the edge. Watch for where the child is focusing his attention. If he seems to be suddenly distracted by other children and/or materials, this is a subtle sign that he is finished with the activity. Eye contact is important too. Does the child comfortably make eye contact with you when you are playing with him? If so, he is most likely still interested and engaged in the challenge.

Remember to be playful. Challenges are great games, and if children see that you are being light about it they will not have the expectation that they need to respond with perfection. When offering challenges through questioning or with new materials, remind children there is no "right" answer. In fact, you don't have an answer in mind-and you can both enjoy the fun of figuring things out together. We all meet big and small challenges in daily life. We can begin to prepare children now to meet those challenges with creativity and confidence. The carefully considered challenges you offer in the early years provide children with valuable tools they can use to handle whatever comes their way.