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From Theme Planning to Think Pad - create a database of ideas

To theme or not to theme - that is often the question. Educators have been using theme based planning for many years. Some would ask, "Why change now?". The simple answer is we have changed, kids have changed and families have changed and we now know that play-based and child-led program support greater learning and development in children. The teachings of the Reggio Emilia schools in Italy, the Anjiplay process in China and even Alberta's own Flight framework support the view that children learn through relationships and play.

But what do we do now? How do we go from years of creating theme based resources to this play-based programming? It can feel hard to flip an idea over and look at the other side; But if you take a little time to transform your theme based resources into an idea database you will still have planning ideas and concepts at your fingertips. Here's how my theme based planning pages looked in the 1990s. Laid out by week, centred on a theme with every activity, book, song and craft described so that I could repeat the theme the same way over and over. It was handy - I knew exactly what I was going to do each day.

Each day was carefully planned, that is until the children didn't want to do what I had planned. When they took a detour from the page and I had to try to keep up with their ideas. This is one reason why a play-based program does not run well on themes.

A theme is an adult idea of what the children should do. It does not come from the children and it does not leave room for individual children to learn in their own ways. Essentially it is like a birthday party package - all the hats, cups, plates, decorations and cake all match a theme and if you chose the Pig theme for the party and your child decides the day before they no longer like the pig - you are left with prepared materials that don't reflect the child as they are today.

A lot of educators lament that they put so much effort into their resources and that there are some really, really good ideas in there. I agree. There are likely some fantastic ideas in your theme based planning. Why don't we uncover them and put them in a format you can quickly and easily use to help you in your play-based planning?!

I call it the think pad. A simple coil notebook I tabbed for concepts like games, manipulatives, art, science etc. You can divide your notebook up any way you want. Whatever makes sense to your planning style. Follow these steps to fill up your think pad with all of your great ideas.

1) Flip through your old theme resources. When you come upon an activity, game or song that you love, use that idea for your database.

2) Write the name of the activity on the tab page that matches. For example I wrote "Doggy Doggy where's your bone?" on my game tab.

3) Under the idea write the play-based actions or concepts that match the idea. For "Doggy Doggy where's your bone?" I wrote under it movement, patterns, seek and find, cooporation, community.

4) Continue writing your good ideas in your think pad, tabbing the pages so you can easily find your ideas and filling out the play-based concepts under each activity.

When you are playing with the children and you see a patterning interest, for example, if you can not think of a way to scaffold that interest pull out your think pad and look for activities and ideas you had labeled as patterning. This is a quick flip and a way to help you think of things in the moment. You can now see that when you see a pattering interest in the children's natural playing that playing "Doggy Doggy where's your bone?" could be a great activity to build on this concept.

One of the biggest complaints I hear about play-based planning is that educators don't feel prepared. They don't like walking into a day with no idea how it will go. While your think pad won't predict the day it can give you comfort in knowing you have some great ideas at your fingertips to do today if that's where the children lead you.

Take some time and create a think pad for yourself. Even parents and Grandparents could benefit from a think pad. Anyone who wants to play with children in a child-led way can use a think pad to help them gather ideas and feel confident about their activities with children.

Have fun exploring more ways to play with children!

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