Sunday, January 10, 2010

Fetching and Pairing in the Primary Environment: Exercises in Decision Making


Every time I have the opportunity to observe in a Primary classroom, generally via the role as consultant, I notice several children who appear to be wandering aimlessly. These children are classic examples of the second year student who is usually 4+ years old. As they stroll through the classroom, they glide their hands along the edges of shelves occasionally stopping to briefly manipulate a decorative object and then continue on with a casual demeanor.

Every now and again they land at another student's work rug and after a brief conversation are asked either by the student doing the work or the classroom assistant to find their own work. They answer, “I don't know what work to choose.” If snack isn't open, they return to wandering throughout the classroom re-touching all that they touched earlier. This visually reminds me of a t-shirt I recently saw that read, “All who wander are not lost.” It brings a positive insight to the small tribes of nomadic four year olds that populate almost every Primary environment.


Accepting that movement is age-appropriate for young children and is one of the three freedoms given to children in a Montessori classroom, work that includes movement is ideal for them. I am referring to fetching and pairing work, a favorite activity of the second year student.

Fetching and pairing is initially presented as a two person work: the lead teacher and a student. Later, two students do the work independent of adult participation. The work is generally done using sensorial materials but language, math and botanical materials may also be used. Actually, any material that can be separated into two matching parts is suitable for fetching and pairing. One of my favorites is the sandpaper letters and the moveable alphabet. I find this work serves as a bridge between the materials and reaffirms to the child that, while the materials are physically different, they are the same in regards to the letters they represent.

When initially presenting the work, invite a child to bring color box II to a working rug which you have laid out in anticipation of the lesson. Also, make sure that you bring a tray and a pointer. I generally use a fancy chopstick.



Ask the child to place one tablet of each color on the rug. Then ask the child to take the remaining tablets in their box to an empty table across the room from the rug. Have the child place the tablets in the box on the table top and bring the empty container back to the work rug. Next, hand the child a small tray. Tell them that you are going to point to one of the color tablets on the rug, name it and ask that they fetch its pair from the table across the room.

The child carries the empty tray across the room and stands in front of the table. Imagine for a moment the mental activity of the child looking at all of the options on the table top and making a judgement regarding which one correctly pairs with the other. When he decides on his choice, he places it on the tray and returns it to the work rug. You check to make sure that the two match. If they do not match you tell the child, “I am sorry, but these do not match. Please take this one back to the table and bring the one that does.”

The child then returns to the table and replaces the incorrect color tablet with the correct one. When he returns with his new choice, the correct choice, his decision making abilities are again validated. The activity continues until all of the tablets are paired. Then the roles are switched. The child uses the pointer and the teacher fetches and pairs.

I was fortunate to attend the 24th International Montessori Congress in Paris several years ago. I recently re-read my notes on the various lectures. Those on Lynne Lawrence's talk (current Director of AMI) regarding the sensorial materials highlight the significance of the work I outlined in the above paragraphs. She states, “in the simple act of pairing...the child questions whether two sensory impressions are the same or different, makes a decision, acts upon this decision and bears the consequences of this judgement. At the same time the child may revise this decision when faced, later, with a final pair that do not match.” She concludes, “The activity...strengthen(s) their ability to make choices and act upon their own judgements and decisions.”

This is of course the maturation of a child. They are organizing their world, and this new found sense of external order is internalized within the child. As their confidence in their decision making grows so too does their ability to work independently. How can a child choose work if they lack confidence in their ability to decide which work to select? Therefore, instructing a wandering 4 year old who has not had much experience in making decisions and bearing the consequences of those decisions to find their own work will ultimately result in the utterance of the phrase I quoted earlier, “I don't know which work to choose.” This, then, is a very honest statement.

Beyond the social enjoyment of two students working together, multiple other factors come into play. Commitment is one of those. Two children have commited to do a work together. That means that one student can't simply jump up when they see the snack chair open and say that they are hungry and longer want to do the work. They have made a commitment to do the work with another child and may not abandon that commitment. This develops trust amongst the children.

Additionally, the children agree to do the work, not to play. If a child is attempting to find the correct match to say a purple color tablet and returns with that matching tablet only to be told by the child sitting at the rug that they brought the wrong one due to the fact that they have changed their mind regarding which color tablet that needs to be paired, a dispute may occur. The selected object to be paired can not be changed once the child with the tray has left the rug seeking its match. It is pychologically frustrating to make a correct decision and to have that decision be received as incorrect. Again, working together should build trust. In this case, trust that the work will be done correctly and honestly.

The number of materials that can be used for fetching and pairing seems to grow every time I try to create a list. This is actually a plus as it allows opportunity for the child to engage with so many different materials. One of the hardest materials to pair in this way is the sound boxes. Yet, I have seen it done successfully several times. How often have you wished that the geometry cabinet was used more often? And what about the frequently neglected botany cabinet? Both of these can be used in fetching and pairing activities. The pairing can be done with the insets and the frames or the insets and their matching cards.

The number rods can be paired with their corresponding wooden cards. An important step is to scatter the objects that are to be match. This means that the numbers rods would be laid out randomly on the rug rather than in an order that may allow the child to simply predict the next number. Scattering the rods requires the child to count each of the blue and red spaces to find the correct quantity and length to match its card.

In the language area, another pairing work that I recommend is with objects from the sound box and the sandpaper letters. This might require some initial assistance from an adult to assure that there are objects in the box that match several different letters. The sandpaper letters are scattered on a work rug and the objects are positioned on top of a table across the room. The child sitting at the rug points to a letter and says its phonetic sound and asks the child with the tray to fetch an object from the table that matches the sound. This work advances both children's phonetic awareness. A child may approach you and ask to be reminded what sound an object makes and that is fine. Simply answer them and let them continue with the game.

Finally, this work serves as a preliminary exercise to command work such as asking a child to bring you a horse from the farm or, when working with the golden bead material, bring you a quantity such as 3,654. It develops in the child an ability to hold information in their mind and to maintain that information as they move through a socially charged environment, the classroom.

I remember a wonderful moment when a child walking across the room to find the pair to a botany card spontaneously walked the line. Controlled movement is a natural outcome of this work, as is a new sense of wonder for many of the materials simply by re-engaging them. And not to be understated, this work allows the child to practice carrying objects on a tray from one area of the room to another without spilling them.

The next time you see a couple of four years olds wandering suggest that they work together fetching and pairing. It has been my experience that they are initially suspect that you are actually inviting them to work together let alone move back and forth across the room. Soon, this work will be done daily and it will become part of the natural flow of the classroom. Yet, 4 year olds wander and perhaps this provides the mental rest their minds need to absorb and process knowledge. I am remembering again the t-shirt that read, “All who wander are not lost.” I need to get one of those.

4 comments:

Ruth said...

Thank you for the reminder! I'll be doing this tomorrow.

My Boys' Teacher said...

VERY nice post. I'm going to print this one and add it to my albums.

mrsmelva said...

Ooooh, I like this. I have several who would benefit from this work. Brilliant insight, thanks for sharing it.

Susanne said...

Excellent post! A great reminder to review and really put to use the four memory games that can be played with so many of the materials, especially in the sensorial area. Thanks!