Inviting Learners to Find the Joy in Collaboration and Community

Preschool teacher Hana Hutchings is creating classroom experiences that encourage children to develop their identity and work in relationship with others

Hana Hutchings received a B.A. In Psychology from Richmond, The American University in London, and her M.A.T. in Elementary Education from Lewis and Clark University.  She is particularly interested in researching what conditions support children to develop a strong sense of agency and advocacy and the use of materials and the arts to inspire playful learning. Prior to joining Catlin Gabel, she taught in a variety of schools including the esteemed Opal School, where she collaborated with other teacher-researchers to influence the field of education, through the amplification of children’s voices and stories. She joined the Catlin Gabel faculty in fall 2021. The following are excerpts from an interview with Hana in January 2022.

Many of these children are coming to school for the first time. They have experiences with their family, and what their family thinks and believes and does, but school is a place where they’re met with different ideas, different ways of thinking. So when we started off the year, we were thinking a lot about what it means to collaborate with someone, to work in relationship with other people around you. And we created a painting [below left].

The children sat in a circle and we said, "Come on up and make a mark. It doesn’t matter what you make, it doesn’t have to be anything." And the children came up and did so. Not every child was ready to make a mark; as you can tell from looking at the painting, there’s a lot of spaces in between. Some were not quite ready to bump up against someone else’s mark, or maybe not feeling like it was collaborative in the sense that the ideas are coming together to create something new. But that’s how we started the year in September.

Then last Friday we came back together and invited them to think about this idea again. We did the same invitation where the entire community sat around a circle, and we offered them the paint brushes. And this was what was created [below right]. It’s a much more rich example of what it looks like to be in a relationship with others. Everyone was involved, putting their papers and colors on the page. This is such a stark representation of what it looks like over time for children to learn what it looks like and feels like to be in a community.

Preschoolers collaborate on paintings in September 2021 (left) and January 2022 (right)

Here are some of the children’s quotes about what they’re thinking about as they’re sharing:

"Collaboration is when someone is making something and you want to join in. When somebody makes something and you really want to join in and something sparks your mind."

"Collaboration is when somebody builds something and somebody comes in and you build their idea, taking two ideas and pushing them together."

Children are naturally drawn to connect to one another. There’s not necessarily anything that I need to do as far as inviting them to do that. But there are certain situations or experiences that I can create in the classroom that encourage them to do that in a way that is much more collaborative than what they might have experienced before.

As children come together in relationship, there’s going to also be those hard moments where they’re uncertain or they make mistakes. And we value those just as much as the really collaborative moments where children are demonstrating their capacities. Because those are the moments where they get to choose what to do next, to find out more information and to develop their identity, both as a person who can fix things and change things, and as a learner.

I think it’s really important not to shy away from what’s uncomfortable or what’s uncertain. School is a place that should be really messy, both in the materials and the access to ideas that don’t quite pan out. And I think that there has to be a healthy relationship with knowing that even when we don’t know, we’re not here to be evaluated. That school is a place where we come to transform ourselves, and become new versions of ourselves every day.