To step inside Melany Spiehs' classroom at Spring Lake Elementary is to enter a magical, colorful world of learning and fun. Melany keeps her preschoolers busy with the most important work of young children: play.
Melany Spiehs, a '18 graduate of the Master of Science in Elementary Education, Early Childhood Education, returned to UNO and teaching in 2015 after a 10-year hiatus. She was excited about the advances in play research, the project-based learning format of the classes, and the mentoring and support from faculty.
One of her favorite experiences was helping to design UNO's Play Lab, a hands-on learning lab for aspiring early childhood educators, which opened in Aug. 2017.
"We designed it from the ground up. Having that Play Lab, where a teacher can get comfortable with play, is so important. If a teacher is not comfortable with play in her own life, it's hard to let it happen in the classroom. We need to take time for joyful activity."
Several projects Melany developed during her grad school experience at UNO have been rolled out to the seven classes and approximately 110 preschoolers at Spring Lake Elementary.
"Every project that I chose was designed to hand play back to children. Giving children the autonomy to play and work out those skills and develop their own ideas will help keep our country and culture democratic. They have been robbed of play through screen time, and we must give play back to kids."
Driven by her passion for outdoor play, Melany's first project was a revitalization of an abandoned nature playground a few hundred feet away from her portable.
"I noticed an area that seemed to be a garden space but had fallen into disrepair and vandalism," explained Melany.
During Dr. Deb Wisneski's Leadership in Early Childhood class, Melany was motivated to get buy-in from the community to help clean up the space. She sought guidance and advice from the principal at neighboring school Gomez Heritage Elementary and from UNO's Dr. Steven Rodie. With clean-up assistance from the Spring Lake Park Neighborhood Association, along with the parents and teachers of Spring Lake, the team restored the outdoor classroom.
"Each class goes out twice a week. The kids don't want to come in! They prefer it to the playground," smiled Melany. "It's arranged like center time with play provocations, and we switch up the materials–art, books, music and instruments, blocks, binoculars, paints. The goal is to keep it simple and natural."
In the UNO course, Play as a Learning Medium, Melany developed the concept for a toy library, inspired by observations of her younger students. "My 3- and 4-year-olds were coming in with immature play skills: dumping and knocking toys down like a toddler would do, when they should have been doing constructive play. I discovered that they didn't have simple toys like blocks, baby dolls, and dishes at home. They didn't have the exposure, and they didn't know how to play with open-ended toys."
We are now seeing the younger siblings in our classes, and they have more of those constructive play skills.
- Melany Spiehs, Teacher Education Alumna & Educator at Spring Lake
Her students now have a strong home/school connection by checking out toys every Friday from regularly-rotated, developmentally-appropriate items.
"They love it when it's their turn to take toys home–they think it's the best thing ever. We tell parents, 'this is their homework, and they need to go home and play with these toys with their siblings.' We are now seeing the younger siblings in our classes, and they have more of those constructive play skills–creating stories along with their play."
Melany's newest undertaking is an extension of her capstone project. "I was stuck on that low-play skills aspect. I make home visits and when I would ask, 'What do they play with?' parents were showing me tablets and phones, which are not the best for children."
In response, Melany created a playtime vs. screen time infographic flier in English and Spanish, and she supplemented those materials with 4-week evening playgroup class, piloted this past spring.
"The preschool teachers set up provocations, we gave a short talk, and then we let the families play while we observed. If we noticed a parent was disconnected, we jumped in and modeled," explained Melany.
This story appeared in the most recent issue of the College of Education's 18-19 Annual Report. Photos are courtesy of Spring Lake Elementary.