Provocations: What are they?

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For a long time, I have praised the merits of taking a few moments to create small-scale play set-ups for your child to discover in the morning or when they come home from school. But it wasn’t until I began my work in a Reggio Emilia-inspired preschool program that I found a word for what these are– provocations.

What is a provocation? Well, at its most basic level, a provocation provokes further learning. A provocation sets up a child for inquiry or learning. The best provocations– indeed, in Reggio philosophies, all provocations– begin by exploring the questions, wonderings, and interests of the children. As you observe how your child interacts with the materials and provocation, you can document learning and further questions, creating a spiral of provocations that continues for as long as your child shows interest.

Stand aside for a while, and leave room for learning,
observe carefully what children do,
and then, if you have understood well,
perhaps teaching will be different than before. ~Loris Malaguzzi

Provocations can range from the very simple to the very complex. Often, as children do, they surprise us and take their play (and learning!) in a completely different direction than we could have predicted. We give them the space to explore, learn, and discover.

I am a big fan of books of all sorts, and many of my provocations are centered around books the children have shown interest in. These provocations can range from very simple to more complex.

While reading the amazing book Iggy Peck, Architect, the children noticed that the end papers were covered with tiny squares. This led to a discussion of graph paper, which led to the following very simple provocation:

 Iggy Peck Architect Provocation

A more complex provocation occurred when I noticed Molly’s obsession with the song and book Puff the Magic Dragon. I created a story table (more on that later!) filled with loose parts and objects I knew each of my children would use to tell the story.

Puff the Magic Dragon Table

I’m a huge fan of early childhood art appreciation. This was  definitely a “top down” endeavor where I, as the facilitator, introduced the children to a specific piece of art. Before we ever discussed it, I liked to set up a provocation that included the artwork in question for the children to explore on their own. You can see below how I introduced the paintings of Wassily Kandinsky using a manipulatives provocation and a light provocation.

Kandinsky collage

From the simple to the complex, all a provocation takes is

  • an interest shown, by the child, the adult, or both
  • a set-up that can range from the very simple to the complex
  • a willingness to listen, observe, or document
  • a commitment to following the trail of leaning and seeing what comes next

What sort of provocations have you set up?