Invitations and Provocations:
Coming to Terms with Terms| April 2022
Recently, in a Facebook group, a poster asked for photos of provocations. Inspiring images were shared of setups on table tops and in large play trays. The common focus was the purposeful set up of materials. The materials were chosen and displayed in aesthetically pleasing, photogenic ways to intentionally provoke curiosity.
The concept of using provocations in early education is not new. Materials have long been used to support learning since the time of Froebel’s first Kindergarten. Materials shape the development of meaning between individuals, giving shared meaning to symbolic cognitive tools such as letters, numbers, or words.
Educators from Reggio Emilia speak of the hundred languages of materials that can develop over time when placed in the environment. Vygotsky suggested that the types of materials chosen facilitate the development of higher mental processes. How the materials are used, who is using the materials, where they are placed, and when they are offered, are essential questions to ask. Most important, perhaps, is the question, “why these specific materials?”.
The problem with the beautiful “provocations” ubiquitously shared on social media is that we can’t fully understand the context. What is being provoked? Children’s interests, their agency, their thinking? Is the intention to deepen interest, increase agency and/or provoke thinking at higher levels? How engaged is an adult during the child’s experiences with the provocation? I cannot know the motivation for what is shared on social media and labeled as provocations, but it appears to me, that there is pride and pleasure derived from the presentation of an aesthetically pleasing, photogenic group of materials. The question I have is, who is the provocation for? If it doesn’t come from the children–their ideas, questions, thinking, theories, and interests, where does it come from? Does it come from a desire to share one’s creativity? Does it come from a desire to cover curriculum and address outcomes?
Clearly, I am provoked as I ask these questions! I am provoked in a good way, as it is sparking professional inquiry. When you think about invitations and provocations what do you think is most significant? What is the relationship between an invitation and provocation?
What is an Invitation?
An invitation is the act of inviting or presenting a situation that is tempting. I believe that all we do with children should be invitational, to support the premise that children learn through play. Play is freely chosen. When children have access to unstructured play, that is truly child-led, they have control over the play activity. Children’s sense of agency is fostered through self-directed play and it inspires rich learning. Agency is the ability to have choices and make decisions.
When an adult intentionally provides materials for children, set up in a way to inspire learning, the child still must be allowed to follow their own ideas without adult-defined outcomes. If the child chooses to interact with the materials presented, the invitation is accepted. If this spark ignites engagement, then you have a provocation. If the invitation is ignored, it becomes an opportunity to reflect on why. Could it be that the children were just not interested? Was the invitation hidden away in a corner? What happens if children respond in a completely different way than expected? These questions should spark reflection and professional inquiry.
What is a Provocation?
An invitation that has been responded to is a provocation. A provocation is something that provokes action and stimulates thinking. Provocations are by nature nuanced and complex. They can be animate or in-animate. They can be concrete or abstract. Provocations can simply be a verbal exchange between the child and the educator who is the “provocateur”. The concept of provocations is not as simplistic as it is often pictured.
I wish I knew the full origin story of the term provocations in relation to early education. In my observation, the term provocation continues to be associated with the schools of Reggio Emilia. However, when I last visited in 2018, I was listening intently to hear the word provocation to no avail. I did hear the word proposal spoken of often. A proposal is an act of putting forward or stating something for consideration. In 1990, Rebecca New described the practice of inquiry in Reggio Emilia. She explained that children had many opportunities to create representations of their play and learning. “The results of children's play and experimentation are represented by drawings. The “teacher joins in by presenting the children with a challenge, or what is referred to as a provocation”.
We can see that a provocation is so much more than an Instagram-perfect photo. It is more than these beautiful, intentionally, and purposefully concrete tabletop displays of materials with an accompanying book, or prompt such as “What do you see?” or “Can you make a pattern?”. The adult that is providing the “provocation” has something specific in mind to deliberately stretch the knowledge and experiences of the child.
Invitations in your Classroom
In 2007, Strong-Wilson and Ellis suggested introducing provocations such as “positioning small mirrors around the classroom or placing easels close to natural sunlight”, or placing “a pizza box in the kitchen corner, paper and pencil in the blocks center”. Other strategies suggested include bringing in realistic objects for children to use in their play such as real dishes or kitchen utensils. Provocations can be as simple as putting a mirror ball in the room to interact with the natural sunlight as a spark for discussion. The placement of the object is intentional to best capture the sun’s rays.
The way an object is stored can also be a provocation. Materials provided in transparent containers will pique children's curiosity and imagination. Containers with compartments like muffin trays or type set trays will provoke sorting by color or texture. When the materials are easily accessible and visible, children may respond to materials in ways not expected.
Slightly tilted baskets allow children to
easily view and access available loose parts.
Open storage options with high visibility
provide the best invitation to explore.
Another important element of provocations is time. Are the invitational materials a one-day provision or are they left in the environment from week to week? How often are new provocations provided? If new provocations are provided each day, it is not really enough time for full engagement. Time is needed to experiment and express theories and ideas. Time is needed for documentation. Time is needed to more fully consider how to continue to provoke, arouse and stimulate.
I invite you to use provocations as a means to provoke your own professional learning. Start with an invitation to the children that can be a display of materials grouped together purposefully with a written prompt, or an intentionally placed curiosity triggering object. Observe and document how children respond to it. If the children respond it becomes a provocation. If there is a different response than expected or no response at all, it is an opportunity to be reflective. This, I believe, is the greatest benefit of provocations, however one defines the term.
New, Rebecca S. 1989. Projects and Provocations: Preschool Curriculum Ideas from Reggio Emilia Italy. [Syracuse University]. Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC). https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED318565.pdf
Strong-Wilson, Teresa and Julia Ellis. Children and Place: Reggio Emilia’s Environment As Third Teacher. Theory Into Practice 46(1) pp 40-47 http://extendeddayresources.pbworks.com/w/file/fetch/110106670/Strong-Wilson%202007.pdf
Cuffaro, Harriet K. 1995. Experimenting with the World: John Dewey and the Early Childhood Classroom. Teachers College Press.