The Pit

by Cassandra Mattoon

      At Metcalf this year we are focusing on developing learner characteristics. One of the learner characteristics we learned about last month was, “The Pit.” As we are all learning new things we may enter “The Pit.” This is that time when we may not really understand the information, feel stuck, and need to find a way to grasp the new information. Entering “The Pit” isn’t a bad thing, rather it is part of the learning process. It is the place where we problem-solve and truly learn. We as educators need to help our children understand “The Pit” and develop strategies for getting out.

I introduced this concept to my prekindergarten children a couple of weeks ago. We talked about “The Pit” and I showed them a picture of “The Pit” that was given to us during an earlier professional development session.


It was quite a discussion. Some thought of the pit as a literal place that someone had fallen into and needed to get out of. We talked about how it was a pretend pit and they related it to other pretend play. As the discussion continued, their understanding became clearer and I referred to it as the place where they get stuck in their play and learning. They came up with the following examples:

  1. When you can’t find a toy you want to play with.
  2. When you don’t know where something is, like the crayons.
  3. When you don’t know what to do.
  4. When you can’t zip your coat.
  5. When you don’t know how to do something.

       These examples may seem simple, but are very real times of struggle for young children. One child even stated, “We get stuck a lot in the pit at school.” He was so right! It is part of school and the learning process, especially with young children as we work with them to become more independent and try new things. We then thought of ways to get out of “The Pit:”

  1. Ask a teacher for help.
  2. Ask a friend for help.
  3. Do something to help yourself. Don’t just stand there.
  4. Try again or do something different if it is not working.

       The children then went on to play in centers and I used teachable moments in their play to reinforce the concept of “The Pit.” At the end of the day a child was having trouble getting her folder into her bag because of the other items in the bag. I could tell the child was getting frustrated and then she yelled out to me, “Miss Mattoon I am in the pit!” I replied, “Yes, you are. You are having trouble doing something and are stuck. What can you do to get out?” She wanted to try again. Another child offered to help her out of “The Pit” and I encouraged him to go help her. The two sat on the floor trying to get the folder in the bag. After a couple minutes they had completed the job. The child who offered to help said with a smile, “We figured it out. You had to slide it behind the other things. It fits perfect. Miss Mattoon, we learned that and now we know!” The child who was in “The Pit” came running over to me all excited and said, “I am out of ‘The Pit’ and now I know what to do!” I was proud of them both for working together. These two children learned something that day, felt proud of themselves, and had to apply some problem-solving skills. I could have easily put the folder in the bag for the child and it would have taken a lot less time but then I would have taken away this learning moment from both these children and they wouldn’t have felt as proud.

       This small simple moment of being in “The Pit” reminds me to let them figure things out, provide an environment in which they can learn and problem-solve. When we simply do things for our children or just tell them the information a great deal of real learning is lost. Several parents have shared stories with me about their children talking about “The Pit” and referring to it when doing things at home. I am proud of them all for understand this concept and hope these experiences lay a foundation for learning that continues into their future.

Cassandra Mattoon teaches Pre-Kindergarten at Thomas Metcalf Laboratory School at Illinois State University in Normal, IL. She has been teaching in the field of early childhood education for 19 years.

One thought on “The Pit

  1. kiraannhamann November 2, 2016 at 2:09 pm Reply

    Cassandra, thank you for this post!!!! It connects so much with thinking about mindset not only for our young students, but also for our teacher candidates and practicing teachers. What we do while in “the Pit” makes all the difference in our own sense of agency, feelings of control and peace in our lives, and our own learning. Thanks for showing that this kind of work is possible and meaningful for our youngest learners. Your kids are models for people much older than them!

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