Let the Children Lead the Learning!

Aqua Play at NurseryWhen visiting a preschool classroom recently, summer weather was upon us and the classroom was buzzing with excitement. An unexpected visitor (a snake!) had joined the children on the playground that morning and they could barely contain their joy. As you could guess, the teachers did not have anything in their lesson plans involving this guest, but after discovering the teachable moments that accompanied the children’s interest in the snake, they quickly changed their ideas for the day.  The class conducted internet research to discover what type of snake they had found, and they were making some estimates about its length. I couldn’t help but think of the endless possibilities that could come of the day; drawing pictures of the snake’s design in the art center, slithering like a snake during transitions, exploring the idea of how snakes shed their skin. The teacher was thrilled about how engaged the children were in learning and was happy everyone was having such a fun morning!

Summertime is a wonderful time to explore more child-directed experiences outdoors and at special events.. By paying attention to what children are doing and saying, we are provided more insight into their interests and have the ability to offer many more meaningful learning opportunities!

How can you go about discovering interests to expand upon?

  • Observe and listen! Children naturally gravitate towards talking about and doing the things they are currently passionate about. Conversation at mealtimes and throughout the day, along with paying attention to what they are building in the block center or pretending to be in the dramatic play area, can give great insight to their personal favorites!
  • What is trending? Currently, my nephew is all about his new fidget spinner and I can’t help but see them everywhere I go! I love how this teacher turned a popular toy into some incredible STEM activities that can be adapted to a variety of age levels.
  • What events are surrounding them? Field trip to the firehouse or a visit from the shaved ice truck this week? Build upon their excitement for happenings outside of the normal routine and find ways to incorporate elements of the event into your classroom plans.
  • Be spontaneous! If your children are distracted by the construction project outside the classroom window, it’s okay to change up plans for the day. They might not often get the chance to see this machinery in action, so take advantage of the spur of the moment science and engineering learning opportunity.

Planning activities based on children’s interests needs plenty of teacher support to be successful.

Teachers help facilitate learning by providing materials, asking a variety of open-ended questions to expand thinking, and being actively involved by enjoying the process right alongside the children!

By letting the children lead the learning, classrooms benefit in many ways:

  • Children are engaged and excited, resulting in less challenging behaviors.
  • Topics often offer opportunities that can span across several curriculum areas. Math, science, and writing skills to name a few.
  • Build connection and expand children’s knowledge by sharing your interests. Children can only be interested in what they already know, so exposing them to new topics and experiences helps increase that knowledge. Plus, they will love learning about your favorites!

When you open your eyes and ears and let the children lead the way, the learning opportunities are endless!

School Is Out…What Do We Do Now?

summerplaySummer is here and if you are like me, a routine master, you are in a panic. School is over and children are shouting, “I am BORED!” You realize that the time you had celebrating the end of a successful school year must come to an end as you begin planning a summer program. Unfortunately, that time has slipped away and you are scrambling to find ideas, theme/unit items, guest speakers and field trip forms. PAUSE. Teacher life does not have to be chaotic and always busy with grandiose activities. Plan activities that you would like to enjoy with your children and SLOW DOWN.

On our first day of the summer program when I was still teaching, I gathered my class of preschoolers on our group time rug. We sat and talked about what they wanted to do to have fun in our summer before they started ‘big kid school’ in the fall. It may not seem like a big thing to do, however, making it a priority to sit down and include children in the planning is the best thing you can do to make your summer awesome! Here are three simple tips to help you and your planners come up with safe, age-appropriate ideas.

  1. Give real expectations and choices. Kids might come up with about 9,000 ways to blow your supply budget and your stress limit. Setting limits and goals are okay, talk it out! Help children to work through the critical thinking and reasoning process.
  2. Make a map. Sometimes the best plans for your students can be better examined with charting! Written lists can also help them express their opinions and interests in a concrete way. You can make one list of plans the staff members want to do, one list of things children want to do, and compare the lists that both the staff and the children can do together.
  3. Research and choose. Pinterest makes visual organization a breeze. Also, going to the library to look at books together to get ideas is wonderful. You can take the more hands-on approach and make a collage of activities on poster paper using magazines and other paper material. Let your children help you look for ideas on the list. Whatever the activity— creating art, outdoor activity, cooking lesson—it is right there for our children who are still learning. It gives them a chance to make connections.

After all of your hard work with your ‘assistants,’ your summer will be something that you and your children have always wanted. No stress involved (or very little). If I have learned anything from teaching, this one thing is true: the fun plans you have intended for the children to do are not always as good as the children’s ideas of fun. Let them take the lead—within reason. Find out what makes things fun for your children and watch the laughter, smiles and precious moments appear. Collect those teachable moments, not the material things, and everyone will have a very happy summer.

Educating Families About the Benefits of Play-Based Learning

In your classroom, you witness so much learning happening every day. You see children gaining the fine motor skill development they need to write when they squeeze and mold playdough, or cut with scissors. You see them starting to grasp mathematical concepts when they sort and classify blocks by size or color. You see them wrapping their little brains around literacy concepts the first time they’re able to find their own cubby by reading the label with their name printed on it.

Learning is all around your classroom—you know this because you plan intentionally for it. By choosing age-appropriate materials and furniture for your classroom environment, developing and implementing a lesson or activity plan, and engaging in meaningful interactions with children, you are working daily to provide a quality early childhood experience for every child that walks through your door.

Much of this, however, happens “behind the scenes.” The families you work with don’t often get to see the time, research and thought that go into your environmental or lesson planning processes, and they may only get to witness a small snippet of your interactions with their children each day at pickup or drop off.

Helping families understand what children learn that isn’t evident on a worksheet can feel like a challenge.

Below are some ways you can communicate the benefits of learning through play to families:

  • Display evidence throughout your program that shows children involved in the learning process. This could be in the form of pictures, samples of children’s work, or written descriptions of what’s happening in your classroom. For example, take pictures of the children working together to build a castle in the block area. Then post those pictures on the wall of your classroom with captions describing what was happening in the picture. In your description, talk about what skills the children were developing during this process. Use actual quotes from the children, if possible.
  • Post or hang signs in areas around your room that describe what children are learning as they play in those areas. “When I work in the sand table, I am learning concepts of size, shape and volume; how to use tools; how to solve problems; to observe changes (a science skill),” etc.
  • Parent/teacher conference time is a great opportunity to share this knowledge with families. It is one of the few opportunities you may have throughout the school year when each of you has the others’ undivided attention. Take advantage of this time to talk about the skill development their child is experiencing as they engage in favorite classroom activities – “Your son often chooses to play in our Dramatic Play area. One of his favorite things to do is write down his friends’ “food orders” using a piece of paper and a pencil. Here are some examples of what he’s written. If you look here where he wrote “apl” for the word “apple,” you can see he’s beginning to associate letters with their sounds, a pre-literacy skill.”
  • Distribute print materials to families educating them about learning through play. This may be in the form of information that discusses the specific curriculum your program has chosen to utilize, or even articles from reputable sources (like publications from NAEYC or the American Academy of Pediatrics) that pertain to play-based learning.
  • Invite families to participate in an open house / back to school / curriculum night, or a family discussion series that focuses on this topic. Families who attend can receive information from your program on learning through play, and they can have the opportunity to ask any questions they may have. Providing snacks and drinks, or even on-site child care, may help with attendance at events such as these!

As early childhood educators, we are already well aware of the benefits of learning through play. Take the time to clue your families in to this same information in thoughtful, organized, professional ways that are sensitive to their needs. This not only demonstrates your expertise, and reinforces your role as an early childhood professional, it ensures the mission, vision and philosophy of your program is understood and shared by the families who choose to enroll.

Helping Children say Goodbye

saying-goodbye-for-the-dayI have never liked to say goodbye to those I care about. It felt better to say, “See you later,” or “Take care,” rather than “Goodbye.”  Saying these phrases had less finality. It helped me feel at ease as I separated from my family and friends. Realizing how uncomfortable I felt saying goodbye to my loved ones helped me to understand the importance of supporting children as they learned how to cope with separating from their family for the day.

It is important that adults offer this support so that children can understand why they separate from their family and have the opportunity to learn about the emotions they’re feeling.  These feelings do not have to be avoided—they need to be supported! Here are a few ways to support children and their families as they say, “See you later.”

Create a Calm, Inviting Environment

Setting a mood in the morning can be a beneficial way of supporting children when they are dropped off. If the size of the classroom permits, provide a small couch or love seat for children to sit on with their families during a drop off routine (see below). Make sure children know where their personal items belong. When children have a space of their own in a classroom, it can add to the sense of belonging. Remember that if children are not ready to take off their coat or jacket right away, it is okay. They may need to hold on to an item from home to help them feel safe. It is also helpful to encourage families to bring in comfort items such as a blanket, a stuffed animal or photo book from home to help keep a connection between home and school.

Say Hello and Make Yourself Available

Greet every child and family member that walks through the classroom door. Make sure to use names; having a cheat sheet can be helpful in remembering everyone’s name. It is important for everyone to feel comfortable when they enter a classroom. When children see their teacher conversing with their family members, it helps to build the trust that is needed between teacher and child.

It can be helpful to observe and reflect on the kind of support the child and family needs when a child is having a hard time separating from their family. Some children feel supported when their parent hands them off to their teacher. Others may just need some extra time with their parent, so encouraging them to create a drop off routine can be helpful (see below). Based on that routine, the teacher my need to remind children and their family what the routine is or to make sure all elements for that routine are available. It is best to refrain from being too forceful for the family to separate. This can be a sensitive and challenging part of the day for all involved. Sometimes a simple, “Let me know when you are ready to leave and I will help,” can be all that is needed. The important thing is to be available.

Encourage a Drop Off Routine

Children thrive on consistency. Drop off routines can be successful in establishing smooth and consistent separation. Encourage families to think about what works best for them. Are they typically in a hurry or do they have flexibility to ease a child into the classroom?  Encourage families to start off by helping children to put their items in their cubby and then washing their hands. A parent may be able to engage in some play with their child for a few minutes before leaving. Offer breakfast throughout the morning and make it a choice for children. Another routine that works well is for the family member to sit and read a book or two with their child before separating for the day. It may also be important for the adult to pick the number of books and stick to that number. This may be something that the teacher can help reinforce.

Offer Interesting Choices

Having several popular activities available for children to choose from can be helpful when separating for the day. Knowing children’s typical schedules and what their interests are can be helpful for children as they separate from their family. I had success opening the sensory table in the early morning. Sensory play can be a magnet for young children which can help children be ready to explore the classroom because it is interesting and fun, therefore saying goodbye may not feel so pressing and hard.

All in all, the most important thing is to help children feel comfortable while they are at your program. It can take some time to find out exactly what works for each child. No matter how uncomfortable separations may feel, they are important. Make sure that children have the opportunity to say “Goodbye, see you later” or “After while, crocodile!”

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

teachers-disagreeThink about your own personality style for a minute. Do you crave order and organization, or are you a creative, “fly by the seat of your pants” kind of person? Do you like to lead the way, or do you prefer to blend into the crowd? Do you have endless patience, or are you a “short fuse?” Maybe, depending on the setting, you could lean either way. Now, reflect on the personalities of those you work with. As you’re thinking, two main themes are probably presenting themselves—those you get along with, and those you don’t!

At times in early childhood programs, personality clashes may develop among the adults working within the same program. Take my first classroom teaching experience, for example. At 21-years-old, fresh out of college with my brand spanking new early childhood degree, I accepted the position of lead teacher in a 4-year-old classroom. My assistant teacher was a woman in her 50’s (let’s call her “Jane”), who had been at this program for a little more than a decade, and had been teaching young children for over 20 years. The only reason Jane wasn’t the lead teacher in this classroom was her lack of formal education.

As my first day of employment neared, I thought about all of the wonderful lesson planning ideas I couldn’t wait to implement, how I wanted to rearrange the centers in my new room, and how I was absolutely sure I would be the teacher these children had been missing all of their little lives. Then, my first day arrived… and reality hit me like a punch in the face. In all of my teachery daydreaming, I had forgotten to take into account that I would have an assistant teacher who might actually have her OWN thoughts, ideas, opinions and experiences to add to my “perfect classroom.”

At first, Jane and I were very closed off around each other, sizing each other up daily. She was much more dominant than I in the classroom, and I had a much more progressive teaching philosophy than she did. It became obvious very quickly that she was “old school” and I was “new school.” The children figured this out quickly, and in a very short span of time, they began to play us against one another. Neither Jane nor I seemed to be able to figure out how to find some common ground, and the children were taking advantage of our discord.

As time passed, Jane and I discovered that, outside of the classroom, we had a very similar sense of humor. At staff meetings or break times, we could eventually make each other laugh to the point of tears. Once we broke the ice between us with humor, slowly but surely we started to come together and make a better plan for how things should happen in our classroom. We began to see each other as a team, rather than adversaries. By each of us compromising a bit, we finally got on the same page and backed each other up in front of the children. The day I left our classroom almost two years later, Jane and I hugged and laughed and cried, and I still think of her fondly to this day, 18 years later.

If you find yourself in a similar situation, here are some ways you can try to bridge the personality gap:

  • Keep what happens between the two of you just between the two of you. Running off at the mouth to other staff members about your frustrations with another teacher just breeds mistrust and resentment.
  • Try to find some common ground. Talk with each other—discover your likes and dislikes. Become human to each other. Who knows? Maybe your mutual love of The Very Hungry Caterpillar could be the spark that ignites a great teaching team!
  • Avoid confrontation when tensions are running high. Cool off, take some deep breaths and/or count to ten before you discuss something you disagree about, preferably out of the classroom.
  • Consider your own actions/reactions. Is your behavior contributing to the situation? Is there something you could be doing differently to change what’s happening?
  • Encourage your program’s administrator to have each staff member take a personality test like the DISC or Myers-Briggs. Discovering everyone’s strengths and preferences goes a long way in learning how to communicate effectively with each other.

Regardless of where you fall on the personality spectrum, in the workplace you rarely get to choose who works alongside you. Try to make the best of your situation and see someone for what makes them great instead of what makes them grate on your nerves!

What do Letters Mean to Infants and Toddlers?

adult-and-toddler-with-bookWhat do letters mean to infants and toddlers? When is an appropriate time to begin learning what letters are and how to write them? Are there things that children need to understand and know first? Language and literacy are important for school readiness and success. It is equally important to approach language and literacy holistically. It is not enough to teach children their ABCs and how to write them. Here are a few developmentally appropriate ways to support language and literacy learning with infants and toddlers.

Read books and sing songs throughout the day.
Set up a library and baskets of books throughout the classroom for spontaneity. Children like to read the same books over and over. They like to carry them around and enjoy the opportunity to sit in an adult’s lap to read. Hearing and listening to stories helps children to label pictures, answer questions such as, “What’s that?” and can help children learn about feelings and emotions. Choosing books carefully and with individual children in mind can help children make connections to things that they have experienced and relate to in real life.

Invest time in learning new fingerplays and songs. Be silly and have fun making up your own songs. Singing to children to help them through transitions can be more successful than trying to get children to stand in a line and “catch a bubble.” Reading and singing with children sets the stage for helping them learn that language and the written word has a function. This can also be done through environmental print.

Talk with children!
It is important that teachers do more than talk at children and give them directions on what to do or where to go. Speak to children like you would to your peers. There is no need to ”oversimplify your language or use baby talk.” (Greenman, Stonehouse & Schweikert, Primtimes) Commentate what you see children doing such as, “You rolled the red car across the floor.” Explain to children what you are doing. “I am going to pick you up and put you on the changing table.” Be sure to use descriptive words.Have a conversation! Cooing babies, babbling toddlers and curious preschoolers all have something to say and enjoy the back and forth interaction that conversations provide. Playing games like peek-a-boo with young children is a great way to begin practicing conversations.

Create a print rich environment.
Children are concrete thinkers and often need pictures to go with labels to support the idea that letters create words and words stand for people, places and/or things. Using pictures is a great place to start. For any age group, providing pictures of children’s families and adding print to the pictures by making posters or books is a great way for children to see their name and those they care about in print. Adding a picture with a label of the child’s name to their cubby is a great way to help children begin to recognize their name. Shelves can be labeled with words and pictures as well. Other types of environmental print can include using documentation panels that use pictures of children at work and adding short descriptions to the panel to use as conversation starters or by adding grocery ads to a grocery store themed dramatic play area.

Have opportunities to write available.
Once a child has the ability to hold a writing utensil (and it doesn’t have to be using a pincer grip) they should be given the opportunity to scribble. Again there are many ways to offer children this other than just crayons and paper. One example can be magnetic writing boards or dry erase boards and markers. Offering play dough to squeeze can help children build their fine motor skills for future writing. By the time children are in preschool, a writing center can be available for children to utilize along with putting pencils and paper in various areas of the room to make things such as make road signs in the block area or record findings children make while out on the playground.

These are just several ways that language and literacy can be supported from the beginning of a child’s time in an early care and education program.

Helping Children Cope With Death

grievingChildren experience big emotions. When they’re happy, they’re ecstatic! When they’re mad, they’re FURIOUS. And when they’re sad, they’re absolutely sorrowful. When children experience life changing events, such as the death of a loved one, these emotions often get all jumbled up in their little bodies, and can be very overwhelming. It is our job, as the adults who care for them, to help guide children through the process of grieving in a healthy way— a way that will allow them to process their emotions and move on.

A few months ago, my father passed away. My children’s grandfather—the silly, loving, larger-than-life man they had come to know and love—was there one day, and tragically gone the next. This event shook our family to its core. All of us were dealing with so many emotions that often changed from one moment to the next. How was I, in the midst of my immense grief, going to help my children cope with this loss?

The morning of my dad’s passing, my husband and I sat down with my children to talk to them. I gathered my son under one arm, and my daughter under the other, and I began to speak. “I need to talk to you. You know that grandpa was in the hospital because he wasn’t feeling well. The doctors and nurses tried their very best to make him better, but they weren’t able to fix what wasn’t working right in his body. Grandpa died this morning. Grandma and I were with him, and he was surrounded by our love when he died.” At this moment, both of my children began sobbing into my shoulders. I hugged them tighter, began to cry myself, and went on, “Please know that he loved you very, very much. And be certain that he knew how much you loved him. It’s ok to be sad, or mad, or however else you feel. It’s ok to cry.” And that’s just what we did.

Each of us dealt with our grief differently. My 4-year-old daughter talked about grandpa a lot, and even asked questions like, “So, we’re not going to see grandpa anymore, right? Like Stella?” (Stella was our cat who had died the previous year.) She drew lots of pictures— pictures of grandpa wearing his signature plaid shirts, pictures she wanted to give to grandpa, “if he was still alive.” My 9-year-old son was more private in his sadness. From time to time, a few tears would slip out when something reminded him of grandpa. Then, one day, I was outside cleaning out my dad’s truck. Inside, I found a photograph my dad had been carrying around of my son, taken while sitting on my dad’s lap. My son came up behind me and asked what I was doing. I showed him the picture and asked him if he wanted it. He shook his head yes, sat down on the concrete, and began to weep. I sat down with him, as did his sister. We all put our arms around each other, hugged, and cried, for a long time, right there in the driveway.

Grieving is a process for children, just as it is for adults. When children experience the death of a loved one, or even a pet, there are some things you can do to help them:

  • Use simple, clear words that leave no room for misinterpretation. Avoid using euphemisms like “gone to sleep” or “went away” that could lead to scary or misleading thoughts.
  • Let children talk or ask questions. Really listen to what they say without judgment, and try to answer their questions honestly, using terms they’ll understand.
  • Allow children to cry. Telling a child “You’re okay, you’re okay,” only negates their feelings and pushes them back down inside. They’re NOT okay, and they won’t be okay until they’re able to let those feelings out.
  • Cry with them. It’s normal and healthy to express sadness through tears, and modeling that yourself can be beneficial for both of you.
  • Help children remember. Talking about their loved one, telling stories about them, drawing pictures of them, and recalling fond memories they shared together are all things that will help a child get to the final stage of grief—acceptance.

Remember, grief has no timeline. Whatever period of time it takes a child to process the death of a loved one is the time that’s right for them. As early childhood professionals, our role is simply to be there to support them, to listen, to provide stability, and most of all, to care.