I am currently a coach working with several early childhood programs. A common concern for teachers and directors is for the children’s schedule to be full of time for children to make choices; that the teachers create a learning environment that encourages children to choose what materials they want to explore or play with for the day as well as work with the other children and adults in the room at learning centers. The schedule allows for extended time at those learning centers, allowing children to get very involved in their play without being interrupted. The key is to give children the time they need to explore what peaked their curiosity in the first place.
Giving children choices also means very little teacher-directed activities such as “dittos” or “worksheets,” including product-oriented art (where the teacher has a sample or an idea of what the end product should look like). Teachers often feel like they need to do these kinds of exercises because parents expect them. Parents can look at a worksheet and feel that they can see what their children are learning, and they may not understand the importance of free choice and play. So, what can you say when parents ask what their children are learning?
One way to give parents what they want is to document their child’s learning through photographs and dictation. As my co-worker and fellow coach said when we were discussing this topic, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” If the budget allows, invest in a good camera and take photographs throughout the day (after getting parents’ consent that their child may be photographed, of course). When I was a preschool teacher we had the ability to email parents at nap time photographs we had taken that morning. We wouldn’t send too many, just enough to give the parents a snapshot of the morning and the learning. We would add a few dictations of what the children said during the activity/activities in the main content of the group email. Instead of wondering why a child was playing in the blocks all day, a parent was thrilled to see the child building a zoo, which the child said had “many passage ways and different gates for the animals so when I feed them they don’t eat each other’s food.”
Photographs can also be posted on documentation boards. Add the photos to poster board and write messages about what the children were working on and what the children were saying. This is a great way to show everyone what learning is taking place in your classroom. Dictation can also be used on art work that doesn’t seem to resemble anything real or have meaning. Instead of showing the children a picture of a snowman made by the teacher, provide white circles, black squares and orange triangles, along with glue and paper. Remember, we always ask children to tell us about their work versus asking what it is.
Parents love reading what their child has come up with: “Oh, that’s my daddy walking out to get the mail, and then he slipped on that ice because he wasn’t walking slow enough.” When encouraging children to tell you what they are learning or what they know about their work so that you may document it and/or dictate, ask open-ended questions to help the children think more critically about what they are working on or the process they worked through. This helps children to develop cognitive skills. For example, when a child tells you they just made a picture of their dog, you can ask “What makes that a dog?” or “Tell me about his mark right here.” Not only are you keeping the parents informed on their children’s development, as a bonus you are also creating materials that you can use for assessment. Photographs and dictations are a very appropriate way for teachers and families to build mutual understanding and trust. You can work as a parent-teacher team to ensure that children’s learning and developmental needs are met!