Author Archives: Jenn Malicoat

About Jenn Malicoat

I am a Quality Programs Specialist at 4C for Children in the Northern Kentucky region. Through a combination of coaching and training on best practice, I support child care professionals as they provide quality early learning experiences to children and their families. Outside of work, I enjoy spending time with my friends and family, especially my husband, young son, and two dogs!

Building a Classroom Community

classroom-family

One morning in my preschool classroom, while everyone was busy playing and learning, a student proclaimed to anyone who was listening, “I love everyone in our class because, well, that’s just what families do!” That little voice has stuck with me for many years as one of the highlights of my teaching career. When my students referred to our small group as their preschool family, I felt such pride and joy. My goal was to create an environment where my students felt loved and valued, free to take risks and free to make mistakes. We were far from perfect; there were still tears, frustration, and other big emotions. But at the end of the day, we loved our little community we had created.

When children feel comfortable in their environment, they are more receptive to learning. As child care providers, it is our responsibility to facilitate the building and maintenance of a positive classroom community. Here are some ideas to help create a “family feel” in your classroom or center!

Let the classroom be a reflection of the students: When creating this positive environment, children need to feel a sense of belonging in the space. An easy way to accomplish this is to let them see themselves throughout the classroom! Pictures and work samples hung at their level are an easy way to accomplish this. My students loved gathering together and watching a digital picture frame I had loaded with classroom memories! Allowing children to bring in pictures of their families and pets can build a wonderful home/school connection and provide a sense of comfort as well.

Have fun together! Use games and activities to work on team building skills! Group games can be a fun way to practice sharing, communication, and simply help your students build relationships with one another.

Involve families: Making sure to include families as part of the classroom community is important as well. Inviting them into the space at drop off and pick up, including them in special events and parties, or even asking for volunteers to come read to the class are all simple ways to help families feel welcome. I loved sending home questionnaires for families to fill out at the beginning of the year so I could learn more about the child and how the families saw the children! Consistent communication between school and home is crucial. We provided families with “Ask me!” questions weekly, which gave families the knowledge and language to have conversations with the students and bridge the gap between school and home. 

Show them they are an integral part of the classroom: Classroom jobs and responsibilities are an easy way to let each child build into the community. The classroom doesn’t run as smoothly without them! If they are absent, let them know that they were missed and you are so glad they are back! Build personal relationships by spending quality, one-on-one time getting to know each student as an individual. When you show an interest in their lives and embrace the uniqueness of each child, everyone feels as if they belong in the community!

Keep It Authentic!

sandRecently, I was lucky enough to join my family for a seaside trip to South Carolina. After months of talking about the sandy beaches and salty ocean, my preschool-aged niece was excited to finally experience everything she had heard about with her own five senses! No matter how often we described the feeling of sand between our toes or the weightlessness of riding the waves in the Atlantic, it was difficult for her to make connections without actually experiencing it herself. All week, I could see these new experiences providing her with rich language, early science concepts, and filling her brain with background knowledge she will carry with her for years to come.

We know children learn best through hands-on activities. By providing opportunities that allow them to engage all of their senses, they are able to have meaningful experiences that help build connections to the real world. So how do we help those children who have yet to visit the beach experience these elements in authentic and meaningful ways? Bring it to the classroom, of course! Here are some awesome ways to bring seaside fun and learning into their everyday environment:

  • Sand can be an easy addition to any sensory table! You can find play sand in most toy or home improvement stores. Kinetic sand on table top trays can be a great alternative for classrooms without a sensory table. Add a variety of tools & buckets from a local dollar store, and even some water to experiment with. The children can create and build just like they are at the beach!
  • Know any friends or family heading to the beach? Ask them to bring back a bag full of shells! Adding real shells to your math or science learning area with some magnifying glasses and scales opens up an opportunity to explore math concepts and increase observation skills. Also, using descriptive words to talk about shell textures can help build rich language.
  • Did you know the largest Great White Shark recorded was 20 feet long? Most are only about 13 feet long, which is still pretty giant compared to the children in our classrooms! Using painters tape, create a 13 foot long outline of a shark on your classroom or hallway floor, allowing your students to see just how huge a shark would be if they encountered one in real life. Allow them to use a variety of classroom materials to explore measurement. They will love answering questions such as “How many Legos long is this shark?”
  • Set up some experimentation of salt water vs. fresh water. Children can do a little taste-testing, and play with the idea of “What sinks and what floats?” using different materials in the classroom. I love this salt water experiment.

When we bring in authentic materials, it helps children connect concepts and understand our learning themes in a tangible and meaningful way!

Invitations to Learn

When children are comfortable and engaged in their environment, we find that productivity increases, challenging behavior decreases, and child-directed learning is plentiful! Using the physical classroom space effectively can be a teacher’s most useful tool.

One of my favorite tips to build excitement about learning opportunities in the classroom is to create invitations to learn that are ready and waiting when the children arrive. An invitation to learn involves arranging the space in a way that “invites” the children to come to a particular area to explore open-ended and meaningful materials.

A personal favorite from my time in the classroom involved setting up a table with a real pumpkin during the fall season. In addition to the pumpkin, I provided a variety of spoons and other tools, plastic trays, and also some paint with brushes. When the children entered the room, that morning they were excited by the new addition and intrigued about what activities were in store for the day.  My overall objective was working on motor skills by scooping out the insides with the tools and picking out the seeds, but the freedom to choose how they explored the pumpkin provided a multitude of other experiences. The children chose to sort and count the seeds, spread them on the plastic trays, pretending to bake and sell yummy treats to their friends. Some chose to paint and decorate the outside of the pumpkin, while others painted the seeds. They talked about the textures and shrieked when the gooey pumpkin guts grazed across their tiny fingers. By simply setting the stage with materials that were already in our space and adding something a little extra, an entirely new and engaging experience occurred!

While creating an invitation to learn doesn’t need to be time-consuming or expensive, it should be intentional. When planning, keep a broad goal of what you think might occur (like the strengthening motor skills in the pumpkin example above) while leaving room for their imaginations to run wild.

Some questions to keep in mind during preparation:

  • Will this activity capture the interest and curiosity of the child?
  • Are the activity and materials age-appropriate?
  • Are there enough materials for all children to participate?
  • Are the materials hands-on and open-ended?
  • Are there opportunities to be challenged and express creativity?

With a little planning and preparation, a teacher can use the classroom environment to spark engagement, inspiration and joy!

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!