Category Archives: Best Practice

Foster an Appreciation for Books

appreciatingbooks

It has been proven that exposing children to books and reading to them at an early age can promote children’s language and literacy development. Love for books isn’t just about the words on the page—it’s about the physical objects too! Luckily, the love for books can be easy to foster from the time children are born solely by exposing them to books early on and on a continual basis. I often hear from educators that they are concerned that young children are rough on books. I see books kept out of reach of the children. An early childhood program is the perfect place to help children learn how to use and care for books. Yes, it is possible to teach the youngest of children to respect books. That isn’t to say that books won’t get ripped, chewed on and mishandled. In fact, this is a positive thing. These occurrences are teachable moments. The following are occurrences that can be turned into teachable moments and will support children in learning how to care for books.

Read, read, read!
Reading books should occur more often than just at group time. When children have access to books, they will bring books to teachers to be read. This can begin in an infant room by finding time to read with infants one on one. I have seen teachers read books while holding an infant who is taking a bottle or inviting children to sit in their lap to introduce a new book or an old favorite. As a toddler teacher, all I had to do was sit on the floor and children would bring books to me. I didn’t have to have a formal story time because we were reading throughout the whole day, including getting ready for nap time.

Reading to children often opens the door for modeling how to take care of books. Gentle reminders on putting books back on the shelf when finished reading may be necessary. Sometimes when books are left on the floor, children will stand on them. It can be appropriate to say, “I see you standing on a book. I am worried that will tear up the book. You can read the book or put it back on the shelf.”

Mouthing
Allowing infants and young toddlers to mouth objects is okay. Mouthing is important to their development. The mouth is the drive for life. When we are born our drive for survival is undeniable. Infants cry and search (known as rooting) for sustenance which satisfies their needs. This drive is so deep that it takes most children a long time to move past it. I would challenge that this need never goes away. Think about the joy of tasting your favorite flavors, chewing a cup of ice, or enjoying your favorite gum or candy. Do you prefer certain textures of foods over others such as crunchy vs. creamy?

One solution is to provide cloth and vinyl books. They can be mouthed with no damage and are easily washable. Board books are also sturdy and wipeable. Mouthing them will deteriorate them over time therefore it is okay to say, “I see you are putting the book in your mouth. You can put this toy in your mouth. (Offer an appropriate toy) or we can read the book.” Offer the child to sit in your lap and enjoy the book together.

Ripping pages/Misusing books
Children are natural explorers which explains why they are curious about their surroundings. They also do not know their own strength nor have any clue about what is “socially acceptable.” Adults can take note of this fact and decide how they react to children who are simply doing what comes natural to them. The act of exploring needs to be guided not dictated. In order to know how to respond to children’s curiosity, it is important to remember to think in terms of what the child is trying to accomplish. In my experience in providing the opportunity to explore books, I noticed that when books have the slightest tears they do not go unnoticed to children. Their initial instinct seems to be to peel back on the layers that are unraveling on the board book or bend the spine of the book back until it cracks. The first few times this happens they do not know what the consequence of peeling or bending will be, therefore they will test it out a few times to see if they get the same result.

Our response to exploration will also be tested, which means consistency is key.  A response that seemed to help children was to calmly point out what was happening to the book and that we wouldn’t be able to read the book if it was torn or broken. Remember to keep an even tone and do not overreact. A lot of damage that happens to books can be fixed. If damage occurs; include the child in helping fix the book. Clear packaging tape works wonders when it comes to repairing books.

Children of all ages should have a variety of books within reach throughout the day. If you need ideas on what types of books to have in your program, check out my previous post—and remember, many libraries have educator cards with perks that may include wear-and-tear forgiveness! Physical access to books is an important foundation of early language and literacy skills.

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!

Back to School…Am I Ready?

back-to-schoolLots of families are ready to get back into a routine and send children back to school in the month of August. Some of the children are excited and ready, but are you? It’s a time of year when no matter how old you are, the time is ripe for a fresh start. An early childhood program may follow a school year format where a new cycle of lessons start. You may have new families and children beginning in your program for the first time. Some children may be transitioning into a new classroom.

This time of year is the perfect opportunity to recharge and refresh your early childhood classroom. I’ve expanded some of the tips I found in a blog for elementary school teachers to apply to early childhood programs:

Be Organized. Having your ducks in a row is good for you and good for your students. Making sure that everything and everyone has a place helps the flow of the day go smoothly. Prepping materials ahead of time for the sorting, storage, display, and accessibility will also help children get to the tasks and work they have to do with ease. Move some furniture if you have to! Everyone will be happy.

Manage the Classroom. Your room can look awesome with every bit of organized labeling and decor. If you do not have a positive behavior management plan ready, it may be a rough start to the school year. Every student, class, and room is different. Children spend a lot of time at the beginning of the year learning the rules of the classroom. Just make sure you have a plan and stick to it to ensure that you, the kids, and parents know how things will go.

Develop Family Relationships. Making kind and welcoming connections with parents from day one will not only benefit the children in your care, but yourself!  It builds trust between you and the parent when you make yourself accessible and available to discuss things about the year in a positive way.

Know the Community. Making relationships in the community benefits everyone in your program. Inviting community to be guest speakers, meeting people from organizations that can help families in need, and creating classroom projects to help the community are all great examples of how building those relationships can be a good thing for all!

Involve the Students in Planning! I have said it before in previous blogs… Taking time to listen to the children in your care and let them help you plan activities for how they want to learn something will make it a fun school year! Building on the children’s interests is always a good idea to keep them wanting to come to your program.

With the start date getting closer and closer each day, keeping these strategies in mind will help pave the way for a great year for both you and the children in your program.

Moving On

tough-transition

“A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark.” —Chinese Proverb

In a little less than two weeks, my son will enter fifth grade, and my daughter will enter kindergarten. My son, who just recently turned 10, has gone to the same early childhood program since he was 6-weeks-old. This is the same program my daughter currently attends, and she’s been there since her first few months of life, as well. Both of my children have been there full time since infancy. When he began first grade, my son continued to attend this program for before- and after-care during the school year, and then summer camp when school was out every year since.

A couple of weeks ago, we dropped the bomb on him that this would be his last summer there— his time there was coming to an end because he was simply too old to attend anymore. Next summer it would be time to move on to somewhere that was more age-appropriate for him.

From under the brim of his baseball cap, I could see tears welling up in his big, blue eyes. “But, mom, I’ve GROWN UP there! I LOVE that place! I don’t want to leave.” I understood him completely. To be honest, I didn’t want him to go, either. The people that work at that program literally helped my husband and I raise our children— they were our village. He was safe there, he was loved.

Many of you reading this have children in your programs that are going through similar transitions this time of year. Whether you’re saying goodbye to your school-agers, sending your preschoolers off to kindergarten, or transitioning your infants up to the toddler room, there are many things that you, as an early childhood educator, can do to help ease the uncertainty of this process.

  • Develop a transition plan. The first thing to keep in mind, when helping a child transition to a new classroom or setting, is that this will be a transition for not just the child, but for their family, as well. Meeting with family members to develop a transition plan before the actual transition takes place is a helpful tool to get everyone on the same page about how and when everything will occur. Get input about what the child might need to make the transition a successful one, and find out what questions or concerns the family may have about the process. . If possible, have both the child’s “current ” and “new” teachers be part of developing this plan. The “current ” teacher often has knowledge of how the child functions in a school setting that would be helpful for the “new” teacher to know.
  • Provide age-appropriate activities in the classroom in preparation for the transition. When children are preparing to move to a new classroom or educational setting, classroom teachers can provide a multitude of activities to help ready children for their move. Keep in mind what skills or knowledge would be helpful for the child to have in their new setting, and start working on those things while they’re still in your room. For example, a toddler who’s moving to a preschool room might benefit from working on self-help skills such as throwing their own items away after lunch or snack, or pulling their own pants up and down when beginning to use the potty. A school-age teacher might role play with his/her class how to shake hands, look someone in the eye, and introduce themselves.
  • Involve the children in conversations regarding their upcoming move. Having positive conversations with the children in your care about their new classroom or school can also be helpful. Use their new teacher’s name (if you know it), show them photos of their new environment, or even take a walk or a field trip there.

Ironically, as much as we care for the children in our programs, as early childhood educators it is ultimately our goal to help children reach a place where they no longer need us. Growing up and moving on are good things—they are natural parts of life that can be exciting and wonderful!

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!

Art vs. Crafts

Every parent likes to see something that is cute and well put together that “their child made” such as sun catchers or that cute hand-print frame that is sitting on their desk at work. During the summer, lots of programs have different projects, and parents want to see what they do. HOWEVER, the question lingers in one’s mind—how much of that project did the child actually make? Craft projects are fine every now and then, but is it really something that a young child understands? Process art is different than crafting—it’s about the journey a child takes to get to their end product. It is way more fun, hands on, and appropriate for a young child to do. With process art, a child is able to:

  1. Work fine motor muscles. Working with different types of tools/media they can build the hand muscles for better dexterity. This lays the foundation for cutting and writing. Examples of this could be setting out a hole punch and pieces of paper, using scissors to cut straws or clay.
  2. Enhance critical thinking skills. When a child is in the creative process, his/her mind is thinking out ways to make/create the subject at hand. Gathering information and hypothesizing how to create the artwork builds the mind for thinking out other scenarios children may face throughout everyday events. Instead of laying out specific supplies for the children to all come to the same end result, give lots of options: hole punches, stamps, stickers, beads, string, tongue depressors, pom poms, glue, scissors—the possibilities are endless!
  3. Express themselves. If you provide the materials, they will come! Allowing the child to experiment will result in something that has meaning for them. Sitting and asking questions about the creative process also helps the child develop the language and vocabulary for something that they may have never been able to talk about before. For example, something you may ask would be, “Why did you choose the felt to make the dog’s ears?” or “How can you attach the ears to the paper?” You can also help them express what they created by writing about it. This gives the families the story and process behind the masterpiece.

Art in an early childhood program is about more than just making something cute; it is creating the moments for a child to discover and learn. I said it before and I will say it again: let children have the time to play and try new things. After all, learning through play is how a child learns best!

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.