Category Archives: Early Childhood

Gone With the Worksheet

meaningful-play

“Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all.” – Aristotle

Worksheets… I will admit— I used them. I used them for one school year. With every letter of the week I presented to my class, I had a ditto to go with it. Trace the Aa’s. Write the Aa’s. Color the apple red. And don’t forget to write your name on the top.

During my first seven years as a preschool teacher, I didn’t use worksheets at all. I relied on what I had learned during my education and experience about engaging children in hands-on experiences to teach. And it was working.

During my eighth year in the classroom, I accepted a position in a new center, in a pre-k classroom. One day, early on in the school year, my director pulled me into her office and said,  “Merideth, a parent complained to me that her child isn’t bringing home worksheets, and she’s worried he isn’t learning anything. What exactly are you doing in your room?”

“Wow,” I thought. “Teaching, I’m TEACHING! And my kids are LEARNING! I know it—I see it!” But at that moment, what I actually said was a jumble of words about all of the exciting things we were working on in my room in the hopes that I would say something that would allow me to keep my job. My director responded by reminding me that as a teacher in a pre-k classroom I had a responsibility to prepare the kids in my class for kindergarten, and that meant, yes, you guessed it, using worksheets.

So, the next time I sat down to write my lesson plans, begrudgingly, I included worksheets. Trace the Aa’s. Write the Aa’s. Color the apple red. It seemed to fly in the face of everything I had come to know about educating young children up until that point, but that’s what my director wanted, and that’s what the parents in my classroom obviously wanted (or so I thought), so that’s what I did. For the rest of that school year, I continued to use a mixture of seated time doing worksheets and engaging, real world experiences in my classroom.

Worksheet time was like pulling teeth. Trying to get wiggly, energetic, curious little 4- and 5-year-old bodies to sit at a table and complete their “work” was next to impossible without some sort of extrinsic motivation… “If you finish your worksheets, I’ll get the out the slime we made yesterday. AND we can put the DINOSAURS in it!”

Making slime, however, attracted every child in my class like moths to a flame. Measuring out the ingredients, talking about the texture, observing the chemical reaction that occurred when we mixed everything together was something that every single child in my class COULDN’T WAIT to do. And then adding dinosaurs to the mix?! Forget about it!

In that one activity, my class was learning math and science concepts, working on fine motor skill development and having a great time doing it all.

When they sat down to do a worksheet, not so much.

So, as early childhood educators, we know that real-world, hands-on, interactive experiences based on familiar topics are how young children learn best. How do we ensure this is how the children in our programs are being taught?

  • Provide learning experiences that children get excited about, and want to participate in.
  • Base your lesson planning around topics that interest them or questions they ask, and include opportunities for them to BE ACTIVE!
  • Get excited! Use an animated tone of voice and interesting facial expressions. Children’s level of interest in a particular activity is often directly related to the affect you take on when presenting it.
  • Toot your own horn! Document what goes on in your classroom by taking, and posting, photos of children engaged in the learning process. Include direct quotes from the children, if possible.
  • Communicate with families about the learning that’s happening every day in your classroom. Write a daily note, a newsletter and/or have a face-to-face conversation about all of the great things you’re doing with your class.
  • Educate families about how young children learn and develop through play. For example, explain that before they can write their name, children need to do things like mold with playdough and build with Legos to develop the muscles they need to write.

If you’re using worksheets in your classroom right now, I encourage you to take the leap, try another way. I promise you, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by what happens when worksheets go by the wayside.

Striking While the Iron’s Hot: Becoming an Advocate for Early Childhood Education

early-childhood-advocate

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.” – Dr. Seuss, The Lorax

Election Day is just around the corner. One of the most crucial topics being brought to the forefront of voters’ minds this election year is that of investing in quality educational experiences for young children. Those of us in the field of early childhood have long been aware of the importance of this topic, but we are finally starting to hear the leaders (and potential leaders) of our communities, and of this nation, give it some credence.

Investing money in young children has been proven, time and again, to yield numerous benefits down the road for the individual child, his/her family, and society as a whole. A report entitled “The Economics of Early Childhood Investments” published  in December 2014 cited reductions in crime, as well as lower expenditures on health care and remedial education down the road as just a few of the societal benefits to investing in early childhood. Families who have dependable, high-quality child care options are able to remain productive members of the workforce. Children who experience quality early care and education experiences, by and large, are more likely to grow up to become contributing members of society, themselves.

At this point in our nation’s history, we, as early childhood educators, have a unique opportunity. We can use our first hand experiences working with young children, our depth of knowledge about child development, and our collective voice as early childhood professionals to spread the message to our leaders that young children, and those of us who educate and care for them, deserve the resources necessary to create high quality early learning environments and experiences.

By working together, each one of us has the power to influence the direction early care and education is preparing to take in our country. In addition to the important work we do with young children and their families each day, becoming an early childhood advocate is another way we can contribute, on a much larger scale, to the advancement of the education of young children in our community, as well as our country. You can begin your journey as an early childhood advocate by taking any (or all!) of the following action steps:

  • Visit websites like 4cforchildren.org. www.usa.childcareaware.org, or www.naeyc.org on a regular basis to stay educated about current topics, research and best practices in early childhood.
  • Join, and become active in, early childhood professional organizations like NAEYC (the National Association for the Education of Young Children), NAFCC (the National Association for Family Child Care), or CEC (the Council for Exceptional Children), to name a few.
  • Contact your state representative and/or the White House to express your thoughts, feelings, opinions and concerns regarding quality early childhood in your area. You can find contact info for state reps here. You can contact the White House here.
  • Read about the current child care proposals that are being offered by our presidential candidates.
  • Register to vote prior to Election Day
  • VOTE on Election Day (Tuesday, November 8)!

Remember to spread the word, every chance you get, to your family, friends, neighbors, co-workers and community leaders about the importance of investing in early childhood education. There is strength in numbers. By uniting and taking action, we can improve the state of early childhood education in our communities, and our nation, for the benefit of the children in our care, and for generations of children yet to come.

Making Sense of a Violent World

Welcome to our new Growing Children blogger, 4C Professional Development Specialist Merideth Burton. Below is her first post.

“We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.” – Nelson Mandela

“We owe our children, the most vulnerable citizens in our society, a life free of violence and fear.” – Nelson Mandela

People enter the field of early childhood for different reasons. Some of us are here because we had wonderful experiences as young children. We had inspiring, caring teachers that we remember fondly, and we want to pass those same experiences on to the next generation. Some of us are here because we weren’t quite sure what we wanted to be when we grew up. We may have tried other professions, but through different paths we ended up working in an early education setting – and we discovered we loved it. Some of us are here because our early years weren’t ideal at all, and we wanted to break that cycle by giving something back, by doing whatever we could to be a positive influence in the lives of young children.

Regardless of the reasons we are drawn to this field, we all have one thing in common—we see the bigger picture. We see a world often full of violence and unrest, and we understand the influence we can have on our youngest citizens. We know that we can “be the change we want to see in the world” by contributing positively to the growth and development of young children. We realize the future lies in their hands, and it’s our very important job to give them the tools they need to shape it for the better.

We do everything in our power to create a stable, positive environment for the children in our care so they can feel respected, safe and loved when they enter our classrooms. But, the reality is, we don’t have complete control. The negativity that exists in the world creeps in through television, through social media, through the experiences and the environments that the children in our care are exposed to once they walk out our doors.

How do we combat this? How do we help children process what they see and hear when they’re out in the world that may be unsettling or frightening to them? Though their exposure to these things is sometimes beyond our control, here are some ways we can help them deal with what they are seeing, hearing and most importantly, feeling:

  • Limit exposure to media outlets where children may come into contact with violent or disturbing images/sounds such as newscasts, social media postings, violent TV shows or movies.
  • Be mindful of what you say when little ears are around. Try to avoid discussing these events with other adults, or having telephone conversations, within earshot of young children.
  • If children want to express what they see/hear/feel, let them. However they feel the need to do this, as long as they are not hurting others, is okay. They may want to talk, or be silent. They may cry, they may scream. If they’re feeling big emotions, they need an outlet for them in a place where they can feel safe.
  • Help children find the words to name and express their feelings. Use “feeling” words like “sad,” “mad,” “scared,” “nervous” or “frustrated” in your discussions. Let children know that it’s okay for them to feel that way.
  • Listen to what children say, without judgment, and respond with words they can understand. Answer their questions, but avoid going into too much detail that can create anxiety.
  • Provide them with creative outlets such as drawing, painting, and dancing. If a child wants to share what they create with you, give them your undivided attention and ask open-ended questions: “Tell me about your drawing.” “What’s happening in your painting?”
  • Share your observations about the child’s feelings/actions with his/her family. You can collaborate on what the best course of action may be for supporting the child through processing their emotions.

On the morning of September 11, 2001, I was cleaning up from morning snack with my classroom of toddlers, getting ready to go outside to the playground at our school in downtown Washington, D.C. The events that occurred that day, and the behaviors and emotions of the children in my class that appeared in the following weeks and months, are things I will never forget. I witnessed children as young as 18 months become more anxious and fearful at morning drop off. I observed children using toy airplanes to crash into block towers. I heard children talk to each other about the “fire on the buildings.” Even as I was dealing with my own emotions surrounding 9/11, I knew it was my responsibility to continue to provide the nurturing, consistent classroom environment they had come to know. We played together, we talked together, sometimes we even cried together. We got through it together.

Is Yours or Mine the Best Practice?

This guest post comes to us from 4C Professional Development Specialist, Debra Chin.

best-practice

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. –Isaac Newton

As early childhood professionals, many times we claim something that we do daily is the best practice. Like the little boy described above in Newton’s quote, the moment we found or researched something, and thought the data showed a certain practice that seemed to serve the best to children, we “published” a best practice from our own lenses. I caught myself using the term “best practice” numerous times while I was coaching or presenting training. Then, a tiny voice crept up asking me, “Before you open your mouth trying to defend yourself with so called “best practice” and criticize others, do you know what others’ practice derived from?” I thought I had found “a smoother pebble or prettier shell,” yet Newton’s quote reminded me that “the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.” I pause and think…

Each child is a unique person. Each of them has his/her own previous experience constructed from the interactions he/she has had with his/her peers, family and community. A practice that we entitle the “best” could be diverting from those unique experiences that we have learned from each child and each family.

We often promote independence and value children’s learning through free exploration of materials. We encourage children to openly express opinions for themselves.  We may expect children at a certain age to be able to use simple words to express their feelings. However, some of our children may come from families that value dependence behaviors, and expect young children to first develop an ability in following guidance from adults, instead of initiating activities independently.  Children may be expected to “be seen and not heard,” and are encouraged to develop a skill of listening patiently to others prior to that of speaking out. Sharing emotions may not be valued by some families, and instead viewed as something to keep private.

Best practice is not a set of rules, but requires more talking, clarifying, listening, understanding and perhaps negotiating.  Negotiating difference begins with us as teachers or administrators clearly understanding our own preferences and where they come from. I think the message that I’d like to share with all of us is to humbly learn from our children and families about underlying reasons of each practice that seems awkward to us. Through a manner of honoring those different practices, we learn the hopes and dreams of each family for their children which will provide us with a rich source of information to develop a practice that would best facilitate children’s learning and development. Meanwhile, this same reflection goes with the work that we have with our fellow professionals. None of us should proclaim our practice is the best without the willingness to be open to learning from each other and to expand our view of practices based on what we learn, for the best interest of young children. Then we could proudly say that we have a best practice.

Refreshing Summer Learning Ideas

lemonade

Summer is here, and learning always seems to take a backseat to relaxation, playtime and fun. As early childhood educators, we know that learning doesn’t take a summer break. When I was a teacher, I would urge parents to remember that learning can be intentionally woven into their fun summer festivities. Teachers can create a list of activities for parents to use at home. Let’s work together to close the learning gap from the summer to the fall! Here are some ideas for you to share with parents:

Lemonade stands are a quintessential summertime activity for kids of all ages. What better time to use a child’s math skills to make the stand successful. It all begins with measurement skills to mix the lemonade. From simple measuring to doubling the recipe, children can use these proficiencies to make sure everyone in the neighborhood is able quench their thirst on a hot summer day. Math skills can be extended through the counting of money and making change for customers. We can’t fail to mention an early lesson in sales and marketing with a discussion on how to attract customers and be the best salesman.

Road trips and vacations are also a great time to keep those little brains busy. Younger children can search for “sight words” on signs and billboards. Social studies can stay on the horizon while you search for license plates from different states and discuss these states characteristics with your child. The “ABC” game where you search for a word that begins with each letter of the alphabet is a favorite.  Practice estimation while getting gas by asking kids to predict how much money it will cost to fill the tank, or asking them how much longer they think it will be until you reach the next state. (They will be sure to ask this anyhow, why not make it a game?)

Keep science alive by planting a garden! Gardening almost seems like a lost art, but imagine all the hands on experience children can get through planting and tending a garden. From preparing the proper space, measuring rows and watering and sustaining the garden, to harvesting and discussing the nutritional value of the crops.

Use baseball games to keep siblings engaged in learning by asking questions about the score, how many more runs the team needs to catch up, and having them tally balls and strikes. Sporting events of all kinds are great opportunities for discussing strategies for plays, practicing math skills and even working on those social emotional skills that involve teamwork and sharing.

Make sure to take many field trips to the local library to keep the children reading. Sign up for your local library’s summer reading club, and help each child reach their goal.

Whether families are going to the beach, the neighborhood park, or setting up a lemonade stand, learning is all around! It’s our responsibility to partner with parents to help their child succeed, and one way to do this is to share with them how they can support their child’s learning when they are not in your program.

Becoming a Resource for Parents

family-resourceIn our field, we often hear the phrase: “Parents are the child’s first teacher.” As educators we know how important it is to work with families to help their child reach their full potential. We use parents/families as a resource to better understand the child in order to help them be more successful in our classroom. But how are we acting as a resource for parents? Is there a way we can help them be more successful as they juggle life as parents?

I often hear how hard it is for teachers to get parents engaged. Some teachers have even communicated, “It’s like they don’t care.” They have parents that “drop and run” with their child in the morning. Some parents do the “ghost pick up.” They pick up their child so quickly you barely noticed they were there. Or the parent who never takes home the newsletter—even worse, you see them toss it in the trash without reading it. And let’s not forget about the parents who  question the goings on in the classroom in a not-so-nice way, such as demanding their child stop scribbling when writing their name.

I was the type of teacher who wanted to form strong relationships, I wanted to discuss how each child’s day was with parents, and darn it—I worked hard on that newsletter! Thankfully I had the pleasure of working with some amazingly talented colleagues early on in my career, who taught me to envision life from the parents’ perspective. You know the saying, “Try taking a walk in their shoes.” This concept really hit home for me when I became a parent and then again when I became a single parent. It’s not that parents don’t care—our parents are working parents, and they have a lot to juggle. Plus, parenthood does not come with instructions! The majority of parents do not have an early childhood degree. They have not learned about the stages of writing and do not realize those scribble marks are building the foundation their child needs to make letter like forms and eventually letters. Every parent wants the best for their child. Some parents may still be learning what’s developmentally appropriate and learning how to do the juggle. This is where we come in as educators.

One way we help children to be successful is by meeting them where they are developmentally. We use different strategies to make learning easier for children. Could we use these same strategies while working with parents?

Let’s take the newsletter for example. Is there a way we could produce a classroom newsletter that is more reader-friendly?? Once I changed my newsletter format from a wordy, one page report to using just one power point slide layout (enlarged of course) I began to receive a lot more verbal engagement from parents. Changing the format created more of a read-at–a-glance instead of an overwhelming, lengthy report—this was a time saver for parents. They asked more questions about our projects and even brought in materials to enhance our classroom focus and concepts. It opened the door for more conversations at pick up and drop off because they knew I wasn’t going to overwhelm their juggle. I had become a resource for them.

We want children to be successful in every aspect in life and so do their parents. How will you be a resource for the parents in your classroom?

Three Joys of Working With Children

joy-of-working-with-childrenWhen I first entered the field of early care and education, I quickly learned that when asked the question, “Why do you like working with children?” the answer should be more than, “I love children.” I had to ask myself, “What do I love about children?” I began to really think about what children do that sparks happiness in my heart, mind and soul. The following, are examples of what I have grown to see as a joy of working with children.

Curiosity in Action
Children are natural explorers. They are born with the innate ability and curiosity to figure out the world. They will work to figure out how their bodies move in space, often times getting stuck. They will taste the nastiest of substances and have a hard time refraining from touching everything they see. I learned to embrace these moments and realized that rather than express my dislike, I could offer ways for children to safely explore their curiosity. I made sure I was close by when they got stuck and explained that some things were not safe and helped them find alternate ways to explore what they were curious about. I realized that it was my responsibility to provide opportunities to open, close, poke, push, pull, crawl, climb, jump, rip, build and knock down in safe and appropriate ways, rather than push my own agenda. I found it joyful to figure out what each child was interested in learning based on their natural drive and curiosity.

Masters of Their Universe
In order for a skill to be mastered, there needs to be plenty of opportunity to practice those skills, including behavior and social skills. Young children will automatically practice skills that they are interested in learning. This can often times be seen as an annoyance because a child’s preference may not align with the teacher’s plans. These preferences can at times be seen as a challenging behavior, which is not the child’s intention. Through this I learned how to be flexible, admit when I wasn’t being flexible enough and learn how to rely on my team and administrator for support when I was struggling. This is only one example of how children have taught me something about myself through their need for repetition and mastery. The opportunity to watch children master new skills and finding ways to challenge myself to allow these opportunities to occur is definitely a joy.

Real Genius
Part of our work with children involves planning experiences for them. I have always enjoyed finding developmentally appropriate activities and materials to use in my activity plans. The real joy of implementing any activity was sitting back and observing the children and allowing them to teach me a thing or two about the different ways to use materials. I can remember bringing in five or six boxes into the classroom. I intentionally chose sizes of boxes so that they would nest together, like nesting cups. As the children played with the boxes they began to decide how many children could fit in each box, the biggest fit three children while the smallest could only fit a foot or a hand. Although this was not my initial intention with the boxes, the social interactions and peer cooperation that I saw in these 2-year-olds was amazing. They taught me that while being intentional is important, allowing children to explore freely can open up doors to all kinds of learning.

All in all, I can say that the biggest joy of working with children is that they have taught me more about myself than I think I could have learned if I had chosen any other profession. These joys are what kept me going on the rough days. The fact is if you are working with children, you should love children. So think about what you find joyful about working with children, and remember to be specific!