Category Archives: Infants and Toddlers

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.

Motivation: Where Does It Come From?

sharingAt the beginning of my early care and education career, I figured out that children like to be praised. Whenever I wanted children to follow along or cooperate, I would praise them. After prompting children to clean up, I would purposefully and somewhat loudly say things like, “I like the way Sarah is cleaning up.” I noticed that a majority of the children, beginning around 24-30 months of age would do what Sarah was doing because they wanted the same recognition.  This made the day much easier, which in this field can make life easier.

There is nothing wrong with easy, right? What if I said in this instance it could be?

The tactic that I had been using was a form of praise and some would say manipulation. The reason the children were cooperating was because they were getting positive feedback from me and they knew that they were making me happy. Although the children were cooperating and “doing the right thing,” they were learning to do the right thing because it made me happy. I wasn’t teaching them that when we are finished with something we clean it up. I failed to guide them in learning what the expectations were about cleaning up. The children were exhibiting extrinsic motivation, which is when there is an external reward at stake, such as a sticker for good behavior or a positive compliment from a teacher.  Praise, like what I was using, tends to motivate children extrinsically. They may want to do something to win or to be the best at something. This can create anxiety in children because they may feel that they are not living up to the expectations of their teacher which in turn can affect their self-esteem and confidence.

Over time I learned how to use encouragement rather than praise to support children’s intrinsic motivation, which stems from interest and enjoyment. When it was time to clean up, I would make sure that children knew the time was approaching so that they would be mentally prepared for an upcoming transition. I would then sing a clean up song that would prompt the children to start cleaning up. I would model cleaning up and as I saw children beginning to do the same say things like, “Thank you, Sarah. You heard the clean up song and know that it is time to clean up” or “D.J., thank you for your hard work. It is very helpful when everybody cleans up.” I was intentional about making sure what I said was said only to the child it was intended for. I also tried to make cleaning up into a game to make it more enjoyable. I would prompt children to find toys on the floor by singing, “Who can find the blue block on the floor, on the floor? Who can find the blue block on the floor? Put it away, don’t delay. Who can find the blue block on the floor?”

All in all, I found that children began to learn about cleaning up at their own pace and/or developmental level.  Children were just as motivated to clean up for the sake of cleaning up or because they knew that something new was coming next. They learned how to work as team and no one was ever singled out if they didn’t participate. There was a sense of community and everyone felt that they were an important part of that community.

How to Make the Most of Mealtime

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For parents and teachers, mealtime is not always the most enjoyable time of the day. Whether it be a child not wanting to eat what you serve, not wanting to leave an activity to come to the table, or just not knowing what to cook, mealtime can be seen as a stressful time. I have seen some incredible early childhood programs use mealtime not only to provide healthy, balanced meals, but also to provide an opportunity for supporting social skills and self help skills. I have seen an increase in “Family Style Dining” in many of the programs I have worked with.

Family style dining provides opportunities for children to practice patience, turn taking, and using manners. The children are able to pass the bowls of food and serve themselves. What better way to use those fine motor skills than by trying to balance the proper amount of spaghetti on your spoon and carefully moving it to your plate? Using utensils is a great way to work on those pre-writing skills through the use of those small muscles in the hand. The children are learning to be autonomous and independent. Allowing children to serve themselves may be messy at first, but it is worth it when the children become more coordinated and feel the sense of pride that comes with being trusted with these tasks. Family style dining allows for great conversation between the child and caregiver, and any chance to engage verbally with the children is fabulous.

Many programs are also looking into healthier meal planning, and I have seen children really learning to love healthy foods. This can also be a great parent engagement piece, educating families on health and nutrition. It is becoming rare to hear of families eating together at the table, and as child care providers we can lead by example and show the benefits of taking the time to enjoy meals together as a family. There are wonderful programs for parents and teachers,  such as My Plate, USDA Team Nutrition, and Let’s Move! Child Care. You can also download the free Family Style Dining Guide to get started on building healthy habits around eating in your program today. Bon Appetit!

Planning Individually

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Often times when I talk about planning for children, eyes widen at the thought of planning for each child in the classroom. There are many benefits when every child is considered in what goes on an activity plan. Children’s needs are met and they receive the quality care and education that they deserve. Below are some questions and thoughts around why planning individually is necessary and important for all age groups.

Why is planning for individual children important?

Every child is unique. This uniqueness should not be forgotten about or suppressed because group care is a reality and necessity for families. Although it may feel overwhelming at first, it is doable to plan for individual children within a larger group. Children benefit from individual planning when all aspects of development are considered. When you value a child’s uniqueness and learn about their strengths, these strengths can be used as tools to support other areas of learning and development.

What is considered when planning for individual children?

First and foremost, you need to understand child development when considering how to plan for all children in your care. This will help you plan for appropriate expectations and guidance no matter what age group. Children develop and learn in a certain sequence and there is a set of milestones to help assess if children are on the right track. Each child develops at their own rate and providing an enriching and open-ended environment can help children to achieve those milestones. In order to truly grasp “Approaches Towards Learning,” caregivers and teachers need to understand that their own agenda may not be the most appropriate for children. To truly support children’s learning and understanding of their world is to offer choices and freedom to play at their own risk.

How can you create a plan?

Routines and experiences can be individually planned for each child in your classroom and it doesn’t have to be as difficult as it may seem. Planning for routines means we consider how children may need support during events that happen consistently throughout each day, such as diapering/toileting, mealtimes, drop-off and pick-up.

Consider a newborn infant that is beginning group care at 6 weeks of age. They have already developed preferences. Their experiences and interactions with other people are their family. The family can give information about how much an infant is eating, how often, how they like to be held or not held. Gathering this information is all a part of planning for the individual child.

Experiences and activities can also be used to plan individually. A specific activity can be available to the whole group while intentionally giving a child that may need extra practice with a certain skill. Integrating learning concepts into a child’s favorite learning center, such as providing pretend cookies and a cookie sheet with a grid taped to it can be a way to introduce math concepts in the dramatic play area. Open-ended activities can offer many ways for children to use materials how they choose to and can offer insight on how to plan for each child

Although planning individually can seem daunting at first, there are several ways to simplify the process. Find time to observe children in the environment, watch and listen to what children have to say. Ask them what they want to learn about. Remember to consider every child in your care!

Math in the Early Years: Infants and Toddlers

sorting-with-toddlerMath skills can be introduced and reinforced in every classroom at every age. Developing math skills is a process which has many stages and requires foundation building. In fact, as early as infancy, math vocabulary and counting skills can be introduced through teacher modeling. Sounds crazy, but it’s true; language comprehension begins in infancy. Think about some of those finger play songs you sing and board books you’re reading to infants. Those activities are introducing math vocabulary, number words, and quantifying—and it’s not even taking place at the math center. When we think outside the math center box, we realize math concepts can be intertwined throughout every classroom area/activity, during daily routines, and even transitions. All it takes is a little intentional teaching and teacher-child engagement.

Let’s think about a few math staples that can be introduced and strengthened during this process of development. Here are some of the concepts you should be aware of, and some examples to support building the foundation for math with infants and toddlers:

Sorting—separating objects into groups according to attributes (i.e., sorting colored teddy bears could be done by grouping them into color sets).

  • Teachers can enhance sorting skills as they include fun facts into everyday conversations. For example, helping children organize or make sets by grouping them according to what color shirt they are wearing, Velcro shoes verses shoes that tie, or even materials grouped by texture (i.e., soft, hard, smooth, rough).

Global stage—child makes set perceptually (i.e., eye-balling it, taking a handful).

  • Helping children understand and construct math vocabulary can be done almost anytime and at any age. Think about that toddler in the dumping stage or a child engaged in a sorting activity. The intentional teacher will make comments or ask questions that provoke mathematical vocabulary words. For example, “Which pile do you think has more?” “When you remove a handful, you’re decreasing the amount in the pile,” and “Which piles look/are equal?” These interactions can also be relevant when the child is engaged in a sorting activity.

Rote counting—children verbally putting the number words in order (usually memorized, not necessarily quantifying objects).

  • A common rote counting activity for infants could be “1, 2, and 3, so big” or “1, 2, peek-a-boo.” As children get older the intentional teacher builds on those skills through interactions such as, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, JUMP!”, and of course counting books.

Spatial reasoning—the ability to understand and remember the spatial relations among objects.

  • Interacting with puzzles, setting out chairs at snack time, exploring with and climbing inside boxes, and even giving children the opportunty to independently self-feed are all activities that will support spatial reasoning skills.

Children start to build a foundation for math at a very young age. These skills can be introduced and reinforced in every classroom area, during everyday transitions or routines, and with every age group. How are you supporting math skills outside the math center?

Stay tuned for Math in the Early Years Part 2: Continuing to strengthen the foundation for quantifying in preschool.

Change Is Hard.

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Summer is upon us. School has ended and many transitions are happening. For me, I have had to adjust my route to work because my son is going to summer camp instead of the bus stop or the drop off line at school. I have to remember to pack his lunch and the items in his backpack have changed. Rather than homework and a clarinet, there needs to be sunscreen, a water bottle, swim suit and a towel. Now that my son is eleven and knows that summer means a break from school (except for summer homework), it is an awesome and exciting event each year. These types of transitions have not always been so smooth.

Change is difficult for people in general. Especially when our typical routine is disrupted by life changes, such as moving from one classroom to another. All children need a strong, secure attachment in order to feel safe in their environment. A child’s temperament can dictate how they will react to change and the intensity to which they will need support from a new caregiver to feel safe and secure in their new environment. There is no telling, sometimes, how long this support will have to last.

Here are some tips for caregivers to use to support a child’s transition into a new classroom:

  • Understand that the way you have seen a child handle new situations can be a clue to how they will react in a new environment. If a child enters a new situation without much hesitation or little reassurance, this could indicate that a transition will run rather smoothly. A child that tends to have a tough time separating from their family at drop off or has the need of staying close to their caregiver may need added support through a transition.
  • Create a transition schedule to follow so that everyone is on the same page, this includes all caregivers/teachers and the child’s family. A sample schedule may consist of a span of two weeks. The first few days a child can have the opportunity to visit for an hour or two (with a current caregiver, if possible) and then return to the current environment. The time spent in the new environment should increase to include a lunch, naptime, afternoon and pick up experience. Note that this schedule may and will change based on the child.
  • Prepare children for change by making a transition book. Take pictures of the current and new classroom. Create a book to show children what is similar between the current classroom and the new one, along with pictures that will show things that will be new, such as pictures of the new teachers. Allow children to take the book back and forth between home and the program so it can be read to them in both environments for consistency.
  • Offer the opportunity for a family member or caregiver to visit with the child in order to establish the sense of trust for the new environment. Set up a separation routine for children, which could consist of sitting down for a few minutes at the breakfast table, reading a book, or handing off to a caregiver before saying goodbye for the day.
  • Go with the child’s flow. If they are ready to explore, let them. If they need to be held, hold them. Holding children for long periods of time in group care can be challenging. During the times that you cannot do so, let the child know that you are going to put them down before doing so. Let them know they are welcome to stay close as you change a diaper or help another child at drop off. Telling this to children out loud as it happens will help children understand that even though you may not be able to hold them that they still matter and you are there for them.

All in all, it is important to remember not to rush into a transition. Keep in mind the importance of preparing children for what is coming next and that it can take time for children to adjust to a new environment and the new faces in the room. Be empathetic and compassionate to how children may feel and use the transition as a teachable moment to discuss feelings, promote pro-social behavior and as always remember to be flexible.

Process-Oriented Art With Toddlers

During my time as a toddler teacher, I learned that toddlers are capable, trustworthy and highly intelligent. This intelligence can be observed through the play that occurs when they are given open-ended materials to explore. Let’s look at an example of a process-oriented art activity and the ways that I would help facilitate learning during this activity:

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In this activity, the children were given a small amount of paint, a piece of paper and a paint brush. I wanted the focus of the painting activity to be on the act of painting, not choosing colors; therefore I chose to limit the choice of color (though this could be the subject of another blog). I have found that when young toddlers are given too many choices, they can become overwhelmed. I learned that when children begin to prefer or like a particular color, they will ask for it, therefore the proper thing to do is provide it if possible.

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A process-oriented art activity allows children to explore art mediums in the way they feel most comfortable. Here a child can be seen pouring the paint in the cup out onto the paper. This is okay. Another thing I would see children do is finger paint rather than use the paint brush. They would also rub their hands together and cover their hands in the paint. These actions paved the way to talk about the texture of the paint and ask questions such as, “How does the paint feel?” and, “What are you doing with the paint?” It is also a great time to use vocabulary such as cold, gooey, slippery, smooth, silky and slick. The amount of paint that is in the cup is enough for a child to explore and play with but is limited to control some of the mess it may make—although making a mess can be the best part of an art experience!

Some other tips for open-ended art activities with toddlers:

  • Offer materials that work for the developmental level of the children.
  • Plan and discuss with your team ahead of time how you will prepare, execute and clean up. This preparation ensures minimal wait time: when children come to the table the materials are readily available, and a plan of action is in place for when they are ready to walk away.
  • Invite children to participate, yet refrain from making the activity mandatory. Let children know what they can do such as, “Stay at the table with the paint,” or “Let me know when you are all done.”
  • Support creativity by refraining from telling children what to make with their art supplies. As children grow older and their fine motor skills develop, it may be appropriate to offer ideas around technique or to model how material can be used to challenge a child that may be ready for something new.