Category Archives: learning through play

Beat the Winter Wiggles!

winter-play

Colder weather can sometimes limit the amount of time children spend outside playing, but it is important to continue to make time for physical activity! Children need opportunities to release energy throughout the day and your indoor classroom can still be the perfect place for this to happen. Here are some ways to keep your children moving inside when it’s too cold to head outside:

Dance—An easy favorite for any age! Put on some tunes and let the children show off their moves! Some different variations of the activity can mix things up. Freeze Dance (children dance while the music plays and then freeze when the music stops) and songs with motions (Tooty Ta by Dr. Jean, Shake Your Sillies Out by the Wiggles, the Hokey Pokey to name a few) are quick, easy, and so much fun!

Activity Dice—Using any small square boxes, create two activity dice by adding some paper to the outside. Have the children come up with six ways to move around (jump, skip, frog hop, jumping jacks, stomp, crawl etc.) and write these on one box. On the second box, write the numbers 1-6. Children can take turns rolling the two dice to see how many times they have to perform an activity (3 jumping jacks, or 6 stomps)!

Act out stories—Let the children become the story by acting out their favorite books! Practice positional words by going on an adventurous bear hunt (“We’re Going On a Bear Hunt” by Michael Rosen). Grab a large white sheet and watch your students turn into forest animals looking for warmth in a giant mitten while you read aloud “The Mitten” by Jan Brett. A great way to work on reading comprehension while having a blast!

Obstacle Course—Use items in your classroom to create a safe and active obstacle course. Whether students are crawling under tables, balancing on a beam of masking tape on the floor, or tossing beanbags through a hula hoop, they are using many different muscles throughout the course.

Balloon ball—Blow up a single balloon and have the children work together to see how long they can keep the balloon from falling and hitting the floor! If team work is tough for your age group, give each student their own balloon for the same activity.

Scavenger hunt—Give clues for children to find specific objects around the classroom. For a simpler version, give everyone a color or shape and have children find items throughout the room that fit the category.

Follow the Leader—Quack like a duck, put your hands on top of your head, or spin around three times, the choice is yours! Lead your students through a series of actions to keep them moving. Let your students take turns leading their classmates and see what they come up with!

Pretend sports—Who needs actual sports equipment when we have our imagination? Pretend to dribble a ball down the court for the winning shot or throw a baseball for a friend to catch. We can still work on the moves even without the materials!

Four Things That Don’t Help Children Learn

free-play

I recently read a blog titled, 4 Things Worse Than Not Learning to Read in Kindergarten. This blog made a huge impact on me because it is written from a parent’s point of view. I have had to have many crucial conversations through my experience in the early childhood field, around developmentally appropriate goals for children during their early years. This is in spite of how it has been proven that children learn best through play and being allowed to follow their interests. The thing that concerns me the most is that many programs, schools, and families are putting pressure on children who are entering preschool that is not developmentally appropriate.

Using the same four “worse things” that are presented in the blog, I hope to capture the disturbing similarities that are happening to not only preschoolers but infants and toddlers, as well.

Limited time for creative play. There is such a focus on learning the ABCs and 123s that children are losing valuable time just getting to be children. During free play, teachers are often caught up in preparing for teacher directed activities rather than spending time observing, interacting, modeling, and wondering with children while they play. When children are permitted to have choices on where to play, they are many times stopped from taking a toy from one area to another or use materials in a manner for which they may not have been originally intended. Group times are spent going over posters of colors and shapes, calendar, and weather rather than having a “meeting of the minds.” What do children want to learn about? What is new in the room they will get to explore? Are there any changes to the routine or a new activity that can be discussed that could help limit challenges to transitions and set limits or explain expectations? Or perhaps a formal group time isn’t needed at all. Offer several opportunities throughout the day to read books and sing songs just because it is fun and that is what children want to do in that moment.

Limited physical activity. Children need action! Movement helps to build the brain. Children are wired to move. They need to experience the verbs of life not just learn about what they are. They need to have ample opportunity to push, pull, carry, hop, run, chase, crawl and climb. Not only is gross motor and outside time limited, children are expected to wait for long periods of time, to sit a particular way, such as crisscross applesauce or to catch a bubble while walking through the halls. How long can you sit with your legs crossed? When was the last time you walked with your peers and refrained from having a conversation in the hallway? Wouldn’t it be more appropriate to teach them how to sit comfortably so that they can listen to the book that is being read? Maybe they need to wiggle or would like to lean against their buddy/friend while they listen. Too many times, I hear adults telling children how to sit or to be quiet that it takes twice as long to read a book and then the children who were interested at the beginning of the book become uninterested.

Teaching that focuses on standards and testing. Yes, standards and assessments have made their way into early childhood settings just as they have in elementary, middle and high school. When used appropriately these standards and assessments can shed light on how to plan, provide a roadmap for consistency and measure learning and development. When used inappropriately, they drive decision making around funding and put unneeded pressure on teachers, which ultimately affects the children. I have often been asked, “How am I going to teach everything that is in the assessment?” The purpose of the assessment it to track learning, not dictate what must be taught.

Frustration and a sense of failure. In my opinion, this is the worst of the “4 worse things.” No child should ever be made to feel less than human for not being able to perform. Especially when it is based on expectations that are practically unattainable such as a stringent focus on academics and lengthy group times. Children should be treated with the same respect that we expect from others. I often try to help teachers see things from a child’s perspective by putting them in a similar scenario such as long lines at the grocery store check out or an unexpected deadline that doesn’t fit in your schedule. Hopefully, adults have learned the skills that are needed to be successful in these situations, yet we know that isn’t always the case. How can we expect children to have those same skills? They need to be supported and guided to learn how to sit for long periods of time, not by sitting for long periods of time but by being able to work at the level they are ready for and work towards new goals. Children should feel safe with their teachers and know that it is okay to make mistakes because making mistakes is how we learn to make changes for the better. If children are shamed and humiliated for the mistakes they make, they will become scared of making mistakes and could ultimately stop trying altogether.

All in all, I encourage readers to read the original blog. It has links to the research behind why there are four worse things than learning to read. Young children learn best through play; they need to practice skills over and over again in order to get them right. This includes social interaction and mastering their sense of self. Children should be allowed to be children for as long as possible—to play and love life so that they foster their own love of learning.

Get Outside. Every. Single. Day.

play-outside

One of my very first memories as a child is walking to the corner store with my mom when I was probably around 3. This was something we did at least once a week to get odds and ends like milk or a loaf of bread. The store was literally two blocks from our house and would’ve taken us less than a minute to drive there, but we chose to walk.

On those walks, I made a game out of seeing how far I could kick a pebble down the street before it went off into the gutter. On those walks, I practiced my balance as I tiptoed along the low, stone wall that ran along the alley. On those walks, my mom and I would talk about the animals we saw in the small fish pond in Mrs. Marigi’s backyard as we passed by her fence. On those walks, time fell away and the world around me became my playground.

As a child, I recognized that being outside made me feel happy. Riding my bike as fast as I could in the summer sun, jumping in piles of freshly raked autumn leaves, sledding down the biggest hill in the neighborhood in winter, and practicing my best umbrella twirl as the spring rain fell are memories I cherish. Every season of the year holds beauty and joy to me because of the outdoor play-based experiences I had year round as a child.

Getting outside every day is critical for children. It enhances their physical, cognitive and social-emotional development all at once. It keeps them healthier by giving them regular doses of fresh air (which helps stave off respiratory illnesses) and sunshine (which gives children the Vitamin D necessary for building strong bones and teeth). Time spent outdoors also gives children necessary exposure to germs, which in turn boosts their immune systems.

So, as an early childhood professional, here are some ways you can facilitate daily outdoor play in your program:

  • Build outside time into your daily schedule. If you plan time for it, you’re more likely to follow through with it. Spend time outside each day, but pay attention to the weather, and use common sense when making decisions about going outside on any given day. If you typically have 30 minutes scheduled for outside time, but there’s a heat advisory, thunder and lightning, high winds, or extreme cold, you might want to rethink your outside plan that day.
  • Plan activities for outdoor time on your lesson/activity plan. Make outside time learning time. Take materials from the classroom outside (books, trucks, dolls, blocks, etc.) and see what happens. Move circle time outside under a tree. Have a snack on a picnic blanket.
  • Be aware that outside time doesn’t have to mean “playground” time. Many early childhood programs have the luxury of having a designated outdoor playspace, but some do not. Outdoor time comes in many forms – taking a walk, finding shapes in the clouds, catching snowflakes on your tongue… the possibilities are endless!
  • Keep individual children’s’ needs and comfort in mind, and act accordingly. Make considerations for children with plant or seasonal allergies. Ensure children are wearing sunscreen. Make sure all children have access to clean drinking water. As you venture outside, keep a close eye on each child’s physical appearance and take cues from them about when it’s time to go in. If you’ve got 30 minutes of outdoor time scheduled, but children appear flushed and are sweating excessively after only 5 minutes, it’s time to take them inside.
  • Communicate with families about the benefits of daily outdoor play, and dressing children appropriately for the weather each day. Remind them as the weather changes to adjust their children’s clothing accordingly. As someone once told me, “There’s no bad weather, only bad clothing!”
  • Keep spare weather appropriate clothes on hand at school for children. This can be in the form of extra clothes a child keeps in his/her cubby, or even a stash of extra gloves, hats, mittens, jackets, etc. that the teacher keeps in the classroom. If everyone’s dressed comfortably, there’s NO EXCUSE not to go outside!

The Great Outdoors is a place where children learn skills and concepts that will last them the rest of their lives. It is a place of wonder, curiosity, critical thinking and problem-solving. Be the person who provides the setting for those things to happen. Get children outside. Every. Single. Day!

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!

School Is Out…What Do We Do Now?

summerplaySummer is here and if you are like me, a routine master, you are in a panic. School is over and children are shouting, “I am BORED!” You realize that the time you had celebrating the end of a successful school year must come to an end as you begin planning a summer program. Unfortunately, that time has slipped away and you are scrambling to find ideas, theme/unit items, guest speakers and field trip forms. PAUSE. Teacher life does not have to be chaotic and always busy with grandiose activities. Plan activities that you would like to enjoy with your children and SLOW DOWN.

On our first day of the summer program when I was still teaching, I gathered my class of preschoolers on our group time rug. We sat and talked about what they wanted to do to have fun in our summer before they started ‘big kid school’ in the fall. It may not seem like a big thing to do, however, making it a priority to sit down and include children in the planning is the best thing you can do to make your summer awesome! Here are three simple tips to help you and your planners come up with safe, age-appropriate ideas.

  1. Give real expectations and choices. Kids might come up with about 9,000 ways to blow your supply budget and your stress limit. Setting limits and goals are okay, talk it out! Help children to work through the critical thinking and reasoning process.
  2. Make a map. Sometimes the best plans for your students can be better examined with charting! Written lists can also help them express their opinions and interests in a concrete way. You can make one list of plans the staff members want to do, one list of things children want to do, and compare the lists that both the staff and the children can do together.
  3. Research and choose. Pinterest makes visual organization a breeze. Also, going to the library to look at books together to get ideas is wonderful. You can take the more hands-on approach and make a collage of activities on poster paper using magazines and other paper material. Let your children help you look for ideas on the list. Whatever the activity— creating art, outdoor activity, cooking lesson—it is right there for our children who are still learning. It gives them a chance to make connections.

After all of your hard work with your ‘assistants,’ your summer will be something that you and your children have always wanted. No stress involved (or very little). If I have learned anything from teaching, this one thing is true: the fun plans you have intended for the children to do are not always as good as the children’s ideas of fun. Let them take the lead—within reason. Find out what makes things fun for your children and watch the laughter, smiles and precious moments appear. Collect those teachable moments, not the material things, and everyone will have a very happy summer.

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.

Science in ECE: It’s Not All Cocoons and Butterflies

science

Recently I had the opportunity to observe a teacher during outside time. This teacher was actively engaged with the children as she supervised her class. She took the time to stop and interact with them, constantly asking open-ended questions. As she walked around the playground she made comments to a small group of children using funnels and buckets in the sand box. At her next stop she helped children collect rocks and then sort them. She helped as children gathered and tossed leaves up in the air to watch them swirl around in the wind. The children giggled as she joined them in their shadow dancing/jumping game.

As I debriefed with the teacher after the observation, one of the areas in which she requested support was science. I asked about past activities. Which activities she felt went well, which activities didn’t go well and why. With excitement in her tone, she dove right into telling me about her butterfly project last spring and how the children loved observing the daily progress of the transformation to the release of them on the playground. Then she discussed a volcano explosion demonstration that flopped. I believe reflection is an important part of the planning/teaching process in ECE (and even life in general). Understanding which element was successful or unsuccessful, why it went wrong, or how it could have been done differently is a great strategy for an educator to continuously grow in this field. After reflecting for a few moments, she said the volcano flopped because the children weren’t interested in it. As we began to problem-solve WHY the children weren’t as interested in the volcano as they were in the butterflies, she stated, “Because it’s not a real life experience for them. It’s not something they see in their everyday world.” I immediately thought, BINGO! If it’s not meaningful to children, they’re not going to be engaged. One of my favorite things in ECE is adapting and even disguising learning concepts through topics of interest for children and of course play interactions.

As I read her my notes from the playground observation, she realized science was everywhere! Through her engagement and open-ended questions she was already fostering those early science skills. As we continued to reflect on that morning, she was able to make connection between those activities and the Early Learning and Development Standards (ELDS). Here’s what we discovered:

Cognition and General Knowledge: Sub-domain: Science

  • Exploring sand using funnels and buckets= ELDS strand: Science inquiry and application. Topic: Cause and effect
  • Collecting and sorting rocks = ELDS strand: Science inquiry and application. Topic: Inquiry
  • Investigating leaves being tossed in the air= ELDS strand: Earth and space science. Topic: Explorations of the natural world
  • Jumping shadows= ELDS strand: Physical science. Topic: Explorations of energy

Science in early childhood education is fostering a world FULL of wonder. While creating this world of wonder, your classroom doesn’t have to look like a science fair. So when you’re planning for your children, reflect on what is happening around them. What do you see them interested in and what are they asking questions about? What are they experiencing in their everyday world and how can you expand on it?