Category Archives: learning through play

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

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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?

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.

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.

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.

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.