Category Archives: learning through play

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:


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.


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.

Game On!


It is becoming less common to see a child playing a board game in this day of technology, where video games, iPads and phones with game apps are everywhere. What children seem to desire and need more than anything is time spent together with the adults in their lives. Why not grab a board game and show a child that you have an hour or two to focus on having fun while teaching many lifelong skills?

Board games reinforce many social skills such as sharing, waiting, taking turns, self regulation, interacting with peers and winning and losing gracefully. Children benefit cognitively from board games as well, developing skills such as sorting, matching, classifying and problem solving. Executive function is vital to social emotional development and growth. Board games foster executive function skills such as flexible thinking, memory and self control. Children learn to predict the outcome of alternative moves. In a game as simple as Candyland, children are developing one-to-one correspondence while counting. Games such as Memory, Bingo, Checkers, and Dominoes get everyone involved in a hands-on activity as they are learning many important skills through play.

As educators, we know that children learn more when they attempt to explain their reasoning. Take the opportunity while playing a game to ask children open-ended questions such as, “Why did you choose to make that move?” or, “How did you decide which way to go?” These questions will allow them to grow intellectually by explaining their thought process. Preschoolers are capable of absorbing and memorizing facts much quicker than adults. Give them the chance to be successful and gain self confidence during a board game in the classroom.

Encourage families to play board games at home by sharing the many benefits for children. As a bonus, board games can help grandma and grandpa as well! Games and puzzles, along with other thought-provoking activities, keeps memory function performing at a higher level. Your preschooler can help grandparents avoid the risk of memory loss! Share this resource on the top preschool board games with families in your program.

As I reflect on my childhood, some of the most precious memories I have involve playing games with my dad. There was not a night that went by in my childhood when my dad wasn’t up for a game of Checkers, Connect Four, or a long competitive UNO championship. I can still remember my excitement when I used my last DRAW FOUR card just when my dad was just about to say UNO… Looking back, it was not just the game I enjoyed, but the undivided attention my dad gave me while taking the time to play with me. It was that joy of competition he instilled in me that makes me enjoy winning to this day. If this is still one of my favorite memories almost 40 years later, imagine what a gift we are giving to our children when we make time for them. No matter how you look at family game night, everyone wins!

Block Play: What Are Children Learning?

block-playEarly childhood education is focused on children learning through play. Research has proven children learn through “hands on” engagement and through social interactions with adults and other children. One of the struggles I see educators facing is explaining this to parents. As teachers, how do we explain to families that yes, their child is playing with blocks, but as they play they are strengthening several areas of development? As I thought about this question several cognitive, social, emotional, and motor skills came to mind that educators can share with parents. The following is a list that you can share with parents about the different skills their children are learning as they play with blocks, and the learning domains that go along with each skill.

When building with blocks, children are:

  • Using oral language in a variety of situations (Language/Literacy)
  • Matching objects in a one-to-one correspondence (Cognitive—Math)
  • Learning appropriate social skills for group behavior (Social, Emotional)
  • Using vocabulary to designate quantities (Language/Literacy, Cognitive—Math)
  • Using vocabulary to designate relationships (Language/Literacy, Cognitive—Math)
  • Demonstrating concepts of part/whole (Cognitive—Math)
  • Using vocabulary to compare objects (i.e., same/different or more/less) (Language/Literacy, Cognitive—math)
  • Forming groups by sorting and matching objects according to their attributes (Cognitive—Math)
  • Knowing and discussing the consequences of actions in social relationships (Language/Literacy, Cognitive—Science)
  • Acquiring non-locomotor movement skills (Physical/Fine-motor)
  • Creating, repeating, and/or extending patterns (Cognitive—Math)
  • Developing hand-eye coordination (Physical/Fine-motor)
  • Observing and following safety rules (Social, Emotional)
  • Learning ordering (Cognitive—Math)
  • Learn mapping skills (Cognitive—Math)
  • Learn physical representations of addition and subtraction (Cognitive—Math)
  • Develop classification skills (Cognitive—Math)
  • Learn size and shape recognition, differentiation, and relations (Cognitive—Math)
  • Discuss ways people help each other (Social, Emotional)
  • Understand gravity, stability, weight, and balance (Cognitive—Science)
  • Think, create, and implement plans (Cognitive, Social, Emotional)
  • Discover properties of matter (Cognitive—Science)
  • Discover the names and functions of buildings (Social, Cognitive, Language)
  • Develop respect for the work of others (Social, Emotional)
  • Make choices; make decisions (Social, Emotional)

 Children are doing so much more than just playing in your classroom. How will you communicate this to families? How can you advocate for play in your program/community?

Kindergarten Readiness Begins at Home

kindergarten-readinessThis time of year, we begin to hear the buzz of parents, teachers, and others discussing kindergarten readiness. “Is my child ready academically?” “Is my child ready socially?” Teachers work hard all year to prepare little ones so that they are ready for kindergarten. Parents depend on information from their child’s preschool teacher to assure them that their child is ready for the next step in their educational journey. Parents also seek opinions from family members, friends and fellow dance and soccer parents. “Should I hold him back since he has a summer birthday?” “Should I send her even though she seems immature socially, yet ready academically?” What can you do to help educate the parents of children in your preschool program about kindergarten readiness?

As early childhood professionals, we know that children will be screened for readiness in five critical areas known as Learning Domains and that there are developmental standards that a child will need to meet in each domain before they can begin kindergarten. Teachers in preschool programs work with children on these during the day, but do parents in your program feel equipped and understand the importance of also working with children at home?

So much learning takes place when children are engaged in play. Encourage parents to find simple moments in each day to help children become “kindergarten ready.” You can share this list with parents of things they can do at home to promote school readiness.

Keeping the lines of communication open with parents is key to successful school readiness. Sharing the results of screenings and assessments helps the parent understand where the child is developmentally, and what areas need to be improved. Keeping parents informed of the a child’s progress helps them reinforce what they are learning. There are many resources that you can share with parents. Five to Thrive is our local campaign to promote kindergarten readiness and registration information. Share the “Readiness Check-up Quiz” where parents can assess their child at home to see if they are developmentally on track.

Let Children Stop and Smell the Roses

Let the children play!Over the years I have observed in dozens of preschool classrooms, and there is a recurring theme that seems to appear in each room at some point: rushing the children. To start a task, to finish a task, to think about a task, you name it and they are told to do it quickly. We as teachers are natural planners, and as you know, planners have schedules and schedules are meant to be followed. So if there are 20 minutes set aside for circle time, as we watch the clock for 9:50, we are ready to rush the end of the story, ask the children to stop in mid-thought or sentence, and move along to the center time. As children are dismissed to go to the various interest centers, they are told to move along, they must not stop to play with toys, dance on their way to the table, or pause to admire a friend’s sparkly new shirt. As an observer, I have seen children working so diligently on a project only to be told, “That’s enough; you need to finish up.”

Children are naturally curious. So much of their learning comes from hands-on exploration and investigation. There is value in a preschool child taking more time at the art table to create a rocket ship than the 20 minutes the teacher has set aside. If we give children time to analyze, problem solve, brainstorm, and compare and classify, they will become independent critical thinkers. Granted, there is not always unlimited time, but allowing children to be creative, appreciate the details, and be active problem solvers takes time.

  • If you are doing a cooking activity and the children want to crack the eggs and stir the batter and you have the urge to do it so it gets done faster, resist the urge. Let the children teach you to slow down and live in the moment.
  • When you are walking outside and a child holds up the line as he kneels down to look at an earthworm, try to encourage his curiosity instead of extinguishing it.
  • If you ask a child to get an instrument out of the music box and he stops to shake, play and strum each one he picks up until he finds it, try to stop and listen to the music. He is learning about the world around him and all the possibilities.

We tend to say children are “distracted” when they stop to notice 10 different things while on the way to complete a task. Perhaps they are not distracted, but engaged in life and appreciating the details. Maybe we as teachers can benefit from small distractions as well.

We teach our children that if we don’t hurry up we are going to miss the next thing on the agenda. I truly believe that in the process of being rushed we are missing so much more. Next time you wait patiently while a preschooler puts on a feather boa, cowboy boots, two crowns, three necklaces and the perfect purse, try to remember how many times they have waited patiently for us. If we let our children stop to smell the roses, chances are we will learn to do the same.

Let Mother Nature Do the Teaching

Take a hike! Let mother nature do the teaching.

Take a hike! Let mother nature do the teaching.

Welcome Kelly Ely, 4C for Children Professional Development Specialist, to the blog team for 2016!

Exploring the outdoors is an incredible way to promote development in preschool children. The opportunities to encourage children’s inquiry and learning are endless. Experiences in nature can allow teachers to focus on all developmental domains—including cognitive, social emotional, physical well being, language and literacy, and the child’s approach toward learning. Children are naturally curious; therefore a nature trail is the perfect environment to prompt children to ask questions that lead to higher-level thinking.

Think of the woods as an outdoor classroom. The teacher can call attention to specific items seen on a hiking trail, such as animal homes, rocks, various trees, and plants. Often times in a classroom, teachers ask students to “stop talking” during lessons. While taking a nature walk, children will undoubtedly be inspired to talk to one another, fostering language development. Teachers can ask questions such as, “What do you think birds use to build their nests?” and the children can work together to discuss their hypothesis with other students. Collaboration is one of the keys to successful social emotional development. Successful team work creates a positive climate in the classroom. Students are empowered by the idea that they are explorers working together to get answers. Empathy, another important social emotional skill, can be encouraged in such as teaching children to be gentle with nature and not destroy or damage animal homes.

The opportunities for physical development in nature are endless. Beyond students running, walking, bending and following a trail, teachers can use this time to engage their fine motor skills. Picking up leaves, small rocks, and other small objects enhance children’s ability to use their pincher grasp with their index finger and thumb. Children love the challenge brought by this hands on task.

Items both large and small can be brought back to the classroom to further investigate and examine in depth. Student’s will enjoy activities that allow them to be “scientists” as they compare, contrast and classify items that they have discovered.  Children feel trusted and independent when teachers give them tools and ask them to investigate their findings and report what they see. A love of science grows from learning that exploring can be fun, as well as educational.

Before taking children on a nature walk, I would suggest reading a well-illustrated nature book as an introduction. This provides a great opportunity for children to become familiar with things to look for on the walk. It also allows provides a time to brainstorm with the children about what they already know about nature and what they would like to learn. Teacher’s can take learning to the next level after the walk is completed by placing books in the library relating to things seen on their adventure.

These teachable moments are not limited to preschool teachers; parents can share these same experiences at home with their children. If you do not have access to a nature trail, look no further than your own backyard or school yard for these opportunities to expand your child’s learning. Remember as you create lesson plans for your classroom or plan learning experiences for your child… there is a whole world of possibilities outside waiting to be explored!

Technology and the early childhood classroom

classroom tech

I have a love/hate relationship with technology in early childhood education. On one hand—I believe that children construct knowledge through play, and I don’t believe that technology is as useful in that way. On the other hand—technology is becoming more and more of a necessity in our society. So, should children have opportunities to explore technology in our ECE classrooms? As children advance to kindergarten and beyond, using technology in the classroom is mandatory. Some children have the opportunity and resources to be introduced to technology in their homes—through gaming systems, computers, iPods/iPads and their parents’ smart phones. Let’s face it; some would even argue that technology/televisions are becoming our children’s playmates at home.

Since many children have all this exposure to technology at home, why would we need to incorporate it in our preschool classrooms? Something to consider: this exposure doesn’t occur in every home. Some children do not have the opportunity or resources to be introduced to technology at home or it might be something that is off limits. For example, when my son was younger, he was not allowed to play on the computer. Since it was not something I could easily replace at the drop of a dime, I could not take the chance of it breaking. I saw my computer as being a necessity for survival and my family’s future, to be used only for work and to continue my education; it was not toy. Some may say he was at a disadvantage entering kindergarten due to his lack of technology experience at home.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all about balance. As educators, we know children learn through play, hands-on experiences, interacting with their peers and conversations with their teachers/adults. I personally would love to see more teachers using technology as an opportunity to enhance development through investigation and exploration with children. Too often I see children plopped down at the computer playing some kind of “interactive” game in silence. These children are typically isolating themselves—escaping social interactions with their peers and teacher. They sit and watch the screen, clicking the mouse occasionally. Instead, I would love to observe teachers becoming co-researchers with their children! Incorporate technology to follow the child’s lead and expand knowledge. Teachers can use technology to take advantage of teachable moments with children, for example, when a child asks questions about where an animal lives or what they eat, that’s the perfect opportunity to pull out technology to further their knowledge. As educators we want to encourage children to be curious, thirsty for more knowledge, and lifelong learners.

Ask yourself these questions before implementing technology in your classroom:

  • What is the purpose?
  • How will the children use it?
  • What will the children gain from it?

Even though children who don’t get early exposure to technology may be at a disadvantage in that area when they begin school, they do catch on quickly! Since my son started kindergarten, he hasn’t missed a beat with technology. In fact, he’s even taught me a thing or two. My son had been equipped for future learning in his early years because of the quality of engagement from his teachers. If technology is not an option for your early childhood program, remember that the most important thing that we can do for children is to offer them opportunities to gain knowledge through meaningful interactions and engagement.