Category Archives: Preschool

Art vs. Crafts

Every parent likes to see something that is cute and well put together that “their child made” such as sun catchers or that cute hand-print frame that is sitting on their desk at work. During the summer, lots of programs have different projects, and parents want to see what they do. HOWEVER, the question lingers in one’s mind—how much of that project did the child actually make? Craft projects are fine every now and then, but is it really something that a young child understands? Process art is different than crafting—it’s about the journey a child takes to get to their end product. It is way more fun, hands on, and appropriate for a young child to do. With process art, a child is able to:

  1. Work fine motor muscles. Working with different types of tools/media they can build the hand muscles for better dexterity. This lays the foundation for cutting and writing. Examples of this could be setting out a hole punch and pieces of paper, using scissors to cut straws or clay.
  2. Enhance critical thinking skills. When a child is in the creative process, his/her mind is thinking out ways to make/create the subject at hand. Gathering information and hypothesizing how to create the artwork builds the mind for thinking out other scenarios children may face throughout everyday events. Instead of laying out specific supplies for the children to all come to the same end result, give lots of options: hole punches, stamps, stickers, beads, string, tongue depressors, pom poms, glue, scissors—the possibilities are endless!
  3. Express themselves. If you provide the materials, they will come! Allowing the child to experiment will result in something that has meaning for them. Sitting and asking questions about the creative process also helps the child develop the language and vocabulary for something that they may have never been able to talk about before. For example, something you may ask would be, “Why did you choose the felt to make the dog’s ears?” or “How can you attach the ears to the paper?” You can also help them express what they created by writing about it. This gives the families the story and process behind the masterpiece.

Art in an early childhood program is about more than just making something cute; it is creating the moments for a child to discover and learn. I said it before and I will say it again: let children have the time to play and try new things. After all, learning through play is how a child learns best!

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.

Helping Children say Goodbye

saying-goodbye-for-the-dayI have never liked to say goodbye to those I care about. It felt better to say, “See you later,” or “Take care,” rather than “Goodbye.”  Saying these phrases had less finality. It helped me feel at ease as I separated from my family and friends. Realizing how uncomfortable I felt saying goodbye to my loved ones helped me to understand the importance of supporting children as they learned how to cope with separating from their family for the day.

It is important that adults offer this support so that children can understand why they separate from their family and have the opportunity to learn about the emotions they’re feeling.  These feelings do not have to be avoided—they need to be supported! Here are a few ways to support children and their families as they say, “See you later.”

Create a Calm, Inviting Environment

Setting a mood in the morning can be a beneficial way of supporting children when they are dropped off. If the size of the classroom permits, provide a small couch or love seat for children to sit on with their families during a drop off routine (see below). Make sure children know where their personal items belong. When children have a space of their own in a classroom, it can add to the sense of belonging. Remember that if children are not ready to take off their coat or jacket right away, it is okay. They may need to hold on to an item from home to help them feel safe. It is also helpful to encourage families to bring in comfort items such as a blanket, a stuffed animal or photo book from home to help keep a connection between home and school.

Say Hello and Make Yourself Available

Greet every child and family member that walks through the classroom door. Make sure to use names; having a cheat sheet can be helpful in remembering everyone’s name. It is important for everyone to feel comfortable when they enter a classroom. When children see their teacher conversing with their family members, it helps to build the trust that is needed between teacher and child.

It can be helpful to observe and reflect on the kind of support the child and family needs when a child is having a hard time separating from their family. Some children feel supported when their parent hands them off to their teacher. Others may just need some extra time with their parent, so encouraging them to create a drop off routine can be helpful (see below). Based on that routine, the teacher my need to remind children and their family what the routine is or to make sure all elements for that routine are available. It is best to refrain from being too forceful for the family to separate. This can be a sensitive and challenging part of the day for all involved. Sometimes a simple, “Let me know when you are ready to leave and I will help,” can be all that is needed. The important thing is to be available.

Encourage a Drop Off Routine

Children thrive on consistency. Drop off routines can be successful in establishing smooth and consistent separation. Encourage families to think about what works best for them. Are they typically in a hurry or do they have flexibility to ease a child into the classroom?  Encourage families to start off by helping children to put their items in their cubby and then washing their hands. A parent may be able to engage in some play with their child for a few minutes before leaving. Offer breakfast throughout the morning and make it a choice for children. Another routine that works well is for the family member to sit and read a book or two with their child before separating for the day. It may also be important for the adult to pick the number of books and stick to that number. This may be something that the teacher can help reinforce.

Offer Interesting Choices

Having several popular activities available for children to choose from can be helpful when separating for the day. Knowing children’s typical schedules and what their interests are can be helpful for children as they separate from their family. I had success opening the sensory table in the early morning. Sensory play can be a magnet for young children which can help children be ready to explore the classroom because it is interesting and fun, therefore saying goodbye may not feel so pressing and hard.

All in all, the most important thing is to help children feel comfortable while they are at your program. It can take some time to find out exactly what works for each child. No matter how uncomfortable separations may feel, they are important. Make sure that children have the opportunity to say “Goodbye, see you later” or “After while, crocodile!”

The Dreaded Parent-Teacher Conference

trey-drinking-the-water

As the parent of a “spirited” child, I myself get anxious about parent-teacher conferences!

Preparing for any parent-teacher conference takes time, but more time may be needed for more challenging children. These more “challenging children” are typically the ones we wish were absent on those mornings we forget our coffee, but at the same time they’re our favorites! Teachers often refer to these children as “spirited.” Which doesn’t mean they are bad children by any means; it just means they challenge us as teachers—which in return makes us better teachers. My son was and still is referred to as “spirited.” (He is pictured above, drinking the sensory activity water.)

No matter how nervous we may be prior to a conference, the parents of “spirited” children are just as anxious. Don’t forget these are the parents who are probably growing accustom to only hearing the negative or challenging aspects about their child. They consistently feel as if they need to defend their children because all they hear is the bad, and they know there is good inside there too! Keep in mind every parent loves to hear positive and funny stories about their children; that’s a great place to start the conversation.

Here are some key steps to a successful parent-teacher conference:

  • Interact with the children in your care. This should occur constantly throughout the year, everyday—not just before conferences. If you’re not interacting with the child chances are you have very little information on that child. As you interact with children, engaging them in play and conversation, you’re able to discover their skills, abilities, and developmental levels. You also establish what their interests are which you can use to entice them to learn or enhance skills.
  • Determine goals based on those everyday interactions. Where does this child need support? I found sometimes starting with a few goals is more productive than having goal overload. It’s easier to focus and plan for between one and three at a time. Plus this focus and planning will increase the child’s chances for success surrounding that goal. More goals can always be added later when the child is ready. Allowing the parents the option to add a goal is a great way to create a teaching team between school and home.
  • Create an action plan of how you’re going to support that child with each goal. This is the step a lot of teachers skip. Children don’t magically develop the skills needed to reach our goals, they get there through play, repetition, and our intentional planning. Document and explain to parents what YOU are going to do to help support their child using concrete examples. For instance, if Johnny’s goal is to recognize his name in print, but avoids the writing center like the plague, how can you use Johnny’s interests and favorite areas to intentionally plan for letter recognition through play? What kinds of playful interactions can families do at home to reinforce concepts and skills? I’ve found that suggesting “activities” to parents adds pressure and more often than not, there’s no follow through. However, everyday, intentional interactions are much easier steps for parents because there is no prep time or materials to gather. It can simply happen in the car or during dinner. Communicating your action plan takes some of the anxiety off parent’s shoulders and gives them ideas of how to make learning fun. Plus, it puts them more at ease during the meeting knowing you already have a plan to help their child. Again this helps create the teaching team between school and home.
  • Put it all in writing. Prior to the meeting, document your talking points, goals and action plan examples to ensure you’re not forgetting anything. It’s not only professional, but when parents see that you’re plan is documented, they know you’re going to follow through.

Most importantly please remember, regardless of what our biases and opinions are telling us, ALL parents want their children to be successful. Some parents just show it in a different way than others. And some parents just don’t know or realize what they can do to help their children be more successful. That’s where you as the early childhood educator come in!

Quiet Space, Happy Place

quiet-space

This sample quiet space has some great ideas for elements to include: comfy pillows, books, and calming lighting!

Full days at preschool can be long and tiring for children, just as days can feel long for caregivers. Provide the opportunity for children to have somewhere to go and calm down, take a break and relax by creating a “Quiet Space” in your classroom. Make it a space where a child feels safe, by creating rules to ensure the comfort of the space. Explain to the children that there are times when we are too upset to think or make good choices, so spending time alone can help them feel better.  Teach children to respect the area and use it one at a time, and for peaceful activity.  Make the area comfortable through the use of soft items such as pillows, bean bag chairs, and stuffed toys. Young children like enclosed spaces. To make it even more private, play huts and tents that still allow visible access to the teachers can be used. To optimize relaxation in the area, teach children breathing techniques and ways to identify emotions and calm their bodies.

When introducing this area to your students, make sure they know this space is not a “time-out,” but a place to go if they feel different emotions or become overwhelmed.  Creating a “homey“  environment in this area can put children at ease. Including small photo albums such as family pictures of the students is a great way to allow children to feel connected to their parents while they are missing them.

We as adults need to “get away” sometimes and leave the chaos behind. Children are no different, and if they feel that there is no place to go to get a break from the crowd, they will begin to feel frustrated just as we would. If a student needs to be supported while trying to calm down, make it a point to sit with them and help them identify their feelings and give them the attention they need. Taking care of a child’s social emotional health is so critical for their overall well being.

The ultimate hope is that as children become successful in using a quiet space, they will be able to find a quiet place within themselves and manage their feelings without needing the physical space. Teaching children how to have control over their emotions and self soothe will not only help them in preschool, but throughout their lives. Parents can use these relaxation techniques at home, as well as identify a space for quiet time. Teachers and parents can work together to support children when it comes to dealing with difficult emotions. For more information on breathing techniques and ideas for your quiet space, go to https://consciousdiscipline.com/.

Cozy spaces bring happy faces!

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.

How to Make the Most of Mealtime

family-style-dining

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!