Exploring the Library for Your Classroom

The other day, a colleague asked me about books for his child. He knew that his son liked books that have flaps and he was looking to introduce his son to some new books to promote a love for reading. We happened to be at a library for a meeting and decided to walk over to the children’s section to look at board books, since his child is of toddler age. I had a sudden flashback of how I used to go to the library to pore over the board books for my toddler classroom. I loved being able to fill up my bookshelf with new books for children to explore. The following are some thoughts that I kept in mind when I was choosing library books for my classroom.

Library Rules. We all know how expensive books can be. Thankfully, I believe that libraries keep this in mind and make it easier for everyone to have access to books. Locally, The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County and Midpointe Libraries have an educator card, which makes it more convenient for teachers to put library books within the reach of children. There are perks such as pre-ordering books and having them delivered to your program, automatic renewal, no late fees and wear and tear forgiveness.

Children’s Interests. One of the easiest ways to decide what books to choose is to think of what the children in your classroom like. What are their interests? What are they talking about or playing with the most? What have they experienced? Preschool and school-age children are more likely to verbalize their likes and interests. For children who are non-verbal this can be a challenge, yet there are clues that will help you out. I can remember when children would bring a toy from home to school and want to carry it around for most of the day. This was my clue as to what that child liked and was interested in. Freight Train, by Donald Crews or Chugga-chugga choo-choo, by Kevin Lewis; pictures by Daniel Kirk, were popular choices when children showed interest in trains. I once found a book with a handle attached that I brought into my classroom because there were a few children who had the tendency to carry around items like purses, bags and buckets. Following interests can intrigue children who would otherwise have no interest in books.

Repetitive and Predictable. There are types of books that tend to be more appealing to children. Books that are repetitive and predictable seem to lull children into wanting to hear them repeatedly. When children have access to books they will want their caregivers and teachers to read to them throughout the day. These opportunities expose children to the sounds and rules of language and literacy in an interesting way. The predictability of books support children’s cognitive development by supporting the ability to remember the events of the book. Examples of repetitive and predictable books include: Brown Bear, Brown Bear by Bill Martin, Jr., pictures by Eric Carle; Jump, Frog, Jump! By Robert Kalan, pictures by Byron Barton; and The Napping House by Audrey and Don Wood.

The Arts and Illustrations. Children’s books can expose children to the arts in a variety of ways. Julie Merberg and Suzanne Bober put together a collection of board books that showcase classic artists’ work, such as Monet and Seurat. Jennifer Adams and Alison Oliver created primer books that emphasize classic literature, including Huckleberry Finn and Wizard of Oz. The illustrations of children’s books can expose children to an assortment of art medium such as pencil, paint, watercolor, collage, and computer graphics. This exposure not only introduces children to the arts but could open up their minds to their own avenues for creativity and expression.

Read the book. Not all books are created equal. Some of them don’t make sense, others may be too long for children to sit through. It is extremely important for you to read the book before checking it out.

All in all, my goals for choosing library books were to offer the children in my classroom opportunities to have constant access to books and to foster their interests by integrating them into a literary form. Books can support attachment, learning and development and most importantly provide a chance for teachable moments.

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!

Marketing 101: An Introduction to Marketing Your Early Childhood Program

Group of Children Playing in a ClassroomEarly childhood professionals are often known for our big hearts and our wide range of knowledge of child development. Yet an undeniable fact about what we do is that we are providing a service to our children and families, in return for which, we receive payment. We are, by definition, a business. Administrators/owners of early childhood programs—you are tasked with making business-related decisions for your programs every day.

“Has tuition been billed for the week/month?” “Did we stay under budget for snacks?” “Has the wording on our sign out front brought in any new enrollments?” “Are our children and families (our customers) happy overall with the service we are providing to them?”

In order for a business to sustain itself for any length of time, it must be marketed in one fashion or another. How do you get the word out about just how wonderful your program is to your surrounding community? And, once you get families in the door, how do you keep them?

Listed below are some early childhood marketing strategies you may want to try in your program:

  • Create appealing, professional marketing materials that are free of spelling and grammatical errors. You want to convey the idea that children will be getting a quality experience at your facility. One of the quickest ways to sabotage this is putting out sloppy marketing information (business cards, brochures, flyers, informational packets, etc.).
  • Answer the phone in a pleasant, professional, helpful manner. The person who answers your phone is the first point of contact a new family has with your program, and first impressions last. Encourage everyone who may answer your phone to use a standard, professional greeting. Make sure the public’s first encounter with your business is a positive one.
  • Post a sign in front of your business. Make sure the community knows you’re there. Include wording about program events, or open enrollment spots, if possible.
  • Maintain an online presence (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google search, etc.). Post and tweet to your heart’s content about what’s going on at your program. (Just be sure you have family consent before posting any photos or information about children.) In today’s society, this is often the first way the general public becomes acquainted with your program.
  • Ask local businesses to display your marketing materials. Go around to pediatrician offices, dance studios, sports facilities—places where families and children often go— and ask if they’ll let you leave a stack of business cards and/or brochures. You might even make a deal with them that you’ll display theirs in return.
  • Offer a discount on enrollment to new families, or a referral bonus to your current families. As we all know, money talks. Giving a family a break on their initial enrollment cost is often made up in the long run when they stay at your program for an extended period of time. Rewarding your current families for speaking of your program in a positive light is a win-win situation for both of you, as well!
  • Know your competitors—check out other programs in your area. Call around and compare tuition rates. Visit other programs and ask to tour their facility. Know what you’re up against.
  • Maintain the “curb appeal” of your facility. Keep up your property to the best of your ability. During my years as an administrator, I spoke with many families who shared with me that they pulled into the parking lot of a program they were interested in only to turn around and drive right back out because of the looks of the place.
  • Be conscious of “word of mouth.” People talk. They talk to each other at work, at children’s’ birthday parties and playdates, when you’re not around. You want to ensure that what they say is positive, so do your best to put the needs of your children and their families first, above all else, every single day.
  • Provide a quality program. Follow through on your promise to provide your customers with a quality early childhood experience. Maintain the standards of quality that you know are the hallmark of a great program. Additionally, if you are star-rated in Ohio’s Step Up To Quality or Kentucky All STARS, display your banner—share that information with pride!

Marketing your program, though it may not be your favorite part of the early childhood field, is necessary. Do it successfully, and you’ll be the most sought after game in town!

Let the Children Lead the Learning!

Aqua Play at NurseryWhen visiting a preschool classroom recently, summer weather was upon us and the classroom was buzzing with excitement. An unexpected visitor (a snake!) had joined the children on the playground that morning and they could barely contain their joy. As you could guess, the teachers did not have anything in their lesson plans involving this guest, but after discovering the teachable moments that accompanied the children’s interest in the snake, they quickly changed their ideas for the day.  The class conducted internet research to discover what type of snake they had found, and they were making some estimates about its length. I couldn’t help but think of the endless possibilities that could come of the day; drawing pictures of the snake’s design in the art center, slithering like a snake during transitions, exploring the idea of how snakes shed their skin. The teacher was thrilled about how engaged the children were in learning and was happy everyone was having such a fun morning!

Summertime is a wonderful time to explore more child-directed experiences outdoors and at special events.. By paying attention to what children are doing and saying, we are provided more insight into their interests and have the ability to offer many more meaningful learning opportunities!

How can you go about discovering interests to expand upon?

  • Observe and listen! Children naturally gravitate towards talking about and doing the things they are currently passionate about. Conversation at mealtimes and throughout the day, along with paying attention to what they are building in the block center or pretending to be in the dramatic play area, can give great insight to their personal favorites!
  • What is trending? Currently, my nephew is all about his new fidget spinner and I can’t help but see them everywhere I go! I love how this teacher turned a popular toy into some incredible STEM activities that can be adapted to a variety of age levels.
  • What events are surrounding them? Field trip to the firehouse or a visit from the shaved ice truck this week? Build upon their excitement for happenings outside of the normal routine and find ways to incorporate elements of the event into your classroom plans.
  • Be spontaneous! If your children are distracted by the construction project outside the classroom window, it’s okay to change up plans for the day. They might not often get the chance to see this machinery in action, so take advantage of the spur of the moment science and engineering learning opportunity.

Planning activities based on children’s interests needs plenty of teacher support to be successful.

Teachers help facilitate learning by providing materials, asking a variety of open-ended questions to expand thinking, and being actively involved by enjoying the process right alongside the children!

By letting the children lead the learning, classrooms benefit in many ways:

  • Children are engaged and excited, resulting in less challenging behaviors.
  • Topics often offer opportunities that can span across several curriculum areas. Math, science, and writing skills to name a few.
  • Build connection and expand children’s knowledge by sharing your interests. Children can only be interested in what they already know, so exposing them to new topics and experiences helps increase that knowledge. Plus, they will love learning about your favorites!

When you open your eyes and ears and let the children lead the way, the learning opportunities are endless!

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.

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!”