Tag Archives: lesson planning

Invitations to Learn

When children are comfortable and engaged in their environment, we find that productivity increases, challenging behavior decreases, and child-directed learning is plentiful! Using the physical classroom space effectively can be a teacher’s most useful tool.

One of my favorite tips to build excitement about learning opportunities in the classroom is to create invitations to learn that are ready and waiting when the children arrive. An invitation to learn involves arranging the space in a way that “invites” the children to come to a particular area to explore open-ended and meaningful materials.

A personal favorite from my time in the classroom involved setting up a table with a real pumpkin during the fall season. In addition to the pumpkin, I provided a variety of spoons and other tools, plastic trays, and also some paint with brushes. When the children entered the room, that morning they were excited by the new addition and intrigued about what activities were in store for the day.  My overall objective was working on motor skills by scooping out the insides with the tools and picking out the seeds, but the freedom to choose how they explored the pumpkin provided a multitude of other experiences. The children chose to sort and count the seeds, spread them on the plastic trays, pretending to bake and sell yummy treats to their friends. Some chose to paint and decorate the outside of the pumpkin, while others painted the seeds. They talked about the textures and shrieked when the gooey pumpkin guts grazed across their tiny fingers. By simply setting the stage with materials that were already in our space and adding something a little extra, an entirely new and engaging experience occurred!

While creating an invitation to learn doesn’t need to be time-consuming or expensive, it should be intentional. When planning, keep a broad goal of what you think might occur (like the strengthening motor skills in the pumpkin example above) while leaving room for their imaginations to run wild.

Some questions to keep in mind during preparation:

  • Will this activity capture the interest and curiosity of the child?
  • Are the activity and materials age-appropriate?
  • Are there enough materials for all children to participate?
  • Are the materials hands-on and open-ended?
  • Are there opportunities to be challenged and express creativity?

With a little planning and preparation, a teacher can use the classroom environment to spark engagement, inspiration and joy!

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!

Oktoberfest in Preschool?

In a response to a recent local news story, many radio stations and media outlets this weekend hotly debated whether or not it is appropriate for preschoolers to drink out of miniature plastic beer steins. As I listened to the extremes of children becoming alcoholics to parents sucking all of the fun out of life, I continued to question the study of Germany in a 4-year-old preschool classroom at all!

My understanding of a 4-year-old’s brain tells me that since children at this age are still just at the very literal and egocentric stage of development, they have a hard time thinking about anyone besides themselves. Let alone thinking about the country of Germany, 4000 miles away!  Many 4-year-olds I observe do not think about the child 4 feet away from them let alone people they cannot develop a personal relationship with.

I know that we live in a city with a rich German cultural heritage, and I know that children are exposed to many family traditions (some age-appropriate and some not). But without a firsthand relationship with these traditions, preschoolers have a difficult time constructing knowledge of an abstract place and culture.

I support including opportunities for cultures to be explored as long as there is some relevance to the child’s world. Listening to an accordion player play a German tune is age-appropriate and an opportunity for children to share in an experience where they can construct and share knowledge about their world. An accordion player who is someone’s grandparent would provide even more meaningful connections to the children’s own experiences.

In preschool, “social studies” is all about children’s knowledge of every day events and builds on the development of their social skills. Preschool should be about building the foundation of democracy by participating in group decision making, establishing rules and consequences, expressing opinions and respecting the rights of others. Many social studies concepts such as map reading and recognizing events in their historical context are just too abstract for this stage of brain development.

After many years of teaching in a classroom, I know that preparing the curriculum and the environment for children is very time consuming, so make every moment count! Reflect on how much time it takes to purchase materials, like plastic beer steins, and to prepare the day’s lesson on a country you may know very little about. Ask yourself what you hope children will take away from the lesson. If it’s not about meeting some of these age-appropriate milestones, I encourage you to revisit your lesson plan.

Everyday Things in New Ways

Imagine if you were a scientist and got to have breakfast with Galileo. That’s what I felt like this morning when my day started with breakfast with Ellen Galinsky in a discussion about how children learn. Well, I should tell you that Ellen is not sitting at my breakfast table at home, but is the keynote speaker at a national conference. Brrrrr, it’s cold in Minneapolis!

Ellen’s work, Mind in The Making, shares seven essential life skills for children. Her talk this morning was motivating and illustrated to the group that all adults play a key role in helping children pick up seven critical life skills. It got me thinking about school readiness, a conversation that gets a lot of airtime in early childhood circles. Aren’t skills for school really one and the same as skills for life?

Let’s try to break down this school readiness thing, and instead of being intimidated by testing, assessment, and standards, let’s focus on what matters- the children. In my estimation, we teachers must do the best that we possibly can to provide children with real experiences that are linked to the skills they will need in kindergarten and beyond. Kindergarten readiness skills are the same skills that will help children succeed all throughout their lives.

So, where should we start? How can you find out what children need to know and be able to do to have success in school AND life?

1. Talk to kindergarten teachers or elementary school principals near your program. This will get you what you are looking for, and is a great way to develop a relationship.

2. Watch the children. Watch each child for a long time. Knowing what children are able to accomplish with and without help will guide you to planning activities for them. Can Louis sort red teddy bears into a pile and green teddy bears into another pile? Can Jasmine hold a book upright, turn the pages individually, and imitate the telling of a story using the book?

3. Love and care for each child while they are trying new things. Ask questions to the child. “What will happen if you add one more block to your tower?”

4. Use tools like your state’s early childhood standards and research-based curriculum to break down the knowledge and skills into smaller “chunks.” Look for sections that correlate to some of the skills you have observed in your children. This will get you started with a lesson plan that meets the developmental level of all children.

5. Watch the children again. Make notes on index cards (easy to carry in your pocket) for every child. Refer to these when you make your next plan. The process of observing, making a decision about what each child needs to work on, and preparing the plan is a cycle.

6. Repeat. Repeat again.

Now that my breakfast with Ellen is over, I look to her for a pearl of wisdom in closing: “These essential skills don’t call for expensive programs, fancy materials, or elaborate equipment. They simply call for doing the everyday things you do with children in new ways.”