Category Archives: Education

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Thinking About Gender with Preschoolers

This year we teachers have been re-visiting our anti-bias curriculum, looking for ways to help challenge the stereotypical thinking we may see developing among the children. This is part of our teacher’s on-going training, and helps us develop strategies that support the school’s mission and philosophy. Most recently our focus has been on gender.

As stated in Louise Derman-Sparks and Julie Olsen Edwards book Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, “While gender anatomy is universal, behaviors and attitudes considered typical and acceptable for each gender vary from culture to culture and over time.” We know from both our observations and conversations with children, that cultural messages about gender roles and limits are already in play by the time children enroll at LCP. We want every child to explore their identities fully, and to feel free to develop their capacities to make full use of our classroom environments regardless of cultural assumptions or expectations.

Our discussion highlighted for all of us how important it is to be mindful of the language we are using as we engage children, and about the biases that may be present in traditional songs, rhymes and stories that are part of so many family and school cultures. Gender distinctions seem to reach into every aspect of our program. Do we really need to use the masculine forms of words, or are there easy ways to make adjustments in the words we use? Are we greeting girls with comments on their clothing or are we acknowledging their actions and feelings? Do we talk with boys about their actions and accomplishments more than we do with girls? Do we assume that it is only boys who will be unable to listen or sit still, or that boys will be less engaged than girls in discussions, books or the visual arts? What about girls who only want to wear comfortable clothes, join running and climbing games, and play roughly? Do we value developing friendships between boys and girls that are based on common interests? Can we feature both girls and boys in traditional rhymes by adding a line or two? Are there ways to talk with the children about whether it feels fair that either girls or boys are sometimes left out? How can we assure that we show every child that we value the unique qualities that make them who they are as individuals, and assure that all children are encouraged to explore the full range of intellectual activity and classroom life?IMG_0029

We also know that as social interests grow among the children, questions come about friendship and about who can be a friend, and this can have implications related to gender. Are friends always alike? Can a boy and a girl be friends? Does a friend always do what I want them to do? Do I always need to sit near a friend or play with a friend to stay a friend? What if someone else suggests that I can’t be someone’s friend? Since questions like these have been on some children’s minds, we teachers thought about how we might incorporate conversations about friendship into conversations about gender.

One beginning was to simply ask our youngest children what a friend is. The answers included:
• A friend is someone who lives in a different house
• A friend is someone just like me with a different name
• Friends don’t have to be the same
• We can play with a friend
• We can share toys with a friend
• Friends always get along
• Friends always want to do the same thing

We’ve engaged these questions by reading many books that offer opportunities to talk about friendship, feelings between friends, and differences in temperament or play choices between friends. Books like I’m Sorry (Sam McBratney and Jennifer Eachus) and Pearl Barley and Charlie Are Friends (by Aaron Blabey) are great conversation starters for even our youngest children, and feature friendships between boys and girls. Fred Roger’s old classic Making Friends uses clear and simple language about friendship and differences between friends in a non- fiction treatment of the issues. Our discussions of these books help clarify the limits to each child’s understanding, and the impact development and life experience has on how children think about friendships. For example, when a group of our youngest girls read about a boy’s club where girls weren’t allowed, they immediately reacted with outrage about the unfairness of exclusion. But those same girls were a little less sure that it would be fair to include boys in a club for girls.P1120351

Recently in each class we introduced the use of Venn diagrams (overlapping circles showing inclusive and exclusive sets) at meeting to ask basic questions and see results: What do girls like? What do boys like? By allowing children to move their ideas around the diagram we hoped conversations would lead us all to the conclusion that children, boys or girls, may like the same things or different things and that all choices are available to everyone.IMG_4259

In each classroom, children did come to the conclusion that the things they listed were liked by children (boys and girls). But the tone of the conversation was quite different between classes. Our youngest were fairly matter of fact and quickly dropped saying boys or girls and talked about children. Children began the conversation using some common stereotypes (“Girls are quiet”; “Boys can be fire fighters”). But both boys and girls were quick to say that they too could do that other thing, or like that other thing as well, and soon everyone acknowledged that there were many things that children (not boys or girls) like to do.

The Nuthatch class children, a bit older, were passionate about issues of fairness and access. Someone brought up that only boys play in blocks. This immediately created a healthy debate as girls in the class who play in blocks said that boys only playing in blocks is not true, fair, or nice. Similarly, it was stated that only girls dance and wear dresses. Again, a great conversation was sparked from many boys saying how they love to dance and how many children in the class go to dance lessons with both boys and girls in the class. The conversation about dresses was a bit more controversial. There were a few boys who said that boys could wear dresses if they wanted to, but many boys felt strongly that they did not want to wear dresses. This created an engaged conversation about the difference between boys being able to wear dresses and boys having to wear dresses. Once some of the boys realized that even if other boys wanted to wear dresses, that would be okay as long as all boys didn’t have to wear them. Dresses then got moved to the both section. It is wonderful to see children think independently, standing up for what they believe is fair by using concrete examples that disprove one or another cultural stereotype. As the children looked at the diagram, they noticed that every idea could be done by both boys and girls. The consensus was that “boys and girls can do whatever they want to”.

The Goldfinch children, our oldest preschoolers, got a bit stuck when someone mentioned that girls can have babies. (This was revisited with the clarification that it’s women, not girls, who have babies.) The boys in the Goldfinch class worked hard to come up with something they could do that girls couldn’t, but were unsuccessful.

Gender issues come up all the time in the classroom, and we believe that children need to feel supported in their efforts to articulate their feelings about acceptance and exclusion, fairness, and cultural stereotypes they hear about, read about or experience. We teachers listen carefully for the meaning behind children’s words, find ways to challenge limited thinking and expand children’s sense of what’s possible. It’s an on-going process that looks different every year.

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Map Project

This year many of our youngest children have been traveling and there has been lots of conversation about vacations and trips to visit family. We often talk about how children traveled: Was it so far away that you took an airplane? Could you drive? Did you need to sleep away from home? Where did you sleep? Did you go over the ocean or over land? As we talk together, our classroom globe is featured and we help children find where we are now as well as where they traveled, so that we can show how far the trip was on the map. This informal and often spontaneous conversation also leads to questions about the globe itself, and we often talk about the symbols children notice, whether they show land forms, water, continents, animals that live nearby, etc.

Teachers decided to see if a more formal project might develop from this interest. We decided to start by asking families to help by sharing places around the world that are important to each child’s family identities. We posted this information in each location on 2 huge hallway maps – one of the United States and one of the world. And as information came in, we began our project by taking children out into the hallway to find their names and notice all the places associated with their families.

What a powerful beginning this turned out to be! For some children, finding their names and the names of countries important to family members has been the primary focus. For others, the interest has been in the maps themselves: Why is a globe round and this world map flat? Why does the United States look so big on this map and so small on this one? We live in Massachusetts – where is it on this map? Why can’t I find my house on the map? Why are there dots or lines or bumps? Blue is the water – there is land and water. What makes this place an island?

Our next step was to invite children to work together on a map of our classroom. Because so few children are representational in their drawings now, we used shapes as symbols for our table surfaces, hoping that would help children visualize our classroom activity centers and other features. Children looked around the room as we decided the best shape for each area and how to place it. We noticed the shape of our whole room – where the shorter and longer walls are. We found doorways together and noticed that only one wall has windows. When children weren’t sure, we walked over to the room area in question with our map, comparing what we placed with what we saw in our classroom space.

Many children chose to continue this process by making their own maps and with a focus on both family identities and our immediate shared environment (the classroom) we found the maps that children made also held personal meaning. Many maps of children’s houses were made, along with maps of the route children take to school. Details included our neighboring mountain, the Great Blue Hill, and children have added the road that passes Houghton’s Pond, another neighborhood landmark. Other children drew themselves in the car on family errands to the store, or on the way to a favorite gymnastics class. Some drew maps they could use, like a map of the zoo that shows the way to see monkeys, elephants and giraffes.
When families supported this project by allowing children to bring in family photos or artifacts that represent important places and people, our conversations were deeply enriched and children made new connections to each other. Some families have brought in books featuring places important to their cultural identities too, and we hope that this will continue.

Right now children are finding maps around the classroom, asking for details, and finding places relevant to their family experiences and identities. The book “Me On the Map” by Joan Sweeny has stimulated many conversations as children clarify the scales of different kinds of maps, and we’ve found children drawing themselves on classroom maps as well. Books featuring global families or houses often have maps in the back, and now children find them on their own and ask for more details about where the stories or people they’ve read about come from.

And we’ve seen children begin to represent land areas in their art. One child, when she mixed a beautiful shade of brown new to her, decided to surround it with blues so she could make “an island” We find children using lines to connect shapes, and are hearing more and more children label their work as a representation of a “house” or “mountain” as they develop their capacity for symbolic thinking.

We are taking the time to observe and collect information on what’s most important to the children so that we can offer meaningful extensions to this project. We know we want to find ways to think more deeply about land forms. We know we want to extend our classroom mapping experience to other parts of our school environment. As the weather gets warmer, we may be moving outdoors for more experiences relating to our mapping experiences – thinking about the outside of our building and our playground, and thinking more about the landmarks and features of our neighborhood.

And we’ll continue to look for ways to include families in this shared experience. Our annual multicultural family lunch is coming up, and we are hopeful that at least a few of the foods we share will represent some of the rich diversity of family experiences and identities that are present in our community.

 

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Exploring Early Literacy at a Family “Open Door” Day

We recently invited families to join us for a family “Open Door Day” when we could talk together, share perspectives about how children learn and why we approach curriculum development the way we do, and focus on one important area of development that we are all thinking about. Our area of focus was early literacy and beginning reading.

We teachers know that many family members wonder about the best ways to support their children’s literacy skills. An “Open Door Day” format offers a perfect opportunity to meet with teachers and other parents, collect information, and ask questions. After a discussion, the classrooms are set with activities that are engaging at school and that can be easily replicated at home. There’s no better way to get a feel for how developmentally appropriate, engaging, playful activities and interactions support learning than spending an hour or so playing with the children in the classroom!

We talked about many things, including:
• The importance of conversation – listening, talking about topics or experiences that are personally meaningful to children, sharing feelings and ideas about shared experiences
• The values of reading to children, even as they begin to read on their own
• The importance of developing a rich and expanding vocabulary
• The continuum of developing reading, from infancy on
• How children develop an understanding of symbol, and the importance of pretend play in that process
• The development of writing from drawing
• Using sensory materials like shaving cream, finger paint, or sand to support fine motor development, alphabet knowledge and writing
• Helping children develop an understanding of why reading and writing have value – reading and writing as communication
• Joining children as they discover print in their environment
• Developing language and an awareness of how lines come together through descriptive conversations about children’s artwork
• Beginning stories and storytelling
• The values of puppetry in developing a sense of story and character
• The relationship of musical experiences to early literacy
• Breaking down skills that children need to read, with an understanding that skill development without a meaningful context is insufficient
• Choosing good books for beginning readers

Here are photos of children, families, and teachers together:

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Loose Parts at Learning Circle Preschool

Recently we had our first whole school “loose parts day” and it was a huge success.

The article “Loose Parts: What Does This Mean”, from Penn State Extension defines loose parts as follows:

“Loose parts are materials that can be moved, carried, combined, redesigned, lined up, taken apart, and put back together in multiple ways. They are open-ended materials that encourage concrete experiences, problem solving, imagination and creativity in children. There is no specific set of directions regarding how to use loose parts materials- it is up to the child how the materials are used.”

Loose parts are everywhere around our school every day – the variety of blocks, scarves and other props at pretend, natural materials at science and in construction areas like stones, pine cones, popsicle or other sticks, shells, are examples. We also create at collage with a variety of recyclable materials that children can combine in their own unique ways often.

It was our request that families bring in recyclables that led to our whole school experience with loose parts. We had so many bags of donations, it was clear we had enough for a whole school project!

We gave children time and space to freely explore the wide variety of materials we had collected (a few children from each classroom used our “Welcome Room” together) and we took note of the ideas that emerged.

Why is this kind of play so important? Children have always used found materials – either in nature or other areas of their environment – to interact with their world, invent and discover. This is entertaining and fun, but also leads to problem-solving, creative thinking, and, if other children are around, collaboration. There are multiple ways to use these materials, and each idea can potentially connect with or build on the next. There is no right or wrong approach as children organize, pattern, sort, or construct together. The materials offer rich sensory experiences, and many opportunities to discover more about the properties of materials and how things work. The possibilities are endless!

Here are some of the ideas children shared together:

• I can see you through the tubes!
• It’s binoculars
• It’s a telescope
• These tubes fit inside each other
• Look how long it is
• This is starting to look like the letter A!
• Water can go through these pipes…this hole here is where the water goes in
• This is an egg factory
Chickens and people are inside
If the egg hatches it becomes a chick
• These are lighthouses
• Let’s put all this small stuff in the box…we’ll fill the box
• It makes music when it’s full
• A drum
• A boat
• A volcano
• A rainbow parking garage

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We hope you’ll enjoy the photos here of children creating. And remember in this holiday season that the best gifts you can give are open-ended like these loose parts – in fact, packaging and boxes may offer some of the best opportunities for play and learning!

Links to more information on loose parts in early childhood education:

http://extension.psu.edu/youth/betterkidcare/early-care/our-resources/tip-pages/tips/loose-parts-what-does-this-mean

http://www.communityplaythings.com/resources/articles/2015/loose-parts

http://www.lesley.edu/children-and-play-in-early-childhood/

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Night Forest Project

A good classroom project has a beginning, middle, and end, and as we finish the ninth week of our woodland and night forest project we are beginning to look for a way to share our work and find closure.

Back in October, we saw a strong interest in forest animals and the changing season. We stimulated the children’s thinking with a side table featuring seasonal leaves, pine cones, bark and twigs, and forest animals that children used to create pretend games. It seemed that even with many other activities and classroom investigations present, strong interest in this side table continued to grow.

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As we listened in on the pretend themes in the forest, we heard a variety of stories about animal families, animals looking for food, and animals looking for warm spaces. It became clear that we could connect the children’s interest in forest animals with storytelling experiences, and with our own relationship to the changing season, with its shorter days and cooler temperatures.

There were many informal opportunities to make connections, and we were conscious to use many. When children brought in a warm coat to play outside, we thought together about how animals might stay warm. We watched leaves change color and then fall from our playground trees. When we raked leaves outdoors, we thought about who might live under a pile of leaves and what that might feel like. We watched Canada geese flying overhead when we were on the playground, and thought together about where they might go. And we encouraged children to think about whether it was starting to be darker when they woke up in the morning or when they went to bed as we head towards the shortest days.

As children thought more about Halloween, walks in the dark, and worries in the night, conversations shifted a bit towards night time animals. What happens outside when we go to sleep? Which animals come out and which ones sleep when we do? Where do they sleep?

Flannel board and felt stories offer children a wonderful, and physical, way to focus their stories, so we used felt day and night time forest scenes at science to encourage storytelling. It became clear that the interest in night was strong. One child, who is a wonderful storyteller, created story after story about animals outside in a night time forest, and we began to see owls featured in many of the children’s stories.

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A visit from a local naturalist, who brought a great horned owl in for us to observe closely, stimulated an even stronger interest in owls and other nocturnal animals. We decided it was time to offer children an opportunity to create their own representation of a forest.

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We brought in a large box (thanks to the parent who donated it!) and asked the children what we might do with it. Children were fairly quick to agree they wanted to make a forest. Our storyteller stated that it should be a night time forest and our collaborative plan began.

Our first step was to ask children what they would need to do to change a box into a forest at night. We collected ideas over a few days:

  • We could paint the box black
  • We could use cardboard and sticks to make trees
  • We need leaves, feathers, grass and ground
  • We need stars and the moon – very bright white stars
  • We’ll add animals to the forest. Some will be in their homes. Some will be out in the forest. Some will be sleeping. Some will be out at night.
  • When the animals go home some will be in the ground, some in the trees, some in bunny holes, and some in a cave
  • Birds, squirrels, bumble bees, ladybugs, spiders and other insects will be sleeping
  • Owls, fox, skunks, raccoons, snails, and opossums will be out in the night
  • The animals should be with their families

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We’ve been working on our box – painting the inside and outside, adding stars and the moon, deciding how to build trees, over many days. Lately we’ve used the box with the same forest animals we used in October, and will be making some of our own animals soon. We may not realize all the ideas shared through our planning process, but when we all feel finished, we’ll invite our friends and family to celebrate our forest and our growing collaborative skills!

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