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Literacy Family “Open Door” Day

Our latest Family “Open Door Day” was focused on literacy and young children. After joining a parent discussion, family members joined their children in the classroom where teachers had set up centers featuring a variety of playful literacy activities. Teachers also posted suggestions for play and the rational behind using these materials. The final element was a documentation wall featuring photos of children engaged in playful literacy activities, along with sample work.

What a terrific turnout we had! We were happy to see so many family members spending the morning with us, and the children were so pleased to have their families participate at school!

There was a lot to talk about, but some highlights from our discussion follow:

  • Foundations ideally focus on reading and writing as communication – children who understand the values of these activities will learn the complex set of inter-related skills associated with reading and writing because they are excited about learning, connecting, remembering, and sharing ideas
  • Spend lots of time reading with children at home and at school
  • Good readers develop strong language skills and knowledge of words:
    o Children need environments in which they experience language in meaningful contexts (children need lots of meaningful experiences to talk about!)
    o Language develops through talking, singing, interacting, and social play
    o Children need to feel they are listened to – the responsiveness of adults in children’s lives to their language is crucial
  • Read high quality literature to children:
    o Children develop language and vocabulary through interactions around reading literature
    o Children become comfortable with the differences between book language and conversational language
    o Children develop an understanding of story structures
  • Support children’s growing phonological awareness:
    o Children develop awareness of the sound structure of language
    o Word play, rhyming, musical activities, use of nursery rhymes all support phonological awareness
  • Support comprehension:
    o Children need context and background knowledge to draw on as they develop comprehension skills
    o Encourage children to talk about book content, share ideas, make connections to their own experience, and ask questions
  • Writing depends on sound physical development, which can be supported in a wide variety of sensory experiences and informal activities that support each child’s use of their fingers and hands
  • It takes time before children understand that writing is recorded speech
  • To write letters, children need to understand that letters are symbols that come together to represent sounds and meaning.
  • Symbolic thinking is supported by pretend play.
  • Writing skills grow out of drawing – encourage children to make a mark!
  • With experience and by noticing more and more details, children discover that lines come together to form letters (how letters look), and then that letters are used to form words

There is a lot going on as children move along the continuum of learning in their own way. We can take cues from the children, support their interests, encourage conversations, questions, and finding out more about interesting topics, make sure there is time for meaningful pretend play, and enjoy a wide variety of books and stories together!

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Shadows and Worries

At this time of year, some children are expressing worries and anxieties that often relate to the season – the anticipation of Halloween, the changing weather and darker skies that come as we get closer to winter, or even the inevitable stress that comes along with excitement as children start a new school year, connect to new people, and develop independence.

This often comes up in conversations about dreams in our classroom, and recently one child needed to talk at length about his scary dreams that were “dark and floating and spooky” He told us that there were shadows everywhere and that shadows are spooky.

Using the word shadow gave teachers an opportunity to offer an alternative and more positive conversation. A teacher said, “A shadow does not need to be spooky – a shadow is a place where there is no light.” This opened up conversations about the diverse experiences children have had with shadows in their environments, from outdoor shadow play to shadow puppets, and when we saw so much interest we asked children if they would like to make shadows with our classroom flashlight.

Children and teachers spent the remaining time at meeting experimenting with shadows and light. Teachers held up a flashlight as a light source so that children could find ways to use their fingers and hands to “make a place with no light” on the carpet. This will likely be just the beginning to on-going conversations and experiences together that play with light and shadow as we encourage children to verbalize their concerns and ideas.

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Transitions Into a New School Year – Saying Goodbye

As I was looking for articles to share with families addressing school beginnings, I found this one written a while ago but still worth thinking about.

School is an exciting place in the fall for parents, teachers, and children. It can also be a bit frightening for us.
It takes time for everyone to adjust to new situations and new people. For some children, coming to school is the first opportunity to develop friendships outside of the immediate family. Children returning to school for a
second or third year will be facing new classrooms, new teachers, and new classmates. And they will be approaching the school environment from a changed perspective, since they have grown since the last school year.
We teachers also go through a period of adjustment in the fall, as we get to know the children better, gaining insight into personalities, needs, and learning styles, over time. It takes a while to get to know how we can best
encourage individual children to make the emotional connections so important for a successful classroom experience.

We teachers will also need time to get to know parents, hoping to find ways to encourage parents to feel
comfortable about their child’s program, and comfortable bringing concerns about the program to us.

Parents are going through an adjustment too. You may be wondering how your child will like a new classroom, and whether or not he or she will get along with teachers. You may be concerned about how quickly your
child’s teachers will find the unique qualities that make your child such a special individual, or wonder if your child will be able to form friendships quickly. You might be uncertain about how to bring up a suggestion or concern you have, wondering how your child’s teachers will react.
If we as adults experience some anxiety about the beginning of school ourselves, it should come as no surprise that some children may express ambivalent feelings about this new beginning.

If your child is anxious about coming to school, or is experiencing a tearful separation from you on school days, try to remember that the feelings these behaviors may represent are natural, not uncommon, and they will pass as familiarity with the school routine and trust in teachers develop.

Learning to acknowledge one’s feelings and express them is, in itself, an important step for your child. He or she will find that teachers (as well as parents) can offer caring and sympathetic assistance, and that other people
(children and adults) have felt the same feelings in their lives. Try to remember also that tears at separation do not necessarily represent unhappiness in school, but may be an expression of the temporary difficulty a child experiences at the moment of saying good-by to a parent. In fact, most children are able to begin their day happily within minutes of their parent’s leaving. Sadness passes as enthusiasm for the materials, experiences, and
people associated with school take over.

As children and parents together become increasingly comfortable with, and knowledgeable about, the routines and expectations of a day at school, and as children experience the fact that parents do indeed return at pick up time for children, reassurances offered at the beginning of the school day will be able to ease the transition from home to school.

Practical Advice to Parents with Children Experiencing Anxiety at Separation.

  1. Look for the special ways your child handles the transition time comfortably; take your cues from your child.
  2. Support your child – try to be positive. (Children are very sensitive to your ambivalent feelings; these can represent doubt to your child, and add to his or her sense of insecurity.
  3. If you enter the classroom and choose an activity to aid in your child’s transition, choose something that has a definite end (puzzle, book, etc.) Let your child know that upon completion of this activity, you will
    be leaving. Then stick to it.
  4. It is helpful for some children to bring something from home – a favorite toy, book, photo of a family member, note, etc. This connection to home can be very reassuring

Helpful Phrases When It’s Time to Say Good-bye:

” This is a special place, just for children”

“Will you make me (daddy, sister, etc.) a special drawing today?

“Have a fun day”

Look in the public library or here in our school library for books that relate to children’s feelings about starting school, separation from family, loss, friendship, school routines, and/or developing self image and independence. These are all important themes at the beginning of the school year.

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Failure Can Lead to Success

Some of the best learning can happen when things don’t work as expected.

This year when we took out our hand pump to introduce it to the children, teachers couldn’t get the pump to work. We tried priming, read the manual multiple times, but could not see why the pump didn’t work. After all, there aren’t many moving parts to break on a manual pump like this.

When we read some advice about how to take the pump apart to see if anything was blocking the inner works, we decided to include the children in the effort.

When children tried the pump and realized there was a problem, many were eager to help solve the problem. This was especially true when they saw a toolbox nearby. After studying the screws together, the children agreed on which two screws we should try to remove first. They helped choose the bit (“there is an “x” shape on the screw – look for a screwdriver end that will fit in an “x”) and together we removed the screws. Then we tried to move the works, but they were still completely stuck.

What could we do? Teachers got lots of advice from the children:
• You have to push on it harder
• Put something that’s thin in there to push it apart
• Pull the rod part down

After many trials (and after just about giving up) there was a pop and the moving parts released. We moved the works up and down – and the children thought the problem was solved.

The teacher mentioned that sometimes things get stuck in the pump – there are wood chips nearby, sand and stones on the playground. Could something have gotten inside the pump?

Children went to work investigating every part. They found that there was a screen on one side filtering out debris – nothing blocking there. They looked down into the water and saw a muddy ring. Could that be sand? Could it move into the pump and block the water? How could we reach it? The search was on for sticks and toys that might be long enough to reach in. Some fit, many were too wide or too short. Whatever we did, the rings remained. The conclusion reached was that those rings could not cause the problem, because we couldn’t get at them.

One child thought we should turn the pump upside down so we tried that (though it was tricky to handle all that water). Others thought just try the pump again. Still no luck.

By this time, children had been engaged in problem solving for quite a while, and many were ready to give up. Not everyone though! The teacher left the children on their own to help elsewhere on the playground and a few children kept working the pump, trying to prime it, pouring in water in any opening they could find.

And the pump started to work! We never figured out why it was blocked and what made it start working again, but now, about a week later, if the water is slow, we see a group of engaged problem solvers rearranging pieces, pouring water, and getting things moving again – no adults needed.

A hand pump like this offers terrific opportunities to think about water flow, pipe systems, and how to work together to solve a problem. Children generate questions (how can we get the water to go up through here? Why doesn’t the water go all the way through to the last opening?) and offer solutions based on their experience (If the water starts higher then it flows faster all the way through. If you want water to go through the last opening you have to block the openings that come first. When you pump faster more water comes out.). Just trying out an idea requires teamwork since it’s much easier to pump if someone else is there to stabilize the pump and help direct the water.

Many adults think that children this age have short attention spans and are easily discouraged. That’s not the case when there is a strong interest in the materials, activities and resulting problems to solve at hand! When we offer children the kinds of materials that lead to deep investigations, we see persistence and engagement. A simple hand pump like this one – too big to work alone – offers endless opportunities for children to explore their world, think together about how things work and explore the properties of natural materials (like water) in their environment.

Telling Stories and Making Books on the Road to Literacy

When we talk about books and stories with our youngest preschoolers, at times we ask them to share what they know. For many children, stories are in books, pictures help tell stories, grownups read books, and children who are 3 “can’t read books or write stories yet”. It does make sense, but unfortunately for some, this feeling that they must rely on adults to access stories can inhibit a child’s capacity to trust in their own ability to develop literacy skills. We want children to “read” the pictures in picture books and tell their own stories. We want them to trust that their scribbles represent important ideas and to value their own writing – whatever it looks like. So what can we do to help validate each child’s personal relationship to words, story, books, drawing and writing?

Our approach is to find ways to encourage every child, whatever their development or skill, to “make their mark” and tell their story. This might be a process that includes asking children to “tell about their work”. It might include children describing and labeling their creations, while the adults in their lives write down their ideas, ask questions that can clarify their intentions and celebrate their ideas and successes. It might include getting to know which patterns of lines indicate a child’s signature or other early writing, then celebrating that child’s ability to make a mark that has meaning and that can help us all remember something important. It might mean that adults tell children’s stories, including personal ones, that are not in books but are simply shared orally, and that they encourage children to do the same. It might include adults sharing the joy of well-developed pretend play or a puppet show. And it might include offering children paper in book format so that they can make their own books, write their own words and drawings, and tell friends and family their own stories by “reading” from these personal creations.

When children start making books, we talk together about the form of books: where the book starts, the details on the front cover, the title and author. We help children notice that in picture books there is something on every page. We point out that the last page is “The End.” We help children notice that in some picture books there are words and pictures on each page, but in others there are just pictures. And we offer a model for getting started (Is this a ‘once upon a time’ story or does it have facts?), a model for continuing (What happens next?). Along the way we pose questions that we hope will help children add detail and extend their descriptive language as they tell their story. And then we watch and listen.

Unlike other classroom writing experiences like journaling or dictating descriptions of work, teachers don’t write in a child’s book because “each child is the author and they know how the story goes”. If a child is concerned about the quality of their writing, we encourage them to appreciate that “in the chickadee class, children use chickadee writing” and that their writing will change as they change and grow. When the book is finished, we take a video of the author “reading” the book from beginning to end, supporting the author as the process unfolds.

As children make more and more books on their own, their confidence with writing tools, their pretend play, and with picture books grows. We see more children “reading” on their own or with friends at our quiet book times. Puppet shows begin to have dialogue and clear beginnings, middles and ends. Children notice details in picture books more carefully, and retell familiar stories with increasing detail as they take in more clues from the pictures. More children join in the spontaneous word play, rhyming and chanting that occur throughout the day, and more children express a growing interest in letters and words around our classroom. It’s an exciting process to watch unfold!

We are in the process of setting up a page for parents of children currently enrolled at LCP on the website ( so that you’ll be able to see some sample videos of children reading their books (some use names so these stories are in a privacy protected area). We hope you will look for them soon, and appreciate all the learning taking place!