Tag Archives: children

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Beginnings

As a new school year begins, we know we’ll be thinking about ways we can help children develop a sense of community, getting to know each other well, sharing experiences and ideas, making connections. There are always systems we can use from year to year to help this process along. For example, we know that if children have photo albums in the classroom with photos of themselves and their families, they’ll use those albums first for personal comfort and to have a sense of their family’s presence in the classroom, then begin to talk about the photos and share with teachers and classmates. Soon children will approach each other, even without a teacher, for these conversations, and to set up spontaneous meetings so that they can share common experiences and talk about home.

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Sometimes children find their own way to build community, and think about why and how they might form relationships. In this year’s youngest group, it was conversations about shoes that got this process started.

We noticed that a few children consistently compared their shoes and feet when they sat side by side at meetings or other whole group times. We’d hear whispering as children wondered who has the biggest shoe. For a few children body size was part of the conversation as well. One child, when learning the name of another child said during the first week of school, “You are a baby because you are so small, but you do have many good words!”

It is by listening to these quiet conversations that teachers can often find important themes to incorporate into child-driven projects. Happily, in the case described above, the physically smaller child was pleased to be noticed and accepted the friendly tone of the bigger child, so that when a teacher joined to clarify that people of all ages are all different sizes, that you could be bigger or smaller when you were older and that our classroom had school children but no babies, play and friendly conversations moved on easily. But it did become clear that whether or not we teachers brought it up, children were looking at each other and making comparisons as one of their strategies to get to know each other.

We decided to offer a project about shoe sizes, since many children were interested in the sizes of shoes and feet. We started by taking photos of everyone’s shoes, since children thought this would be helpful. We did find we could identify which shoes belonged to each child in the photo, but looking at the photos didn’t really help us know much about the relative sizes of shoes and feet.

On another day, we offered unifix (small blocks, all the same size, that connect) as a way to compare shoe and foot size. If we knew that some shoes were longer and needed more blocks to be the same size, those must be the bigger shoes! At meeting, everyone who wanted to have a turn estimated how many unifix would be needed for their shoes, and we discovered that most had shoes 9 unifix long, some had longer shoes (10 unifix), and some had shorter shoes (8 unifix).

Many children continued to measure various parts of their bodies (primarily arms and legs) and some measured their whole length. The process of measuring brought children with similar interests together, and we found that there was an interest in finding ways to share materials and ideas for the sake of this beginning collaboration.

We haven’t pushed further on these activities, but are listening carefully as we find many children continue think about how big they are now that they come to school. One child made a row of unifix and said, “This is how big I was when I was a baby; I’m bigger now.” Others have begun to share the many things they can do for themselves now that they are bigger, and we often talk about how small the children were as babies as a point of comparison to their size and skills now that they are school children. We’ll keep this interest in measurement in mind as we continue to offer children opportunities to find common experiences that can form the foundations of their relationships and community building.

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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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Planning a Grocery Store

We have an active pretend area in our classroom and decided it was time to encourage children to think together about how themes might be expanded. Every day children choose between home and family themes like cooking dinner or caring for babies, setting up a restaurant to going out to eat, or opening a doctor’s office. What else would be fun to pretend about together?

After some false starts, we all agreed on shopping at a grocery store. So the next question was, “What do you need to shop in a grocery store?”

Children quickly agreed that we’d need a cash register and money. But one child added a new element. She said that “the register has to be near the thing that moves”. When we asked “what thing that moves?” ideas like these developed:

• The register is on one end and the food moves to the register
• You have to turn it on – we need a switch
• The part that moves is black
• There’s a stick you have to use to keep the food apart
• We’d need many many bags
• The bags are on a hook that can hold lots of bags
• We need that machine with knobs and buttons for money – the bank so we can get money (atm machine)

Rather than rush the process, we returned to the conversation on multiple days so that we could judge what was still important to the children. It became clear we needed to build a conveyor belt. But how could we do it and what would we need?

• I have tools at home that I can bring in so we can build it
• We need a piece that’s black about this big (children showed the necessary size with their arms)
• It should be this high (showing height)
• To make it move it has to go around like this (showing the movement of a handle) – yes we need a handle!
• We need the switch to turn on and off to make it go
• The atm machine needs 5 knobs – blue, green, black, red, and purple
• The money can go through the slot

After looking at the children’s list of ideas, a parent who is a carpenter built us the conveyor belt you see in the photos below. When children first saw it, they recognized many of the features they described realized. Every day we’ve had many shoppers arranging their produce on the belt, and thinking together about how conveyor belts work! It has been exciting for teachers to see such young children come together to share their common experiences in the grocery, and then plan, problem solve, and design their own tools and space so successfully.

Use this Grocery Store to see some videos of the conveyor belt in action:

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The Importance of Family at Learning Circle Preschool

At Learning Circle Preschool, we want to make sure there’s a family presence in each classroom and that families feel welcome to participate in school life. We do it in a variety of ways. Having family photos in every classroom, available every day, helps assure that there are on-going conversations among the children about the people important in their lives. Looking at photos of family activities and trips also helps children become more aware of the many experiences we share, and of some of the ways in which we may be different.

There’s nothing like a classroom visit to help a family member get a concrete sense of classroom life and what the school experience means to the children. It’s a lovely way to get a look into what school is like for each child.

Some parents are curious about something a child’s teachers mentioned at a recent conference. Others enjoy sharing a favorite recipe on a day the class is cooking. Some like to help teachers support children, maybe by sitting with children and writing down their ideas as they dictate descriptions of drawings and stories to add to their writing journals. Some come to help take photos of classroom activities or projects. Many family members like to read with children, perhaps to help celebrate a child’s birthday, or for no special reason. Some family members just come to sit and watch for a while, or join the class outdoors.

Some family members help us offer special events and experiences for the children that we wouldn’t be able to offer without them. Joining a class on a field trip, planting a tree or weeding the gardens, or helping out at our annual Food Day celebration are examples of some of the ways family members directly engage with the children and curriculum.

We hope that family members will feel welcome to celebrate their family cultures with the school community as well. We’ve had family members come in to teach children a second language, or read bi-lingual books. Some family members have shared food, games, or other traditions with the children. Others have sent children postcards from places they have traveled or where extended family lives. Some share skills and work experiences. Every year the mix is different, and we celebrate each contribution to our program with the children.

It’s also great to look forward to our annual family events, when children and parents spend time together. Some of these times are entirely social, like our farm days at Pakeen Farm in the fall, or our annual multicultural Family Luncheon each spring. Some have an educational component, like our open door days when we encourage family members to play with their children in the classrooms to learn about how children learn and why we do what we do. Some events celebrate the season, like our annual Family Dance right before the winter holiday break. Some are as informal as our beginning year playdates when families and children get to know each other on the playground or when families invite each other to meet and play after school at Houghton’s Pond.

Children feel validated and that their school life is important when their families participate. Children feel connected and valued when it’s clear that important people at school value their home lives and experiences. Children feel safe and trust the school environment when they see and feel their family member’s trust. Every year our efforts look a little different, but we hope to help build a community that connects grownups and children alike!

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Community Building and Celebrations

The holiday season is approaching, and in our classrooms, many activities revolve around family, family gatherings, giving to others and diverse celebrations.

Our meeting discussions, books and activities stimulate many conversations about families. We find that children return to their photo albums to share family experiences together, and we’ve use books about diverse families to motivate children to draw their own families, and to think about the people they love who they consider family. For some in these discussions, family is the people (and pets) that live together, but for many children even the first family discussions include grandparents, cousins and other extended family. At this time of year, when so many children travel or participate in hosting extended family for gatherings, the concept of family extends.

Starting from this family focus, we begin to encourage children to extend their connections from family to a wider community. The school community also has people who care for each other, and offering opportunities to connect as a whole school gives children a concrete way to deepen relationships here. Our seasonal “feast” is one of the first whole school events that children plan, prepare for, and then enjoy together as a caring community. We want to encourage children to give something of themselves (their time, their conversation, their ideas, their food and gifts) as we come together to celebrate.

Our feast is a time for the whole school to gather for a special snack and sharing. We meet in the kindergarten room, share foods prepared with the children, sing songs, and participate in a traditional “give away” (a Native American custom of distributing gifts to the whole community). During the two weeks or so before the feast, children help plan and then cook food, (this year green beans, carrots, trail mix, apple sauce, and more). We make gifts so that each child will both give and receive gifts from other children (this year painted pine cones, necklaces and book marks). And we learn songs and games that we can enjoy together at the feast and throughout our school year together.

At the same time we talk about sharing ourselves with others, we encourage children to stretch their ideas about community even wider. This is a good time of year to begin to talk together about the neighborhoods we live in, and our connections to that wider community. And as we think about what everyone needs to feel safe and happy, we can start to talk about ways we can help our neighbors who might need something we can give.

One concrete way to do this is to ask families to support our giving projects for local food pantries serving the communities in which our children live. We begin at this time of year, but hope to continue right through the school year, with the generous support of our families. Children are encouraged to bring in a donation, and then work together to sort and bag whatever comes in, so that it’s ready to give.

This year’s feast was the culmination of lots of work and caring on the part of the children, full of conversation and good will. We wish all of you a peaceful holiday season!

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