Tag Archives: development

Making Sense of a Changed School Environment

As we prepared for re-opening this fall, we had many of the same underlying questions that many educators of young children have shared:

• What will distancing look like for preschoolers?
• Will many children struggle with the necessity of wearing a mask?
• How will children feel about the need to connect socially with teachers and peers, but keep a physical distance?
• Will the program still look and feel developmentally appropriate, joyful and driven by the interests of each group of children?
• Will small and larger group project interests grow organically within each group, even within new constraints and protocols?

It turns out we didn’t need to worry as much as we did, but to trust the children and see them as the capable and resourceful individuals they are. We can confirm that taking the time to set the environment carefully with our values in mind, and taking the time to watch and listen to the children has led us to a multitude of engaging beginnings and projects. Through this process, we have re-discovered that some of the important developmental business of the children is to move towards mastery of the environment, even an environment with new and unfamiliar constraints, using all the opportunities offered as experiences unfold.

Our meetings may look different at first glance, but still offer opportunities to greet and listen to each other, share informal conversations and think together about “big ideas” that come up in our days together. Opportunities to investigate, ask questions, share our theories and knowledge, and then document our current thinking about the world are a part of every day, indoors and outdoors. We see projects unfolding in every classroom – around self and family, seeds and plants, seasonal changes, insects, owls and other animals that share our environment outdoors, story-telling, and story writing. Children are listening to each other, learning from each other, and following each other’s lead as they play and learn together.

Now that the children are settling into our new routines, we are beginning to see that children are becoming able to spontaneously maintain the protocols of distancing for safety even as they develop their play themes and share experiences. Under the play structure outdoors, where children often meet for pretend games and conversation, we see spontaneous small groups settling in at an appropriate distance as pretend themes are developed each day. We are beginning to observe that when one child goes over to play an instrument on the playground, it’s now common for others to join at a different instrument – connecting the idea and the music at some distance. When children run together, or wait for a turn on the balance beam or to use an obstacle course, we see them giving each other space without a teacher’s reminder more and more. Children create their own small groups to read, share photos or talk together, giving each other appropriate space. When investigating a sunflower, we see one child at each end of the table more and more. In other words, by setting up a clear expectation and interest in considering each other (it’s kind to wear a mask and give each other space as it shows we are thinking of each other), children are beginning to move towards mastery of their environment here at school, and are increasingly able to find their own creative and thoughtful ways to connect, share, learn and grow together.

As you look at this set of photos, all chosen to illustrate how children are connecting and learning together, I hope you’ll consider how this evidence of competence and resilience is unfolding after such a short time (just 4 or 5 weeks) together.

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Support for Learning

In a busy classroom there are many distractions that pull teachers away from their capacity to see the small details in what a child might be doing that would give clues about the important purposes or questions that are likely under consideration. If we want to see, value, and extend children’s ideas we teachers need to be fully present in the child’s moment, develop our capacities to observe, and assure that children know through our body language and interactions that we have fully joined them. Children know when we are truly listening and when we are distracted, and need our full attention in respectful interactions with teachers to learn deeply. This is true as we set a safe emotional social climate for children, and it is equally true when we try to understand what children know or are curious about in specific content areas.

A recent example of this came when a young 3-year old approached a game set up to put pom-poms in cups labeled 1-12 using tongs. We teachers imagined the task as a straightforward one, primarily supporting counting and number sense as children organized the cups in number order, read or asked about number symbols, and arranged pom-poms. We introduced our ideas about the basic task and joined children as they manipulated the tools and materials available to them.

This 3-year old clearly wanted me to stay and play and I was lucky enough to feel able to join her without needing to check in often on other classroom activities. She understood the basic task as we presented it, found the 1 and the 2 cup, and chose her pom-poms, clearly more interested in the tongs, the texture and the color of the pom-poms than in counting. She proceeded to take handfuls of pom-poms, filling and emptying cups, talking with me about their colors, and making piles. I left a few times as she played, promising to come back as soon as I could, and whenever I was there we chatted about her piles, colors, and her process. I occasionally asked an open-ended question like “I wonder where those need to go” but I mostly watched and described what I saw her doing.

As she worked, she started to try to take 3 pom-poms at a time in her tongs (after all her 3 -year old birthday wasn’t that long ago and 3 is an important number!) She took the 6 cup, in which she had already placed 3 pom-poms, and added 3 more and said, “Look at this, now I have 2 sets of 3 pom-poms!”

Looking at her first approach to this material, I might have easily made assumptions about her level of understanding of numbers, and underestimated her skills and understanding.  I might have tried to teach by pointing out how many pom-poms belonged in each cup. I might have missed her interest in the number 3 as she manipulated the tongs. And I might have undervalued her strong interested in sorting by color.

I might easily have missed her accurate use of the word “sets” as she added 3 pom-poms to 3 already in her cup labeled 6. If I did, I would have had less insight into conversations and experiences she is probably having with family, as I am fairly certain we haven’t introduced the word or concept of sets here at school.

Another example also came when a child was using math cards – building and/or extending patterns with bears in 3 sizes and colors. She called me over, proud to share that she had successfully matched the bears. She hadn’t tried to extend that pattern, so I simply asked “but what would come next?” That started an extended game with me, where she would choose a bear that matched one but not both attributes that would accurately complete the card as designed. We were both laughing and repeating “but what would come next?” Rather than correct or teach, I left it there and we moved on with our day’s activities. It was 2 days later that she called me over again, proudly sharing the same card, this time with the pattern extended.

Children learn in relationships, and deserve our full, uninterrupted attention whenever we can give it.

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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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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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Beginning a New School Year

Fall, 2016

It’s common for children to experience some anxiety at the beginning of a new school year, even if they are returning to a school and to people that they know well. There are so many adjustments to make – summer activities are ending, daily routines may change, there may be new teachers and children to get to know. And the children themselves have grown and may be thinking about their upcoming school experiences in new ways.

Some children adjust to change very quickly and others will need more time. Many experts suggest that it’s not uncommon for children to experience typical separation anxiety for up to ten days before routines settle in.  Your consistent positive support can make a big difference as children form deeper relationships with their teachers, who will be their primary supports while they are here at school. Remember that it’s ok for children to take the time they need, and that each child’s feelings need acknowledgement and understanding. And while acknowledging feelings, family members can set up consistent routines, kindly but firmly remind children when you’ll be together again, and develop strategies together that help ease the transition period.

Here are some practical tips to think about:

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 stuffed toy, book, photo of a family member, note, etc. This connection to home can be very reassuring.

Here are some helpful phrases you might use when it’s time to say good-by:

“I know it’s hard to say good-by.” “Mom and dad will always come back.”

“This is a special place, just for children.” “Will you make me (daddy, sister, etc.) a special drawing today?”

“I’ll be back to pick you up at lunch time.”

“Have a fun day.”

I’ve included some links below to articles on NAEYC’s “For Families” website with more tips on handling transitions into school:

A Few Thoughts on Separation Anxiety

Tips for Easing School-Time Anxiety from a Mom Who’s Been There

13 Tips for Starting Preschool

Have a Concern about School? Tips for Talking to the Teacher

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