Tag Archives: learning

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Thanksgiving Themes

Holidays and traditions are important parts of our lives, and they give us opportunities to reflect, feel connections to our histories, and share experiences with our families and friends. When we teachers are planning a meaningful Thanksgiving with preschoolers, we use conversations to help them:

1. Express their feelings and ideas about family gatherings
2. Begin to develop an understanding of history and the passage of time
3. Find out specific information about the past and make connections between the past and the present.

A focus on personal feelings, family gathering, sharing, helping, and working together, giving thanks, and making and giving gifts to others is of primary importance for young children.

It’s also true that many preschoolers have a variety of ideas and impressions about the first Thanksgiving, Pilgrims, and Native Americans. Quite a few of these impressions are inaccurate. The Thanksgiving holiday offers an opportunity to talk about features of past cultures in ways that connect to the children’s’ present lives and interests. It is important that whatever information is shared with children be accurate historically. Young children may be interested in talking about how:

1. People live in all kinds of houses now, and did in the past as well. All people need shelter. (If children are interested, comparisons can be made between the materials traditionally used in the past for housing among both Native Americans and early European settlers, and with modern materials used for housing.)
2. People make and use tools, now and in the past.
3. People cultivate and eat a variety of foods, and prepare them in a variety of ways.
4. People need clothing and wear a variety of clothing styles and materials.
5. People from different cultures have their own ways to celebrate holidays and may celebrate different holidays as well. People enjoy a variety of games, and have a variety of customs, but these customs often serve similar purposes.
6. People help each other when they share ideas and work together.
7. The places people live now did not always look the same way as they do now.
8. There are Native Americans now, as there were in the past; modern life is different for all of us.
9. Relatives of the Pilgrims live now; we live now and have relatives who lived in the past; and modern life is different for all of us.
10. Not everyone celebrates the same holidays we do.

This year we began to stimulate ideas about the past by encouraging children to investigate tools and other objects made from materials found in nature near us. We talked about how these tools were made recently using materials that people who lived in our area long ago might have used too. Children created pretend games with homemade cloth and corn husk dolls that could travel in wood or bark canoes. They tried on necklaces made of dyed corn kernels and thought about how the vibrant colors used might have been found. They pretend cooked using wooden mortar and pestles, and used clam shells for scoops. They incorporated woven mats and baskets into games and pretend. We played instruments made from natural materials. A rich display with diverse materials stimulates many connections to family experiences, and gives us opportunities to offer a sense of history in ways that are personally meaningful to the children.

From that beginning, we offered activities that gave children opportunities to create their own materials. Could we use scraps from our beautiful easel paintings to weave? Could we dye our own fabric with something from nature? Could we learn games that use stones or other natural materials as props or tools? Could we create musical patterns using drums, shakers, or other instruments made from found materials? Could we use sticks to create designs, shapes or letters?

Because the children enjoy books we can sing almost every day, we used a version of Over the River and Through the Woods (poem by Lydia Maria Child and illustrated by Christopher Manson) to strengthen connections between past and present. With each experience, children found more and more details in this book’s rich illustrations of things happening long ago and their own personal experience. Whether it is a trip to visit grandparents, foods at the table, games and outdoor experiences children enjoy in cold weather, or other details, repeated experiences with this songbook led to rich conversations about family experiences, and helped children understand that in the past people had similar feelings and experiences around family.

Cooking and harvest themes are central to family celebrations, and we’ve been sharing recipes as well. The children all spend time investigating squash, tasting many varieties of apples, and watching the changes colder weather brings to our beans and other plants growing outdoors in the gardens.

The whole school will be coming together for our own “feast” before we break for the Thanksgiving holiday, and every class has been busy making foods and gifts for everyone at school. The children are preparing apple sauce, a trail mix, and a vegetable-rich pasta salad to share at the feast. This offers children a way to anticipate together, and get ready for a special celebration. Each class has been preparing gifts for a school wide giveaway as well, This offers an opportunity to think about sharing resources, so that everyone in the school community receives something special from others. And it encourages children to work over time. This year we’ve been busy painting large clam shells, lacing, and preparing homemade bookmarks with beautiful results.

Families have developed a school tradition that we share as well. A parent created a small “tree” in our welcome room where children can talk about what they are thankful for, make a mark or have a grownup write a message about it, and hang it on the tree. The children have enjoyed watching leaves and messages get added, and those that are writing for themselves have spent time creating their own messages for the tree with teachers as well. This has become a lovely tradition that informally gives children lots of time to reflect on what it means to be thankful and on the many people and things we have to be thankful for.

We teachers had an opportunity to see that these experiences have been meaningful recently when we introduced a flannel board poem about giving thanks to our youngest children. In this story poem represented with pieces of felt, a child reflects on all the things to be thankful for – things we can hold, see, or hear. The focus of the poem is on good foods, and connections to the natural world. As each piece of felt was carefully placed on the board, the children were completely engaged and thoughtful. When the poem ended, there was a brief silence, and then children spontaneously began to share things they are thankful for in their own lives – family, activities shared, toys, and good foods.

Enjoy your celebrations!

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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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“Organic” Math

This year many of our youngest children (primarily 3 year olds) showed strong interests in math, and an opportunity to collaborate on a big mathematical problem came up on our last day of school.

We have been using a rolling calendar all year, marking the number of days we’ve shared at school, and watching the roll of paper get bigger and bigger. Our plan was to unroll the paper on the last day so that we could see how long our school year was. We also planned to cut the paper up afterwards, so that each child could take a part of their school year home.

Rather than lead this process completely, a teacher asked an “I wonder” question once the children marked day number 163 on the calendar:

“I wonder how we could figure out how many days each child can bring home today. We have 163 days and we have 15 children here.”

Many children spontaneously began to share their estimations – (“we’ll each get 2… I think 8…I think 4…. I think more than that…”)

Someone pointed out that we could figure it out if we had something to count. A teacher thought out loud about what we had 163 of in the classroom and remembered that we have many periwinkles, and the children thought we should count out 163 of them. When the teacher pointed out that this would be a very big job, and asked if they really wanted to do all that counting, many children enthusiastically said yes.

At this point, the children needed a bit of guidance, so a teacher suggested that we could count the 163 shells and then make a pile of shells for each child from those 163. Then, if we counted each pile, we’d know how many days could travel home with each child.

Again, teachers asked children to think about how big the job would be. We’d have to find a big enough space for 15 piles, and make sure no one combined piles, or moved them until we had counted out all the shells. About half the group decided they would get the job done.

It took a long time, but we did manage to count out the shells and create 15 piles. And children discovered that some would take home 11 numbers, and some only 10, but that was ok because we only had 163 days.

Before cutting our days, we worked together to unroll the calendar to see how long it was. Too long for the hallway! By this time everyone was working together, since it took all 15 children to hold “our year” in place.

The level of interest and enthusiasm for taking on this counting challenge was quite impressive, as was the children’s capacity to stay on task for the extended time it took for all this counting to happen. Although the children weren’t ready to figure out on their own how to divide 163 into parts, once that suggestion was made, they helped each other stay on track, count accurately, make sure there was a pile for everyone, check their work, and then call on others to help manage the long length of paper representing our year.

Every child was involved in the project – each at his or her own level, each with his or her own approach, some counting by tens, some by ones, listening to and learning from each other. Contrast the learning that comes out of an experience like this to the learning that comes out of drill or worksheets.

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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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