Tag Archives: learning

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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Connections and Curriculum

As we start our school year together in a classroom of very young children that we don’t know well yet, we are looking for interests everyone shares that can give shape to our developing curriculum and can help children make connections across many experiences. We want to encourage children to engage with materials and learn more about how to use classroom tools and media and we hope that children will begin to connect socially at the same time – talking together, helping each other find what’s needed, sharing ideas and experiences, and beginning to notice the things children have in common as well as the differences in approach or experience that we can all learn from and appreciate.

Teachers often think about very open-ended themes or projects to get his process started – looking at the environment, thinking about color, making a mark, telling stories all offer beginnings that can unfold in multiple ways over time.

An example this year has been color as an organizing idea around the classroom. We began by encouraging children to use primary colors at the easel and at collage as we introduced these classroom spaces to the children. When we used glue at collage with a variety of colorful circles, would children notice colors? Sort colors? When children created their first paintings, would they keep primary colors “clean” or would they begin mixing experiments right away? Would line or filling a whole page be the primary interest or would color be an organizer? When we introduced children to classroom puzzles or color cubes what could we observe about the children’s understanding of and thinking about color as they constructed? Our observations inform decisions about experiences to offer next, and help us understand how children are thinking about the experiences we share, even when they might not be ready to tell us much about their ideas yet.

Right from the beginning of our year, we’ve had children very interested in using color as an organizer as they sort, create patterns and construct. We’ve had children interested in naming (labeling) colors And we’ve had many children mixing, experimenting, and investigating the multiple shades that can be created when colors are combined. With these approaches and interests in mind, we could offer a wider variety of classroom experiences that we knew would be engaging and offer rich opportunities for the children to connect.

At the easels, we’ve encouraged children to focus their interest in shades of color by changing the color combinations offered. One week might focus on yellows and blues so that a variety of greens could be easily created. Another week might focus on yellows and reds, or reds and blues. When the primary colors returned, we observed a more purposeful investigation of color mixing, and the conversations about shades of color have engaged more and more children. At our weekly paper day, when children share work with classmates before it travels home, many children describe the ways they thought about color to create as they painted.

We offered a variety of books that feature color, so that conversations could continue in a new way. Books featuring fall leaves, and books like Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh or Mix It Up by Herve Tullet have been read and re-read often. Mouse Paint became so important to the children that we decided to extend its themes into our first fingertip and hand painting experiences and for collaborative retelling and drama experiences.

When we were ready to cook our first recipe using tomatoes, we made sure that we investigated many kinds of tomatoes – with different colors as well as sizes. We used these investigations to introduce documentation to the children, encouraging them to talk about, observe carefully, and then draw the varieties they were interested in.

At the science table, we’ve been mixing colors in muffin tins filled with water. Primary watercolors are in 3 of the tins, and children used a pipette to move colors in and out of the water, so that they can create a variety of shades and colors. Including transparent color viewers, mixing tools, and seasonal vegetables at the table enriches the conversation about shades of color, mixing color, and seasonal changes. A favorite activity is to take a viewer and look at the classroom and classmates through yellow, or blue, or red.

And now that the leaves are changing, we are well prepared to look for color in nature. We’ve offered a bed of leaves for pretend woodland animals to shelter in on one of our side tables, encourage children to look up and out of our classroom window often to notice the changes outdoors, and are beginning to investigate changes outdoors as well.

This is one example of how in a busy classroom informed by child interest one thing leads naturally to another. The same process is unfolding in storytelling, making a mark, looking at the environment, thinking about letters and words, and in many other rich investigations that are on-going every day.

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Blocks and Construction Play

Whenever family members ask about good toys for children, one of the first that comes to mind is blocks.

Unit blocks – blocks that come in several sizes and shapes that are proportional – offer tremendous learning opportunities. As they play, children solve problems and develop motor skills. They measure, sort, compare, think about shapes, and develop spatial skills. In order to successfully realize their ideas, children develop the capacity to plan and to use their past experiences to inform their building designs. Children learn to practice and persist as they cope with design challenges. They explore scientific principles and physics as they experience the challenges building their structures pose, whether it’s making a long bridge, creating a window opening, or building higher.

Even taking blocks off the shelf and cleaning up offers opportunities for learning. When children match a picture of a block to the block itself at cleanup, they are “reading the blocks” – using an abstract representation of the block to know where to put it. This is an important prerequisite to reading words.

Many children are also developing stories and pretend skills as they build. The buildings may be part of a city, or may represent a neighborhood where children live. There may be people who live and work in the buildings that are constructed. Children may explore jobs people do, road or pipe works, and relate their block play to their life experiences.

There are many opportunities to develop social skills as children build as well. A bigger structure or thematic plan is possible when children work together, but to do so requires talking together, planning, sharing ideas, negotiating, taking turns, and generally learning to take the perspective of others.

Many different kinds of construction toys, including unit blocks, encourage children to create and solve problems. Because open-ended materials like blocks can be used and combined in so many ways, children are invited to expand their capacity for divergent thinking.

Free exploratory play with blocks and construction toys is important, but is not the only way that these materials can be used. More experienced children may benefit from following a plan to build, or by solving a problem with blocks posed by a teacher.

Constructing with blocks gives children opportunities to learn as young children learn best – through physical activity with concrete materials in their environment, on themes that are personally meaningful, and in an integrated way.

Enjoy the collection of constructions shown by these photos!

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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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