Run, Forest, Run

 

My daughter is a natural athlete, but she doesn’t like to work at it. You know, that thing called practice that helps us improve on our skills. She wants to stay in shape for high school sports, but when the season is over, so is her drive. In effort to to motivate her to be more active, I challenged her to a Couch to 5k training program, culminating in us running in a 5k together.

Let’s be clear. I am NOT a runner. So this was a challenge to me, too. My daughter took me up on the challenge, as did my other two children. I thought it would be a great way for us to connect and get fit as a family. The training didn’t go exactly as planned. I was the only one that actually completed the training, while the daughter I challenged did just two of the runs in the training plan. All of us completed the 5k, and both of my girls won medals in their age categories. Fortunately for them, they were the only ones running in their age groups.

                            Why am I writing about running a 5K?

For starters, childhood obesity is an epidmeic problem. As educators of young children, it’s so important to encourage and support daily physical activity. The challenge, for my daughter and all of us, lies in how to keep children motivated to participate in any type of physical activity. Finding activities that are fun for children, indoors and out, is key to sparking children’s interest in staying active.

Beyond the obesity issue is one of best practice in early childhood education. Brain research tells us that children need to move to make the neural connections necessary for learning to stick. Even our youngest learners need physical activity to help them learn. Rae Pica has long been an advocate for keeping gym and recess in our schools and early childhood programs. She’s written numerous articles and books on the connections between movement and learning.

Beyond the cognitive and physical benefits of being active are the personal benefits of mastering new skills. When a child masters the monkey bars, not only is she preparing for the cognitive tasks of reading and writing, but she gains the sense of accomplishment from mastering a challenging task. That sense of accomplishment helps boost self esteem and encourages children to risks in their learning.

So what did I learn from my C25K training? For starters, I am still NOT a runner. I am a shuffler. Running still does not come easy for me. However, I learned that I really do enjoy being outside. I love to see the change in seasons. I learned that what I like about running is that it’s portable, can be done almost anywhere, and requires no equipment other than a good pair of running shoes. But most important, I learned that with persistence, even this old dog can learn a new trick.

What new activity are you willing to try? And how will you engage your young learners in the pursuit of physical activity?

Cultural Awareness

​What is cultural awareness and why is it important in early childhood programs?

diversity children

In its most basic form, cultural awareness is how we communicate with each other. What we believe, what we value, how we interact and build relationships are all part of cultural awareness. Recognizing that our beliefs and styles of communication may be different from another person’s are an important part of cultural awareness.

Why is this so important for early childhood programs? Every child wants to feel like they are accepted for who they are. Every child wants to have a sense of belonging – to their family, childcare program, and community. This sense of belonging and acceptance are part of the essential social emotional skills young children need for lifelong success. Jenna Bilmes outlines these skills in her book Beyond Behavior Management: The Six Life Skills Children Need, 2nd ed. (2012). Social emotional development is the foundation for all learning, so the more we can support positive experiences for young children, the more we support their school readiness skills.

In her book Diversity in Early Care and Education: Honoring Differences (2007), Janet Gonzalez Mena identifies ten attributes of culture that influence each of us. Those attributes are:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Abilities and disabilities
  • Language
  • Social class, including status and economic level
  • Ethnicity and national origin
  • Religion and/or spiritual practice
  • Original geographic location of family
  • Sexuality, including sexual orientation

​How do you respectfully incorporate each of these attributes of culture in your program? The easy answer, according to certain rating scales and some state and national accreditation programs, is to buy costumes, books, dolls and puppets, and posters that reflect diversity. The school supply companies are eager to please, and have many offerings. But are they authentic?

costumes

If you were to visit Japan, do you think  you would see lots of people walking down the street wearing Kimonos? And when you visit Mexico, how many people do you see wearing a sarape and a sombrero? How about in Africa, do you think everyone wears a Kinte cloth? I can’t remember the last time I wore chaps and a Stetson hat. And yet, these are the “costumes” that are included in many dress up sets that are labeled as multi-cultural. I believe these costumes promote stereotypes rather than celebrate diversity.

So how can you be authentic in bringing diversity into your program?
First, begin by focusing on the children who are enrolled in your program. Photos of the children and their families displayed in frames or a photo collage sends the message that everyone is welcome. Include extended family as well. Photos of staff members and their families should be incorporated into the display. Encourage families to share holiday activities and foods as well as everyday activities and foods. Music from home is another great way to bring the home culture into your program. Invite families to come in to do an activity or read a favorite family book.

mc booksmusical instruments

Evaluate the books in your library. Do they reflect diversity or are there stereotypes represented in the stories? Do you have a balance of books that reflect various ages and genders in non-stereotypical roles? How about people with different abilities? Do your books reflect different cultures and languages? Are many different family structures represented in your book collection? These are tough questions to ask, and many children’s books do not have a balance of diversity represented. There are some great resources available to help you in your review of materials. Head Start has some great resources for Cultural and Linguistic Responsiveness, including a tool for evaluating children’s literature. The Anti-Defamation League has a number of programs and resources available for Early Childhood Anti-Bias Education. Teaching Tolerance has a wide range of resources on all aspects ofdiversity and respect.

posters

What about those posters?
Just slapping posters on the wall and calling it a day does not align with best practice. The environment should be set up with intention. Even if you’ve chosen a set of posters that reflects non-stereotypical images, are the posters meaningful and authentic for the children in your care? Do the posters enhance the environment in a way that is accessible to children, or are they randomly placed on the walls, doors, or cabinets – just because you should have them, or because someone else told you to put them up? Are the posters just adding visual clutter to your space?

The intentional teacher might have these posters in his or her program, but only IF there is a purpose. For example, that poster of the older gentleman and a younger child reading a book might be placed in the library area.
A better use of the posters is to incorporate them into daily learning activities. Any of those posters can be used as a springboard for a language and literacy activity. Share the poster with the children, either at circle time or in small groups. Ask the children questions about what they see, and what the picture brings to mind. Encourage the children to make connections between the images in the posters and their own lives and experiences. Making connections is one of the essential skills children need, as documented by Ellen Galinsky’s research in Mind in the Making.

Engage children in the process of writing by encouraging them to draw pictures and write about their own family experiences that reflect the images in the posters. Gather the children’s work and assemble the papers together to create a book, using the poster as the book cover. Place the book in the library area for children to read and revisit.

Engage children in Social Studies experiences by using the posters of community helpers as a springboard to discuss different types of jobs. Ask family members to take photos in their own work place to share with the group. Invite family members to come in and share what they do. Attach  those photos to the back of the posters or create another book, engaging children in creative thinking – What do you want to be when you grow up?

For infants and toddlers, try taping the posters to the floor or along the inner rim of the infant pool. As children look around and move around, they can engage with the faces they see.

Infants and toddlers are attracted to faces. Why not use the mirror as a starting point for exploring faces? Take many photos of the children and their families, and frame the mirror with these photos. Use board books in the library to engage children in looking at pictures and photos of many different people.

To soften the edges in the room, try using different patterned and textured fabrics. Fabrics are a great addition to the dramatic play area. They can be used in any way a child can imagine. Consider using fabrics as a tablecloth in dramatic play. Draping fabrics over a rocking chair creates an inviting seat. Draping fabrics across the top of a shelf to soften the look of hard edges.

fabric1
Sheer fabrics can be draped from the ceiling. This creates an inviting space for children to play. It visually lowers the ceiling for young children and encourages them to get cozy.

The possibilities for authentic representation of culture are endless.

How do you authentically incorporate cultural awareness in your program?

Fine motor skills, handwriting, or writing? What’s the difference?

I recently received a call from a program administrator asking for an opinion on a practice that was concerning to her. Several parents have enrolled their preschoolers in an enrichment program based on “Handwriting Without Tears.” The parents are telling her their preschool children need to know how to write before they enter kindergarten, so the enrichment program has been very popular, for the parents. The administrator asked if, indeed, children do need to know how to write, and what did I think of this practice?

First, let’s sort out the difference between fine motor skills, handwriting, and writing, and what exactly is developmentally appropriate for preschoolers.

Fine motor development is all about strength and control of the small muscles in the hand.

Developmental progression of fine motor skills involves the mastery of the following:

A young child using this grasp will tend to grab indiscriminately at objects, hoping that something stays within his/her grip. Chubby crayons, puzzles with large knobs, and fingerpainting all support development of the palmer grip. As the name implies, gripping an object is mostly done by placing the object in the palm of the hand and closing the fingers around it.

As children’s hand strength and coordination improves, the pincer grasp involves grasping an object between the finger(s) and thumb, allowing more control over smaller objects. Picking up an individual Cheerio, playing with clay, and stringing beads support development of the pincer grip.

Development of eye-hand coordination involves the strength and control of the fingers and hand, as well as the ability to visually focus attention on what the hand and fingers are grasping and how to control the movements of the fingers and hand to accomplish a task. The above tasks all involve some amount of eye-hand coordination, but a child’s developmental maturity will influence how successful he/she is at each task.

Handwriting is all about the proper way to form letters and words, typically using paper and pencil.

Handwriting is NOT a developmentally appropriate skill until a child is in first grade. Where many early childhood educators get stumped is on how to promote the proper grip for holding crayons and pencils. Google the word “handwriting” and you’ll find many, many links to downloadable worksheets for handwriting practice. As a skill, handwriting involves many steps:

  • Knowing the letters
  • Visual perception skills, i.e. being able to interpret and understand what is seen
  • Following a sequence of steps
  • Controlling the pencil on paper to stay within the guidelines
  • Repeated practice of individual letters or groups of letters
  • Understanding left to right progression
  • Understanding top to bottom progression
  • Tracking the movement of the hand, the pencil, and the paper

Writing is about putting your ideas on paper.

Communicating ideas so that others understand what you want to say is a lifelong skill. Written communication begins in toddlerhood with the first marks a child makes with paper and crayon, and maybe even a wall. There are fairly universal typical stages of writing development and drawing development in children. Writing for young children takes many forms:

  • Making marks on a page
  • Scribbling with crayons
  • Drawing or painting a picture
  • Using letter like shapes and symbols to represent words
  • Writing words, phrases or sentences
  • Drawing a sequence of pictures to tell a story

So what is really important for a 3 or 4 year old? Is it forming the perfect letter “a” on a page, or drawing a picture of your family and scribbling to represent their names?

Legible handwriting is important, for an elementary school age child, but what is far more important is the ability to express your ideas. In preschool, attention should be focused on providing a wide variety of activities and experiences that build fine and gross motor skills, eye-hand coordination, the opportunity to express ideas in multiple ways. Handwriting has other important benefits, besides the formation of letters, however, as a developmental skill, handwriting success doesn’t come until children are in Kindergarten and First grade.

Handwriting emphasizes one right way to put the letter on the page. It involves many coordinated skills, as well as lots of repetition in order to master this skill. Handwriting Without Tears claims it is a research based program, the research cited does not explicitly state that handwriting practice is an essential early childhood skill. The research quoted references the need for children’s play, and the development of language and literacy skills. All of this can be accomplished in well- developed program that focuses on best practices in early childhood education.

Written communication emphasizes expressing yourself so that others understand your message.

Some might even argue that handwriting is becoming obsolete with the growth of electronic media. We all know what spell check has done for us! . However, there will always be a need for well-written thank you note.

Success in school and in life depends on how well you are able to communicate your ideas, not how neatly you form your letters.

As much as I despise standardized tests, none of the tests out there measure handwriting ability, but they sure do measure how well you can communicate your ideas. Early childhood screening tools don’t measure handwriting ability. Screening tools measure fine motor skills, and communication skills.

So what’s a parent to do?

Find ways to support your child’s fine motor development. Roll and throw the ball to your child. Vary the size and texture of the ball. Paint. Color. Play with clay. Make pizza dough. Practice using a mixing spoon in a bowl. Use tongs to place pom poms in an ice cube tray. String beads. Do jigsaw puzzles. Use stampers and ink. Play in the sand. Dig in the dirt. Build with blocks. Race cars around a track. In a nutshell, PLAY!

Encourage your child to express his ideas. Tell stories. Ask your child questions about what interests her, why he likes or doesn’t like something, or how he solved a problem. Read books. Make predictions, about a story, about the weather, about what might happen next, about a game. Talk to your child. Have a conversation. PLAY together. BE together. The rest is icing on the cake!

Inspiring Curiosity and Wonder

Each purple link in this post will take you to an ECE blogger 
that has inspired me in some way. Check the blog roll on
the left for more inspiration.

Young children are fascinated with anything that stimulates their senses. Consider the newborn that is drawn to human faces and the sound of Mommy’s voice, or the toddler who delights in blowing and chasing bubbles, and the preschooler who can’t get enough of GAK or OOBLEK. These experiences not only delight multiple senses, they inspire curiosity and wonder.

Childhood should be filled with the kinds of experience that engage the senses and challenge children to expand their thinking. Musings such as “I wonder what will happen if…” should be a mantra in any early childhood setting. To observe a child and see the concentration on his face, or the deliberateness in his hand movements is utterly fascinating. As an adult, watching this exploration from the outside makes me wonder what this child is thinking and what is motivating him. I wonder about what this child is wondering about.

Will he figure out how to make the mobile move?

Will she discover how to make a bubble land on her hand without popping?

Will he find a way to re-create the sound of crashing blocks using the musical instruments?

Then of course, my thoughts turn to how I can support this exploration.

  • What other materials can I provide to encourage the process of discovery?
  • What provocations can I set up to continue to spark this child’s curiosity and wonder?
  • How can I engage this child, either through an experience or a conversation, to learn more about what she is thinking or what motivates her?
  • How can I support the process of discovery without taking over, gently finding just the right words or interactions to extend the learning?

I am constantly fascinated by the depth of a child’s thinking and understanding. While their language skills and vocabulary may not provide a means of expression, their actions certainly do. This takes me back to the look of concentration, the focus of their attention, or the engagement of their hands.

When I visit a program where the teachers share this fascination, it’s obvious. The wonder and curiosity of the teachers, about the children, is so clearly evident in the layout of the environment, or the documentation that is displayed. How a teacher or caregiver sets up an invitation for play and learning is directly related to the value that caregiver places on capturing the hearts and minds of the children in their care.

I shared my excitement in a previous post about how fascinating it is to watch teachers truly engage with young children. I so truly enjoy watching teachers have conversations with children. I love to see their descriptions of various experiences through photos and written documentation. It’s especially gratifying for me to see (hear) the teachers voice in the documentation, opening the door to what makes that teacher wonder about the children.  To see the reflections of the teachers, and of the children is so delightful. Margie Carter and Deb Curtis from Harvesting Resources have written great articles and books about this kind of reflective practice that engages curiosity and wonder in teachers.

Sometimes, I don’t have the opportunity to be in a program with a caregiver to see all of the engaging experiences that take place, but I get to live it second hand when these caregivers share stories during a workshop with me. I live for the opportunity to talk with caregivers about what inspires them, what creates that sense of curiosity and wonder within them, and what they can do to continue to engage and inspire the children in their care. So a shout out to all my teacher friends who have allowed me the opportunity to question and challenge them about why they do what they do. The questions aren’t always easy, and they don’t always lead to answers, but the process is invigorating for me. I hope it is for them too!

So tell me what inspires you? What creates a sense of curiosity and wonder in your work with young children? I’d love to hear your ideas!

Re-thinking teacher development

I just started teaching Child Growth and Development at the local community college, and most of my students have indicated that they intend to some day work with children, in some capacity. The first few classes have been quite interesting for me, as I try to get know my students. Many do not yet have hands-on experience with young children, some have children of their own. Child development theories and research are new to ALL of them. And this is a required class for any person pursuing work with young children in any capacity.

As I’ve reviewed our text to prepare for class, I’ve tried to find ways to make the technical and sometimes jargon filled content more relatable and tangible. What I’m finding so fascinating is that as an experienced educator, I can easily identify caregiving practices that are linked to specific development theories. But for my students, who have little or no work experience with children, that connection is irrelevant. Not only is there a lack of application of course content in their day to day lives, there is a lack of connection to the importance of understanding child development and why it is a critical element for successful teaching and caregiving.

In my role as trainer and consultant, I am constantly reading books and articles related to child development and best practices. I still find new research and its application fascinating. I believe in the importance of lifelong learning, but I meet many teachers who believe that they have a degree, and that’s good enough.

For some time, I have been concerned about the general lack of understanding of child development that I see in many teachers, new and experienced. Expectations of children are not aligned with DAP or any type of developmental continuum. In these classrooms, I see kindergarten skills being practiced in a 3-year old classroom. When I ask a teacher how she chose a specific activity, or what resource she used, the answer is often “I’ve always done this.”

This brings me back to my challenge with my community college students. If there is no pertinent reference point for understanding child development in a practical way, then everything I teach this year will become stuff to learn for the test, rather than stuff to learn for success as a caregiver. The child development information from this course will soon be tossed aside at the start of a new semester and new classes. The textbooks will either be sold back to the bookstore, or will gather dust on the shelf.

I have to admit, when I was in college, I memorized the developmental theories for the test, and never looked at that information again. Until I needed it for real life work with children.

Now, I wonder if our teacher education system is set up backwards. If understanding child development and developmental theories are crucial to understanding and implementing best practices, shouldn’t we wait and teach this information when our students have some hands-on experience working with children?

Shouldn’t we focus on training potential teachers on communication skills, how to have a conversation with a child, and how to ask open ended questions to extend learning?

Shouldn’t we focus on relationship building skills, so teachers know how to observe children to build relationships, and how to create partnerships with parents, and how to work as a professional in collaboration with other colleagues?

Shouldn’t we focus on training potential teachers on how to observe in a functional way rather than in a clinical way? If our only experience with observation is to sit on the side of the room while in someone else’s classroom or caregiving setting, with no interaction with children, we never learn the skills of observing and documenting while engaging in play with children.

If we want teachers to focus on learning through play, shouldn’t we include understanding the fundamentals of play in our pre-service coursework? Shouldn’t we give new teachers the tools to explain all of the learning that happens when children are playing so they are not constantly battling the play vs. academics challenge? And shouldn’t we encourage new teachers to personally engage in play?

Shouldn’t we focus on understanding what responsive caregiving is, what it looks like, and how it benefits children? This includes the power of differentiated instruction.

These are skills that all education professionals need to be successful, but so many pre-service training programs do not include them in their coursework. If we understand how to BE with children and how to build relationships with children, then the child development theories will start to make more sense. Then we can actually apply child development theories to support children’s play and learning.

New teachers and caregivers spend so much of their time figuring out how to make it through the day because we haven’t given them the skills to communicate and build relationships. So of course, the child development information gets tossed out the window.

Maybe it’s time to re-think teacher development, and focus on the power of play and the power of relationships, so we can start to recognize the importance of and value of understanding child development.

What Kind of Observer are You?

I had the opportunity to visit St. John’s Episcopal Preschool  in Washington, D.C. St. John’s program  is inspired by the philosophy of the preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. And inspired it is! When my good friend and colleague, DJ Jensen asked what I liked best about the program, I said “observing the teachers.”

I visit childcare centers and preschools several times a week, with an opportunity to observe teachers, their environments, and their interactions with young children. During my visit to St. John’s was the first time that I truly witnessed what I’ve been describing for all these years. Usually, what I see teachers doing is more of a “lifeguard” style of observing. Teachers scan the room frequently to make sure that everyone is safe. They look around to see where everyone is playing and with whom, but it rarely goes any deeper than that. Teachers capture the surface details of what’s going on, but typically miss the heart of what is happening.

Typically, when I ask teachers to review their observation notes and share one thing they learned, most teachers will tell me that their notes did not reveal anything of value. We tend to train teachers to observe in a clinical sense, removing them from the action and reporting the facts, just the facts. While there is value in that kind of observation for specific purposes, in general, this type of observing does not truly support observing to build relationships with children.

The teachers at St. John’s were actively engaged with the children during their play. They sat at the tables and on the floor and talked with the children. They asked questions, and they waited for responses. They showed a genuine interest in what each child was doing. While they engaged with the children, they took notes on what they saw and heard. They took notes on their conversations. Those notes sometimes made it into a documentation panel, which shows a period of extended exploration and learning. The documentation panels highlighted explorations and discoveries of the group as well as from individual children. Successes and failures were documented, with quotes and questions from both the teachers and children.

One thing I noted from the visit to St. John’s was the amount of TIME the teachers devoted to exploration and discovery. While these classrooms were busy, they lacked the frenetic pacing that so often occurs in many preschool classrooms. There were few transitions, which allowed for much more time for play, and the chance to explore everything in more depth. There was no pressure to “get things done,” as is so often the case in many programs.

When we can take the TIME to slow down and BE with children, we have the opportunity to rediscover the joy of being 2 or 3 or 4. When we slow down and BE with children, we can rediscover the reasons many of us became teachers in the first place. When we slow down to BE with children, we can learn:

  • What inspires curiosity and wonder in the child
  • What motivates the child and keeps him engaged
  • How does the child think and problem solve
  • Who is this child as a learner
  • What makes this child happy and joyful

This is the kind of observation that every child deserves.

What do you believe?

“Mommy, do you believe in Santa Claus?” asked my 9-year-old.

Even though we don’t celebrate Christmas, I had to respond in a way that would keep her believing, at least for the sake of her friends.

“I believe that Santa Claus is real for the people who celebrate Christmas. I believe in the idea of Santa,” I replied.

That satisfied her for the time being, and she agreed, Santa is real for her friends. This, from the same child who wrote a letter to Santa when she was 4 years old.

So what does believing in Santa Claus have to do with Early Childhood Education and this blog? Plenty! As educators, we sometimes say things that we think other people want us to say, or because we want to align our beliefs with a colleague’s. When this happens, it’s just like saying we believe in Santa. In our heads, we know Santa isn’t real, but in our hearts, we want to believe in the idea of a Santa Claus and what he represents.

Here’s what Santa looks like in early childhood education:

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP)

Do you really believe in DAP, or are you just saying that you do?

Over the past few months, I have had a staggering number of conversations with center directors, teachers, and colleagues about DAP and the lack of understanding so many caregivers have about what it is and what it looks like. See my September post describing DAP experiences in early childhood programs.

This is a conversation worth re-visiting. The term DAP is pervasive in Early Childhood Education. When I ask most teachers to describe what they do, I usually hear them tell me what they think I want them to say, or what they think they believe (hello Santa!). It almost always involves a statement about DAP, in some way. But when I listen to these same teachers describe various experiences in their programs, they are anything but DAP. I tend to hear about excruciatingly long circle times, teacher directed activities, and little choice for children. When asked to describe DAP, these same teachers can give me somewhat of textbook definition.

So why is there such a discrepancy between what so many teachers say they believe and what they actually do?

I think this is complicated. DAP has been researched and talked about in our field for so many years, teachers have been trained to say it’s so. It’s like saying dark chocolate is good for you.The more you say it, the more you think you believe it.

The bigger issue is that for many teachers, it’s hard to believe in something that you can’t quantify. Sure, we explain what DAP is in technical terms. But if all of our personal school experiences were whole group, mostly teacher directed, and offered few choices, then we don’t have an inner compass of experience to guide us. If we have not spent a significant amount of time observing or working in a setting that is DAP, then we have no concrete examples of how to structure our own programs. If our only knowledge of DAP comes from workshops or trainings or staff meetings where the facilitator talked at us about DAP, then we still have no reason to internalize what it is and what it looks like.

That training we’ve all had, the one(s) that tell us what DAP is, and maybe even provides examples of what it looks like, chances are, it was  a teacher directed training and did not model DAP practices for us (said the trainer). Or maybe the training did have DAP elements in it, with examples of what it looks like, some hands-on experiences, and an explanation, but it was late at night when you took the training- you were tired and unfocused – or maybe your attendance wasn’t voluntary, so the message didn’t get through. Or maybe, you’ve heard the word DAP so many times, you’re already convinced that you get it and you’re doing it, so you weren’t open to trying something different (so said the trainer).

So, how do we get to the place where what we say we believe is actually what we do? How do we really sync what we believe about how children learn and what that environment and experiences should look like?

Step 1: Set aside everything you’ve been told to believe.

Step 2: Disregard everything you heard in all of those trainings you’ve attended. (Really, said the trainer!)

Step 3: Forget about what you THINK everyone wants you to believe or say or do.

Step 4: Find a place for quiet reflection. Take time to really think about this, and answer this one question.

What do you believe?