Tag Archives: early childhood programs

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?


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.


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.

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?

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 a 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?