Sunday, November 24, 2013

Building Castles (and Relationships)

The children have been exploring castle construction in the block center with large cardboard blocks and a variety of small blacks. Recently we introduced the idea of constructing a castle out of recycled materials. The materials were set out and ready when they came in from the playground. Several  Voyagers (preschoolers) joined the Explorers (toddlers) to work on this project. Having the different groups work together adds new elements to the project. The Voyagers have more experience with some of the materials so the Explorers are able to see things in a new way and generate new ideas by observing the Voyagers.

Seeing how the children are working together and communicating with each other has been interesting and is leading to new questions for the teachers. The patience the Voyagers demonstrated with the older Explorers as they worked was not lost on the toddlers. We noticed that the older toddlers were more patient with the younger toddlers who showed an interest in the project. Would this have happened at this point without the modeling from the Voyagers? That is a question that remains to be answered and one we will continue to look at as the year progresses. 

G., J. and B. worked together to attach a tube with tape. There were several attempts before they were successful. B. had started on his own and was struggling. He asked J. for help and she tried to tape it. When she struggled, she suggested B. hold the tube while she taped. The tape was getting tangles so G. helped attach one end as J. held the other and B. held onto the tube. Success at last! Soon after that B. said, “I need tape.” To which G. replied, “I’m getting you some.” B. and G. worked together for a good part of the morning.

S. worked for quite some time to get the tape off the roll and to cut it so that it wouldn’t double over and get stuck to itself. She made several attempts and when she got a piece cut successfully, she exclaimed, “I did it. I got some tape.” She continued cutting tape and applying it the roof of the castle and a tube for a tower. She was able to apply the tape to her tube so that it stayed on top of the castle, which is something she may have picked up from her careful observations of the Voyagers.

After noticing how a teacher had cut notches in a tube for the top of one of the towers, J. tried cutting some tubes to resemble it. After a couple attempts, she asked how the cuts had been made so the teacher showed her. She went back to cutting and was able to make similar notches before attaching her tube to the castle. Some of the other children picked up on this and starting cutting objects with their scissors. 

B. found a paper scrap, held it out toward J., placed it on top of the castle as if he was trying to make it stick and then said something to J. We are wondering if he as trying to ask J. for help in making it stick but he walked away before we could find out. He carried a box around the classroom then brought it over and held it out toward S. as if asking him to attach it to the castle. He changed his mind and took it back but a few minutes later he returned with the lid. He was feeling and pulling the tape so S. helped him with some tape and he placed it on the box by his lid. He then came back and placed a tube on top of the castle.

T. noticed B. peeling tape off the castle that others had just put on. She asked him to stop and a teacher suggested that maybe he would like to help with the castle. T. asked, ‘Do you want some tape? He can borrow mine (to the teacher).’ She gave him her roll of tape but he seemed to be having trouble, which the teacher pointed out. T. said, “I can help him start it,’ which she did. After helping him tear off a long piece of tape, she pointed to the box and told B., “Put it over this castle."

During this time, N. discovered a large leaf that he thought could be used for the castle. A teacher asked him what part it could be and he replied, “Way up.” When asked what he would do with it, he stated he would cut it up and tape it. At this point, the teacher reminded him that castled roofs had been constructed out of grass, sticks or other natural materials because stones were too heavy. So N. cut and tore the leaf until it was in small pieces and then glued it on top of the castle. Josie rolled part of the leaf up, tape sit and the taped it to the castle as well.

Seeing what the Voyagers were doing must have inspired the younger Explorers. Although some waited until the Voyagers had returned to their room to try out some of their ideas. C. worked at cutting with scissors while Lena explored with the tape that was left, trying to pull it off the roll. Leo picked up a pair scissors, poking the leaf with them. It makes me wonder if he was trying to cut the leaf because as nothing happened, he kept poking harder and harder at it.

As the younger children see what the older ones do and how they use materials, what new ideas will they develop. How will their use of the materials change over time? Will the length of time they spend in our program (since they are starting so young), change the way they learn about materials? These questions will continue to provoke the interest and learning of the teachers.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Toddler Risk Taking

Things are settling down here with S in the house so I think I may be able to get back to some writing finally.  A little disclaimer here...He is the inspiration for this particular post, even though it happens to be classroom related.

There has been a lot of debate in the past few years about whether playgrounds can be too safe, as this article from the New York Times explains and appropriate risk taking by young children. Deborah at Teach Preschool, Teacher Tom and many others have written some excellent posts on the subject. For many years, I have pretty much let my toddlers take risks and do things that many toddler teachers would stop. You typically won't hear me tell a child not to stand on the couch or crawl under the table. It is not uncommon to find a toddler in my class standing on a chair to put more blocks on a tower taller than they are, carry objects around that appear too heavy, let them go for a walk on campus and not have to hold a teacher's hand or just simply get dirty.

At the same time, there are specific things I won't allow. Children are not allowed to sit on tables or run through the quieter areas of the classroom, such as the book or art areas. With each new group of children, the rules are tweaked.  In the name of safety, one rule that never changes is that teachers are not to put children onto a structure that they cannot climb onto on their own. If a child cannot climb into or onto something, then they likely cannot get down from it safely. Or, they develop a false sense of confidence and end up attempting something they are not physically ready for, resulting in a preventable injury.

With each new group of children, the rules change slightly and seem to become a little more relaxed. We had a rule last fall that children could not use chairs to climb on top of the tunnels on the playground. I had let a couple try it and quickly ended it when two children launched themselves from their chairs completely over the tunnels, landing face first in the mud on the other side with decent cuts and bruises. By the spring, they had developed more physical coordination and we ended that rule. You can only hear yourself or your co-teacher tell a child so many times that chairs do not belong at the tunnels to finally realize it might be time to let them try again. This time, they slowed down, paid closer attention and no one ended up getting hurt.

I'm not saying we change the rules on a whim or just let the toddlers do what they want. We evaluate the situation, the children's current development in all areas and, the group dynamic before changing a rule. With the younger toddlers in the classroom, we had decided it would be safer if we didn't allow the walkers to take wheeled toys, like the strollers and cars, up and down the ramps in the movement area. It wasn't that we thought the children using the toys would get hurt but, concern that they might not notice a younger, less stable toddler in the area and that child might just get run over. But, having the rule in place did not stop the children from taking these wheeled toys on the ramps frequently. We tried several strategies to stop it until one day, I saw my little guy and another boy carefully walking up the ramp with the cars under them. One of the teachers started to remind them of the rule when I said to her, "Let's just see where this goes." We remained close (and quiet) in case one of us needed to intervene as we continued to observe. Remarkably, they managed to repeat this several times without anyone getting hurt or even falling down really.

We picked up some great information about these boys as we watched them maneuver around each other. Often, one was heading down as the other was going up and they adjusted their positions so that they didn't crash into each other or cause one another to fall off. There were times they ended up in the same spot and had to carefully maneuver their cars into position without knocking the other child off. They learned to be aware of where the other one was on the ramp, how much space each car needed and were more aware of their bodies in the space.  They learned how to solve some new problems, both physical and social.  So, we decided to eliminate that rule for the time being. With subsequent groups, we may have to revisit. Only time will tell.

The ramps in question.

Which isn't to say we haven't had accidents. One child tried to go down backward and ended up on his back in the process. He has since re-thought the wisdom in that and now goes down facing forward or goes slower to avoid rolling over again. We also don't just leave them to their own devices or let them get crazy. Someone is usually in that area or very close and we have no problem stepping in and helping a child re-think an idea that we are pretty sure will result in injury or something being damaged.  As a result of this indoor rule change, we finally decided to relax the outdoor rules and let them ride wheeled toys down the hill (again my little guy was the leader of the pack- I still haven't decided if that is a good or bad thing!), as you will see in the video below. You will actually hear me mention appropriate risk taking. One of the other teachers asked if she stop the boy at the bottom of the hill and I decided not to. You will notice that not only does he stop when he sees my little guy coming down but, my little guy also changed his path when he noticed the boy at the bottom.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Reinvigorated Sense of Wonder

Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.
~John Lennon 

That quote describes my life pretty well right now.  It has been a little over a month since I have written a new post because life decided to happen to me. A month ago today, my 18-month-old great-nephew came to live with me while his parents work some things out in their lives. To say this was a big change might just be the understatement of the century. I have gone from living alone, doing what I want when I want, to caring for this small child who just needs someone to pay attention to him and help him learn to explore.

Even though I have worked with toddlers for many years and have seen their sense of wonder and curiosity lead to new discoveries every day, having the little one living with me has made me even more aware of this.  He hadn't had many experiences outside of his room, home or neighborhood.  I am used to slowing down for the typical toddler as everything seems new and interesting to them. But, with this little one I find myself having to work a little harder at following his pace.  He is so enthralled with everything he sees that it is hard not to enjoy that sense of wonder. At home, he spent most of his free time just walking around the house, back and forth between the kitchen and living room, just because he finally had space to do so.

The first day he came to school with me, it took forever for him to walk from the car into the center. And not because he had just started walking a few weeks earlier and was still a bit unsteady on his feet. He stopped for every new sound, movement or sight that caught his attention.  A car drove past and he stopped to just stare at it. Once he was certain it was gone, he turned back to me and continued on until a college student approached so he stopped to watch him pass by as well.  A bird tweeted and he stopped, looking around to see if he could find it. It was so hard not to rush him but, I gave him the time and space to take it all in. A month later, he still stops frequently to look around but it doesn't take us quite as long to get inside, provided he doesn't decide to test his limits and try to go in the opposite direction.

I am so grateful that the little one can come to work with me. He really seems to enjoy being around the other children and is always watching what they are doing. He has learned so much just from watching them. He didn't play with the toys much at the beginning and at  home he usually went to the light up toys when he decided to play unless I showed him some ways to use the more open-ended materials. He is trying out new toys and materials every day now and trying to do so much more on his own rather than trying to get his hands on the remote control or computer.  I don't have to do nearly as much modeling or even sit with him while he explores now.  I can sit back and just be there in case he needs help. He spent a good ten minutes tonight just taking the lid off of an old coffee can and trying to put it back on again, working on his under-developed fine motor skills. He was so proud of himself for taking the lid off without help.

His biggest accomplishment to date came last night when he climbed the stairs for the very first time.  It would have been easier for me to wait a little longer before showing him some ways to climb the steps but he was definitely showing an interest so we gave it a try.  The look on his face when he got to the top made it worth it. He couldn't believe he did it! And this from a child who just a month ago was barely walking on his own or even crawling.  The  more he accomplishes, the more I see him trying to work out some of his gross motor and problem solving skills on his own, with less and less frustration each time.

It's one thing to spend eight or more hours a day in a classroom with toddlers, Having one at home lends a whole new perspective to my career. Sometimes, at home, I am more likely to forget the strategies I use at school when I am saying for the tenth time in one night that the refrigerator is not his work (it now has a lock on it- we'll see how long it lasts!).  He is comfortable and secure enough to start testing his limits at home. And while I know that is a good thing, some nights I really want him to just entertain himself so I can catch up on my work, even though I know he needs some interaction from me.  So we usually end up on the floor of the living room or his room playing with whatever he chooses.

We have settled into a good routine but, I know there will be many bumps along the way.  He checks in with me frequently to make sure I am still there to offer support when he needs it. But, he is starting to play for longer periods before coming to check in.  He loves playing tickle games, cuddling and reading books on my lap before bed time. Hearing him say "again!" or pulling my hands back to his belly makes it all worth it. Life with a toddler is a whole different world but, one that I am learning to live in. Every new experience brings him such joy and amazement.  We'll continue to develop our sense of wonder together. And you can expect to read about here every now and then.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Overcoming Boredom and Cabin Fever

With the new semester well underway, the new children are pretty settled in for the most part. But, we were noticing over the last two weeks that the children were being more physical with each other and just seemed to be getting on each others nerves a little. So it seemed like a good time to make some changes to the environment.  We had put up the tent before the break in the dramatic play are, which is usually a popular item.

But, after about a week, this group seemed to be bored so we changed it back to the kitchen to give us some time to see what they might be interested in. With the tent there, they were hardly using the area, which was leading to crowding in some other areas.  At the same time, we have been dealing with lots of rainy weather. And while I don't mind being outside in a little rain, it has been pouring so we have had lots of inside days. Add to that the fact that our playground is all grass (with a fair share of mud) with poor drainage. Since we don't have good rain gear, that means when the playground is soggy and full of pretty deep puddles, we end up being stuck inside. Which just leads to more boredom and cabin fever.

We added some more challenging puzzles after finding out that many of our older two's are doing 24-48 piece puzzles at home. They even get to work on it in the teacher space so the little ones don't walk all over their work, which makes it a pretty attractive activity.

We made the sensory table a car wash, which has interested children who have been bored with that space.

The biggest change so far is probably the addition of a hoop to the gross motor area. We have had a variety of balls for a while but lately the balls have been finding their way all around the room. Which leads to whole new set of problems. So this morning I hung a big hoop over the ramps for the children to throw their balls through. So far, it is holding their interests and they are back to using the balls in a more appropriate way that doesn't bother other children trying to do quiet activities elsewhere.

I'm sure there will be more changes as winter goes on. We can keep hoping for snow, can't we?

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Ready for What?

The phrase school readiness is one that conjures up a variety of feelings in the early childhood field. For me personally, my feelings toward the subject depend on the context and who is using it. The push to insure more children come to school ready to learn has focused a spotlight on the field of early childhood education. But, depending on how it is being used, it can often be misconstrued as a sort of magic bullet for all that ails education in America today- as long as preschool teachers, communities and parents get the children ‘ready to learn’ then they will be successful in school and do well on the standardized tests that measure academic achievement today.

Using research from the Perry Preschool Project, The Abecedarian Project and others, economists, politicians, non-profit heads, school administrators and others cite all the benefits the children in these studies reaped by attending a high-quality preschool.  What they tend to omit is that these studies focused on at-risk children in high-poverty environments.  The same results have not been shown consistently when applied to other segments of the population. This isn’t to say these children don’t benefit from preschool- just not always to the same extent as the children in these studies.

Several years ago I served on a committee that focused on improving education in my region. At the time, armed with all this research, I felt that the early childhood field was finally getting some recognition for the important work we do every day.  People were suggesting that all children should be able to attend a high-quality preschool and who was I to argue with that? Over the years, I still feel that preschool is beneficial to most children. However, I have modified that view somewhat. Not all families want or need to send their child to preschool. There are parents out there who expose their children to rich, engaging learning activities. There are children who do not function well in a large group with few adults to support them.  Yes, I realize they will be exposed to a large group of children in kindergarten but why throw them into the fire before we have to? These children might function better in a smaller class and that extra year might be just what they need to make their kindergarten experience flow more smoothly.

As the idea of school readiness took hold, the idea of how to measure it came to the forefront.  How can we know children are or aren’t ready if we don’t have some way to measure it. The problem, though, is that is that these politicians, school leaders, etc, want a nice, solid number that tells where a child falls in the readiness arena. No tests out there have been designed to measure this. For that matter, the idea of what school readiness actually looks like is not set in stone. If you talk to ten different people about it, you are likely to get ten different answers.  Some states are going all out and looking at a variety if instruments to use together that will give a picture of the whole child. Other states are assessing only an area or two, mainly focusing on math and literacy, much like No Child Left Behind. But, the reality is we don't yet know whether these measures truly reflect improved academic performance later on. We won't know much besides anecdotal evidence until we start seeing test scores from the children who have already been tested for school readiness.

I am the first person to admit that assessing children in some way, shape or form is best practice. We need to know where our children are, what they can do and what we can do to keep them moving forward. But, I fear that if we maintain such a narrow focus we will be doing no one any favors.  Some of the most frequent complaints from teachers in the primary grades center around children’s behaviors. Unfortunately, these things aren't the easiest to measure. And too many early childhood professionals aren’t trained to conduct these assessments reliably.  I fear that the focus on testing for school readiness may result in focusing on activities that relate to the tests (or teaching to the tests), a complaint heard frequently in regards to K-12 education.

Ask most early childhood professionals and they will tell you how children learn through play.  Through play, children learn higher level skills and those skills related to executive function.  Things like critical thinking, problem solving, social interactions, conversational abilities, and creative thinking. All valuable skills that, I believe, most people would say are important for success in the wider world outside of school.   Again, these are things that aren’t measured by traditional standardized testing.  The children in my class spend most of their day in activities they select and use (within reason) in ways they decide. If they are engaged in an idea, I typically add materials to help them extend their play and remain engaged.  We spend huge portions of our days working on social problem solving and I can see it paying off in the way they interact with others. But, I wonder what will happen when they get to kindergarten, and beyond. And they are gaining valuable skills through this play. They are taking initiative, testing their ideas, learning to control their behaviors and to play with others.

With so much focus on test scores, will they be able to continue practicing these skills or will they have to sit at their desks, listening to a teacher and simply regurgitate what they have just been told? I know there are some great teachers out there that will differentiate instruction and do everything they can to be sure every child in their class succeeds. But they seem to be the exception and not the norm. So, if you consider children who can think for themselves, make decisions, take initiative, regulate their emotions and impulses and listen to others ready for school, then these children will likely make the grade. When it comes to success in school and in life in general, do we really want children who can memorize facts and figures for a test or do we want children who can think and reason for themselves? I hope that early childhood professional continue to make their voices heard. We know what the research tells us about the importance of play in relation to children's development.  If not, we risk falling into the same situation as many K-12 education systems, where test scores become so important that everything else, including play, gets pushed to the sidelines.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

We Can Fix It!

For quite some time now, one of the most-used materials in our class has been the toolbox and the variety of tools it contains. The hammers are probably the most favored tool, which is not that surprising considering the fact that I've only met a handful of toddlers over the years who don't like to bang. But, this group has really branched out with their use of tools. They can name most of the tools in the toolbox, even those that are not so common. Thankfully my dad was quite handy so I can give them the names and tell them what they are used for if they happen to ask.

I thought that adding tools to the play dough box would be extremely appealing to them. It combined two of their favorite activities into one. But, they weren't nearly as interested as I imagined they would be. They did use them a for a while with the play dough but, they had bigger and better ideas than I could come up with. They were much more interested in using the tools to fix things in the classroom.

Since the tools were in the play dough, I brought out a tool puzzle as a substitute. It wasn't long before N. found the drill in the puzzle, laid himself on the floor and set to work 'fixing' the table.  Some days he spent a good portion of his mornings engaged in activities like this.

Others followed suit and it was pretty common to see someone under the table, a rocking horse flipped upside down or the garage on its side as they set to work 'fixing' all the broken objects they could come up with.

After winter break I decided to introduce a more realistic way to use tools. I purchased a small pack of golf tees to use as nails. I had been saving a printer box since before break, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to use it. Since it is tall, it makes the perfect tool bench. after gathering up the three boys present who were most interested in tools, I showed them how they could use the golf tees as nails on the top of the box. I was a bit surprised at which boy picked it quickly, concentrating as he held his nail in place to get the hole started.

They hammered away for a good portion of the morning before discovering the holes on the sides of the box from the carrying handles. I should have known to tape them shut before starting. Instead, I had to reopen the box at nap to fish out all the hammers and nails. My original plan was to keep this activity just for the older toddlers since the golf tees are fairly sharp. However, a couple of the younger toddlers were interested and they did hammer for a bit. We just made sure we put the nails in before they came over. They were pretty content to just hammer on the box, with or without nails. We even took the box outside today since it was such a nice day. This gave the older group some time to work on it without worrying about the younger children.

Through all this tool play over the last month, we have learned more about the children. We have seen how much time they spend focused on an activity. We have seen children expand their play, adding new elements and depth as the weeks passed.  We have seen children come back to the same activity again and again until they feel they have mastered it and then find a way to take it to new levels of complexity. They have practiced waiting, taking turns and trading tools with friends. I dare to say some negotiating skills were practiced, too. They have spent large chunks of time engaged in the same activity, oblivious to the potential distractions around them.  They have learned some new words and participated in conversation with peers, actually hearing what was said and responding appropriately. They have picked up new ideas by watching a friend and trying to imitate them. All of this learning happened during  free play time, in activities the children selected and carried out on their own, with minimal support from the teachers.

The next challenge is to design a project that lets them really build something. With any luck, there will be an update before the semester is over.

Everyday Dramatic Play

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Reflections on a Busy Year

What a difference a year makes! At this time last year, we were taking a deep breath and trying to relax a bit. The previous semester had been rather intense and we had made several changes to our daily schedule and routines as we focused on developing coping skills with some of our more intense personalities. Many of them moved up to the preschool in January and their replacements temperaments were more flexible. The spring had its challenges but by summer, we were able to move past most of those and settled into a calmer routine. Even the introduction of one year olds in the fall and a change of classroom space didn't do much to disturb the harmony we had achieved. Even with all of the challenges, we accomplished a lot last year.  I can't tell you the last time we used time out. Partly because it wasn't needed but also because,even with the challenges we were presented with, we learned that time out really wasn't helping.  Keeping the children engaged goes a lot further in developing social skills, critical thinking, problem solving, language and all those skills and concepts we deem necessary for children to be successful. Here is a look at some of the engaging activities we offered in 2011, most of which have not been featured in my blog to date.

Exploring tubes
Our favorite book My Truck is Stuck
Snow painting
Vehicle painting
Building from plans
Dance class
Tae Kwan Do
Painting our construction site (from a plan)
Visit to the lake
Making chapati
Flower shop
Teddy Bear Picnic with the librarians
Preparing the garden
Planting seeds
Trucks and play dough
Summer picnic
We LOVE balls of all kinds
Assembling our new stroller for the little ones
Making applesauce
Apple prints
Cinnamon painting (from Pinterest)
Balls and tubes
Apple size sorting
Baby bath time
Glue pictures
Sensory steps (from Pinterest)
Straws (from Pinterest)
Ball painting
Homemade stacking rings

Play dough with tools
Musical instruments
Trying to work together to push the wagon
Water play
Doctoring my hurt knee
Raking to stay warm