Thursday, December 29, 2011

Toddlers Always Find a Way

It is a happy talent to know how to play.
~Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Earlier this month we placed an order for several tons of sand to be delivered to our center. In preparation for the delivery, the grounds crew installed our sandbox for us. I started collecting materials for the children to use in the sand box. We've had pots and pans on the playground for a while now but I wanted to add some buckets, shovels and animals for use in the sand.  Although it was several days before the actual sand arrived, the children found a way to use the sandbox and to keep themselves busy, as they always do.

The simple act of climbing in and out provided a new gross motor experience for the youngest toddlers.

Of course, we found the one hole that we could try stuffing objects into.

We discovered some of the animals were too big.

Finding the animals and trying to get them out provided a whole new challenge.

A quiet place to think is a welcome respite from the typical action.

We found some treasures in the sandbox and used them to 'make lines' in the mud.

Toddlers don't need lots of bells and whistles to keep them entertained or to help them learn. A few simple toys, plenty of unstructured time and space along with supportive teachers and caregivers who encourage exploration are really all they need.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel

As an undergraduate student at Wheelock College studying education, multiculturalism and appreciation of diversity were embedded in all of my course work. Very early on I was taught to embed this in my teaching practices rather than taking the tourist approach and focusing simply on holidays and other more obvious differences. Because of this, in my toddler room we sometimes have very simple, open conversations about skin color, hair color or texture, eye color and other differences. Just before winter break, J. looked at another boy and said, "S. is brown." To which I replied, "S. does have brown skin. What color are you?" J. looked at his shirt and replied, "Blue." He was satisfied with the conversation and moved on to another area to play.

While we have these conversation frequently, I also bring in some other cultural aspects that relate to the seasons, holidays or the cultures of the children in the class. The trick with talking to toddlers about diversity is knowing just how much information to give them to satisfy their curiosity. During the month of December we usually do some Christmas and Hanukkah activities. I put out a menorah and dreidels for the children to play with alongside the candy canes, bows and other Christmas items. I typically provide real candles for the children to place in the menorah and take out again but I was afraid the one year olds might decide to take a bite out of the. So I just put the menorah out in the play area to see what they would do. Mostly they just carried it around all day.

We practiced spinning the dreidels more as a fine motor activity and a way to expose them to something different. I could try to teach them the dreidel game and how to follow the rules but my reasons for offering them the dreidels were to simply expose them to something from another culture and to let them experiment. But, I have a strong feeling that if they were limited to simply playing the dreidel game they would have lost interest quickly. Learning how to make the dreidel spin takes a lot of practice. There was some frustration when the dreidel would just fall over when they let go.

Some were quite determined and spent long periods of time practicing and seeing what they could make the dreidels do, developing persistence. 

Some practiced taking turns when more children wanted to join in and needed a dreidel to play with.

They learned some new words and practiced some familiar ones, such as fast and slow.

They talked to each other and the teachers as they explored. They practiced comparing and matching items. They discovered which type of dreidel was easier to spin.

Trying to catch the spinning dreidel before it stopped became a game in itself.

I feel that it is important for children to be exposed to different cultures and ideas from a young age. But, at the same time, I don't feel the need to teach them lots of specifics.  Much of it is too abstract for them to fully comprehend.  We read lots of books about Hanukkah that are age appropriate. In fact, they seemed to prefer the Hanukkah books over the Christmas books this year, even though most of the children celebrate Christmas. If they ask questions, I am more than happy to answer them to the best of my ability. I think learning about cultures is the same as any other area or developmental domain. I need to observe and listen to the children and they will let me know when they are ready to learn more.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Where the Ideas Come From

I used to be one of those teachers. You know the kind- the one whose themes were pretty much the same from year to year. And while I was pretty good at tweaking my themes to match the interests of the children, it seems like light years away from the way I do things today.  It started about four years ago when I had one of those classes. The kind with lots of big personalities, big highs and low lows.  When one child started something interesting but not-so-appropriate, it took mere seconds for several peers to join in and escalate the situation into chaos.

That was the year my strategies started to change. I happened across a book about Charlie Parker, the jazz musician, and thought it might interest one particular child. It had a recording set to a piece of Parker's music and this particular child had a strong musical inclination.  What I didn't expect was for the majority of the class to fall in love with the book. In a very short time, I think we had it all memorized. I started planning some activities to incorporate more music. I took a big risk by leaving the rhythm sticks out all day long, as this group could get physical with each other quickly and over unexpected things. But they rose to the challenge and used them to make music and for pretend play. We made all kinds of shakers and even ventured into making trumpets.  The more I incorporated things that interested them, the easier our days became. There were still challenges but they were easier to overcome most of the time.

From that point forward, I started incorporating more of the children's ideas into my planning. I think last year was probably the first one where every theme and activity related to the children's interests rather than things I felt they needed to learn.  The question that comes up the most, though, is how to figure out what toddlers are interested in, especially when you consider some of them are barely talking still. For some reason, I tend to pick up lots of ideas when the children are on the playground. That is where I observed several children shopping at the 'dollar store' and showing an interest in the sunflowers. Both of these led to great projects and discoveries for me. I watched a two year old practice one-to-one correspondence as she shopped at the dollar store, placing one dollar on each item and discovering she needed more dollars. Happily, her friends were more than willing to help.

The sunflower discovery led to one of my favorite art projects to date, a mural that covered our whole wall. The children decided what we needed- pumpkins, since it was fall, and a gate to put them on, trees and falling leaves, since it was fall, squirrels to live in the tree and what tree would be complete without a squirrel. The children even did all the cutting, as we had a couple that had taught themselves to cut on a line. We worked on this mural off and on for well over a month. Even though I knew I couldn't keep it up forever, I was sad when we finally took it down. I did save two of the flowers, framed them and hung them in the new classroom this year.

I am always amazed to see how a group of toddlers unites behind an idea. Sometimes that lasts for a day but often it can last for weeks at a time. This group is no different. On the playground last month, we had a little argument over a reusable grocery bag.  There was one on the playground with some dress up items in it. One of the boys dumped it out and started putting other things in the bag. Soon another child wanted a bag and since the first wasn't ready to be finished with his turn, I went to look for the other bags with the boy who was waiting. We thought the bags were lost until we decided to check one more spot and hit the jack pot. We excitedly took them outside and offered them to the other children. It didn't take long before they were all headed to the grocery store. We asked what they were buying and most of them named some of their favorite foods.

After a couple days, we talked to the older children about transforming the kitchen into a grocery store and they eagerly agreed. With the help of donations from the families we had a fully stocked grocery in no time. Even without the cash registers, the amount of learning happening was amazing. We watched as one child, who had been struggling a bit entering into play, quietly walked over to another and asked for some yogurt. They played together for a while, even cleaning up the pretend spill together when the container dropped onto the floor.  We listened to many of the children use new words to categorize food or identify foods based on the familiar label or logo (emergent literacy in action!). Boxes were used for stacking and building. Spatial relationships were developed as they tried to find the best way to fit all of their items into their basket or bag. Spontaneous turn-taking, helping others and social problem solving happened over and over. Learning to wait (and they will wait when they are invested in something) to follow another child's lead. And all of this through play. No formal lesson written, but lots of planning and support from the teachers.


So far no new theme has bubbled up so we are going with an old stand-by, camping under the stars. The tent came out today and the stars are hung. I am curious to see what, if anything, they do with this. We also decided to move the food boxes to the block center since there is an interest in stacking them. Learning to follow the children's lead has not been easy. It feels a lot like giving up control and flying by the seat of my pants at times. But every item, activity and idea is carefully thought out. My co-teacher and I are always reflecting on what is working, what we are seeing and how we can extend their ideas. There have been successes and failures. Sometimes an idea just doesn't take hold the way I thought it would. But when they do take hold, the results are astounding.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Many Uses for Candy Canes

There is something about candy canes that appeals to all children. Even the youngest toddlers who have never seen them before are enthralled, probably because they are new to them.  I brought out some plastic candy canes, both the traditional hook-shaped kind as well as some spiral ones.  Some are red and white while others add a stripe of green. I think the inspiration for them came when I was teaching a math methods course. I thought the different types of candy canes would provide multiple opportunities for sorting and classifying. Last year the older two's and young three's did actually do some sorting. But, even for them, filling up the bags provided was much more interesting that any ideas I had in mind.

This group is no different. Since they are much younger, I was quite curious to see how they would use them. I brought them out in a big box and sat them on the floor. One of the older boys immediately realized the hook could be of some use and started trying different places to hang them up. He didn't have to go far as the first try at the felt board was successful. Soon his peers noticed and several children had a go at hanging candy canes. This required a degree of patience, perseverance and problem solving as they searched carefully for the ledge with the hook. If they were too rough, the candy cane would break and if they didn't pay careful attention to placement, the candy canes ended up on the floor.

Once all the hook-shaped candy canes were hung, he tried the spirals, to no avail. He didn't give up though, and instead removed the hook-shaped ones and proceeded to look for new places to hang them. Lots of trial and error took place as he searched for places not too wide and not too light to support his candy canes. Having a friend to help added a new level as they practiced turn-taking and listening and responding to one other.

For the youngest in the group, the simple act of placing the candy canes in the bags took some concentration and coordination. If the candy cane went in the wrong way, it might get caught on the handle. Too many candy canes in the bag could result in tangling, as they often found out them they tried to remove just one but instead emptied the bag.

Some just tried to see how many they could hold in their hands or fit in their bags, exploring spacial relationships and quantity.

We even tried mixing candy canes and bows in our bags, eventually realizing that not many bows would fit in the bags as compared to candy canes.

I could have shown the older toddlers how to sort the candy canes in various ways, as I had originally intended. By giving them the freedom to explore in their own way, the learning they created was their own and much more meaningful to them.  And they practiced some valuable concepts and skills that they might have missed if I forced my ideas on them. As we continue to play with the candy canes, some of them might start looking for ones that match. Most of them probably won't. But that doesn't mean they aren't learning. And I am perfectly fine with that.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Holiday Activities with Toddlers

Working on a college campus has its advantages, one of them being an extended winter break. The downside to that is we don't have as much time to explore with the holiday-themed materials I've accumulated over the years. This year we have to be extra careful to insure the materials didn't pose a safety hazard to the younger toddlers. But, we have managed to do that and they have had fun experimenting.

One of their favorite activities seems to be using tongs so I try to come up with a variety of activities throughout the year that lets them practice this fine motor skill. For the holidats, we have winter-themed ice cube trays and a variety of materials, including large erasers, pom-poms and Christmas lights, that they can pick up and place in the trays. Sometimes they even work on matching and sorting, although we let them sort the materials in any way they see fit. This activity gives us the chance to work on language skills and some concepts in a playful way. We often talk about colors, textures, and shapes along with concepts like same and different when we have these activities out.  We get to introduce new language, like squeeze, and talk about the hard work it takes to squeeze the tongs and actually hold onto the item in the question.

Moving them from the floor to the shelf and back again became a great challenge that they took on with delight.

We have been sorting Christmas ornaments by color but we really like to fill the buckets and dump them out. Sometimes we even experiment with the ornaments in the ball tubes or on the ramp.

And I have to include a few more pictures of the snow painting we started earlier this week. The young toddlers finally got their turn and tasting and feeling the paint was the highlight for them.

What surprised me the most about this activity was the interest the older toddlers took in making hand prints after we made one for their parents' gift. I honestly thought they would spend most of their time finger painting or simply exploring but almost all of them continued to make their own hand prints when they had more opportunities to paint later in the week.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Following the Children's Lead- Literally

The holidays are just around the corner and this is the one time of year that I do a product-oriented, rather than process-oriented, art activity with the children. I do like to have them make a gift to give their parents so we started working on our hand print mittens today. Granted, we are not getting as fancy as some I have found on-line but, I do feel that is cruel to just paint a toddler's hand white, make the print and then have them go wash their hand without a chance to actually explore the paint. So we are making white paintings this week and at some point in the process, we are helping the children make their hand print.

J was one of the first children to have a turn so he and D got to choose their paint tools. They each chose a texture brush, roller and a regular roller.  I gave them their paint and they set to work. As D finished, I painted his hand and he made his print, then went to wash. J saw and wanted to make his so I painted his hand. He squealed in delight when he saw the print left behind and exclaimed, "Do it again!" 

We made three prints then ran out of room so I offered him another paper. He decided I needed a turn so I let him paint my hand and made my hand print. He did this several times, squealing in delight with each new print. Eventually the hand prints became a basketball, soccer ball, hot dog and a few other things. I have a feeling he will be trying this again!

We love to get outside with the children but since it has rained for two straight days, our play ground looks more like a river. The water is way too deep for us to go out without rain gear, which we don't have at this point. But, the advantage to being on a college campus is that we can always get out and explore campus. We gathered up coats for the two's, took them in the hallway to put them on then headed out to explore.  The one's got to go in the stroller for a walk on their own later so we all got out today for a bit. Once we got out the door of our building, we asked them which direction then followed them. I love that this group is so easy-going that we can let them go for walks without holding hands. They stayed close to us and if we needed to stop, they did and waited for the rest to catch up. We walked up all the steps to main plaza.

We walked, or rather ran, all the way to the other side of campus. 

We stopped along the way to check out a sewer.

We ducked into the library during class change time (the plaza gets super-crowded so we wanted to be out of the fray) to visit the dinosaur car. N says someone needs to drive it (probably him!).

On the way to see the ducks, we stopped in the Fine Arts Center to see if we could hear any music. A student was gracious enough to open up a practice room and let the children bang, boom, boom, boom, on the tympani drums, steel drums and the big bass drum.

This was probably the highlight of the trip. We have a group of music lovers who would start their own band if they could. Drums happen to be their favorite.

Then it was over to the lake, across the bridge to visit the ducks and back up the steps on the other side.

On the way back from visiting the ducks, we stopped to investigate a worm on the sidewalk.

I love watching them on campus. They run around there like they own the place and they love to explore it. I truly believe hope that their comfort on campus instills a love of learning and desire to explore for years to come!