Saturday, November 26, 2011

Moving the Play Outside

As far back as I can remember, spending time outdoors has been a big part of my life. Some of my favorite childhood memories happened outdoors. In the warmer months it meant playing baseball on the front lawn with the whole family and neighbors, riding bikes in the woods on the hilly trails, running around on my cousin's farm, feeding the cows as they milked and swinging in the tree swing he made for us. In the winter, it meant sled riding in the back yard, seeing how high we could fly over the ramp on out inner tubes and staying outside until our toes and fingers felt like icicles.  Every family vacation involved some kind of outdoor activity, no matter how hot it was outside.  These memories and more influence my desire to spend as much time outdoors with my class as possible.

Now that we have younger toddlers, it means we no longer share outdoor space with the preschool groups.  In the past, we had to be aware of the other groups schedules and try to go outside only during our scheduled times so that each group had some time on their own to use and explore the playground.  Having our own outdoor space gives us the flexibility to go outside whenever we chose. It also means we can leave our materials out throughout the day and not have to put everything back into storage each time we came inside. Because of this, we are able to be more flexible in what we take outside.  Since we have learned that children use the same materials differently outside, there is really nothing that is really off-limits for the playground, with the exception of really wet days.

We have the typical outdoor materials available most days: trucks to fill and push, buckets and shovels for digging, bikes and cars to drive and balls of various sizes. But, we do try to add different materials each week for variety.

One of their favorite things to take outside is books. Even if I hadn't planned for it that day, it seems that we have books outside almost every day. The children will ask for certain books or just grab one of our baskets, no matter how heavy, and try to bring it out. Children who rarely sit down inside to read a book can often be found taking a break outside with a book or two. Clip boards, markers, stickers, and other art materials frequently find their way outside.

We bring some dolls out most days and sometimes we even bring out play food, clothes or strollers for the babies. A newer addition is pots and pans with wooden cooking utensils. I brought them out for the main purpose of providing toys to drum on and bang, since they were doing that inside. But they are used in more ways than I could have expected.

We have a special set of tools to bring outside that are frequently used to fix the cars and bikes. Watching the older toddlers learn how to turn the Little Tikes TM cars over safely was a rewarding experience. The first few times, they would just knock the car over by pushing the top or lift the bottom to flip it over. Luckily, no one got hurt and they have discovered safer, quieter ways of turning the cars over.

I enjoy gardening with the children so every year we have grown a variety of flowers and foods. Picking tomatoes and eating them straight from the garden is only second to finding a real pumpkin growing in the garden for the children. The only problem is we no longer have access to our old garden so we will have to start from scratch next spring. The garden area we now have is much smaller so we will have to decide just how we want to use it.

Since we currently have no place to dig (we are waiting for our sand box to be installed) we sometimes bring the sensory table outside.  The last time we did, it was to bathe the dolls that had been outside for a few weeks. Two of the boys who rarely play with dolls spent the rest of the day bathing the dolls, then cleaning the picnic table and anything else they could think of. Hopefully this spring we will have a table built to hold the tub and provide a place for the children to sit their materials as they explore.

We even play outside in the snow. It may seem like it takes forever to get them all bundled up for the snow, but is as much fun for us as it is them.  And since the children that show up on those days have to be there due to their parents work or school schedule, I figure it's the least I can do. By the time they get home with their parents, it will be too dark to play in the snow so why not do it at school or daycare?

One thing I love about the space we were given is that it is all natural grass and dirt. Right in the center is a hill for the children to climb up and down. We weren't sure how the younger toddlers would fare on the hill but they seem to spend more time on the hill than the older toddlers. Even on the muddiest days, you can be sure some of them will manage to reach the peak and then end up sliding about halfway down the muddy path as they descend. Learning how to turn around and sit so without rolling back down the hill is a skill the youngest toddlers have had to learn.

Rather than installing a new climber several years ago, we had some tunnels installed from drainage pipes that the children can crawl and run through. Some of the older toddlers have even managed to climb on top of the small tunnels. The main rule we have for outside is that teachers don't help children with gross motor activities. So, as they work to find a way to climb up on the tunnels, or even the hill, we stand nearby to spot but we won't put them on top or move their body for them. The most we will do is talk them through where to place their feet and hands, although if a teacher is sitting on the tunnel, their leg could become a foot or hand-hold. It's amazing to me, still, how long these toddlers will work at finding a way to climb to the top. Some of them will spend days working on this one activity until they figure it out. And then practice for days and weeks until the have completely mastered the skill.

Since we have the natural side of the playground and no concrete, it can be challenging during the wettest part of the spring and fall. The bottom of the hill can become a soppy, slippery mess that even teachers have a hard time with. The tunnels can hold small rivers of water after several days of rain and it usually takes a couple of days for those rivers to dry up. Even though we have no problems with playing outside on rainy days, these two issues can keep us cooped up inside.

One potential solution is to put fake grass on our side. It's certainly not my favorite solution at this point in time. If that happens, I am going to do my best to keep some of the grass along the fence so we will have some real grass or be able to use that for gardening. I am also working on a mini-grant to get some storage built outside so we don't have to take the toys and loose parts outside each morning and to build two smaller picnic tables for our toddlers since the one we currently have was built for preschoolers.  In an ideal world, we would also have some structures built to provide some shade. It's in the works but there is no telling which budget year that may happen in at this point. And, I am still looking for grants or other resources that would allow me to buy rain gear for the children so that when it is a muddy mess, they can still play outside. After all, some of my fondest childhood memories involve playing in the rain and puddle jumping. Why shouldn't these children have that same opportunity?

It's Playtime at hands on : as we growOverall, I am very happy with the playground and outdoor space that we currently have. I have visited many centers that have little to no natural materials or surfacing on their playgrounds. I certainly don't miss the big climber that took up so much space. The children have found more creative ways to practice their climbing skills, and ones that require more thinking, problem solving and risk assessment than many of the commercial climbing structures. The storage is an issue but hopefully that problem will be solved soon. I do have big dreams of what the outdoor play space can look like one day. Having a permanent dramatic play area, more shade structures, a cozy seating area for reading and, perhaps most of all, rain gear, would make the space extra-ordinary. Check out more great outdoor ideas here:

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Really Seeing Children

No matter what age they work with or what grade they teach, teachers all bring unique strengths, beliefs, approaches and methods of teaching and interacting with those children. Some teachers prefer to lead the instruction, planning well ahead of time, sometimes following themes they have chosen at the beginning of the year. Other teachers prefer to follow the child's lead, choosing materials and potential activities based on what they observe the children doing, incorporating the children's interests and allowing the children time and space to use the materials in their own way as they generate their own ideas and learning.

Most early childhood teachers fall somewhere in the middle, using a blend of teacher-initiated and child-initiated activities. The longer I teach, the more I move toward child-initiated activities.  While I don't see as much value in direct instruction or having children learn based themes chosen by the teacher, if it works for that teacher and group of children, then who am I to tell them what to do?  There is such a continuum of what teachers are comfortable with, what they know about learning and children and the ways different children learn that it helps to have a full repertoire of ideas, approaches and methods.

But, there is one aspect of teaching that I will never understand. That is the teacher who talks in absolutes and tends to only see the negative. I imagine everyone has a story they can share about the teacher who seems to  hate children, is suffering from burn out or just doesn't understand children. This teacher may say things like, "Mark is always breaking the toys," or "Jenny never cleans up when she leaves a center."  He or she might not go so far as to say a certain child is bad although I have heard that more times than I care to remember. These teachers have a tendency to focus on the negative and what the child can't do. I've heard teachers of three-year-olds panic that a child or groups of children can't identify all of the letters of the alphabet our count to 10 or beyond without missing a number. They criticize two, three and four-year-olds for not sitting still, on their bottoms, with their legs crossed for fifteen minutes or more during circle time or not being able to stand perfectly still in a line while they wait for the whole class to get their coats on in order to go outside.

Negativism in the the classroom

When I hear teachers focus almost exclusively on the negative, it really makes me wonder why they are working with children. Every teacher or caregiver has had at least one child in their group that they really struggled with. Usually this struggle revolves around behavior. Even the best of us have reached a point where we have exhausted all of our tricks, ideas, and skills to try to help that child. A teacher who understands young children will not place blame on the child for their behaviors. After all, aren't we here to help them learn what behaviors are socially acceptable?  If we aren't going to support them through conflict, emotional outburst and all these other social-emotional things that are part of normal child development, then who will? Yet I still hear teachers place the blame squarely on the shoulders of the child and often the family as well.

And no matter how much they talk about these challenges and issues, they come back year after year after year.  The reasons for these attitudes toward children are as varied as the teachers themselves. Sometimes it is a simple case of burn-out. The push-down of curriculum that has escalated since the passage of No Child Left behind likely plays a role. The fact that many early childhood professionals have no training in child development before entering the field probably doesn't help, either.  But, I see trained professionals struggling with this almost as much as the untrained teachers. There comes a time, though, when the teacher becomes part of the problem rather than the solution.

I feel the main issue here is that these teachers never take the time to really see the children they are spending countless hours with.  They get so focused on a set of skills or behaviors that they think children should have that they fail to see what these same children can really do. Because, let's face it, infants, toddlers and preschoolers can't do a lot more than they can. It's a simple fact. They are here to learn, explore, experiment, test, form ideas, and ask questions. Quite simply, they are here to just do. When teachers are able to see children in light of their abilities, accomplishments and interests, a more positive and deeper relationship generally develops between them. This relationship is the foundation for all children to feel secure enough to explore and engage in their environment.

Understanding each child

In order to change the focus from what the child can't do and to start seeing children as having “preparedness, potential, curiosity and interest in constructing their own
learning…and in negotiating with everything the environment brings to them,” (Lella Gandini), there needs to be a shift in focus and what the teacher's role is.

  1. Slow down to the children's pace.  Let them choose their activity and how to play with it. Don't offer suggestions or show them the proper way to use it.  This is not an easy thing to in education today. With all the pressure to have children ready for school, the fact that they are learning very important skills during play is often overlooked.
  2. Take some time each day to observe. Focus on one or two children or a small group.  Write down what you see and hear, what they are playing with, how they are playing with the materials and interacting with each other.  Give them this time to explore and let them show you what they know and can do.  The more you observe, the better able you can determine the child's strengths and interests.
  3. Talk with the children, not at them. Take some time each day to have conversations with the children. For the youngest children, these conversations and exchanges typically happen during routing care activities, such as diapering or feeding. Taking the time to sit down with a group of toddlers or preschoolers at lunch and talking about their day,  what they like/dislike, what they had for dinner the night before and so on, will provide invaluable information about the children. Taking the time to really listen and focus shows them the teacher respects their thoughts and ideas and values them as people. Waiting patiently for a response after a question gives the children time to process the question and recall the pertinent information without feeling rushed.
  4. Use the information. Take the information you are learning and use it when selecting new materials, activities and even themes. If there is intense interest in an activity, give them more time to explore. Having the ability to repeat activities and projects again and again builds mastery over time.  Talk with them about the materials and why you chose them or, when you see an interest developing, talk with them about ways you can expand on it or materials you could add to help them take their play to the next level.
When teachers and caregivers view children as capable, competent learners, their confidence and security grows. When they feel secure, they are more likely to explore. When we show them we value their ideas, they are more likely to share new ideas and to want to test them out. Every opportunity to  explore, test materials and social skills helps children learn how to learn.  And isn't that the point?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Toys for Toddlers

Any one who has worked with toddlers knows that it can be difficult to keep them engaged and challenged at times. For those working with limited budgets, finding materials that are affordable is even harder.  So many toys for toddlers talk, light up or do something and the child usually has to do very little to make that action happen. The learning potential for this kind of toy is very limited. Once the child masters a particular skill, such as knowing that if the red button is pushed, the toy will play music, there is nothing left to learn. While they may be entertained by the song for a while, eventually they lose interest and the toy is soon discarded as they search for a new toy to hold their interest.

Young children need open-ended, action-oriented materials. These materials require the child to do figure out what to do and create their own learning. Because they are open-ending, the child can use them in a variety of ways. This learning potential in this type of material is endless. The same material may be used in ten different ways if there are ten different children.  If toddlers are involved, they may imitate each other as they use the materials, which develops social skills and often gives them a new idea they can put into action. These materials engage children for extended periods, helping them to develop focus and self-control over time.

Finding action-oriented materials can be difficult.  Thanks to the internet, though, I have been finding new ideas every day.  Following are some examples of the materials we have made over the past month or so.

Thanks to Jennifer at let the children play, I found Living Creatively and these sensory steps. They have been extremely popular with all of the toddlers. There are a couple that ask for them by name almost every day if we don't offer them as a choice. Hearing toddlers say sensory steps almost makes it worth it on its own. Listening to them talk about the steps and how they feel, seeing them hop from step to step like a frog or watching them use their feet and hands to rub the materials and experiment with then in their own way has kept them busy for countless  hours.

We filled these colanders with pipe cleaners to use with the one-year-olds. They tend to feel the pipe cleaners with their hands, bat at them and occasionally pull them out.  The older toddlers are using them a lot more than I thought they would. There are some that will sit for 15-30 minutes working to put all the pipe cleaners back in the holes.  At times, it becomes a creative play activity as they wear the colanders for a hat. The pipe cleaners have become loads to haul around in a wagon or carry in a bucket. Thanks to Breanna at No One Has More Fun than the Adams' for this one.

This week we introduced drinking straws with baskets full of holes that the children can put the straws through that I found thanks to The Imagination Tree. While they did that a little, the first the inclination was to turn the basket upside down and use the straws as drumsticks. I have to admit they make good drumsticks for inside as they are exceptionally quiet. So many things in our room seem to become drums lately (look for a post on drums soon- we are in the process of making some right now). Surprisingly, the children seemed to have more fun picking them up and returning them to their original container rather than putting them through the holes. We'll have to see how this activity evolves over the next few days and weeks.

When I get these activities out for the children, I just show them to the children, ask it anyone wants to play and then ask them what they think they can do with them. I try not to direct the play or offer suggestions. I want them to create their own learning by coming up with their own ideas.  Sometimes I may just set a new activity our on a table and just let them find it. I think I need to do that more. When my co-teacher or I are there with them, the older toddlers tend to look to us to suggest how they should use the materials. The young toddlers just do something. They don't need us to show them. They are either interested or they're not and they move on. Hopefully by stepping back more, the younger toddlers will start to act the young toddlers a little more.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

More than Painting

Today we got out the finger paint for the first time this year. Which is surprising, since I typically use it more often than regular tempera paint and brushes with this age group. When toddlers paint, the hands almost always become a paint tool at some point in the process.  They are still in the sensori-motor stage of development according to Piaget, so they use all of their senses to learn about the world.  They tend to touch, taste, smell, listen every time they are introduced to something new.

Today was no exception. We did have at least one child taste the paint. Thankfully they decided they didn't like the taste and didn't continue eating it.  They used their sense of touch the most. Most of them started off just moving the paint around on their trays. After a few years of dealing with paper that tears because the toddlers don't like to stop painting once the paper is completely saturated, I have learned to just put the paint on the tray.  One of the younger toddlers pushed his paint around, then squished it around in his hands.  I commented on how it felt to him, and soon enough, other children were imitating. By the time they were finished, most of them had paint up to their elbows.

I let them choose their color from a selection of fall colors. Most started with one color but as soon as one of the boys asked for two colors, most of the other children followed suit. They talked about the colors mixing together as they moved the paint around. They saw that they could use a finger or two to draw and write in the paint. After I made an 'S' for one of the children, I had to make the first letter of the other children's names as well. They delighted in rubbing the paint around and covering their letters up again. When they were finished, we took a piece of paper and made a print of their painting. Upon seeing the first print, they were amazed at what they made and couldn't wait to see what their picture looked like.

I love watching the children explore with new art materials. They don't have an end product in mind, they just take the time to explore and see what they can create. They learn about the properties of paint, color names and other more academic skills when they paint sometimes. They talk to each other and often imitate what they see a peer doing, so they are practicing social skills, too. But, in the end, it's all about getting absorbed in the process and seeing what happens. And being delighted with the end product, no matter how it turns out.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Technology in the Classroom

The debate regarding what types of technology are appropriate fro young children is one that will likely never end. Sometimes I think we spend so much time thinking about what children should or shouldn't be doing that we overlook the fact the technology has a variety of uses for teachers. I'm not going to get into the debate here. Instead, I am going to focus on ways teachers can use technology to help them document and enhance children's learning and development.

Using Technology for Observations
I am lucky to work in a program that has access to a variety of technology, including digital cameras and digital video recorders for each classroom. I take thousands of pictures each year to document the children's work. In the past, I have used them to put together a small digital portfolio using the criteria from our assessment to present to the parents at conference time. Being able to see the picture or a video of the child in action often helps the parents see what I am talking about. And what parent doesn't like to see a picture of their child?

For the most part, I have taken pictures of things that I find interesting or that the children are really engaged in. There is nothing better than capturing a video of two children reading a book to each from memory or snapping a photo of a detailed block structure. I often use the camera to snap a picture that I can use to jog my memory to write an anecdotal note for our on-going assessment. I have used the video camera to help when a child is struggling with behavior or social-emotional issues. When a child is having a full-fledged kicking and screaming tantrum, it can be hard to think, much less see what else is going on or recall what happened to start it. Being able to watch the video after the fact lets me see things that I missed in the heat of the moment. The video camera has been extremely helpful in this area. But, this year, I decided to try using it in a different way.

In my center, we use the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment, which focuses on social and emotional development. Part of that process is to spend several weeks doing running record observations in the classroom, which are then used when completing the child's assessment.  These running records are helpful because it forces us to use the actual documentation on a child rather than relying on memory or general impressions. But, they can be hard to keep up with, especially when you try to include every possible detail like me. After doing a couple of running records, I decided to us the class video camera to document what was happening. That way I can see more of what is happening without having to stop in the moment to write it down. I can even see what I am doing, which is never part of the running record since all I am doing is writing and not spending as much time interacting with the children.

I set the camera up in one area of the room, press record and then go about the normal routine. I have recorded at different parts of the say and move the camera around so we see all the children and all areas of the room several times. We now have a few hours of video from the past couple of weeks and I spent the weekend watching and analyzing them. Watching the videos has forced me to re-frame my impressions of a few children and shown me things that I had overlooked.

A Quiet, Peaceful Classroom
The biggest thing that stood out to me while watching the videos was how quiet and calm the classroom seemed. My classroom is always busy and we try to keep the materials fresh and interesting to the children. We don't have toys that make noise or light up or do things for the children. They have to act on the materials and be creative with them. But, because they stay so busy, it can seem quite loud at times just from children talking to us, each other or in pretend play.  Besides conversation, the children are often making noises as they play, which can get quite loud at times. But, those sounds don't carry across the whole classroom so the overall tone is much quieter than I would have thought.

I think the main reason the atmosphere stays so peaceful is that the children have lots of choices. They choose what they want to play with, where they want to play and who they might want to play with. If we are doing an art activity, they often choose the color or type of paper, paint or stamper they will use.  They can explore to their hearts content, as long as they are safe. They can choose to come to snack anytime it is available, which is most of the morning. We let them know when it is getting close to diaper changing time or clean up time so they aren't surprised when it's their turn. They can bring their work with them and save it outside the bathroom even, so it will still be theirs when they finish.  All of these things add up and contribute to the overall atmosphere of the room. And you can see these things happening in the videos.

What I Missed
Every class has the child (or children) that seems to lack focus and doesn't stay with an activity for more than a few seconds at a time. I have a couple in my class. While watching the videos, though, I saw that they can focus for extended periods of time when they are interested and challenged at an appropriate level. The two that come to mind spent at least 10-15 minutes engaged in an activity or taking that same activity to another area to build on it. Had I not seen it on the video, with the timer, I may not have realized that they were simply expanding an on activity and assumed they had abandoned that one to start a new one.

I would have missed a young two-year-old, who had been in the habit of pushing the one-year-olds to get what she wanted, play a game of peek-a-boo with that same one-year-old and trade toys with him more than once. I would have missed another older toddler reading a story to a younger toddler, even going so far as to ask him if he saw something in the picture. Seeing her make eye contact with him when she talked to him shows she me just how much she understands the concept of conversation. She waited for a response or acknowledgement from him before continuing and read his body language. There are so may things I missed that I am going to use the video camera more often just to see what is going on in the classroom. The possibilities really are endless!