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