One of the best activities for literacy in an early childhood program turns out to be one of the best for building community, social skills and learning about nutrition. Of course, I am talking about meal times. There is a lot of attention paid to “family dinner” and its importance for healthy well-adjusted youth (and families). The same could be said about meal times in childcare centers and other programs. Meal times are a time for informal conversation. In a classroom, a child has experience addressing a group formally during group times. A child gets experiences speaking one on one with a teacher or a friend. Most preschoolers will get experience speaking informally in a small group during play. Meal times allow children to learn how to listen to and enter into conversation informally when there may be more than one conversation going on at once. On top of that, the conversational skills will vary from child to child so there can be quite a bit of non-verbal negotiation.
Some young children will need help entering a conversation. Some children will want absolute quiet before they will talk. They usually try to achieve this by yelling loudly, “I’m trying to say something.” I have yet to see this strategy work. Of course, the child who waits patiently for it to be quiet also has a hard time joining the conversation.
As a teacher, it can be difficult to help children without taking over the conversation myself. I try to think of the direct instruction given to children as a Tweet, no more than 140 characters. I will say something like, “Say her name and then say what you wanted to tell her.” I’ll let the child try that before giving more direction. If that attempt failed, I might say, “Say her name loud enough so she turns toward you. Don’t worry about her being totally quiet. Just start telling her.”
My favorite thing is sitting and listening to the three or four conversations going on at meal time. As children get more comfortable e=with it, they enter one conversation and then another. Each year, the class has certain jokes and “games” we play. This year, someone always asks to play the “pretend food game.” The game starts with me saying, “We left some toys on the table. I know it looks like food, but don’t eat it.” Then they come up with ideas for what their food could be. Someone holds up a spoonful of yogurt and says it’s glue. “No, don’t eat glue. Oh no!”
Meal time conversations can also be about home life. Someone might make up a story. It can go a million different ways. The important thing is that we are all experiencing it together, creating our own classroom culture. Meal times seldom come up when talking about curriculum, but I think they say a lot about the teachers’ philosophy of education.
The best way to teach science to preschoolers is to inspire them to wonder. Let them be scientists. In my book, All In One Day, the teacher, Walter hands each child a box that is taped shut. There is something inside and each box has a small hole. The children need little encouragement to try to figure out what is inside. They immediately find some clues. They can hear that it sounds like metal. They can see the size of the box and infer that the object is smaller than the box. I imagine that some children would stick their fingers in the hole in the box and try to feel the object. Some would look inside although it turns out to be too dark to see anything.
At this point the children are using listening skills, as well as differentiating materials (metal, plastic, etc.). They are problem solving. What hey are, in essence, are researchers. They have a question to be answered and they will come up with several hypotheses. They will test those hypotheses and they and their “colleagues” will narrow down the possibilities.
Sooner or later, one of the researchers is going to think of tools that will help the investigation. I imagine someone will get a pair of scissors and try to cut the box. In the book, one of the researchers decides that a flashlight would help. As it turns out Walter had flashlights ready anticipating that someone would come up with the idea.
Too often in Early Childhood programs, science comes out of a box. Each year children watch caterpillars in a butterfly tent make chrysalises and come out as butterflies. The activity is good, and is quite dramatic. Certainly teachers can still have children ask questions and make predictions. Most children have read books about butterflies and know the basic story line, but a good teacher will help them focus on the details that can only be discovered by observation.
What’s missing from the butterfly activity is the power of the ordinary. Science is mostly about the things we see every day, but don’t notice. Most of us probably couldn’t explain why the sky is blue or what part of the branch leaves grow on and what parts they don’t. We need to help children ask those questions about the every day things and then help them figure out how to answer those question. Science is about wonder.
I’ve been thinking about many of the effective teaching methods I have used and they all have one thing in common. The activities themselves would look completely different with any other teacher leading the activity.
Last week I was doing “Big Paper” with my class. Big Paper is a simple enough activity. You get a big sheet of paper and let children write (or draw). Anyone working with young children knows that this simple activity becomes quite complex. Children talk to each other, copy each other, take on each others stories or imagery, etc.
The teacher’s job is to have conversations with the children about what they are drawing or writing. The teacher can ask questions, but it’s important to ask real questions. Too often teachers ask questions when they know the answer. We wouldn’t ask a grown up, “What color did you use?” We might ask “Why did you use blue?” In other words the teacher does what s/he always does, s/he shows interest and curiosity in the children.
There are plenty of literacy activities and curricula to be purchased, but they are only as effective as the teacher using them. If something says it is “teacher proof” it is probably worthless. Learning is a social interaction and it requires real relationships.
This is my first post on my first blog. I have been a preschool teacher for over twenty years. I have spent the past fourteen years at Seward Childcare Center. My classroom is known as the Penguin Room. As you can imagine there are many tales to tell from the Penguin Room. Recently I have had the opportunity to turn some of these stories (with a healthy portion fabrication) to create six picture books for Redleaf Lane. I plan on talking about the books as well as my observations of children and the field of Early Childhood Education.