She Knew Our Names and We Knew Hers

Priscilla was our friend

She ate popcorn with us

She played tic-tac-toe and noodle ball with us

She knew our names and we knew hers

We will miss her

Priscilla was our friend


This week my class learned that one of our beloved Grand Friends passed away.  The Grand Friends are the residents at an assisted-living facility that we visit twice a month.  We made a card for Priscilla with lots of flowers and hearts.  I asked the kids what words I should write. They came up with the words above.


It can be difficult to talk about death with young children.  I wrote about the death of another Grand Friend in a previous post.  I also talked wrote a post about talking to children about death on another website.  Today I want to focus more on the words the children used for their card, which the children gave to Priscilla’s daughter.


You can see how preschoolers focus on concrete details: we ate popcorn and played games with her.  They are defining a friend as someone you eat with and play with.  That’s a pretty good definition, but it’s the next line that really made me pause.  “She knew our names and we knew hers.”


These children understand the power of names.  Young children first learn this power by naming close family members, usually mama, dada or some variation.  They quickly realize that these words produce a lot of excitement from mothers and fathers.


Children also learn to name objects.  As young children become mobile, their world expands greatly.  Toddlers become curious about everything.  Older toddlers gain about 10-20 words per week as they continue to explore and have conversations with others.  By the time they are preschoolers, these children can start to use this vocabulary to have conversations about objects that are absent, and eventually objects they have never seen.


There is also power in the naming of emotions.  When toddlers learn to label their emotions, they can start to recover from some of their strong emotions a little quicker.  Preschoolers continue this process as the names of emotions move past happy, sad and mad to include scared, lonely, frustrated, jealous and others.  The better preschoolers get at naming their emotions, the easier it is to control impulses associated with those emotions.  For example, a preschooler can learn to say they are mad while controlling the impulse to hit the person they are mad at.  Simply naming the emotion allows for them to control the impulse.  I used the term simply, but of course it is not learned quickly, but through lots of experience and guidance from a patient adult.


In addition children (and really all people) feel more secure and comfortable in an environment where others know their names.  Teachers and caregivers quickly learn that using a child’s name makes a child recover easier at drop off time.  Parents also are more trusting if their names are used.


Priscilla was the first Grand Friend to get to know the children’s names and she soon became the Grand Friend the children talked to the most.  The children picked up on that when we wrote our memories of Priscilla.

Our visits with the Grand Friends are important because we learn how to be a part of a wider community.  Children and elders are often overlooked in our society.  All of us can make a difference and it starts with learning the names of those around us.  I am thankful that my class reminded me of the power of names.

Destruction or creation?

Loose parts are an essential part of any play environment for young children. The materials are open-ended so children can play with them in infinite ways. Nature provides plenty of loose parts outdoors: sticks, pinecones, leaves, rocks, etc. We also provide a few other loose parts on our playground such as planks, crates, and tree cookies.

picking apart a rotted log

Many of these materials can be used in the winter until they are covered in snow. Then snow becomes the main open-ended material on our playground. Children can scoop, sculpt, throw and eat the snow. We have a four-foot high berm that the children sled down.

This winter we haven’t had very much snow. The last two weeks have been very cold and the snow is packed hard on the ground or has turned to ice. We can still sled, but it has been hard to play with other materials. It’s hard to run or roughhouse when the ground is hard and slippery. It’s hard to use materials when your hands are encased in mittens.


Last week we got hit with cold. We had several days where it never got above 0 Fahrenheit (-17 Celsius). I knew it was coming so I had used buckets and other containers to freeze water. I used different colors in the water. I even used some smaller ice chunks to add to larger molds to make a few multi-colored chunks. The process took a few days. I couldn’t wait to see what the children did with them.





On Monday I had the ice chunks spread throughout the playground. A few children called them “magic crystals,” which they quickly collected in a crate. Lance found a large ice chunk about 6 inches across. I was curious what he would do with it. I followed him across the playground. Lance lifted the ice over his head, and threw it on a tree stump.



He spent the rest of our outside time trying to break the ice chunks. He tried throwing them against stumps, tree trunks and the ground. He tried hitting them with sticks and shovels. I hate to admit that my first reaction was to tell him not to break them. But I held my tongue and watched.


I was curious why he was so determined to smash the ice. I wondered if it was some sort of destructive impulse. Then I realized that Lance never smashed toys. He understood that the ice could be broken. I think he was testing his strength. Could he break the ice?


He ended up breaking several of the ice chunks into smaller pieces. The children have pretended the ice pieces were food, power crystals, and other items. They have been collected in various containers, arranged in several ways. It has now been two weeks since I introduced the ice chunks and the children are still finding new uses. Lance helped turn a handful of larger ice chunks into loose parts that all the children could use.  He wasn’t being destructive, he was creating.






Curiosity, Observation and a Buick

My class just finished an investigation of a car, specifically a 2003 Buick Le Sabre Custom owned by one of my co-workers. It may sound funny to be so specific about what we were investigating, but it’s a very important part of the experience.


Our investigations are in-depth studies of something the preschoolers in my classroom are interested in. Each investigation lasts about 6 weeks. We usually only spend about 10 minutes a day on the topic. But the children start applying their new knowledge throughout the day. Sometimes they incorporate this knowledge into their pretend play. Sometimes they notice things in their daily life that they usually don’t notice.

removing the headlamp assembly
removing the headlamp assembly


The investigation can go deeper if I focus on something specific. 10 years ago I did a “car investigation.” As I look back on my documentation, the kids focused on the various colors cars came in. They categorized cars into minivans and cars. They also focused on the steering wheel and radio.


The Le Sabre investigation involved looking at the whole car, inside and out. Early on we did observational drawings

jacking up the car

where the kids drew details from the car. We checked and added oil. We added wiper fluid, and tested the wipers. We tested the lights and changed a bulb on the turn signal. We jacked up the car and took off a wheel.


We did another observational drawing at the end. One of the interesting changes that happened involved the dashboard. The first drawings had lots of circles for buttons scattered across a rectangle. The second drawing had a distinct radio, vents, controls for the air and the turn signal (with the control for the wipers). The children clearly had a broader knowledge of the car.



At the end of the investigation we made a Le Sabre out of cardboard. It was interesting to see the details that they chose to represent. We had the four wheels, but now the kids drew the hubcaps on the circles. They cut out yellow paper for headlights and red paper for the tail lights, and orange for the turn lights. Someone made a radio with buttons and lines (for the CD player). One child put a small box under the hood for the engine. The next day, another child drew squiggles on paper and then copied “10W 30” from the photos of us adding oil. She taped the drawing of “oil” on top of the engine.

Our Buick Le Sabre
Our Buick Le Sabre

My hope is that each investigation makes children take a closer look at something around them, something they see every day. During the investigation they look closer. They focus their attention, first on the subject of the investigation (the Le Sabre in this case), but then their attention focuses on their environment. They start noticing the control for the windshield wipers in their own car, for example. It starts with looking closely at one thing, but it allows them to see the whole world differently.


Embracing Rough and Tumble Play

Embracing rough and tumble play? Isn’t that the type of play I try to stop from happening in my classroom?

I spent years gently reminding children that we don’t play that way inside. Wait until we get outside. Even when we were outside, I would constantly interrupt, “Be careful. You might get hurt.”



I often talked about teaching to the whole child, meeting their needs in all learning domains: social-emotional, literacy, cognitive and physical development. But looking back, I ignored many of the children’s needs for physical development. I was failing to see a vital part of who these children were.


Rough and tumble play is the purest form of what it means to be a child. It is the two year old jumping up and down, waving their arms a up and down yelling, “Mommy! Mommy!” at the end of a school day. It is the four year old spinning and falling, and then spinning again. It is the time when children are so engrossed in the joys of movement that they lose all track of time.


As we grow into adulthood, we see this same total immersion of the mind and body when a dancer executes a phrase with extreme focus and precision, or when a surgeon completes a complex procedure and saves a life. Sometimes this immersion in movement is as simple as tending to a garden, or rocking a child to sleep. With adults we call this flow, but with children it’s called childhood.


I embrace rough and tumble play because it is literally a type of embrace. It is a way for children to show affection for another while also testing the limits of their own physical abilities. Children need tender affection such as cuddling and hugs, but children also need to be physical in a more vigorous way.


So yes, I embrace rough and tumble play. I love the joy it brings when my class engages in it: roughhousing on the mat together, spinning endlessly, stomping, making themselves bigger and more powerful . I also embrace that peaceful calm they have when they (eventually) get tired and focus on a quieter activity such as building with Legos or Mobilos.


I can’t tell you how many times I have had an adult come into my classroom and ask how I get preschoolers to sit so quiet and focused. If they had come into my classroom ten minutes earlier, they would have seen children roughhousing and laughing riotously. People also comment on how well the children get along in my classroom. Again, this happens because we play loudly and physically, not despite it.

The more I teach, the more I have come to believe that children move from parallel play to collaborative play first through physical play, literally having their bodies interact with others. It doesn’t necessarily need to be rough and tumble play. It could be dancing although I find it hard to tell the difference with preschoolers.

2 fly

I embrace rough and tumble play because I think it brings out the best in children.

You Gotta Move


I went to see Gill Connell last night speaking on how movement teaches the brain to think. Most of the talk was based on her book A Moving Child Is a Learning Child. I can’t recommend the book enough. Connell lays out child development in a way that is fairly easy to follow. Children are born with reflexes. When a child moves, these reflexes are relaxed and conscious movement takes over. For this to happen, movement skills start as processes that the child must think about. The child repeats these skills until finally they become automatic. Only after these movements are automatic can the brain focus on higher level thinking. In other words, one of the main things the brain focuses on as it begins to develop is movement. I would add the other major thing the brain focuses on is communication. Of course communication at this stage requires movement and (a lot of) crying.


Connell’s message serves as a good warning to those who want to get preschoolers (or kindergartners) to sit down and

making a map

learn. Sitting does not necessarily lead to learning for any age. Sitting does however lead to health risks. It’s ironic that as we learn more about how movement relates to brain development and learning, we are having young children sit for longer and longer periods of time.





The talk I was at was geared toward parents, and Connell focused a lot on how movement is important for literacy


development, and specifically reading and writing. Afterwards I was thinking about how movement relates to communication in general. Children often play games that involve movement with a few people: games such as chase, climbing together, digging and playing in sand or mud, and, of course rough-and-tumble play. All of these games require speaking and listening skills, but also the reading of non-verbal cues. Children also have to trust each other to play with each other, especially games that could involve physical risk if the other child doesn’t respect their limits.





A teacher sitting crisscross applesauce

When children take the risk to trust others, they also build trust, and ultimately friendships. And friendships create a need to communicate. Some of that communication will be face-to-face, but it will also involve writing (notes, texts, emails, and social media posts). Movement build the skills to physically read and write (eye tracking, anchored body, tripod grasp of the pencil, dexterous thumbs for texting, and most importantly automatic movements so the brain can focus on higher level thinking). Movement also creates the bonds of friendship that builds the desire to read and write.


Connell describes this as a cycle: The more a child moves, the more the child knows: The more a child knows, the more the child wants to know: The more a child wants to know, the more the child wants to move. I would just add a concentric cycle: The more a child moves the more the child communicates: The more a child communicates, the more the child wants to communicate: The more a child wants to communicate, the more a child moves.


The Joy of Risk

I have been reading Rae Pica’s new book, What If Everybody Understood Child Development.  I was asked to respond to her chapter on risk called, Bubble Wrap Not Required for a book study group

Here was my (unedited) response:

Rae Pica focuses on parents’ fears of anything negative happening to their children. I’d like to think about parents’ hopes for their children. We want children to be resilient. Resilience requires taking risks. We want children to be joyful. Nothing beats the joy of successfully taking a risk. Risk is a part of being alive and children need to know how to deal with risk.


But it’s not risk alone. Resilience comes both from risk and persistence. You have to try and you have to fail. The risk might be physical. It might be emotional. We know that children will get hurt. We know they will cry. Our job isn’t to keep them from falling. It’s to help them up and hug them when they do fall.

Let’s be clear that risk is different than hazard. Risk is something that a child can see and assess such as climbing high. EachJ Club October 5 time a child reaches higher, she can look down and decide if she has reached her limit. Once she has reached her limit, she can climb down. Next time, she will probably go a little higher, but she will be the one to decide.

A hazard is something a child cannot see or assess. For example, if there is a slide on a playground, the child will assume she can go down it. She will not notice if the slide has a gap that could catch the drawstring from her sweatshirt and asphyxiate her. Adults need to minimize hazards as much as possible and minimize risk as much as necessary.

While our first impulse as adults may be to protect children, we need to look at the big picture. Children are ultimately safer when they learn to assess risk themselves. For example, open bodies of water pose a risk for drowning. We could make sure children don’t have access to water, and as long as they are in our watch, they would not risk drowning. But the day they find themselves by a lake or river without us, are they safer? It is much better to first expose them to shallow bodies of water where they can have fun and then teach them how to swim as they get older. The same is true for other risks. It is better to climb a tree and get a few scrapes than it is to not climb at all.


Children need to challenge themselves when they take risks. It is important to let children climb on their own so they can assess the risk they are ready for. If an adult puts a child up in a tree, the child has no control over the situation. Children also need to use their body to back out of a situation they decide is too much for them. If a child climbs and gets stuck, the adult should verbally help them down. Reassure the child that you are nearby and talk through the steps the child can take to get down. Only help them physically if falling is imminent.

As a teacher, you can help children learn to assess risk as they play. If a child does something that seems risky, don’t stop them right away. Instead move closer and see if the risk is reasonable. If you are not sure you can ask the child for their assessment (“What’s your plan?” “Are there any sharp corners you need to worry about?”).

You can also do a risk-benefit analysis. Decide what the risks are as well as the benefits. If the risk is reasonable and there are benefits, just stay nearby and watch for changes in the situation. If the risk seems too great decide if there are any changes that would make it safer while still allowing the child to get their needs met. If a tree branch seems weak, is there another branch (or another tree) that is safer?


It is important to keep in mind that playing, even risky play is relatively safe. There was a study in the UK that found that the sport of badminton results in twice as many injuries than playing on playgrounds. Most other sports resulted in even more injuries. There are benefits to engaging in sports, of course, so the benefits outweigh the risk, so why not playgrounds? And tree climbing didn’t even make it on the chart.

One of the most dangerous things for a child to do is ride in a car, but we have agreed as a society that it is worth the risk. Children do end up in the emergency room for falls 20 times the number for non-fatal car accidents. However, it is extremely rare for a child to die from a fall. Children under the age of 5 are more than 10 times more likely to die in a car accident than from a fall. Children 5-9 are more than 80 times as likely. In other words, children may get hurt, but almost all will be minor injuries. Meanwhile, children learn how to deal with risk and ultimately stay safer.


Getting out of bed exposes you to countless risks. But if you stay in bed, you risk letting life pass you by. Just watch how children run to greet the day, ready for anything. It may be risky, but it is joyful. Maybe instead of trying to make the children more like us, we need to be more like them.

Seeing the Trees

This summer, I took a break from writing this blog while I finished the first draft of my book, Teaching with the Body in Mind. The book covers a lot of the same topics as the blog. I now will get back to posting weekly.


jump 2

While I was working on the book, I read several studies. One thing that really struck me was how small the sample sizes were for each study. One of my favorite researchers is Michelle Tannock who does a lot of work on rough-and-tumble play and attitudes about it. One study of Tannock’s that I often cite found that close to 80% of incidents of rough-and-tumble play was done by boys in this particular setting. Reading the study again, it really struck me that she studied a class with 17 students.


When I think of my classroom, and how much it varies from year-to-year, I can’t help thinking how different the results would be. Last year there was a lot more rough-and-tumble play than this year. Last year, the girls were responsible for much of that play. My gut feeling is that the boys still did the majority of the play, but it really can vary.August 12 047


Most studies on rough-and-tumble play find that the boys engage in more of the play, and a few boys are responsible for most of the play and particularly the more forceful play such as pushing, tackling, etc. The problem is that many in the Early Childhood Education field (sometimes even the researchers themselves) talk about what boys tend to do and what girls tend to do. When referring to boys, the conversation often slips into the few, most physical boys. In most research, the most physical boys are outliers on one side along with a few boys who engage in very little rough-and-tumble play.


After all, I could describe how boys behave by talking about Stan. He spends most of his time outside playing a marimba or drumming on buckets. He will spend a few minutes “fighting” the teacher with a pool noodle. He does not attack other children, just the teacher. Inside he will play on the mat, but rather than pushing and grabbing others, he usually plays “pile on.” One child goes on the bottom and three or four others pile on top. They just lie there on top of each other until then bottom person asks everyone to get up. Stan describes the way boys play about as accurately as well as using Greg as the model.


Greg likes to tackle others (who he is playing with). In the classroom, he often runs and dives onto the floor. He is almost always playing physically and he can rarely sit still. The truth is, most boys aren’t like Stan or Greg. They are somewhere in between. So are most of the girls in my room.

Statistically, the boys in my room probably play rougher. Statistics can be helpful. As I’ve written in the past, knowing the statistics of the expulsion rates of boys vs. girls points to a need for systemic change in early childhood education. Especially when you consider boys tend to play rougher.

However, in the classroom, the statistics don’t mean much. When I watch Bart playing in my classroom, it doesn’t matter if he’s more likely play rough. I won’t learn about Bart by looking up statistics. I need to watch him. I don’t teach children. I don’t teach boys and girls. I teach Bart, Francine, Greg, Tina, Stan, and all the others who have names and personalities. I need to figure out how to be effective with each child and it will be different for each child.

J Club October 5

I don’t call a birch tree a pine just because it is growing in a pine forest. Teachers have to see each tree. Researchers look at the forest.