The Whole Child, The Whole Day

We were moving. I was an enlightened teacher. I knew children need to move as part of their healthy development. It was morning group time and I was having the children move to music, creating a story that matched the mood of the music. We were lions waking up and then running and leaping. All of the children were moving and contributing ideas. Well, almost everyone.

Greg had ducked behind a shelf. I tried to get him involved, but he said he was tired. I gently tried a few more times, but didn’t want to pressure him. Maybe next time I can get him moving, I thought.

Soon I had the lions wash their paws for snack. Greg waited until the others were done and washed his own hands. As we finished snack and got ready for freeplay, Greg told me he was going to “attack the bad guys.”

Suddenly, this quiet child put on a mask and pretended to shoot at all the bad guys. He leaped to his right, ducked behind the couch, rolled on the ground and stuck his wand out again. Soon a few other boys joined him.

Greg added a police hat and a tool belt, and he was ready for round two. Sometimes they attacked the bad guys. Sometimes they jumped and rolled on each other. It was as if something inside Greg had woken up. Something I was unable to do with my planned activities. I thought I was an enlightened teacher, but I realized I knew nothing.

I am exaggerating, of course, but the thing about teaching is that just when you think you know what you are doing, you realize there is more to learn. I knew children need to move, but I didn’t always reOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ready for the bad guys
Ready for the bad guys

cognize it. The truth is, a few years ago, I would have told Greg and the other boys to calm down when they started roughhousing. The very thing that got them moving, for Greg the only thing.

Planning movement activities is not enough. Getting children outside for long periods of time is not enough. Having a mat set aside for boisterous rough-and-tumble play is not enough. Children need a sense of power, a chance to take risks, and a choice in how they move their bodies throughout the day.

Greg, and many others like him do need to move their bodies, but they might not do it when the teacher plans it. We can’t address a child’s physical development for fifteen minutes and then move on to the child’s literacy skills the next fifteen minutes. We need to be aware of the whole child the whole day.

Real Confidence

climbing a rock
climbing a rock
up a tree
up a tree

Kids like to take risks, some more than others. The adults can make sure the risk is acceptable, but we can’t eliminate all risk nor should we try. Children gain a lot from risk including confidence.

Too often we try to boost children’s confidence by heaping praise on them. But saying “Good job!” a hundred times is fairly meaningless compared to letting a child climb a tree or run up a slide. The challenge followed by the accomplishment (maybe after several tries) is much more fulfilling.

It is true that children may get a few more bumps and bruises, but they will make up for that in pride. But that’s not all–

A few years ago I had taken my preschool class to a picnic at an assisted living facility that we visit every other week. I was on one end of the outdoor area playing parachute games with several children. On the other side, some of the children were going up and down a rocky slope (maybe 4′ high) that led to a dry overflow ditch. One of the workers from the facility asked if that was OK. My teacher-brain immediately thought I shouldn’t let them, but I thought about what I have been learning about the need for risk, so I said, “Maybe I should go over and see.”

I walked over and watched the kids go up and down on the rocks. As their confidence built, some of the kids quickened their pace. I did mention that some rocks might be loose, but I doubt anyone heard me. They continued going up and down for about five minutes before sitting down for food.

I know that if this happened five years earlier, I would have stopped it, and maybe had them go down on the grassy part of the slope. But they chose the rocks because it was a challenge and more risky and therefore more fun. They ran for about five minutes, smiling the whole time. Not only did it boost their confidence in themselves, it boosted my confidence in them as well.

Ways In Being Kind

My preschool class graduated today. They will start kindergarten in two days. This year for graduation, I wanted to make sure that I recognized each child for a time they were kind to someone. This stemmed from my last post where I talked about children thinking their parents cared more about their academic and athletic accomplishments than about their children being kind.

I wanted each one to be specific so I asked the class about times they were kind. Most children came up with something, but even better, they also came up with examples from other kids. I also liked hearing what things they found important. At the graduation ceremony, I read the child’s name and their act of kindness. Here is a sampling:

Danielle found Tracy’s ring and gave it to her, twice.

Tanya said sorry to her friend Lucinda when she bumped her tooth and asked if there was anything she could do to help.

Lawrence said, “Hi Chloe,” in a gentle voice.

Vanessa sang a song to a baby that was crying.

Lou talks to his baby brother and sometimes gives him toys.

Ned shared his balls with Lou because he had eight of them.

Nigel played one of Ken’s games that he made up.

Nikki shared stickers with the whole class.

Eduardo told Thalia, “It was really nice spending time with you,” when Thalia visited the classroom the first time.

Gordon and his family helped with the elementary school’s new garden.

Percy let Eduardo borrow his transformer, Bumblebee.

Sadie asked, “Do you want a hug?” when Tracy got hurt.

 clean up crew 008

We Don’t Have to Wait

0 Superhero huddle

We often think of preschool as getting children ready: ready to read, ready to do math, ready for school. We hope to set them on a path to be good citizens who care for others.
But I have been thinking about this past year and all the ways my preschool students have cared for others. They help each other when one classmate is sad or upset. They like to help the toddlers whenever they can. They also help others in the community. When a neighbor was having trouble with city inspectors over her garden, the children told her how important the garden was to them. They gave her drawings and showed her photos of the garden. She told them the pictures made her garden look magical and the children told her it was magical.
Last month, on our bi-weekly visit to an assisted living facility there were just a few Grand Friends. We greeted them and learned a few new names. Then we headed downstairs to see their gardens. We looked at the gardens for a while, and ran around the circle path. Then someone spotted one of the regular Grand Friends and shouted, “She’s here.” The Grand Friend wheeled over and told them she got to the activities room late, but she didn’t want to miss them. Most of the kids came over and greeted her before running around the path again.
On our way out, every child said, “Goodbye.” She smiled as they left. A few weeks later, she passed away. It was our final goodbye. The way she had come out to see the kids and the way she smiled, I realized how much the children meant to her and the way they rushed over to her, how much she meant to them. We don’t have to wait to be good citizens who care for others. They already are.
A new study came out that showed that children perceive that their parents care more about grades and athletic accomplishments than they do about their children being kind to others (which actions do you think most parents celebrate the most?). As preschool children grow, there will be many accomplishments to be proud of, some of them academic, some of them athletic, but the children will never learn or experience anything more important than bringing others joy and helping others.

Now or Never

Adults often find children’s concept of time amusing. A child will use the word “yesterday” to mean anything that happened in the past. It isn’t that children don’t have a concept of time, it is simply that their conception is not fine tuned. “Yesterday” does refer to the past. Young children simply generalize the meaning of “yesterday” to mean everything in the past. They will eventually differentiate the past into more segments of time (last week, before you were born, last Spring, etc.).

The other way children use “time words” is to refer to how strong an emotion is. When a child is angry and says, “You’re never going to be my friend,” they aren’t referring to how long their anger will last. They are talking about the extent of their anger. An adult can tell them that they will be friends with the other child in a few minutes, but that doesn’t mean anything to the child. They are experiencing their present state without regard to the near future.

Young children look at the world like a slide show rather than a movie, one thing at a time (a metaphor introduced by Diane Levin). They can understand a sequence of events, but they don’t necessarily look at one event leading to another.

This slide show approach to life can be hard for an adult watching a child who is sad or angry. It can also be wonderful when the child is happy. This sense of the here-and-now is why a child can forget about the walk to the park when she finds a butterfly. Suddenly, the whole world is just a butterfly and the breeze bending a flower as it sips the nectar. The world becomes magical shifting from one experience to another.

When a child is upset, adults often have the best intentions when they tell them they won’t be experiencing this moment soon. What is more effective is to acknowledge the emotion. “I’m sorry you are sad. You don’t like to get your shirt wet. I will help you.”

No matter the exact words, the adult is saying, “I am here with you now.” And really, that is all that matters.

Emotional Learning

As a preschool teacher, I often have to help children who are missing mom or dad or other parental figure.  It’s a bittersweet situation because it is healthy for kids to miss a loved one.  After all, they love them and want to be with them.

When a child is sad, there are many ways a teacher can handle the situation.  But any method that helps the child grow and learn how to appropriately manage emotions has a few things in common.

First, a teacher can acknowledge the emotion without judgment.  “You’re sad.”  If you know, acknowledge the reason for being sad.  “You miss your mom.”  You can always do these two things while leaving room for being wrong.  “You look sad.”  “Are you missing your mom?”  This way the child can correct you if you are incorrect.

After a teacher acknowledges the emotion, the provider needs to be there for the child.  Sometimes that means sitting with the child while they work through the emotion.  Sometimes it means reassuring them.  “Mom will be back after snack time.”  “I bet mom misses you, too.”  Sometimes it means offering to do what mom would do.  “Does your mom like to read to you?  Maybe I could read to you.”  Sometimes it means giving them some power or control over the situation.  “Would you like to draw a picture for her, or write her a letter.”  Sometimes a child will ask to be left alone, and a teacher must respect the child’s wishes, but they can still let the child know they are there for them.  “OK.  If you need me, I’ll be reading a book with some other kids.”

When a child misses a loved one, it is a learning opportunity, and responsive care is the same whether a child is learning how to express and manage emotions or learning how to write words.  You are there for the child, you support their efforts, you reassure them when they are frustrated, and you help them reach a place they didn’t know they could.

Meal Time Literacy

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.

Science is Wonder

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.

No such thing as teacher proof

reading at Seward ChildcareI’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.

Tales from the Penguin Room

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.