How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Couch

I pushed the new couch into the nook with a feeling of satisfaction. It was supposed to fit with an inch to spare, but after spending a few hundred dollars, I didn’t relax until it was put in. It was just the right size for an odd indentation in my dramatic play area. I had a carpet that fit the rectangle of the space, leaving a two foot bald spot on one side. I was more than thrilled to find this couch that not only provided a cozy play space, but it also covered up the floor.

The couch becomes a canoe.
The couch becomes a canoe.

 

The first few weeks, the kids used the couch as a crib, a car, a couch, and a hospital bed. I had found a perfect solution to my problem. But then something happened. One of the kids figured out that if you pulled the couch out from the wall, it created the perfect hideout. The hideout also became a tree house, a tent, a bedroom. Every day it was something new. And every day, as the couch was pushed forward, the rug would scrunch up until it was getting ruined. And if that wasn’t enough the arm of the couch was chipping the paint a bit.

 

 

I tried to stop the kids from pulling the couch out. That didn’t work of course. I tried to be there when they moved the couch, but every time I walked over, the couch was moved and the rug was bunched up.

A hideout is discovered
A hideout is discovered

I tried to show them how to lift it on top of the rug. That wasn’t any more successful. I was getting quite frustrated. I could only flatten the rug back so many times before it was ruined. I could stay late and paint the wall, but how long would that last?

When I finally stepped back, I saw a different picture. The kids were showing me they wanted a small space to play in. They also seemed to take satisfaction in being the creators of this space. The stumbling block was the carpet, which was made up of smaller square tiles. I decided to remove one more row to see what would happen. It left a bigger bald spot, which bothered me, but I’ve lived with bald spots before.

 

The next day the kids pulled the couch out until it touched the rug. A father who worked as a contractor asked if I needed anything done and I showed him the chipped paint. He brought in a few scraps of wainscoting and covered the walls. Suddenly, the area looked inviting again. And the kids continued to use the space behind the couch.

 

The couch becomes a spaceship
The couch becomes a spaceship (with real wood wainscoting)

 

 

 

It doesn’t matter how many years I have been doing this, I still find myself taking on battles that I can’t win. When I focus on the needs of the kids, I can usually find a way where we both win.

Tired of Saying no

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

 

 

 

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO

 

Preschool classrooms are filled with rules: No running, no pushing, no throwing toys, etc. The rules are made with good intentions, but many of the rules essentially stop children from using their whole bodies in the classroom. It’s as if we are inviting only the head and perhaps hands into the classroom. Children resist this at every turn. It leads to frustration from all sides. As one teacher told me, “I’m tired of saying no all the time.”

NO RULES?
In the last few years I have used guidelines instead of rules. Dan Gartrell talks about the benefits of guidelines rather than rules in his book, Education for a Civil Society: How Guidance Teaches young Children Democratic Life Skills.
Rules talk about what children can’t do. Guidelines talk about what we can. Guidelines also allow for gray areas that often happen. For example, we have a loft in my classroom that looks down on the classroom on three sides. Originally I had a rule that you couldn’t throw things down from the loft. It seemed straight forward, but situations kept coming up that called this rule into question. A child made a paper airplane, and threw it from the loft. Then a few weeks later a group of children had a pillow fight with some throwing pillows from the loft. Later a child watched a tissue float down from the loft. None of these situations presented a safety concern. I could make a rule that lists all the things you can’t throw. I could even put a positive spin on it and list the things you can throw. But what happens when someone introducing something not on the list? What if someone crumples paper and throws it?
When I started using guidelines, I could say, “We take care of each other so we can’t throw toys form the loft because they are hard and could hurt someone.” When a child makes an airplane, I can say, “Are we still taking care of each other if you throw a paper airplane?” The child can figure out that no one will get hurt. Not only did I get rid of unnecessary rules, I am helping the kids to practice risk assessment in a safe way.

NO RUNNING?
This also brings up rules that many of us consider universal such as “No running in the room.” While running in the room in general might pose a safety concern that children may not be able to anticipate on their own. There is a lot of gray area in terms of what is running. For example: Is jogging OK? Isn’t a five-year old skipping more likely to result in falling that if the same child was running? I have found myself watching children “running” in the room with enough control to stay safe on several occasions. I have also watched kids “use their walking feet” and walk right into someone who was in their way. Is it really the speed that is the problem or the child being in control of their movement?

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

NO PUSHING?
In regards to the child who walks into another child, it is often a result of a still-developing vestibular sense rather than a deliberate act of aggression. What will the child learn if I say, “No pushing?” And if I have the rule “No Pushing” what about two kids who smile as they push each other? Can’t children roughhouse?
No running, No Pushing and No Throwing Toys can seem like universal rules, but in the end, I am convinced there are no universal rules, but I am convinced that there are universal guidelines. Using guidelines means that the children and I have to use our judgment when situations arise. It is good for the children to learn and it is good practice for teachers to always reflect on their actions.

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.

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.

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.