Thursday, December 6, 2012

How to Decorate a Christmas Tree Kidstyle

We worked on these adorable little trees today in several different areas of our room. The entire project took most of the morning because there were several steps involved. The great thing about working in small increments of time like this is that the kids were highly focused on the project, then play, then the project again, enabling them to expand the length of time they were able to focus. 

If we think of the brain as a computer running several programs at once, you can imagine how much slower it runs when you try to do to many things at once. If you really push it the computer freezes up altogether! Much like a computer, the young child's brain needs time to download and synchronize all the incoming sensory information so it can run smoothly. Rotating through activities helps children process information by giving them a break from taking in new information.
Children's brains and bodies also need to move in order to build on the length of time they can remain focused on a given task. Creating novel experiences or environments redirects the brain to the activity so that all systems work together more effectively.

Step one: punch lots of little holes in the Christmas tree by hanging it from the cutting center or using both your hands.

Step Two: cut tinsel and toss it around with friends, it’s fun to play with and it’s pretty cool to look at.

Step Three: take a break to works on something else 

Like an abstract drawing....

Sam - "See this J over here? This is where they put the gummies in the bag then it shoots down and goes all the way over here to the house."

Dumping crayons, stuffing them in tiny spaces or transferring them to different containers then listening to the sounds they make.....

Logan - This is a fire ship boat, it has fire on the back! I'm using this (computer keyboard) to drive it and the front is right here."  

Will - "We're going to rescue people!" 

Addie - And my baby's coming too!"

Hammer stuff, make a rocket and read with with friends.... 

or look at something pretty with your baby.....

Step four: count buttons and glue them to your tree then add tinsel if you like.

Step Five: Marvel at your masterpiece!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Cutting Station

Learning to master the muscles and skill to use scissors is tricky stuff for little ones. I put together this little cutting station so the kids could work independently. The set up is simple: string some ribbon through the gym and hang paper with clothes pins. (We have also created a cutting station between chairs before we had the gym.)

Working with hanging paper is much easier for the children than having to manipulate two objects at the same time. They were able to focus on using both hands to open and shut the scissors, as a result they worked for quite some time before moving on to other activities.

We talked a lot about cutting away from fingers instead of toward fingers....

Making fringes.....

Watching out for peers while cutting and walking with scissors pointed down, blades in hand.

So many safety tips to remember!

While we worked Carmen checked in on us and worked on her potato head pieces. 

Later she had a little fine motor fun clipping clothes pins to ribbon all by herself! 

Working with scissors was a great way for the children to practice gettinng thier fingers and eyes to work together. They also enjoyed the feeling of self mastery and what it feels like to be trusted to work with scissors all by themselves.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Following Their Lead

When we allow children to be the leaders of their own learning experiences we never have to worry about whether they are interested in what we are teaching. Following their lead means sometimes chucking our original teaching plan in favor of honoring their thoughts and creativity. Teaching or parenting from this perspective is a surefire way to fill children with the unshakable belief that what they think is important and should be heard. It encourages them to take chances other children might shrink away from and puts them in the position to practice leadership from a very young age.  

This morning Jack came in with an idea in his mind for how he wanted to spend his day. He proudly showed me his half finished costume and asked if I could help him assemble it. I had planned on working with leaves and talking about gratitude but he was so fired up about his idea that we ran with it.

Jack had already completed the wings, and mask at home but needed help figuring out how to assemble them in a way that he could create a costume. I reminded him that the materials he had chosen were going to be a little tricky to use because the tear easily. I asked if he had any ideas in mind for putting it all together. He said, “Maybe we could use some tape.” He also showed me how he wanted the wings to go down his arms. We kicked around a few ideas, I suggested using a rod to hang the wings from but he said they wouldn’t lay the right way. Then we thought about tying them on with string but string would not keep the wings in place when he flapped his arms. Finally I thought of using our trusty binder clips to attach them to his shirt and it was just the ticket. He explained how I would need to position them so they would look the way he had envisioned them. Once I put on the last one, he was thrilled with the results.

I asked what the name of his guy was, he grinned a diabolical grin and said, “Vulture Man, he’s a bad guy.”

Jack also made a batmobile to go with his costume.

Everyone else thought Jack’s costume and batmobile were pretty cool. Pretty soon they were all clamoring about my feet asking for costume supplies. We got together to brainstorm some ideas for costumes. We thought about paper plate masks or some other pre made masks I had in the teacher closet. I remembered I had some birthday crowns that we hadn’t used in a while and everyone wanted one. We decorated them markers and bingo dabbers since everyone was too excited to wait for anything to dry! 

While we were working Jack decided he needed a shield to complete his outfit so we made those out of paper plates too.

Yoli added her own twist to her costume with a tutu and baby sling.

The kids had a great time wearing the costumes during the rest of the morning.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Process Over Product

Last year I gave up on handprint turkeys, footprint ghosts and all the predictable handprint projects that daycares churn out during the holiday seasons. My reason for doing so was because we were too busy with all of our really super important projects that engage the kids in imagining, creating, or learning something of value. Last year we were focused like laser beams on construction, so much so that we went weeks without any artwork going home because everything the kids were really interested in was disassembled at the end of the day. 

I’ll be honest, I didn’t really miss the handprint seasonal art, it’s kind of a lot of work for me. Other than sitting still for five minutes to let me trace or stamp their hands, the children don’t have much to do with the “creative” part of the project. I show them what the turkey looks like, I cut the project out and I help them assemble it so it looks like a turkey. They listen to my directions, work with the materials I choose and glue stuff where it’s “supposed” to go. The whole thing feels hollow to me and when it's done everybody has a similar teacher directed product to take home.

As I was surfing the web for more creative seasonal activities, I came across an article written by a fellow blogger who was appalled at the fact that someone commenting on her handprint turkey post said that the birds “robbed children of their creativity”. She went on to argue that the turkeys were in fact a creative activity and that no Thanksgiving day would be complete without them. While I didn’t agree with her perspective, the article made me wonder if my enthusiasm for process based learning over seasonal “artwork” left some of my moms feeling a little bummed out. I wondered if they had wished for a tiny turkey of their own to hang on the fridge - after all, anything made from toddler hands is pretty darn cute.

I have to say that as a teacher I agree with the evil turkey hating blog commenter but as the sappy mom of two high school students, I also understand why the blog author felt the need to save handprint turkeys from extinction. After careful consideration I decided that perhaps there is an element of truth to both sides of the argument. Maybe turkey handprint projects do rob children of the opportunity to be creative AND maybe no Thanksgiving day would be complete without them. I decided to reframe my thinking and view handprint turkeys as a childhood keepsake for the parents instead of artwork to ease my conscience. In the end, I resurrected the turkey handprint project and added it to my fall lineup this year. 
While I got to work cutting up turkeys, I set out some scraps of paper, markers and glue sticks to give the kids an opportunity to work independently. As I worked I noticed them huddling together engaged in the true process of child inspired creativity. They showed each other their drawings, made “letters” for friends, helped the younger kids figure out how to use the glue sticks and told animated stories about the pictures they were drawing. They wandered between the sensory bin and the table leaving a trail of discarded paper strewn from one end of the room to the other. Every so often they would proudly show me their scraps covered scribble letters and glue globs exclaiming “Look Ms Geraldine, it’s a firetruck for my mommy!” They also asked questions like “Why don’t the letters on my paper look like the ones in the book?”  and “ Can you show me how to hold my marker again?” As I watched them I thought of how all of these great ideas, questions and observations simply cannot emerge in cutesy cookie cutter projects. 

We do our children a huge disservice by discounting the process of developing thoughts and celebrating product based projects with wild enthusiasm. Adults viewing those scribbles out of context fail to identify the painstaking process a child endures as they teach their hands to recreate the image they hold in their minds. Without the dialog that accompanies their drawings it’s easy to miss the cognitive processes that unfold as a child learns to organize his thoughts and put them to paper for the world to see. Those are the processes that are paramount to every aspect of learning and true self expression. Product based “art” may look cute but it’s really about imitating someone else’s ideas to make something that everyone else will like and accept as beautiful. I worry that celebrating the handprint turkey devalues the child’s journey to self expression 
and sends the message that conformity is preferred over creativity.

In an attempt to illustrate all the children had learned that morning I collected those beautiful little scribble scraps and framed them just as carefully as I had the turkeys. I pinned them to the bulletin board and took a moment to marvel at just how far the kids have come in the last few months. What you can’t see in their work is how Yoli made several pictures for Jackson giggling while she handed him each one. The pair bonded as she prattled away alternating between Spanish and English, then when she set each one before him he rewarded her efforts with a quiet smile. You won’t notice how Addie stopped her work several times to patiently teach Carmen how to manipulate marker caps or how she read Carmen’s gestures then made space at the table for her tiny friend. You probably wouldn’t know that the boys congregated for a full twenty minutes over Sam’s drawing, laughing hysterically as they collaborated in constructing an animated story about bad guys who fell down a lot. 

If you ask me there isn't a handprint turkey in the world that compares with the awesomness of that.

This thanksgiving I hope families realize the turkey handprint is not a symbol of their child’s creativity but a teacher’s feeble attempt at documenting the tiny hands that harbor the seeds of greatness. If you really want to see the truth of your child’s creativity, you will find it hidden within the folds of crumpled paper and globs of glue that were scooped up from the floor and framed for you to see. Those images may not be pretty or even remotely identified as anything of value but they are an honest portrayal of where your children are in their personal journey to self expression and that my friends is something to get excited about!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Inside the Projector

We pulled out the projector for some light exploration and discovered that the bulb had burned out so we decided to open it up and take a look inside....

The kids were surprised to see it had a mirror, some wires, two light bulbs, a lever and a magnifying glass.

Everyone had to try out the lever that switched the bulbs so they could “fix” it.

As they stood on the inside of the lifted magnifying glass, the kids noticed that their friends on the other side appeared larger and upside down. They all had to get in for a closer look.

They watched Josh intently as he cleaned the mirrors and magnifiers while explaining how it all worked. Then they watched patiently as he put it back together offering to help him everytime he needed something.

As soon as it was all set up, they got to work climbing up and down on crates stretching their bodies as high as possible to trace really tall “projected stuff”....

They talked about the colors of light shining through the plastic letters and blackness of the shadows....

They noticed the heat of the bulb and the whirr of the fan motor. Thier observations sparked many questions about the inner workings of parts we hadn't seen. 

Finally they worked together to cover all of the glass with crayon. When they were done they marveled at their work as the light shone through the colored wax casting huge swirling shadows over their drawings.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Brain Gym

This weekend I found what I thought was going to be a one-of-a-kind cool wooden infant gym at a mom to mom sale. I spotted it as soon as I walked in the door next to some beautiful pricey wooden German toys. I am a sucker for wooden toys - especially German made wooden toys at resale prices because they are designed to survive the toy-pocalypse that unfolds at my house on any given day. So there I was paying for the infant gym of my dreams, when the mom selling it casually mentioned she bought it at IKEA and her child didn’t really care for it. 

I think I actually heard my happy bubble burst into a million sparkly pieces. 

I wanted to give her back the crappy mass-produced IKEA gym and spend my five bucks elsewhere, but of course that wouldn’t be cool so I thanked her instead and brought it home. Don’t get me wrong, I do love IKEA products but an IKEA toy is not nearly as marvelous as the German toy I imagined I was buying. 

Once I got home I got to thinking of ways I could make the best of a bad situation by coming up with different ways to use the gym. I noticed it had some cool features like slots for hanging toys. The toys that came with it could be challenging enough to be considered a fine motor activity for the toddlers, it also had a simple design with legs that fit perfectly in my sensory bin, so there was some potential there. After tinkering with it for a while, I had managed to imagine at least five different things we could do with the gym and then I fell madly in love with it all over again. Best of all I decided I’m glad it’s not the one-of-a-kind, hard to find German built gym I had thought it was because we are about to get REAL creative with it and I may need to by another one.

Some of the super things we imagined with the infant gym....

Day one: The Bucket Scale
Our first project was building a scale. My idea was to run a string through the two slots farthest from each other then attach binder clips on the ends for suspending buckets. I was hoping the kids could experiment with weight and volume by filling the buckets so that the heaviest bucket would drop and the lightest one would rise. We built the scale twice, using two different kinds of string but both times the bucket did not drop or rise as it should have. Instead the kids had to manually move it in either direction.The good news is that they accurately predicted how the scale was supposed to behave even though it didn’t do what it was supposed to do. After a while they decided it was still a fun to fill, lift and dump the buckets so we gave up on trying to make it behave and just enjoyed it as it was. 

Later I consulted Mark and he said we needed to get a pulley system going in order for it to work as a proper scale. Yay! another fun project, my gym just got cooler. Perhaps the most important lesson learned today is that failure can lead to other cool discoveries so we should do it often.

Day Two: The Tippy Scale (like the technical name?)

Since our first experiment with building scales did not work out as I had hoped, we built this super cool tape - unit block - wooden stick scale. I had actually made two of them so the kids wouldn’t have to wait too long for a turn. Sam decided we needed to make one big scale so we could weigh bigger stuff and we did. Sam’s idea was brilliant because the boys ended up working together, rather than independently as I assumed they would. (The girls weren’t really into this one as much, they were off working with the gym instead.) They experimented with different objects on the tipping scale and discovered that the tiny tiles with grippy backs worked best. All of the other objects they set on the scale slid down and shot off the end the as soon as it tipped in the heaviest direction. The boys thought this was hysterical and shot many things off the end of the table. (Note to self: we must build a catapult.) The game became fetching and shooting things off the scale. We don’t have many pictures of this experiment because I was too busy dodging flying objects. Who knew math and physics could be fun?

Day Three: Chain Links

We experimented with attaching links to hanging toys. This was a great fine motor activity because the links are a little tricky for toddler fingers. In order to attach the links to things they had to position the open part of the chain at just the right angle to get it to stick. It was a great lesson in patience. They also had fun experimenting with size and angles by slipping different objects through the top slots and winding the chains around things. 

Day Four: Clips and Popsicle Sticks

My kids are addicted to clips! I wanted to keep it natural today so we went with popsicle sticks and clothes pins. Working with these open-ended materials is a great way to develop fine motor skills, creative thinking and attention to design as they reproduce everyday objects.This group built some really cool stuff. There were lots of letters, a squirter (A.K.A. a gun - gasp!), some air planes and a whole lot of barricades. Eventually their play evolved into a construction site complete with a “bad guy” construction worker and a whole lot of rescue heros. F.Y.I. he was a bad guy because he kept knocking everyone’s stuff down.

Overall I think our little IKEA gym is the best five bucks I’ve spent in a very long time.