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.   

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Focus Pocus, Make Magic Happen!

 We’ve been having many conversations in daycare land about how to help the children develop focus and self control. Parents want to know: Are toddlers / preschoolers even capable of self control? How do focus and self control pertain to learning? and What can we do to support our children in these areas?  

According to independent studies conducted by Adele Diamond in the book Mind in the Making, focus and self control are more important than I.Q. in terms of long term success. While IQ is a measurement of crystallized information, focus and self control represent a child’s potential for learning. 

Just to clarify: 
Focus is the ability to pay attention to details so that deep and wide learning can take place.
Self control is the ability to calm down after encountering a stressful situations. It’s the ability to delay gratification in favor of reaching a goal and the ability approach problems in a relaxed state. Self control also enables a child to work with peers at sharing and gathering information through play.

Think of the pair as a turbo charged injection for your child’s intellectual capacity. There are all sorts of other nerdy neuroscientific ways that focus and self control effect the way the brain wires itself but we will save those tidbits for another day.   

At the outset, teaching a child to develop focus and self control may seem like a monumental undertaking; especially when the person in question is under the age of three. However once we get to the very heart of the matter, teaching a child to focus is simply teaching her to be present and observant. 

Teaching a child self control means being clear about our expectations for behavior and focusing on the desired outcome rather than a negative behavior. It also means walking the child through the process of self soothing when stressful situations occur.

In my opinion everyone learns best through direct experience so focus and self control are taught through our everyday experiences with each other and our environment. Some of the ways we accomplish those goals are as follows:

Clean up time - I have each child focus on one kind of material such as blocks or books so that they can easily do their “job” by paying attention to that one group of items. This helps them learn to scan the room for the one thing they are responsible for rather than getting overwhelmed or distracted by the visual clutter. 
Choosing one object for the child to be responsible for makes it easy for them to independently self correct and assess their level of success in completing the task. If there are no books on the floor you are finished - simple as that. 
When a child gets off task by playing with other toys  or chatting with friends, I say “Remember, you are looking for books.” If needed I will physically lead him to a book to and place it in their hand to keep them focused. If everyone else has finished with their job and one child has not finished, the group will move on to something fun and they will stay at the task until it is finished.

Outdoor time - practicing walking in a group, the children have to focus on where peers are in order to have the freedom to walk in a group. The children also practice a lot of auditory processing skills such as: “stand near the middle”, “go to the left side”, “move forward” Hearing these phrases over and over again teaches the children to focus on what they are hearing, pay attention to where peers and to get themselves where they need to be. If they do not self correct after 3 warnings, they walk with me for a while so they can focus on traveling in a group without having to also think about where they are in relation.

Teaching Communication Skills: In teaching both focus and self control it’s important to bring the child’s attention to the nonverbal parts of language such as eye contact, body language and vocal tones. Many of our children are at different levels in their ability to communicate so I help them bridge the gaps in communication by asking questions or make comments. My goal is to encourage them to think about what they see so they can adjust their behavior accordingly. 

An example might be saying: “I see Carmen is frowning, grunting and walking away from you while you grab her body, I don’t think she likes what you are doing.” 

Usually that is enough for the aggressor to self correct.

I also say “Eyes on me while I’m talking.” or “Answer me please, so I know you heard my words” Children in this age group may become easily distracted by other activities in the room, having a verbal prompt to redirect their attention to my face helps them remember that they were listening to me. 

Use simple directives: I use key phrases that prompt specific behaviors and narrow their thinking so their circuits don’t get frazzled when trying to solve problems. Some examples are: “Gentle hands” (when they hit) “walk away” (when they are invading space or snatching toys) 

It’s important to use a positive directive that conveys your expectation such as “Hands on the stroller”, instead of “Don’t run away!”. Words send powerful messages to children, in both cases, when you say “Hands on the stroller” or “Don’t run away!” you are setting your expectation for behavior, the question is which behavior do you want your child to engage in? 

Environmental cues: using areas for a specific purpose is a great way to help children remember what they are supposed to be doing in that space. Some examples in our room are: putting pants on at the laundry room door before going off to play, lining up with our backs against the wall, putting our shoes on while sitting on the tile floor. Using designated areas for activities helps cut down on power struggles drastically because there is always the same expectation for a specific behavior in that space. The current of our daily routine and the space the children are physically in helps them to focus on the task at hand rather than leaving them feeling that things are unpredictable.

Flexible Story Times / Group Discussions: Our large group discussions and story times usually take place during meal times so that children have something to manipulate while I am talking. Studies show that when children have objects to manipulate or chew on, they are much better at processing, storing and retrieving  information. Contrary to popular belief, processing information in combination with movement builds stronger connections in the brain than sitting still.

I also believe that outside of mealtimes, children should be allowed to move in and out of story time as they see fit; my theory is that if the story teller is dynamic enough in her delivery they will pay attention. If the children are not focused I would rather they find something interesting to do with their time instead of poking friends and distracting the children who do want to listen.  

In the end, focus and self control are key players in shaping the way a child’s brain makes physical connections within itself. They also facilitate emotional connections that link the child to a vast store of knowledge through peer interactions. Those connections enable children to be more effective learners and to experience the kind of success that catapults them into the arena of self directed learning.