Friday, October 29, 2010

My grandma and your grandma?

I meet many preschoolers these days, seeing some for just a morning, perhaps not crossing paths again. It has surprised me how many delightful connections I am making, even though I may not be spending all that much time with them. I wonder, too, how important are these small interludes, in the life of a child? Let me share a vignette from one recent day, a four year old boy I met for the very first time....

I'm on his playground, standing, watching.
"Hey, you and I will play together. You will be my friend. You go behind that tree, steal something, and I will come get you."
"You want me to do what?" I ask incredulously, confused.
"Find something - you know, pretend!" he explains, somewhat amused at my ignorance.
"Oh, like this?" I ask, picking up a small twig.
"Yes, now, run and hide!"
And I take off, somewhat gingerly, towards the tree. He is delighted, and follows me, and we are playing some sort of cat and mouse game that I don't fully understand. A moment or two later, the children are lining up to go back inside, and the game ends without explanation.

Inside, it is meeting time, and I sit down on the carpet with the children. Much to my surprise I am sitting next to this new friend. I say something light and humorous to the teacher in response to something she has said; my new friend, as if on cue, gives me an affectionate punch on the arm and laughs along with me. It is such an unexpectedly "grown-up playful" interaction, kinda jokey, kinda goofy, much like my friend Dale was want to do in college. I look at him surprised, smiling.

Three interactions are the charm -

He later decides to play with K'nex. I guess he doesn't have the fine-motor skills for connecting these things, because he comes and finds me in the classroom, takes me by the hand, and says,
"You are going to make me a monster truck."
"I am?," I laughed, surprised, and quickly add, "I'm happy to help you make one."
I sit near him, sorting wheels and "axles." I soon see that my new friend isn't building, but just sitting alongside me. He takes two Knex rods and begins beating the side of the bin and singing an old folksong, in perfect rhythm with his drum beats,

"My grandma and your grandma, sittin' by a fire; my grandma and your grandma, sittin' by the fire..."

I am intrigued by this little fellow.

No fear or concerns about strangers. Comfortable with adults. Self-confident and sure of himself. Imaginative, playful, and creative. Showing me what friendship looks like in its purest state.

I dream of a world where all children can trust that adults will treat them with kindness...where children can expect adults to play joyfully with them...where even little moments together are valued....

Want to hear the song?

Thursday, October 21, 2010

You teach engineering to preschoolers?

Feeling upbeat and energized from teacher training...I presented my workshop on "Engineering with Recyclables" to an appreciative, engaged group of preschool teachers. We were kindred spirits about providing children open-ended, exploratory experiences - opportunities to work on something that had no pre-ordained solution. Just looking, just thinking, just seeing, just exploring. It doesn't get more affordable than recyclables and discards!

Monday, October 11, 2010

One exploratory morning...

This year, I visit different early childhood classrooms almost every day. This past Friday, I had the thrill of being present as a group of 3-5 year olds explored "birds," and I thought I should share it with you. It exemplifies my favorite kind of teaching, wherein the teacher intentionally sets up some exploratory fun and then steps back and watches the children work with it.

The teacher set up three different activities on individual tables...but it's this one here that I love:

A tray had a variety of bird-like foods - birdseed, water, popcorn, raisins. There were several tools to imagine as styles of "beaks" - drinking straw, tongs, tweezers, clothespin, and spoon. The children were asked to think about what it is like to have a beak, to use that beak to gather food. There was even a timer on the table, for the children to imagine what it must be like to have to move quickly to get one's food, before a predator came on the scene.

As the children worked, the teacher asked them thinking questions, which beak works best for our foods here? Why might beaks be different shapes? What kinds of things do birds eat? Do all birds eat the same thing? She pointed out that different shape beaks allow birds to catch different types of foods - worms, bugs, seeds, other. The children learned this by doing.

The children worked diligently, exploring all the different beaks, calling out additional questions to the teacher and one another, "thinking" out loud. Many minutes went by, some 45 total; one little girl never left this table center. It was time for snack and she said to me, "But, but! I never went over there!" (and pointed to another table activity).

This is the power of hands-on exploration. This is what engaged learning looks like.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Should I worry about routines?

At the beginning of each school year, preschool teachers spend a lot of time teaching children basic rules and routines. By and large, children fall in step, readily learning to follow the procedures and often anticipating and enjoying all the different parts of a school day. However, it's never 100% that way! Usually, there are one or two children who stand out, who distinguish themselves by reacting in unexpected ways to your routines - perhaps they shriek when you ring a chime, perhaps they refuse to stop playing with their toys and join the class at transition times, perhaps they seem to completely ignore you during certain lessons - laughing and carrying on conversations with others (or even talking to themselves!), hanging out on another side of the room, doing other things (often other LOUD things!). Ahhh! The hidden pleasures of teaching at the preschool level!

Yes, this, too, you must juggle.

This is a great example of why it is essential that you have great communication with parents and caregivers. You need to talk up the importance of expecting children to follow routines at home. Honestly, there are so many reasons why children may not have regular schedules and routines at home - very few of which have to do with "negligent parenting." Each family is unique.

Your little "rule-breaker" :-) may be a first-born, with parents who simply don't know about the value of limits and routines. Perhaps he/she is the youngest child in a busy, harried home. For other families, it doesn't dawn on them to expect their young ones to follow routines, why is this necessary at age 2, 3, 4 - I mean, these are "pre" school years, right? Can't that wait until real school? (In fact, routines are great for all ages - newborns on up, and are a real advantage in later academic success.) Remember, too, that preschoolers are very egocentric - it has never been about you and your routines, it is all about me! Developmentally, your renegade may be simply lost in himself.

Believe it or not, you are probably already teaching children that have basically no schedule, routine, or limits at home - but these children come to your class and bask in the routine, they are comforted and nourished by this, they see how it makes them feel safe.

The child who demands your attention is the one who isn't automatically comforted or nourished - he/she will need your help. This child just can’t "get it" or comprehend it...the child is almost oblivious to it because it is so foreign.

So, you must personalize your teaching. You must hone in on the different learner and fine-tune your teaching to meet these needs. Consider first if you are teaching clear routines:

Do you have visuals of your routines? (Clear signs designating the day's schedule, the various centers of your room, markings on the floor for where you line up, labels on your bins so that the child knows how to put things away.)
Do you have a variety of auditory cues? (Special music used day in, day out to signify welcome greeting, circle/meeting time, clean up, lunchtime, nap time, goodbye; chimes, bells, drums, chants to prompt "listening ears.")
Are you following the same pattern each day, so that children can predict what comes next?

To engage the family on this mission - and to open up avenues for communication - you might even give small homework assignments about routines, for example - what are the last 3 things to you do before bedtime? what are the first 3 things you do in the morning?

There are times when something "more" seems to be going on. This, too, is an important part of your job as preschool teacher - to distinguish between something being not just new and unlearned by a child, but extremely difficult to learn. As preschool teacher, you wear many hats - and one of these is the "observer-detective," watching the way children behave and trying to figure out whether there are any patterns in this behavior. Once, after a difficult but assertive conversation with a family, I gave the parents several cardboard STOP signs and asked them to find things in their house that merited a stop sign: i.e., something that the child was not allowed to touch/open/go into – refrigerator; door of parent’s bedroom. This family, who had up until then just taken their little one's challenges in stride (he was so easy-going and pleasant as a personality!), ended up being very surprised that he would not/could not "follow the rules" even in this playful way. It ended up being a huge indicator that some other processing issues were going on.

As a preschool teacher, it is never your job to diagnose a child, but you do have the very important position of being an objective voice of concern and insight. Unlike families, you have the experience of observing many, many children and their behaviors - you can offer perspective.

And that brings us to another great book: Is it a Big Problem or a Little Problem? by Amy Egan, Amy Freedman, Judi Greenberg, and Sharon Anderson from the Ivymount School, a private school for students with disabilities. As the book asks, "Differences in children's learning styles, temperaments, and personalities are a given, but when should those differences raise a red flag?" This is an excellent book to share with families, as they share their worries with you.