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Posted by on in Early Childhood

As summer draws to a close and back-to-school bells ring, families enjoy the tail end of summer bliss. Popsicle sticks and lemonade stands. Kids everywhere making lemonade, at least I think so. 

 When I think of my childhood summers, such vivid memories of long days playing with neighbor kids, trips to Lake Michigan with my family, going fishing and planting pansies with my Dad. My Mom, Reading. Old movies. Scrabble and Crossword puzzles.

In order to get money for cherry cokes down at the corner and maybe save for new shoe skates, or even go horseback riding, we had a lot of lemonade stands. It was no big deal. It was a rite of passage, a part of summer like eating watermelon, chomping on sweet corn on the cob, picking berries. Long days reading books and going to the library. Taking the bus downtown, by ourselves.

Lemonade stands were most fun of all. We earned our own money and that was a very big deal.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

When my daughter was in second grade, in the ‘80s, the second-grade teachers started the morning with a piano, a teacher who played, and children sitting on the floor around, singing. The interactive song, The Cat Came Back, by Fred Penner, was much requested. Where are the routines that involve singing for the pure joy of it, now?

At the center in which I worked recently, “Singing Circle” was a non-negotiable part in the school routine. It came right before lunch. Children would call out, as lunch was being brought up from the kitchen, “Lunch is here!”, smelling the meatloaf and sweet potatoes. But keeping to the schedule, the teacher leading that day would say, “We have five minutes! Let’s sing another song”. Each teacher was able to plan her/his own ideas for singing circle, but children quickly found out who was leading each day and put in requests, which were usually put in the schedule. Aiken Drum, and Tooty-ta were popular. But so was Laurie Berkner’s The Story of My Feelings (usually sung along to the CD), and Puff the Magic Dragon! Singing sweetly, leaning on teachers, or sitting in laps, the children and teachers partook of one of the oldest traditions of humankind: Singing together as a community.

There are centers that use YouTube videos, and other recorded music, for their programs. "Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes" is a staple, along with "Going on a Bear Hunt.: But where is the individualized, personal song sharing? Who sings to children so that, eventually, they will learn the song and join in? The more nuanced, slightly more difficult songs get short shrift because teachers fear the children will not “get” them, or that they themselves will look bad. Searching your heart for those songs that move you, or excite you, may be where you will find a gem that children look forward to singing.

The songs you choose needn’t be educational (not that I’m against that). I knew a teacher who asked her threes to lay down while she dimmed the lights and sang Peter, Paul and Mary’s “Leaving on a Jet Plane”, right before they went home! These threes learned every word of the lyrics, and sang along. Another teacher sang old American folk songs, finding the lyrics from internet searches, such as Tingalayo (without the cute YouTube video!), Old Susanna, This Land is Your Land, and Bought me a Cat. Often using a drum for attention getting, I did scat with the children, introducing it to them with Scat Like That (are you in for a treat, if you teach them to scat), sang the Abiyoyo song while I recited the story, and loved to do Girl and Boy Scout songs (‘My Mom, she gave me a penny, and Oh, I wish I were a little round orange). A teacher, who happened to be African-American, brought delightful game/songs to our somewhat Lilly-white school, such as Little Johnny Brown. Her instrument? A tambourine!

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

I typically do most of my shopping at a discount grocery chain downtown and then stop at my neighborhood store for the few items they don’t carry. This practice is rewarding for two reasons. First, I usually save quite a bit on groceries and second, I’ve found it interesting to observe the food choices made by a variety of families. We always hear about food deserts and unavailability or the high expense of healthy food choices, which inevitably affect the growth and development of young children. My informal research has definitely been eye-opening.

I wondered if today was any different from a few decades ago, when we were a young family living in Chicago with limited resources. My husband was finishing grad school. We were both working part time and had three small children. We had a tight budget, to say the least. I remember a friend and I trading ideas for dividing a small beef roast or pound of ground beef to make several meals. I only had so much money to spend on my weekly grocery trip, but my first stop was always for fresh produce, dairy, and meat. I rarely bought canned goods and never any soda, candy, or snacks. I baked, gardened, froze, and preserved. My children learned to do these things, because we did them together.

dad cook

Yesterday, as I waited to check out at the discount store, I noticed the family in front of me. Both mom and dad were obese and probably not older than 24 or 25. The two young preschool children in the cart seat were well on their way to following that path. They were munching on an opened bag of double-stuffed, generic sandwich cookies and shared a can of red soda.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

Many years ago, teaching pre-k students about stories, and story structure, it occurred to me that since my students sang their made-up songs in dramatic play, I should share the grown-up version of stories that are sung. That is how teaching opera to young children was born in our classroom. The opera by Englebert Humerdinck, Hansel and Gretel, was one I’d sung in the past. It is usually performed during the holidays, ostensibly for children (though I defy any adult to fall asleep while watching it). The story itself is problematic for early childhood classrooms. A mother/step-mother who wants her children to die so that the couple has enough to eat? A witch who turns children into cookies? The original tale is a typical Brothers Grimm tale, based on many word-of-mouth versions going back to a famine in fourteenth century Germany. To our modern sensibilities, it is a terrifying story. The wonderful James Marshall’s comic version is one children enjoy, but at the end, the step-mother is still dead. Reading this version to children one year, a boy pronounced this turn of events, “Good!” (Good riddance to a bad mommy?). Older school-age children will enjoy comparing all of the versions, but for preschool, Beni Montresor’s version is best. And it is identical to the opera libretto.

Here is a very brief synopsis: A poor mother sends her children out to pick wild strawberries because of their need for food. The children get lost and sleep in the forest, protected by the friendly animals (children in costume), and angels. Here is the scene in the opera which will illicit conversation about feelings of sadness, loss, and how we sometimes need a good sleep to overcome these feelings. Hansel and Gretel find the witch’s delicious house, and meet the old, seemingly friendly woman who owns it. The story proceeds from there as it usually does.

The witch’s character is usually played for comedy, sometimes in even in drag, softening the horror of a witch who eats gingerbread children. After Gretel pushes the witch into her own oven, the other children that were liberated from witch enchanted cookie forms (played by the Met Children’s Chorus in my recommended DVD), and Hansel and Gretel, celebrate, singing and dancing with gusto. The mother and father sing themselves in from the wings, and they joyously reunite with Hansel and Gretel. There couldn’t be a more satisfying ending, provided you don’t mind the children’s chorus ripping the witch/cookie apart and pretending to eat her. Our children loved this part! The storybook and opera prepare children for the themes of overcoming hardship with ingenuity, and the ultimate triumph of love over adversity.

I have always shown the DVD (VHS years ago) in twenty minute installments, making sure to pause and discuss what is happening, and listening to comments and questions. Children have amazing observations to express and discuss.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

If I were to believe my early childhood students, singing with children is passe. Being a small sample (this class has thirty students), perhaps I am being overly harsh. But then again, prior classes had also moved into the dizzying array of YouTube videos for preschoolers. Blingy, fast-moving, cartoonish music videos have become the go-to resource for finding music and movement activities for young children. These have supplanted the older, Fred Rogers, style of meeting children where they are, to my profound regret. In my infants and toddlers course, despite my admonitions to the contrary, teachers use videos of people dressed as gummy bears dancing routines I myself would have to practice before doing, and I used to sing and dance in front of audiences. Up-tempo renditions of favorite children’s songs frustrate young children’s attempts to comply with the teacher’s request to “do what they do on the video”. Students say that their activities allow children to have fun and do their best, but their best means just trying to keep up. And those costumed creatures in the video aren’t going to slow down for them.

What’s the fuss, you may ask. YouTube is colorful, fun, and entertaining. Ah, here’s the rub. Music activities for young children are not just for passive entertainment. They are for forging group identity, cultural awareness, and  learning to be with others in a common purpose. In movement, teachers can assess motor issues, and learn what they students enjoy doing. Plus, a music and movement activity allows teachers to bond with children. If teachers have difficulty doing a move, the group laughs, teacher included. How much more warm and inviting this is! Relationships being the center of a great early childhood program, children can connect with adults in community and care.

I do not shun CD’s of such notables as Laurie Berkner, Raffi, or Hap Palmer. I highly recommend them, and have used them often. There are no distracting, over-stimulating visuals. Both teachers and children delight in finding new songs to “do”. My students have brought CD’s into class to dance to. I remember a little guy (now in middle school) sneaking his mom’s Persian music CD into class and asking us to dance with him! Children routinely ask for old favorites (Bear Hunt, anyone?). But CD’s can’t take the place of real singing. I’ve done Raffi’s Something in my Shoe for years, but I memorized it and never did it with the CD. It is too fast. Singing and moving a cappella allows teachers to stop, if necessary, and give support to children. YouTube videos do not stop for anyone.

You can do it! Find songs you like and share them with your students. Let your authentic enthusiasm spark their imaginations. Allow spontaneous and hilarious additions from the peanut gallery! That enthusiasm, and the interactions it allows, is so much more valuable to children than a bunch of dancing gummy bears. Give yourself and your students the gift of real, live musical experiences.

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