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Posted by on in Early Childhood

To me, integrating the arts in education, using the arts as a vehicle for learning, is one of the most important educational goals for our time. The arts demonstrate, on one hand, the shared experience of humanity, and, on the other hand, the intricate, subtle traditions and arts human beings use to express their experiences. The arts will never be frills, except to those who have blinded themselves to the richness and variety of human life. Teaching through the arts means challenging children to use their learning in a creative context. It is more than asking them to glue goldfish they have colored onto a piece of paper to demonstrate the number five. I am embarrassed to admit that at one time I used to do this type of activity. I have since learned otherwise.

My arts expertise is in music, having spent many grueling hours in theory class. Usually, preschool has music/movement pull-outs. Either the music teacher comes in and gives a “lesson”, usually singing children’s songs; sometimes using children’s instruments. Or, in tonier settings, the children troop to the music room for a lesson. I was a teacher in both types of settings. Nothing is intrinsically wrong with these, except for those programs where only children whose parents pay extra get music class (I kid you not!). Children enjoy these opportunities, and get a taste of making music. Always a good thing! But if this is all that is offered in a program, everyone is missing out. Here is the definition of arts integration by the Kennedy Center’s CETA program, Changing Education through the Arts.

Take a close look at this language! “…students construct and demonstrate UNDERSTANDING through an art form. Students engage in a CREATIVE PROCESS which CONNECTS an art form and another subject area and meets EVOLVING OBJECTIVES in both.” I love the phrase EVOLVING OBJECTIVES. Nothing is static in the real world. People everywhere know this. Children and teachers need to be involved in passionate work that progresses and evolves. As a friend says, change is the only constant in life. Objectives may need to be met, but they don’t have to be the stopping point.

While working with brilliant young children (they are brilliant, you know), I would supply instruments to explore. I noticed that the children tried every way possible to make sound and silence with an instrument, say, a drum. Thoughtfully rotating a drum to explore its many surfaces, a child might try beating the side, the top, and even inside the drum to make different sounds. I would ask how the sounds were the same or different. How can you change the sound? Describe the sounds involved. With a small group of young children, there will be a lively debate! Oral language integrated! Make instruments available on a regular basis. Find those that reflect different traditions. Be available for support, and children will maintain interest. What matters is that a child is learning to think, to develop hypotheses, and to test those hypotheses.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

To older people, time seems to fly by, when to young children time seems infinite. Young children obtain and process images more quickly than elders. They experience less of their reality, because it is a longer road between synapses. I can, unfortunately, relate.

From the psychological perspective (disclaimer: I am not a psychologist, I am an Early Childhood Educator), I believe there is more to this. I remember when time seemed endless, when the sensory experience of the clear, shining the sun, the taste of a ripe peach, the smell of fresh-cut grass, even the feeling of a rough towel drying my small body, were all vivid and fresh in the moment. I also recall the sudden end to this bliss. It was the middle of the summer before second grade when I realized, very soon, that my summer idyll would be abruptly ended, and I would be taking quizzes, memorizing poems, and adding stacks of numbers on those hated worksheets. Following directions, negotiating relationships, and getting in trouble for writing messy papers (I got that often) were my daily bread in grade school. Mental freedom was a thing of the past.

Today, “school” starts at three years! I didn’t learn to read until I was six. My 3½-year-old grandson laments that he can’t read yet! Do children in most standard child care programs know the freedom of mind I experienced in early childhood? Or are their schedules awash in activities influenced by peers or parents, with little time to breathe? This a recipe for hurry-sickness.  

To cultivate in the minds of early childhood college students the concept that children need safe spaces to create and collaborate, I assign them to view interviews of several children’s authors who discuss their early childhood arts experiences, and how these experiences inspired their future profession. Lois Ehlert, the esteemed children’s author/illustrator, tells the story of how, as a child, she was frustrated by not being able to finish an art project because she would need to clean up after a session with her materials. Cleaning up was a guarentee that she would lose track of her process and have to start over. Her parents, responding to her need for a dedicated space for her art, gave her a table (I always imagine a card table), saying she could leave her art table in any condition she wanted! Imagine such creative freedom! A safe space, both physically and mentally, gave her the impetus she needed to become herself. Similarly, good centers and schools give children a space for “work in progress,” with the understanding that they would could discern for themselves when they were finished. Finding such a space is possible, if you are committed. In every center I worked, we found somewhere for children to keep their "work in progress." 

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

In my work, as in the work of many people, I imagine, there are themes that come up again and again. Sometimes I get asked a question and I can point to a blog post I wrote or an article I read months or years earlier that touches on the same subject. Little kids have some very consistent interests; it’s why certain toys remain popular for generations. Building toys are one of those evergreen entertainments; kids can play with Lego or magnet-tiles forever, it seems.

IMG_9343

In general, my attitude towards the “problem” of repetitive play has been to encourage educators to look more closely at children’s play, to observe with a curious eye and to wonder about what they might be missing. In short, my approach has been to push back against our perception that there IS a problem at all. Often, when children return again and again to the same materials, they’re trying to figure something out and it’s our job to value what they’re doing enough to discover and support the intentionality of their play.

However, there are some times when repetitive play really is something to be concerned about and it’s worth spending some time thinking about how we might structure the environment and our interactions with children to support expanding their repertoire of play behaviour.

Recently, I was working with a teacher who was distressed by the repetitive play she was observing in her classroom. A group of boys consistently chose to visit the Lego centre and exclusively created spinning toys that they then “battled” against each other to see which one could withstand colliding with the other spinners. They resisted choosing any other material or building any other type of structure. It had been months of repeating the same play behaviour and they were unfazed. The teacher had tried her best to extend the play towards an investigation into rotation, more broadly, but they were unmoved. The Beyblades continued to duke it out.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

angry teacher2

I taught preschool for thirty years, in a half-time preschool, full-day preschool, and full-time child care. If anyone understands this difficult but rewarding job, I do. Every year there were “good” children—no-stress children who listened, did what they were asked, and had a network of friends—and “bad” children—highly stressed and stressing children who got attention in the worst way. Yelling out of turn, throwing anything at hand, even hitting and kicking were ways a “bad” child got attention. If the teacher ignored them, they would ramp up their efforts, like a pitcher using his “slider” to get a batter OUT! You know this child?

There is much that teachers are still doing that make behavior worse. That much is clear. Do you still say, “Sit there and think about what you have done?” Do you give long-winded explanations to a barely verbal chld about why you are having that child closed from an activity (one source calls these commercials)? Do you complain to parents because you feel that they should be better at their job? Do these strategies work for you? If you feel like every day you are, like Sisyphus, pushing that boulder up the mountain, then stop. There are no “bad” or “good” kids. But when you are at the bottom of the mountain again, you start feeling that it’s true.

How do you cope? Don’t immediately think ADHD. That is where teachers, parents and others seem to land. The mother of a girl in my group asked me, after one conference, if her daughter had ADHD. The mom was surprised to hear me say that ADHD should be the last thing we would look at. A study recently came out explaining that children just about to enter kindergarten are increasingly diagnosed as having ADHD. This diagnosis and its subsequent medication happen 34% more often if they have August birthdays, these in states where the kindergarten cut-off date is September. The authors of the study believe that this is due to developmental issues, not medical ones. How obvious to me, to you. Children a year younger will be less attentive, more wiggly than those a year older. Why should they not be? Diagnosing and medicating them without looking at the bigger picture is medical malpractice.

Resources for you, as an Early Childhood Practitioner, are actually numerous. Social/emotional development (“social skills,” we used to say) are the hot topic even in state learning standards. One resource is the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning (CSEFEL). There you will find tools for teaching social/emotional skills, and ideas for creating visual prompts that facilitate a child’s understanding of rules and routines.  You can read about the Pyramid Model, which is an educator’s visual for understanding that social/emotional learning is supported by layers of guidance, not by one-size-fits-all rules. You can read through the NAEYC Standards for Professional Preparation, which emphasize understanding child development, and find a training program that helps you to learn about this topic.

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Posted by on in Early Childhood

Recently I wrote about the uphill battle of advocating for children – especially around the topic of play. But, as you know, our battles these days concern not just play, but also developmentally appropriate practice in general! Sad but true.

This hit home recently, when I was conducting my third professional development training for a Virginia school district. In the middle of one of my (fabulous, I’m certain!) points, one young woman raised her hand and asked, “Why are you here?” As you can imagine, this was not exactly the kind of question I was expecting.

My confusion was obvious, so she expounded. “You come here and share all of these ideas of things we should be doing with the kids,” she said, “but what good is it if the county isn’t going to let us do them?”

Wow.

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