Friday, October 20, 2017

A Peek Inside Our Playroom: Revamping the Art Center

 If you've followed my series on playroom setup, you know that I do a lot of rotation and toy swapping in general here. In part, this is because we live in a small space and do not have room to have everything out at once. In part I also do this to keep things fresh and interesting to my kids while cutting down on clutter. I rotate materials based on season, theme and interest. More recently, I have included S in the process of choosing toys to have out and toys to put away for later when I do a rotation. This helps eliminate some of his feelings of disorientation when things change and also encourages his sense of autonomy. I make shifts when themes, seasons or holidays come up, but sometimes I will also make a change when things seem to get a bit stale.

Since S has started preschool, his interest in our Art Center has really decreased. I am not a "project pusher" and aside from providing opportunity, I don't have a specific agenda with our play areas. However, I did wonder if, in part, his lack of interest in our Art Center had to do with what was on the shelf more than simply being a factor of already having done activities related to art and writing in school each morning. Having a lot of holidays in the last month also meant that this area was closed off for a good portion of each week. Out of sight, out of mind. After the holidays ended, I decided to do a strategic revamp of our Art Center. This time, rather than adding more items in, I actually took a lot of things out. Less is so very often more when it comes to drawing in the interest of young children. Sure enough, S was back at it the very next day, exploring a tray of collage materials in shades of red, yellow and orange.
I loaded up a tray with ribbon, tissue paper, scraps of shiny paper, artificial Fall leaves and dot stickers in shades of red, yellow, and their combined form, orange! A glue stick and some white glue provided all the luring S needed before selecting a piece of white paper from the bottom shelf to make his own collage.

He created and dictated a collage story of a train (made from shiny paper shapes) that was carrying leaves up a train track.

 From the first time I introduced our Art Center, I have always had bins of markers, crayons and colored pencils accessible at all times. When S's interest seemed to decrease in all of these items, I wondered if there were "too many options" out and what would happen if I isolated a couple of colors at a time. In his school, S focuses on learning one color each month. While he now knows all of his colors now, many children struggle with learning colors. One reason for this is that colors are rarely isolated in our environment and there are also many shades of a color that fall under the same name. Rather than providing crayons, markers and colored pencils in all of the colors, I selected a variety of mediums in red and yellow, the first two colors focused on in S's classroom.
Additionally, children are often taught about primary colors mixing into secondary colors, but not always given the opportunity to explore this, hands-on. Providing individual mediums in primary colors invites the process of color mixing to occur naturally at the hands of young, curious artists.

A tray of paper and shapes in shades of orange, our target secondary color, along with some scissors invite S to explore one of his favorite activities, cutting practice! He can use his scraps for collage or focus instead on just practicing the act of cutting and cleaning up the tiny results. I find it helpful to include a tray or small container for collecting tiny scraps and it's always useful to have a dustpan and brush nearby for independent cleanup. 

In lieu of our Writing Center bin with a variety of materials to encourage pre-writing and writing, I set out one clipboard with a notepad and one jar of pencils and pens. This is handy when you need to quickly jot down a dictated note, list or practice some lines and shapes that will surely yield letters and words before we know it!
A tray of black paper and white chalk and crayons encourage the exploration of light on dark, an extension
of our Bereishis play theme.

S and Y loved the basket of books about colors! Adding literature in unlikely places is my favorite way to encourage reading to happen all around the house. Indeed, S went right away and made a bee line for this basket! It can also be fun to include a piece of art that is particularly interesting, post cards, books about art or artists or something from nature...

As an extension on our upcoming theme of rainbows in parshas Noach, I set out a tray of art materials in rainbow colors and some watercolor paints, a brush, and a jar for filling with water to use as S explores the colors of the rainbow and mixing colors together. Art mats, a smock and white paper are provided as always so that any of the materials can be used independently as the inspiration strikes.
We are having renewed fun with our Art Center now. It is so refreshing to remember that loss of interest does not always mean there is not enough to do--it is often a sign of sensory overload and this time, for sure, less is definitely more!
Happy Playing!

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Days of Creation Play Stations: Day 1 Dark & Light

S is early in the stages of understanding how to
play the game of Dominoes, but this family
heirloom set of Bereishis dominoes is a great
starting point! He loves making a "train" of
matching pictures and "reading the directions."
The first parsha read in the Torah each year is, arguably, one of the most important. Parshas Bereishis chronicles the events of Creation, day by day, as well as the stoPry of Adam and Chava. And although this is one of the most significant parshios of the year, it occurs in our annual rotation right on the heels of a huge holiday season. As a teacher in Jewish classrooms, I grappled with whether to teach this parsha "in time" and rush through the opportunities for learning and play so we can make it to the next several and equally significant parshios, or whether to extend the lesson beyond its week in the limelight. There are benefits to both ways. It is nice when children can learn the Torah portion of the week as it comes up. Particularly in homes where children go to synagogue on Shabbos or discuss the parsha at the Shabbos table, even preschool aged children like to feel a part of the action! There are benefits as well to having the time to explore in depth these early parshios, particularly through the lens of hands on exploration and play based learning. The best part of either route you choose is that the cycle repeats itself again and again. In other words--there's always next year, G-d willing!

Revisiting some of our favorite learning materials from last year is a fun way to play and learn together!

This year, S is learning about the first two parshios in school, Parshas Bereishis (the story of Creation), and Parshas Noach (the story of Noah and the ark). We explored these parshios in depth at home last year, as well. You can check out our Bereishis activities and Noach activities from last year if you wish. This year, we are enjoying a more relaxed flow of play-based activities in the afternoons. S has already had a morning of more structured learning and projects, which he loves and a more child-led approach in the afternoons really works for us right now. In addition, Y is able on his own level to join in our play adventures. I decided to extend our time exploring the theme of Parshas Bereishis into seven afternoon play stations to visit each day of Creation through sensory exploration, family field trips, themed snacks, process art and dramatic play.

Here's a peek at our first day of Creation Play Stations: Day 1, Dark & Light

While the boys were napping, I gathered a white pillowcase to attach to our puppet theater, a selection of flashlights/small lights and LED decorative lights, and transformed our play area into an exploration of darkness, light and shadows...

Some lights strung over our play tunnel added a whole new element of wonder to this already beloved gross motor activity!

Y got a kick (or enjoyed kicking) some lights strung above his activity mat. Adult supervision is definitely required when allowing very little ones to play with items that contain batteries and cords!

What's more fun than crawling through a tunnel? Crawling through a tunnel that lights up in a dark room and chasing after a light up ball!

S was both fascinated and bewildered by the shadow puppet station. He kept looking behind the curtain of the puppet theater where the action usually takes place, but was confused as to why the shadows weren't there! We observed together how the shadows are formed in front of the light by the objects placed in front of the white curtain. He brought in a variety of other objects to try besides the animals I had set out. We tried our hands (literally) at some shadow puppets as well. Much of the fun was just in playing with flashlights on their own!

Y LOVED the light up ball! I have found these on and off at our local Dollar Tree and they are always popular!

Adding in some of our translucent magnetiles to the mix gave way to some especially colorful shadows and fantastic buildings. This was a great way to introduce some STEM and building activities into the mix.

S has had little interest at home in doing "art projects." He does amazing art activities at school and at home I try to introduce more opportunities for process art (which he also does in school). Both brothers are participating in our Days of Creation Process Art Book. Day 1 was an invitation to explore white chalk and crayons on black paper. 

S was not interested in this station at all until Y and I sat down. He Loves showing Y how to do things!

We had a surprise themed dessert of "Dark & Light" pudding (chocolate and vanilla pudding). This is a great early cooking activity that toddlers and preschoolers can help with in the kitchen and although I made it in advance because we were short on time, S was so happy that he thanked me repeatedly without being prompted and told me it's his "favorite!" Alternatively you could make/buy black and white cookies, have hot cocoa with marshmallows or even chocolate sandwich cookies with white cream filling...very healthy, I know! Maybe pumpernickel and white bread??

We are having so much fun exploring the days of Creation through play that I am already excited for our second day! We will certainly be back soon and until then, happy playing!

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

An Autumn Afternoon Story Stretcher

With the busy holiday season just behind us, we were all in need of some fresh air and afternoon fun here. Our southern heat has given way to some cooler and crisper days and some gorgeous Autumn foliage! The last of the big Jewish holidays is Simchat Torah, the day on which we celebrate every preschool parent's and teacher's worst nightmare dream come true: a child's request to "read it again!" We complete our yearly cycle of reading the Torah, roll it on up, and begin again, with one of the most important parshiot, Bereishit, the story of Creation.  Because of the timing of this Torah portion falls directly on the heels of a huge holiday season, it is often a struggle to "fit in" learning about it in Jewish homes and classrooms. I tinker each year with whether to rush through it, knowing full well that we will read it again (and again and again, G-d willing), or to extend it beyond its space in the yearly rotation just as more very important parshiot are rolling on by (like the story of Noach). This year S is learning a great deal about the parsha in school. At home I have decided to slow the pace down and introduce some play themed afternoons for each of the days of Creation even beyond this week--there is great benefit in repetition!

And speaking of repetition, this week's story stretcher was a rerun from last Autumn. Lois Ehlert is a favorite author and illustrator of mine and we all loved her book Leaf Man so much last year that I decided to pack it up along with some Autumn themed fun for a story stretcher on the go! We picked a favorite local park and packed up our target story along with some other easily transportable materials and activities:

  • a basket for collecting colorful leaves, acorns and nuts, pine cones and whatever else your little ones may wish to collect--do make sure that removing natural materials is permissible at your park location. If not, it can be a great opportunity to practice leaving items from nature in nature when you are done!
  • masking tape for making Fall leaf bracelets
  • a clipboard for transporting a work surface
  • white paper & broken, peeled crayons in Autumn colors for leaf or tree bark rubbings
  • a sheet of clear contact paper for collecting colorful leaves
  • a large recycled brown bag for easy transport and collection of items that may be too large for your basket!
S is just about always game for a story being read, but if and when he's not, a change in location or routine is the perfect way to sneak in reading together. He loved reading at the park while enjoying a snack! 

One of the easiest and most transportable take-along materials for outdoor exploration and nature walks in all seasons is a roll of masking tape! Simply wrap a strip around your children's wrist (and your own!) with the sticky side out. In the Fall, small, colorful leaves make a lovely bracelet. Spring and Summer wildflowers look beautiful as well!

Last year we made and laminated our own Leaf Man. He came along with us for an afternoon of play and story stretcher fun and to be re-united with some of his closest friends and cousins.

Y had a good time with Leaf Man, too!

You can use clear contact paper to collect beautiful leaves and flat objects from nature. They will look quite lovely hung in a window, but also make a wonderful surface for doing leaf rubbing.

The leaf rubbings came out beautifully--especially the oak leaves! A park and playground truly provide all the entertainment that S requires without any additional activities being included. If this is true for your little ones as well, I don't suggest "forcing" participation in take-along activities. Many times, if I stop to try an activity out, S will join in as he wishes. Other times, he chooses not to, and that is OK, too!

No kid collects leaves like a kid who isn't ready to leave the park! We enjoyed a slow-paced walk back to the car as S filled our basket with leaves of all colors, shapes and sizes!

He decided to send this collection in to his teachers to use in their classroom activities this week. We will likely go on a second nature walk next week to fill our own sensory table with some Fall themed finds!

 Wishing you all the fun and wonder that this season brings, and, as always, Happy Playing!

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

MORE Sukkot Themed Fun!

I love Sukkot! It's my favorite holiday of the year, and where we live the weather is just beginning to feel crisp in the mornings and at night, but warm and sunny each afternoon. Our actual Sukkah is up and standing (albeit, apparently upside down--don't ask...) and inside, our play Sukkah is also up and standing (right-side up, for now...) Yes, it's more cooking and more holiday preparation in a month of holidays that seems at once too short and too long, but with just the right amount of fun and creativity, we can play our way right through it here.

S was eager to hinder help his Tatty put up our actual Sukkah out back. He was in charge of holding the instructions, barking orders and using his toy tools...

We even took a family field trip to the hardware store to pick up some wood scraps and nails so we can try our hands at some simple woodworking during Chol Hamoed next week! Incidentally, S also asked if he could have a large tin trash can and a mop (????)...

S has learned a lot this year at preschool about Sukkot. I had such nachas to see him correctly identify the pitom on our play esrog! He is also convinced he must sleep "under the stars" in our Sukkah out back... That is not our family's custom so I negotiated my way down to pitching his play tent on top of his bed instead so he can view his glow in the dark stars overhead!

 Our strategically placed sensory table keeps S very busy while I am cooking in the kitchen. In the theme of our upcoming holiday, I set up a simple "esrog" scented rice bin. I dyed 3lbs of rice yellow (adding a few squirts of hand sanitizer to help the fool coloring spread and adhere) and added several drops of lemon essential oil. I hung some of our Sukkot themed artwork from previous years around the area and added in some scoops, recycled containers, a funnel and some toy "esrogim" (lemons and limes, but shhh, don't tell S....) It smells lovely and he really enjoys playing in it.

I highly recommend this most recent sensory table hack--a dust pan and brush affixed to the frame of our sensory table with a teething ring (yes, a teething ring)... When we use water, I keep a towel nearby for spills. At all times, I keep an apron/smock nearby to cover up clothing and this way, we are prepared to handle splashes or spills as they occur (as independently as possible).

Both boys got in on the fun of our play Sukkah this year, built using a Discovery Kids brand fort construction kit. I found our set at a TJMaxx a few years ago and have seen them at several discount stores around town. Blankets and sheets made wonderful walls and Fall garlands from Dollar Tree were perfect for the schach. Throw in some clothes pins and you've got yourself a Sukkah! (If only the real thing were so easy to build.) You don't need to buy a toy to build a play Sukkah--a large box can make an awesome Sukkah as well. One benefit to the box version is the ability to set it outside (or inside over a drop cloth) and throw in some paint for decorating!

Up and ready to go...only both boys were (thank G-d) still napping!

A basket of Sukkot themed books and toys and even some gourds and mini pumpkins are an inviting way to encourage play...but you needn't put anything in a play Sukkah at all--trust me, your little ones will come up with some great play ideas!

The wheels of creativity were already turning for S...

He brought in everything he needed to make kiddush and a smoothie for Y in the Sukkah!
Strategically hung toys make our play Sukkah a great place for kicking and playing or tummy time!

S wanted to add a welcome sign, so we got out a large sheet of paper, some markers and stickers.
Well, I've got a play tent to pitch over a certain preschooler's bed and a little more cooking to do... Wishing friends and family a Chag Sameach and Happy Playing!

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Alphabetzel Pretzels & More (Pre)-Writing Fun!

As a fully-recovered reluctant reader with a mother who was a reading specialist, I am ever grateful for my early (albeit sneaky) introduction to reading's brother from another mother, writing! One of the very best gifts my mother ever gave me was a blank journal. Back in the 1980s, before blogs and social networking, this was the quickest way to become a permanently published author. Now, I just blog like it's still cool! But back then, I grew from the doodle stage to the dictate and draw stage into the "how do you spell it?" stage (with some creative responses from my older, wiser sister--think correct spelling plus a few dozen extra letters at the end, probably just to encourage practice, no?)...and eventually into the independently writing stage. All the while, unbeknownst to me--a little girl who did not like to read--reading was indeed happening on and in between the lines.
Now that I teach an early literacy preschool enrichment class of my own, I have a strong passion for observing the beautiful metamorphosis of scribblers into wribblers into writers! There's a whole process that for each individual child happens in its own time in which "stories" go from being something they hear and see in a picture book being read aloud to the awareness that those stories are coming from somewhere. Bit by bit, piece by piece, letters go from symbols to components of words to being able to build words, spell words, create sentences and, eventually, authoring stories of their own!
I am confronted by preschoolers each year who claim they do not yet know how to read or write. I love to prove them wrong! Even at a very young age, we are already readers and writers in many ways. Whether it's reading a picture in a book or a letter on a page, recognizing your own name or the word "stop" on a sign--whether you know one letter or 26 letters, you're reading! And that incredible transition when scribbles on a page begin to take shape (and lines), when a slightly crooked circle now represents an object or a person, that's writing! When it comes to introducing young children to their own inherent skills and building upon them, I like to meet them where they are at. I am not a fan of pushing and I strongly believe that these early years are best spent learning through hands on experience and play. In my classrooms and in my own home, I sneak it in by following their lead!
There are a few things I always do in my home/parenting life:

  • Read! Read aloud, read alone, read together. Studies show incredible results when it comes to the reading and writing performance of school aged children who had early access to books in the home. On the other end of that spectrum, children in lower income communities who lacked access to books in the home and in classrooms were at a significant disadvantage. More and more, book banks in cities and communities are aiming to fill this gap and are a great resource for gently loved books from your own collection if/when it's time to downsize. When parents ask kindergarten teachers what is the most important thing they must do to prepare their preschool aged children for kindergarten, the answer is almost unequivocally unanimous: read. When it comes to deciding what to read, I take a few things into account. Follow your children's interest levels--if they have a favorite book, it's OK to read it again and again (and again). It's also great to expand on that. Kids who love Pete the Cat might love some great youth non-fiction books about real cats. If you've got a little rhymer on your hands, grab some Shel Silverstein or E.E. Cummings and read poems together. Listening comprehension in the early years is usually one to two grade levels above a child's age--if you've got an avid listener, go for a chapter book to read aloud. And if you're looking for some great suggestions on what to read aloud, I highly recommend The Read-Aloud Handbook by Jim Trelease as a resource.
  • Make books and materials accessible to little people with little hands. As young children become more independent, we parents get schooled in the popular verse "I want to do it by myself." We grow to love and loathe the phrase and yet, it is essentially our jobs to help our children do it by themselves! It's one reason I am a bit Montessori-inspired in my home and it is an investment of time that pays off more quickly and exponentially than one would think. I have posted specifically on how I set up my home through this lens to encourage pre-writing and writing. The main idea that I like to adhere to is making writing materials and utensils available and accessible at child level. Books are also available and accessible. I do not keep all of our writing materials and books available and accessible at the same time. I do try to keep something reading/writing related available and accessible in each room of the house (even the bathroom!).
  • Don't leave home without it! Reading and writing need not be stationary activities. You can take it with you wherever you go and you don't necessarily even need to pack anything extra. Sure, it's great to have some audio books in the car or a notepad and pen in your purse. It's also awesome to play some rhyming games on a long drive or talk about construction trucks in depth as you pass a construction site. One of our current favorite games to play while we're waiting on line or for an appointment to begin is to find S's "special letters" (the letters that spell his name) in signs. (Yup, that's my pre-reader finding the letter S in the National Enquirer while waiting on the express lane at Walmart; don't judge me!) 
  • Go to the library! It's free. It's fun. It's got something for everyone in the family. Need I say more?
We read and write in every room--even the bathroom. Whether it's a strategically placed basket of books for a kid who is potty training or a fun bathtub game of alphabet soup, the days of sneaking away to The Throne with a newspaper in tow begin early in life. I have a set of bathtub letters I found for a few bucks at Walmart that tossed in with some dollar store bowls and a ladle make for loads of tub time fun. You don't need to invest in bathtub letters specifically. I've seen foam alphabet puzzles at our Dollar Tree consistently and those letters will work just fine in the tub! (Plus they come in lowercase as well! We often introduce young children only to uppercase letters when the majority of printed text is lowercase!)
S is now in preschool for half a day. He is exposed to plenty of early reading and pre-writing activities there. Some kids come home and want to do more of what they did in school. I lovingly recall a student whose mother thanked me for sending her daughter home with "homework" each day. I scratched my head in confusion until I realized that every day her little girl sneakily placed a few coloring sheets or alphabet activities into her school folder to take home for homework! Then I jumped on board and intentionally sent her home with activities she could enjoy! My own son does not come home necessarily itching to draw or write. He does love to be read to in the afternoons and evenings and he loves to play. He also loves some "less obvious" writing materials in our home.

Working with the letters he is being introduced to in school and letter stamps (which he loves), S can stamp away in the appropriate section for each letter. As a more introductory level activity, you might just provide a single letter at a time (perhaps a large block letter and corresponding stamp). You can also substitute in stickers, or pictures with the beginning sound to this sorting activity. More advanced writers may be ready to trace the letter or to write their own!

Tactile manipulation of letters is a big part of learning how to write them. I dream of owning a set of those pricey Montessori sand letters. I currently own this more budget friendly DIY version in which I placed a large felt sticker on a piece of cardstock. Little fingers can touch and trace and that leads to those same little fingers being able to trace in a sand tray or shaving cream or finger paint or on your back...and eventually writing!
S loves our felt wall with its basket stocked with things he is also learning in school. I've caught him over there a few times pretending about Calendar Time in his classroom! Felt boards are a great vertical surface and this is living proof that you don't need to invest in fancy materials. It's literally just a swatch of secondhand felt tacked to a small chunk of wall and some printed and laminated letters,and pictures affixed with a dot of Velcro.
Although S is not yet writing letters, he has entered the phase of knowing that they are needed to spell words and names and he is ever curious about that. He wants me to write his family's names and his teachers names and his favorite words to dictate his illustrated stories. I love introducing him to a print rich environment so he can appreciate words all around him until the day he is ready to write them independently. When he enters the "how do you spell it?" phase, we will be ready! And rather than having to run over and help with writing and spelling each time he needs access to a word, collecting important vocabulary and site words of interest in a notebook or on sentence strips or on index cards is a great way to make them easily accessible for your writer at any time.

And one thing we always love doing here is working in the kitchen together. Cooking and baking are great ways to bring together family and developmental skills in one fell swoop. Science and math and reading and social skills converge over a recipe followed, prepared and shared at the table. S loves soft pretzels. My mommy confession of the day is that his favorite breakfast food lately is a soft pretzel (those frozen store-bought ones) with melted cheese. It's practically a bagel, no? C'mon, don't judge me here! I'd heard they are super easy to make from scratch and decided we'd try our hands at it yesterday and make our own Alphabetzel Pretzels!

I prepared a visual recipe chart with pictures and text so readers
and pre-readers could unite in the kitchen to "read" the
recipe together. Using magnetic clips, I was able to affix it to the side
of our refrigerator while we worked at the kitchen counter beside
it and then transfer it to the front of our deep freezer that is next
to our little work table where we later shaped the dough.
You can find and choose your favorite soft pretzel recipe. I can't eat regular wheat flour but can eat spelt, so I (selfishly) chose this spelt recipe. It was so easy and so much fun! And all three pretzel eaters in my house enjoyed the results. Y enjoyed some mashed banana...

S helped check that our egg was kosher and
beat the egg with a fork. We set that aside for

He also prepared some cinnamon sugar and another dish with kosher salt for sprinkling and set those aside for later.

First we sprinkled the yeast over warm water and mixed it until it was soft...

We added and mixed our dry ingredients....

...until it was time to mix and knead with our hands! That was a fun way to mix it! And guess what? All that muscle power it takes to knead dough is going a long way toward helping those same muscles grasp and use a pencil later on...

Shaping the dough was fun! I did some "special letter" shapes with the first letter of each family member's name. S practiced rolling the dough into a long "worm" shape (the first stage in making pretzel or letter shapes) and then made his own shapes from there. He loved sprinkling salt or cinnamon sugar on top of the egg wash coated pretzels as we got ready to pop them in the oven together! He also may or may not have consumed an undisclosed amount of cinnamon sugar...

Into the oven they go!

And just about 20 minutes later, we were enjoying the fruits of our labor!

And Y was enjoying actual fruits. Yummy banana!