Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Winter Break Survival Kit

Chanukah has come and gone and S's preschool is officially on winter break. This morning he asked me if he was going to school today and I explained that there's still another week of winter break left! He says he likes being at home but also misses school a little and I am thrilled! When I was teaching and S was a baby at home, I used to go crazy planning activities and filling the days of school vacation. Last year when I was pregnant with Y and home with S, I took those last weeks in December for some unplanned fun and play and that inspiration really followed me into this year. It sure is different to be home with both boys all day on many days and with the whole family on some days. The lack of routine feels both relaxing and slightly disorienting at the same time (what day is it anyway??) so I've decided to post some Winter Break Survival ideas that we've enjoyed so far in case you're looking for some inspiration in your own home.

Play Kitchen Remodel: Although we've since remodeled again in yet another toy rotation here, S and Y had a lot of fun before and during Chanukah with our bakery themed play kitchen remodel. Whether your dramatic play area and kitchen set are beloved or ignored by your children, a strategic remodel can be just what is needed to inspire some great hours (and days) of play!

We had a Chanukah themed bakery, complete with props and toys and costumes to inspire aspiring bakers of all ages. You definitely do not need to purchase specialty toys (though there are great ones out there). Some of our most beloved accessories are real cookbooks, dollar store kitchen accessories and DIY toys and props.

S loved our "sprinkles" and "sugar" shakers, a salt and pepper shaker (Dollar Tree) filled with white and colored dry rice from our sensory bin collection and taped shut to secure. He and Y both enjoyed the "oil" bottle (just oil and water in a recycled bottle also secured with tape.  A layer of clear packing tape on some empty Chanukah candle boxes and Chanukah cookie boxes and some recycled paper shoppoing bags and gift bags also made great accessories. S esepecially loved a collection of recycled plastic containers from berries that I taped a pretend bakery label to so he could pack up donuts and cupcakes and cookies to go!

Frying pretend wood circle latkes was a lot of fun. S also liked to pretend that these were cookies. I love including natural materials into the mix for some open ended play.

Real baking sheets and muffin tins (dollar store), gingerbread man cookie cutters from our sensory play collection, rolling pins, cupcake liners leftover from a Shavuos craft a couple of years ago and a small collection of little pom poms made for some very creative cookie and cupcake baking!

I included a variety of writing utensils, a toy cash register with play money, calculators, hole punches and a variety of notepads to incorporate a print rich and pre-writing friendly environment. S especially took to using a sticky note pad to write down orders and "mitzvah notes" for everyone. I also included a chalkboard slate and some chalk and a few free printables I'd collected and laminated over the years for menus. Since we don't live near kosher restaurants or bakeries or cafes, much of the experience is still foreign to my children. In these situations, it can be helpful to model through play how these items are used. It can also be exciting to see the ideas they come up with on their own! Again, we used mainly materials we had on hand at home with a few dollar store finds thrown into the mix (like an OPEN/CLOSED sign and actual receipt and order memo books).
We extended the activity to include some sensory play with this homemade Sugar Cookie and Gingerbread Cookie Playdough Bakery. I just followed my standard stovetop playdough recipe, doubling the recipe and dividing in half. To one half, I added a bit of vanilla essential oil and to the other half, a generous amount of cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice and nutmeg. The smell was AMAZING (not good enough to eat, though I may or may not have caught glimpse of a certain preschooler double checking that theory before coming to the same conclusion). I added in some rainbow rice "sprinkles" and some of our favorite cookie cutters and kitchen set props for an afternoon of playdough bakery fun. This was an activity S requested to return to again and again!

 Playdough, is in fact, always an activity my preschooler wants to do. On one of the days of Chanukah, I gave each of my boys a few dollars of "gelt" to spend at the Dollar Tree. S quickly found the aisle with playdough and had a mathematical moment of wisdom after first picking three $1 containers of playdough and then seeing a 4-pack for $1, thereby saving his remaining two for a toy microphone and a bottle of bubbles. I know what you're all thinking--this playdough is going to turn all kinds of funny shades of neon until it finally meets its fate of preschool playdough brown (how is that not a color in the Crayola box of crayons yet?). I confess that I keep some of our store bought playdough for use only one or two chosen colors at a time, but I think there is value and benefit to letting little hands have at it. This is totally S's playdough and he loves it in every shade! Since we were still celebrating Chanukah, I threw some candles into the mix and he asked for the playdough factory tool and rolling pin and plastic knife. He was building all kinds of menorahs, lighting the candles and singing the brachos for days! Actually--even now that Chanukah is over, he is still playing about this! Yes, it's messy and colorful and takes time and effort to adequately clean up and organize, but it is a favorite activity here and winter break is the perfect time to make sure you can squeeze in plenty of playdough play opportunities. He's not just mixing colors, he's also developing fine motor strength and engineering skills to boot.

If you're feeling artsy-craftsy, here are some of the ways we've been having fun in our Art Center at home:

We had a lot of fun with this oil and food coloring marbled art activity from The Artful Parent before Chanukah began. The results of mixing oil with food coloring and water and dipping in card stock were beautiful! S also enjoyed the sensory experience of it and mixing and swirling the colors in a tray. It's a bit messy and takes some time and adult or older sibling involvement, however we really enjoyed the process and many people enjoyed the results, which we used to create handmade cards for family and friends.

Speaking of handmade cards...do you have a collection of your kids' artwork you're looking to recycle? Do you have thank you's to write or gifts still to send? We had a lot of fun creating handmade note cards for holiday greetings and note card sets as gifts for my son's teachers. I bought a bulk pack of blank greeting cards and envelopes available at craft supply stores and a large hole punch to create the center shape out of recycled artwork from each of the boys. You could also just hand-cut a rectangle or shape. We glued the art into the center of the blank cards and they came out beautifully, if I do say so myself!

Our Art Center is always a busy place these days. S really liked this Chanukah themed "secret message" activity, though you can incorporate a winter theme or any other one for that matter. Simply use a white crayon to draw a "secret" picture or message on some white paper or index cards (kids can do this, too, just make sure you encourage dark, thick marks) and include some do-a-dot markers or even watercolor paints and water to reveal the top secret message!

S has also been into creating bookmarks lately as we are reading aloud some short chapter books at bedtime. He loves making them as gifts and for us to use at home. In this little "bookmark making bin" I included some blank bookmarks (I bought these at a craft supply store in bulk, but you can cut your own from card stock), scissors and embroidery thread for making tassels and a collection of winter themed foam stickers and gems. There are a lot of ways to decorate bookmarks using stickers, gluing on papers for collage, coloring, painting, even the "secret message" activity listed above. Have fun and enjoy some good reading when you're done!

Our U-Pick-a-Project Basket is back and loaded with leftovers from the end of holiday season last year. A collection of inexpensive craft kits and science kits are a great way to fill some down time. Just this morning, S painted a snowman sun-catcher and helped set up a grow-your-own crystal snowman. It may not be snowing outside here, but we're thinking about it indoors, for sure! I collect these little kits when they go on discount or as I see them at our local dollar store.

Got wrapping paper scraps? We did and we had a lot of fun using them for tearing and cutting and playing in our sensory table. S loves to cut paper and tear paper. It's a great way to practice these skills and develop those fine motor muscles while not just throwing away the results. We also like to use these scraps in collage activities or on clear contact paper.

Paper tearing and shredding in an intentional environment also helps to channel that desire when it crops up in less preferred environments (like with artwork that is intended to remain in one piece or with books). You can add in some recycled cardboard tubes or scoops for some great sensory play as well.

 One of my favorite types of pretend play is small world play--using small toys and objects in dramatic play. I recently took up yet another profitless hobby, painting wooden peg dolls, and created a set to look like each member of our family. I love how it inspires S to play--particularly as he works through feelings about having a sibling or his Tatty going to work, etc. I also love that we have dolls that actually look like us! We have been enjoying this Winter Wonderland Small World Play Scene for the past few days here. I included a large swatch of sparkly white felt I had from last year, some winter themed props (these are highly discounted after the holidays) some arctic animals, a "skating rink" (metal tray), some "ice" (glass gems) and, per S's most recent request, some miniature food. He goes back to this activity again and again and plays with it in new ways each time. We are having a great time with it!

Whatever you're celebrating this season, I hope you're enjoying time with family and loved ones. From our little family to yours, Happy Playing!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

#metoo: Cultivating Awareness of Power Roles and Teaching Empathy in Early Childhood

If you saw the hashtag "#metoo" take over your Facebook and Twitter feeds in the last months, this is for you. If you, your friend, your sister, your mother or your next-door neighbor answered #metoo--whether in writing, text, verbally or silently, behind the scenes--this is for you. If you have a child, know a child, or ever were a child--this is for you. As news, media, and social networking sites have swarmed with reports of alleged sexual harassment and worse, it has been impossible not to question where the line is drawn in the sand. My passion for play and early childhood development leads me to believe very strongly that it begins in the sandbox and a recent, seemingly benign exchange with my three year old son solidified that notion for me.

Every day when we pick up S from preschool, we try to conjure up creative questions that encourage him to share with us about his day at school. Asking him how his day was or what he did that day is usually met by silence. Asking him to remember all the way back to the very first activity he did in the morning, or what made him laugh or who he played with on the playground, however, usually opens the door to some great car-seat conversation on our short drive home. On one particular day last week, S shared with us that he only played with one particular friend a little that day because he is little. Indeed, his friend is on the younger side and several friends in the class have been exploring concepts of age and who is "big" and who is "little." It opened up a conversation about what qualities we seek in our friends: someone who is kind, someone who shares, someone who makes us laugh and feel good. We talked about how little and big can refer to age, height, size, behavior... We encouraged questions; we avoided pushing answers. These are the earliest stages of S's awareness of power roles and we want to encourage an open mind and critical thinking.

There has been a lot of blame and finger-pointing in regard to the overwhelming reports of these last few months. It is the media's fault or Hollywood's fault. It is policy's fault or the politicians' fault. It is the fault of their mothers or the fault of their fathers; they were not raised "right." It is the fault of religion or the absence of it. It is the fault of being silent; it is the fault of speaking up. This is an issue that is very gender-charged and yet, I believe, when we step back and look at the earliest stages of power role awareness, it is an issue that crosses gender lines and lands us right in the front-lines of preschool playground politics. Usually between the ages of 2-4, children begin to become aware of power and control. It is present in those earliest battles over food, sleep or toileting. It is present in toddler exchanges over a coveted toy. It is present in arguments over who is first, who has the "biggest" piece, who got "more," who "started it," who "sat next to Mommy last time..." Very early on, our children become aware of power and to them, that all boils down to supply and demand. Who has what, who wants what, and how to get what we want, when we want it, maybe even five minutes ago. Ever offered a present or a cupcake or even a bar of soap to one child in a room of 24? I guarantee you're going to hear about 23 emphatic #metoo's  in the background!

As parents, caregivers, teachers and adults, we are given the responsibility to "teach" children to have respect. There are entire curricula, television shows, children's books, religious organizations and social programs aimed at teaching respect, and while I feel that there is a great deal of merit to many of these, I also feel we miss the mark when we don't address a deeper area of social development that must precede the genuine expression of respect for other individuals: empathy. Empathy in children is a quality that I personally feel is innate but is not always naturally accessible to them. Adults often have an adult-age-appropriate desire to avoid conflicts for our children by eliminating them altogether. And children have an age-appropriate need to express and experience strong emotions, often through engaging in conflict.

We all have the best of intentions when we encourage taking turns, apologizing, sharing, classroom or sibling democracy. And yet, that's not how the "real world" works. I want a a turn with my neighbor's Mustang and he's had it for two years, but I don't just get to take it for a joy ride because he's had it for so long and I only have a 2001 Nissan Maxima. Studies have shown that forced apologies in marital conflicts are not actually helpful to a marriage at all. #sorrynotsorry Sharing is caring and I care about my friend, but I'm not going to share my cell phone with her. It's mine. And we all want a turn to be "first," but there's not exactly a democratic national rotation for who gets to be the President and First Lady. Positions of power happen through other means, many of which are not in our control. And while both childhood conflicts and our current political climate have elicited many a temper tantrum from people both big and little, we do a great disservice to our very little ones when we do not allow to them to feel, experience and move through strong emotions and conflict resolution.

I found in my classrooms that when we had issues of social conflict or property conflict that I could pretty instantly stifle them on my terms and see the same issue crop up again maybe even minutes later. However, when I empowered my students to work through these experiences, resolutions were reached that were infinitely more effective than anything I ever learned in a college classroom. This is not to say that we completely step out of the scene, but rather that we step back. That when it's time to line up and there are tears over who is first, we don't necessarily create a rotation of line leaders or bandage the hurt with a statement of "we're all going to the same place." Maybe instead we give the language of "now let's give high fives and say 'good race!'" When there's a conflict over a toy, a spot, a turn--we identify what core need is being unmet (control? attention? time?) and we ask the parties involved what they need to solve the conflict. Many times I would leave my pre-k students with the simple question: "what do you need to do to repair this relationship?"

Some children always want to be first. Some never want that role and will avoid it with their whole being. Some do want it, but don't have the means to get there and of those, some will be motivated to try and achieve it while others will not. Some children want to be feel big, some want to stay little, some want both at the same time (have you met my preschooler?). All children become aware on some level of power roles between peers and all children will experience power struggles throughout their lives. These experiences cross gender lines, socioeconomic lines, age lines and political lines; we must empower our children--boys and girls--to learn how to feel and express empathy beginning in early childhood so that when they mature into adulthood, they are top defenders of the line, both their own personal line and others'.  Sure, you can act respectfully without feeling respect for a person--but genuinely being able to relate to the effect of our thoughts, words and actions leads to a higher success rate of being able to express ourselves with respect even and especially in those most important moments: the ones in which no one else is watching.

And as with all developmental areas of early childhood, learning is best done through play and day to day experience. Our role is to give language and support as needed, to encourage encounters just outside the box of comfort, to provide a safe haven for feelings and thoughts that are not "neat, tidy or pretty," and to take off our adult gloves for a little while and allow life to get a little messy. Knees will get scraped. Tears will be shed. Insults will be thrown at lightening speed and Cheerios thrown even faster. Our adult wounds and scars are not our children's and vise versa. I don't have any answers; I do have a lot of questions. I encourage the same in my children and in my own peers. Being first, being three, being right, being biggest, fastest, best or better--those are all fleeting. Being kind is permanent. So when my preschooler told me his friend is little, I asked him if his friend is kind? He emphatically answered "yes!" And when I ask him, "are you kind?" --that is the time I most want him to answer boldly, with pride and with or without a hashtag-- yes, #metoo!

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Days of Creation Play Stations: Day 5 Fish & Birds

We're up to Day 5 in our Days of Creation Play Stations! I have really loved the opportunity to focus an afternoon here and there on sensory play, process art and play activities related to each of the days of Creation with both boys. Although we are well past the reading of Parshas Bereishis in the Torah, it has been a great opportunity to slow down and really focus on each of the days individually. Speaking of slowing down and focusing, did anyone else notice I never posted about what we did for Day 3?! So before we get to the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea....

Here's a peek at what we did for the third day, when Hashem created the earth and grass, flowers and trees:

 We added a third sensory bottle with dried black beans and artificial flowers and leaves. We also incorporated the current season of Autumn into this theme and did what makes the most sense when playing about things that grow outdoors...

...we took a trip to the park! In fact, I posted about that trip and a story stretcher I brought along in this post. As we read, walked, collected, played and made leaf bracelets and leaf rubbings, we also talked about the parts of Creation that took place on Day 3. The next day, we used a collection of pine cones and Fall leaves and acorns along with some marigolds from our garden and some leftover flowers from the previous Shabbos to make "nature paint brushes." S (and Y with some help) got to try their hands at these unique brushes for painting on the third page of our Bereishis Process Art Book.

 That was about the extent of our Day 3 activities since at the same time all four of us shared a cold and three of us shared a case of bacterial conjunctivitis. There were enough green noses and pink eyes here to decorate a Lilly Pulitzer dress and that may or may not be why I totally forgot to post on it!

The great thing about taking the Days of Creation literally one day at a time is that you can take all the breaks you need for recovering from illness, getting busy with other activities and events and still come back to it again. S is always excited when I tell him we will have an afternoon devoted to Days of Creation Play Stations and surely both boys will enjoy what I've got in store for today...

Y has been eating up a storm! Faster than I can keep up, but thank goodness for those handy little jars of baby food for when I don't have the time to make my own purees. And, if you know me, you totally know I had my eye on those little jars for another reason as well--sensory bottles! As with anything made from glass,  adult supervision is certainly a requirement. Baby food jars are a thicker glass and the perfect size for small hands to grasp. Our Day 5 sensory bottles worked best in 2 parts...this "I Spy a Birdie" sensory jar with birdseed and bird buttons...

...and this "Swim With the Fishies" sensory jar with water dyed blue, baby oil, blue glitter and fish buttons! Both jars are hot glued and duct taped shut to ensure that what's in the jar stays in the jar even if shaken vigorously! 

Our DIY Fish Squish Bag is made from a 2.5 gallon ziplock bag filled about 1/4 of the way with water that I added blue food coloring to. I also added in some goldfish cut from craft foam with eyes and smiles drawn on in permanent marker. Additionally, I added a handful of glass craft stones. Before zipping the bag, I let out as much air as possible so that when it is laid on a flat surface it can be squished and manipulated by little hands without a risk of popping. I duct taped the zipper end for extra protection and it's ready to go! Y will love using this on his tummy and it is a great way to encourage tummy time. Y will probably also really enjoy it. I also searched the internet for some photos of common fish and birds in our state to print and laminate for the boys to look at. 

Our small world bird sensory bin is also ready to go, with shredded craft paper, wood circles, pine cones, sticks, bark and acorns collected from previous park trips and some resident birds as well. We used a similar set up before last Tu B'Shevat and S really liked feeding the birds birdseed, so I also included a small dish of birdseed with a tiny spoon.

S really loves using the sensory table in our kitchen and will surely enjoy seeing this colorful poster of regional birds nearby. Perhaps it will also inspire him to peer out the window and see which ones he can find in our backyard!

I found this birdhouse at the beginning of last summer and today is the perfect day for S to decorate it! It will make a great play accessory to add to our small world bird sensory bin when he is done, although I have a feeling he will want to hang it up outside for the real birds, in which case I had a jar of Mod Podge on the ready!

Our Day 5 page is ready for some process art. I created "ocean bubble brushes" with bubble wrap and "bird feather brushes" with craft feathers, both clipped to clothespins. If your little artists like to get their hands painty, feel free to just set out bubble wrap and feathers. I like the clothespins for children who prefer not to get their hands painty or in general for easier grasp of the materials while painting. 

S loves making bird treats for the hungry birdies in our neighborhood. I have a tray all set up to bring outside today (we're having some great weather this afternoon) with our favorite bird treat making ingredients: pine cones, toilet paper tubes, yarn for hanging, peanut butter, a plastic knife for spreading and birdseed! Bon appetit, tweet tweet, enjoy the treat birdies!

Our Fly in the Sky and Swim in the Sea sorting game is a fun way to encourage sorting skills and inspire dramatic play. We have an oddly large collection of plush birds and fish. I also added in some printed and laminated photos of the sky and the ocean as well as some sentence strips to add some print and early literacy to our environment. 
It's Throwback Thursday to when S and I last bought fish for our tank. We're, um, down to one left and S loves to help take care of it and feed it. We will have to take another pet store field trip soon to bring home a couple of friends for our remaining tenant. S and Y both love going to to the pet store and looking at all the fish and birds!
Both boys are still napping, and many days that is truly a blessing! Today, I really can't wait to play, so I think I'm off to go wake up S--and surely Y will follow...

Happy Playing!

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

A Peek Inside Our Playroom: Thanksgiving Theme

Y's first induction into our Thanksgiving Wall of Fame
Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday that we don't actually celebrate! Well, we kind of do...both my husband and I love the traditional Thanksgiving foods, but neither of us wants to have a huge meal on a Thursday and then again for Shabbos. My husband's birthday is also around Thanksgiving, so we usually have a Thanksgiving themed Shabbos somewhere in there. Last year while I was homeschooling S, we had a lot of themed fun and learning and enough paper plate crafts by the end of it to serve an entire Thanksgiving meal! This year, he is learning about Thanksgiving in his preschool and at home, I've added in some themed fun to our play area for the boys to explore. After a morning of more structured activity, I like our afternoons to be more child-led when it comes to S--and this truly seems to be the ideal pace for him as well. Y has been making leaps and bounds in development lately and is especially eager to play, engage in songs and action rhymes and even try his hand (and, um mouth) at arts and crafts!
Our Thanksgiving Wall of Fame--with a couple of favorites from last year and a lot of restraint on my part to leave space for new creations and not hang up EVERY single paper plate Thanksgiving craft known to man...

Both boys really love the fingerplay "Five Little Turkeys" from DLTK's Crafts for Kids. Last year I made a set of turkey stick puppets to use along with it:

Five Little Turkeys

Five little turkeys standing at the door,
One waddled off, and then there were four.

Four little turkeys sitting near a tree,
One waddled off, and then there were three.

Three little turkeys with nothing to do,
One waddled off, and then there were two.

Two little turkeys in the morning sun,
One waddled off, and then there was one.

One little turkey better run away,
For soon it will be Thanksgiving Day.

Our Art Center has had a major revamp:

Ta da!
This time around, I included a combination of more "project" inspired art and more "process" inspired art along with a variety of materials to use in combination or on their own. This set up is aimed to be child-led in that S can choose what activity he'd like to try and independently access, bring it to his table, carry out the activity and bring it back when he is done. Our "U-pick a Project" basket is stocked in the middle cube with Thanksgiving craft kits leftover from last year. Other cubes are more open-ended...

With our playdough tray and cutting practice turkey collage tray, I included laminated photos of suggested creations on velcro. I showed S how to remove and replace the pictures if he wants to bring to the table with him when he uses the trays. I also made sure to tell him that this is one way to use the materials, but there are many ways to use them and he can use them in his own way when he's working with them.

Our invitation to create a playdough turkey is a favorite worth repeating from year to year. And if you've even found yourself with a collection of unused brown playdough from party packs (or a toddler-inspired color mixing project), here's your chance to put it to good use! That along with some orange card-stock beaks, googly eyes, pipe cleaner legs and feathers are all the materials you'll need to build an adorable little Thanksgiving turkey! Sub in some Model Magic clay for a project you can allow to dry and decorate your table, or just remove the parts and put it back on the shelf for your next play session.

S loves anything that involves scissors and cutting practice. He's early in his cutting skill development so cutting the edges of these feather shapes is the perfect way to combine his love of the activity with some actual function and intention. You really can't go wrong with feathers...even if you cut all the way across! I included some pre-cut brown bodies, orange beaks, a red waddle, a glue stick and some eye stickers.

Our invitation to create a turkey collage is a the perfect combination of recycling and craftiness. I had some pre-cut turkeys from last year and I have several ziplock sandwich bags full of loose craft parts and interesting papers and ribbons. Throw in some glue and a stash of colorful feathers and you're ready to go.

The materials on our shelves can be used in a variety of combinations as well. In addition to the specific trays and activities, I also included some of our favorite writing and drawing materials. Slick stix and do-a-dot markers are always popular, and also friendly to the smaller set of hands in the family as they are thick enough for fist-gripping and easily mark on paper. A couple of pencil cups filled with markers and crayons are visually inviting to S whereas keeping them in tubs or bins often leaves them out of sight and out of mind. 

I included a tray of do-a-dot activity sheets that can be used with these stickers, with bingo dabbers, or even with magnets or mini erasers if you prefer a re-usable version. The "T is for Turkey" page is available for print from Making Learning Fun, where you can find a variety of great Thanksgiving themed activities.
S really loves using our felt wall to play about school when he's at home. I've caught him over there more than once doing "calendar time." It does a teacher-mommy proud! He actually told me recently he wants to be a teacher when he grows up. He thinks that means he will get to go inside a school bus... In the mean time, I pulled out this old Thanksgiving poem fill in the blank activity from my teaching days and set it up by his felt wall along with one of our favorite DIY Thanksgiving games from last year, "Yes, Please and No, Thank You!" S is definitely not reading all of this yet, but I love a print rich environment. We can use it together and he can also enjoy a chance to play at being The Teacher.
To make your own version of "Yes, Please and No, Thank You," you will need to glue (or draw) some pictures of common Thanksgiving foods onto paper plates. You will also need a couple of sentence strips with the phrases "Yes, please!" and "No, thank you!"  written on them. When playing with one "player," he or she can sort all the plates into foods he /she likes/wants to try and those he/she does not like or wish to try.  It's a great way to practice good table manners before the actual meal! With multiple players, children can take turns choosing a food to say "yes, please" to or "no, thank you." You can also practice common table manners like having a child ask "can you please pass the___?" or "would you like to try some____?" 

Even our deep freezer got a Thanksgiving-themed makeover! Indeed, it makes a perfect child-accessible vertical work surface. I brought out an old pin-the-feather-on-the-turkey poster I made a couple of years ago and added in an envelope for spare feathers. I also found this fun magnetic turkey set at the Dollar Tree. 

While Thanksgiving crafts and cooking are two of my favorite things about this season, my very favorite is the opportunity to slow down and enjoy time playing and connecting as a family. I love having a few days together to move at a slower pace, to let the little ones take more of a lead and to admire their sense of wonder, joy and creativity. Whether you "officially" celebrate Thanksgiving or not, hope these days inspire a sense of gratitude and joy and plenty of time for happy playing!

Thursday, November 9, 2017

How Having Poor Classroom Management Helped Me Lose 25lbs (And Other, More Evidence-Based Ways of Sneaking Movement into Your Kids' Routine)

Picture it: my first day as a "real" teacher in my dream job, co-teaching in an integrated preschool classroom for four and five-year-olds. I had finally finished my college degree. I was living in a new city, all 15 boxes of my belongings unpacked and neatly put away in my slightly damp and crooked basement apartment. I walked a mile and a half to take an a hour and a half of public transit to my first day of school, toting a Muppets backpack and a sparkly pair of Toms with only a few ventilation holes. I was about to spend a year working 9 hour days and earning a whopping 12 bucks an hour, just slightly less per hour as a college educated lead teacher than I had made as a 15 year old babysitter... I was ecstatic! (And maybe a little off my rocker.) And there I was, as a first-year teacher on her first day of school, carrying more hope, motivation and confidence than I could fit into my Muppets backpack. I stood just inside the doorway of my new classroom--my new classroom, and that's when a little boy I will call Paul came marching on out the door, toward his cubby to grab his backpack and head for the front doors of the building, just down the hall. Those doors led to another set of doors, which led to a parking lot, which led to a highway. I know this very well, because after my 9 hour shift, I walked that route two more miles for another hour and a half of public transit back to my crooked, damp, basement apartment. "That's it," Paul said, "I'm going home!" And I, an overly eager and confident first-year teacher with a Muppets backpack and her own classroom, proceeded to do everything wrong. And I did so right in front of my new boss. I talked too much. I bargained. I begged. I pleaded. I joked. I choked. And then, for the very first time in my life, I took up running as a hobby. It started with chasing Paul out those doors and down the first few rows of parking spots before I scooped him up and carried his hefty body back inside. And it continued with days of chasing, running, being chased, playing, ducking and covering, heavy lifting, dancing, curling up in a fetal position, and, all the while, growing into a far more effective and self-assured teacher. By March, I had lost 25lbs. I came home at times with welts and bruises. I cried at work. Twice. Once in my boss's office. Once in the art supply closet. I questioned whether I was cut out for this work. I questioned whether my boss had actually read my application and resume. And I learned to re-frame the way I saw a day in the classroom. No more did I view it through the lens of "good" day or "bad" day; I learned to see the good moments in every day. Victories were subtle but larger than life, because by March, when Paul ran out the door of the classroom to grab his backpack from the cubbies and head for home, I was right there with him, holding a large sheet of paper and a basket of markers.
"You really want to go home and I want to help you, but there's one problem. I don't know how to get there."
"I know how to get there!" Paul said.
"Can you help me make a map so we can get there together?" I asked.
"Sure, that's easy!" he responded, grabbing the paper, the markers, and heading for a cozy spot behind a play loft back in the classroom. He drew all the places and landmarks he passes each day on his ride home from school. He drew us walking on the rode. He wrote his name and some other letters, too. And then he made a map of the preschool building. And we used it to go on a tour. And in the meantime, as the minutes turned to hours, he forgot all about his plan of escape and we both survived another day.
I got engaged in the middle of the year and moved again when I got married that summer. I packed the same 15 boxes or so, and not much more (12 bucks an hour didn't go so far, as it turns out, and 12 hour days of work and commute didn't afford much time for shopping), but I did have one more thing I brought to my new home with me: a pair of pipecleaner glasses made by Paul. At five years old, with a history of trauma and learning delays, he had experienced more life than I had at over five times his age. I was the teacher, but he taught me. And when he gave me the glasses, he explained that they are to "let me see whatever I want to see." Sure enough, whenever I put them on, I can see my success as a teacher that year. And I can see all the hope and wonder that accompany a child, even one who faces struggles like Paul's. And, just like Paul, wherever I am, I can see Home.
But the one thing that truly stands out to me as a key factor of success in that classroom as well as in any classroom I've been in since (and in my own home) is the importance of large muscle movement. The field of education often elicits images of children sitting stagnantly at desks. Indeed, we are schooled to help children "sit still" in order to create a better learning environment. And, if you ask me, this is counterproductive. Children, particularly under the age of five, are not hardwired to sit still. (I would argue that no human is truly hardwired to sit still, but that's another post in and of itself.) Kinesthetic learning refers to the style of learning that takes place through physical movement and tactile exploration as opposed to through hearing and watching. While some learners are primarily successful through kinesthetic learning, all learners benefit from it. And, as the cooler and shorter days give way to more time indoors, I am reminding myself of the many ways to ensure that movement is incorporated into my daily routine at home--both for our children and for the grownups--even if it means I sneak it in!

 Large muscle or gross motor movement certainly refers to the obvious physical activities, like sports, outdoor play, and games that involve running, jumping, dancing, skipping, etc. You can include a lot of equipment in your gross motor play or no equipment at all. Your body is really all that you need. Many times, we see gross motor activity as something that is restricted to recess/playground times and gym class--but it can definitely be effectively incorporated into structured learning indoors whether it is in the classroom or in your home.  Here are a few ways you can incorporate movement and kinesthetic learning into key pre-K subjects such as learning letters, numbers, shapes and colors:

  • Reading and writing do not need to be sedentary activities! When I introduce letters to preschoolers, I provide a variety of means for them to explore them through tactile manipulation (with magnets, puzzles, foam letters, etc) and through larger muscle movement. Using masking tape, you can create the shape of a letter on your floor or rug. Children can trace the letter by walking over it, jumping over it, hopping over it, tip-toeing over it... You can include building materials like blocks for tracing. Providing a toy car to drive around the letter C is a great way to encourage pre-writing skills while teaching the beginning sound of a hard "C." Indeed, many of my students are introduced to the concept of verbs or action words through acting out a movement beginning with a particular letter sound. Jumping jacks are a fabulous way to get your heart rate up while learning the beginning sound a J makes.
  • Learning colors can be a challenge for many preschoolers. They are not often isolated in our environment and many shades fall under the same name. Send your child on a color themed scavenger hunt around the house or classroom. How many red objects can they bring back? Both my boys are enrolled in classes in a local gymnastics studio and one of my favorite beginning stretches that they do each week is a rainbow chant in which they sit, legs wide and stretch their arms overhead from side to side in the shape of a rainbow while chanting each color: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, violet, indigo!
    • Incorporate sorting and separating colors by using color coded buckets and color coded balls, bean bags or other soft objects to toss inside.
  • Numbers and early mathematical skills can be introduced through movement by having children choose an action word to carry out a particular number of times. I always incorporated kinesthetic learning into my daily calendar time when I taught in classrooms. A designated "calendar helper" was in charge of updating our daily calendar and also of choosing a verb to have all of the students act out the number of times corresponding to the date. Clapping, jumping, frog hopping, spinning in circles--you name it, we did it, one, two, ten, and even 31 times.
  • Shapes are also able to be explored through tactile and physical exploration. They can be traced in the air, traced on the floor, drawn with sidewalk chalk and traced with a tricycle. One favorite activity of ours here is using silk scarves to create shapes in the air as we sing a favorite action song:
We wave our scarves together
We wave our scarves together
We wave our scarves together
Because it's fun to do

We wave our scarves in a circle
We wave them in a circle,
We wave them in a circle
Because it's fun to do!

S loves to choose the shape. There are some pricey play silks on the market, but we just use some fashion scarves from the Dollar Tree. It gets particularly interesting when someone chooses a shape like a hexagon!

Movement for the Less Mobile: Infants and babies may not be up to the developmental stage we most associate with gross motor movement, but they are doing plenty of it and it's so important at this point. While most of the time our play area is set up as a world for S in which Y happens to exist, once in a while, I set up a baby fun zone. S definitely finds ways to enjoy it when he's home and when we have other babies over for playdates, it's great fun to watch them explore and move at their own level. Areas for laying on their back and kicking/grabbing, tummy time, sitting assisted or unassisted, crawling, pulling up, assisted walking or toddling and objects with a variety of textures, shapes and colors all invite your littlest ones to develop vestibular awareness, their little bodies' GPS system.

Gross Motor Equipment, as I've said, is something you can add in or leave out to your discretion. We love using our play tunnel, bean bags for tossing, balls, our fort magic set for large building activities, parachutes, riding toys, hula hoops and child-friendly sports equipment. That said, indoors and out, movement can happen with very few extraneous materials. Many of our own favorite childhood games were follow the leader, red light/green light, Mother, May I?, What time is it, Mr. Fox? and tag. There are plenty of ways to build forts, engage in games and movement and play games with common household materials and additional equipment can often be found on the cheap at secondhand stores or discount stores. Adding unlikely elements to common activities (like turning off the lights and including flashlights and LED lights) can add some spice to the scenario if it gets a little stale.

  • Leave the Heavy Lifting to the Kids?! Yes, you read that right! Heavy lifting and moving large objects is a great way for all kids to get moving. Many children actually greatly benefit from this type of activity. One year I had a student who loved to move playground equipment into a line every day. It was initially quite frustrating for the teachers until one day I stepped in and engaged him and his peers into turning it into a more functional game. We had choo-choo trains, airplanes, boats and more--and my little heavy lifter got his movement in!
  • Just dance! Oh, we've all been there. The witching hour battles after dinner and before bed or even those moments in the classroom when all is going awry. Sometimes we all just need to turn up the music and dance. You don't need a specific playlist or particular songs and movements--you just need something with a good beat that will get you all moving. Go on and join 'em--it's fun to shake your sillies out.

  • If you need some inspiration, YouTube is a great resource for free kids' exercise, Yoga and dancing videos. It's a wonderful way to get moving in new ways and incorporate skills like following instructions. 

  • Let them see you do it! It's hard to tell our kids to get moving from a sedentary position ourselves. Let them see you making movement and exercise a priority and enjoying it and they will follow suit. I have stopped feeling guilty about whisking away to the gym because my time there is good for my body and mind and I want my kids to internalize that.
  • Sneak it in! Lastly, I'd like to toss in a couple of my favorite ways to sneak in gross motor movement. One is a game I call "How Shall We Get There?" This is the one I whip out when my preschooler doesn't want to leave the playground, the friend's house, etc. "How shall we get to the car?" I ask him. "Shall we walk sideways like a crab or jump like a kangaroo?" And get ready to walk sideways with a slightly perturbed toddler all the way to your car... My second favorite is "What Shall We Do While We're Waiting?" This is the one I reserve for waiting in line or for an appointment or turn with a toy. Shall we jump ten times? Shall we hop on one foot three times? Shall we bear crawl across the rug?
Movement is an integral part of learning and growth. It is also a great tool to combat the winter doldrums for both children and adults. Through creative play, games and also just through allowing children to naturally do what they already do, plenty of movement can happen on a daily basis both outdoors and in. I'm off to get moving myself (blogging is rather a stationary activity for me) and until the next time...

Happy ACTIVE playing!