Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Tu B'Shevat Theme: Do You Know the Parts of Trees?

Do You Know the Parts of Trees?
The bottom flaps open and close
with velcro to reveal a picture
of the parts of a tree!
We had just finished preparing a batch of homemade blueberry muffins when I sent my toddler to go play so I could safely pop the baking pan in the oven. Moments later as I was cleaning up, he came frolicking back in carrying a pine cone from his Nature Observation Station. He remembered painting it a few months ago when we were learning about Autumn. "No put in mouth!" he said, which is his way of saying it's not something we should eat. "You're right, but some animals do eat the seeds inside pine cones. They carry seeds from pine trees." He left the room, pine cone in hand and returned a few moments later with an acorn. "No can eat it!" he announced. "You're right. We can't eat acorns, but squirrels and chipmunks and other animals do. They are the seeds from oak trees." He was quite pleased, left again and returned in just another moment carrying a thick slab of bark we'd found on the ground in a nearby park this Fall. "What is it?" he asked. "That's bark from a tree. The bark protects the tree trunk."

This exchange was such a beautiful example of how a science/nature observation station can work to spark conversations and influence language development. It was also the perfect transition into our school activities today as I formally introduced the topic of trees and Tu B'Shevat!
The famous coconut tree of Chicka Chicka Boom Boom is one of our very favorite trees of all time! It's also a great way to tie in some letter, early reading and pre-writing activities into our tree theme.

Our Table Time activity this morning was one that combined a familiar and beloved children's book (Chicka Chicka Boom Boom by Bill Martin Jr. & Jon Archambault) with pre-writing and name recognition skills. I found and printed the template on this great blog post, where you can find a variety of story stretcher ideas related to the book. I set letter stamps for each of the letters in my son's name and provided a written and stamped example. He had a lot of fun (and fine motor practice) stamping the letters of his name all around and up the coconut tree. He also enjoyed singing the little song I taught him to remember the spelling of his name!

To help introduce our theme, we began with a fabulous book we borrowed from our library, Janice May Udry's A Tree is Nice. My son loved curling up on my lap as we read and looking at the lovely alternating black and white and color pictures done by talented illustrator, Marc Simont. While he was still on my lap, I began singing him the little song I composed to help teach the parts of trees. You can sing it as a lap rhyme as well or act it out standing up!

Do You Know the Parts of Trees?
t.t.t.o.: Do You Know the Muffin Man? by: Michal Lipp

Do you know the parts of trees, the parts of trees, the parts of trees?
Oh do you know the parts of trees that help them grow and grow?

The roots, they hold the tree in place, the tree in place, the tree in place,
The roots, they hold the tree in place and soak up water, too!
[tickle/touch toes]

The trunk moves water up the the tree, up the tree, up the tree,
The trunk moves water up the tree and brings it to the leaves.
[touch hands to belly or hips]

The branches stretch up far and wide, far and wide, far and wide,
The branches stretch up far and wide to carry all the leaves.
[stretch arms up and out]

The leaves, they soak up the sunlight, the sunlight, the sunlight,
The leaves, they soak up the sunlight and help the tree make food.
[wiggle fingers and then rub belly at "help the tree make food"]

So now you know the parts of trees, the parts of trees, the parts of trees,
Yes, now you know the parts of trees that help them grow and grow!
We sang our way through this journal page, which I found and printed for free from Teachers Pay Teachers. If you are a teacher or home educator, I highly recommend utilizing the many amazing resources at teacherspayteachers.com. I found a lot of great materials searching for free pre-K items related to trees.

We finished our school time together with a fun gross motor game. I found these dry-erase dice at the Dollar Tree earlier in the school season. On each of the six sides, I wrote a tree-related action. You can play, too--and even make your own die by recycling a square tissue box or instead using index action cards.

Here are our tree actions:

  1. Sway in the wind (sway side to side)
  2. Wiggle your leaves (reach arms up and out, wiggle fingers)
  3. Touch your roots (bend down and touch toes)
  4. Curl up like a seed (crouch into Child's Pose, small and tucked in like a tiny seed)
  5. Stretch your branches (reach arms up and out, stand tall on tip toes)
  6. Stand BIG and TALL like a tree (stand up straight and tall, for a more advanced version, try standing on one foot with other foot lifted to toe or pressed below or above your knee as in Tree Pose)
Our weather outside was quite cold for a park visit on our first day and we are looking forward to some milder temperatures in the days to come so we can go on a Parts of a Tree Nature Scavenger Hunt at a local park and bring home some more additions to our Nature Observation Station. Until then, I have to make a like a tree and leave!
Happy Playing!

Monday, January 30, 2017

Tu B'Shevat Theme: Throw Back Edition to Last Year & Young Toddler-Friendly Activities

Tu B'Shevat family art
& tree with fingerprint leaves
Last year around Tu B'Shevat time, I was still teaching preschool outside of the home during the day. I tried as much as possible to incorporate the themes I was teaching about at work into the play and learning activities we were doing at home with my then very young toddler. Sometimes that meant we did activities in the afternoons or as a family in the evenings. Other times, I set out activities my son could access during the day while his babysitter was here. As an added bonus (or surprise) we had a snow day last Tu B'Shevat--the perfect opportunity for some cozy indoor learning about trees on their special day!
Outside, we had a lot of snow this time last year. We made
some necessary accommodations to try some planting
activities inside instead! 

 Despite the wintry weather outside, we had some Tu B'Shevat themed fun last year were planting kitchen herbs together indoors. I set out an old tablecloth as a drop cloth, provided a bowl full of dirt and some small shovels and let my little guy (about 18 months old at the time) fill our planter with soil. I helped him put the seeds in the soil and water it before setting it on our kitchen windowsill. It is common to plant trees in Israel on this holiday. In the states, we often plant parsley that will (hopefully) come to fruition in time for Pesach (Passover) and grace our seder plates!

Definitely glad I tossed that old tablecloth down! He had fun, though!

I covered his little table with white craft paper last year and prepared a tree trunk on it in advance. Each day, I provided a new medium for adding leaves, flowers, even fruits to the tabletop mural. He loved working on it with his babysitter and while we were at home together. Afterward, we cut it out and hung it in his room beside his bed to admire for months to come!

We had some fun exploring the four seasons of a tree as well. I cut down some recycled brown paper bags for tree trunks and branches and glued them to four sheets of easel paper. Each tree trunk was devoted to one season and we used paint and a round sponge brush to paint each one together. These we hung along our staircase to be admired each time we went up or down. I'm looking forward to digging them out of the closet this year to admire again. While I do not save every bit of art we create, I do save some special items from each theme and season. It's wonderful to hang them up again as we revisit familiar themes or come upon holidays each year.


Winter, Spring, Summer...
On a smaller scale, my son also enjoyed making a colorful tree by adding his rainbow fingerprints (washable ink-pad) as leaves to a pre-painted tree trunk. 
We took an evening to do some family art together and made a Family Tree on canvas. Again, I painted a simple tree trunk and branches onto a blank canvas and allowed it to dry. As a family, we each chose a color of buttons (I happened to find some fun colors and shapes at our Dollar Tree) and using white glue and paintbrushes, stuck our button leaves to our Family Tree. The finished product still hangs in my son's room and is a beloved piece of family art.

 All of that planting and creating made us hungry. Next it was time for a tree-themed snack. We decided upon a peanut butter sandwich tree with raisin "fruits" growing on it.
He decided to pick off the raisins first and then tackle the sandwich!
Even very young ones (and adults alike) can enjoy learning about Tu B'Shevat! And while preparing art projects and planting activities are great ways to include the whole family in the process, it needn't be so involved or include a lot of preparation at all. In fact, the greatest way to learn about and appreciate trees is to enjoy them in their natural environment--outside! Whether it's snowing where you are or mild this time of year, getting outside together is a great way to observe and celebrate trees.

We are feeling nostalgic here as we revisit last year's activities and creations and feeling excited for the new level of independence that this year will bring as we gear up for Tu B'Shevat. Until then...

Happy Playing!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Tu B'Shevat and Trees Theme: Introduction

A vertical art opportunity: I prepared
a sheet of easel paper with a tree trunk
and will provide a variety of art & craft
materials in the bag on the door handle
over the next couple of weeks for
We are beginning a new theme with the new Jewish month of Shevat, which began over Shabbat this past weekend. Tu B'Shevat, or the 15th of Shevat is the annual "new year" or "birthday" of the trees in Jewish tradition. In Israel this marks the beginning of the fruit-bearing cycles of the earliest blooming trees. Here in many places, the trees are still dormant in their wintry rest (if not covered by snow)! Nonetheless, it is a wonderful time to teach children about the seasonal cycle of trees, how they grow, and all that they provide for us and animals alike. I particularly like to take this time to review the four seasons and to introduce the important concept of taking care of our planet so that it can continue to care for us.

We have already begun to set the stage by setting up our play and learning area with some new themed activities and materials. Our unit will carry us into the next couple of weeks, culminating on Tu B'Shevat, which will be observed this year from sundown on February 10 to nightfall on February 11. You can read more about Tu B'Shevat here. Our unit will include a lot of nature-based play (we are fortunate to be having a pretty mild winter season here), process art, science, sensory play, great literature and some fun learning activities and projects as well.

Our Nature Observation Station is set to observe parts of a tree. It's a small collection right now (leftover from our Autumn theme, but will grow as we continue collecting on some tree themed nature scavenger hunts. We also have a couple of our old favorite Tu B'Shevat books (plus a new puzzle for matching baby animals to their parent animals that my son was very excited about--and trees definitely provide food and shelter for a lot of different animals!).

I adapted our Autmn tree felt set to include accessories for all four seasons so we can observe and play about a year in the life of a tree. In addition to the trunk and branches, I added velcro dots to some Autumn leaves, some artificial ivy leaves pulled from a Dollar Tree vine I'd used over Sukkot for our play sukkah, some artificial flowers and some foam snowflakes. I love creating my own homeschool materials as we go along and I aim not to break our budget in doing so. Everything we used to make this felt set was already something we had previously used for another theme or activity. What better way to teach about the importance of recycling than to model it in action?

One thing I did purchase for this unit was a package of wooden craft disks with the bark still attached. I love natural materials for play and see so many ways we can use these for this theme as well as in the future. Right now they are in a STEAM drawer with an invitation to build/trace a shape. (I just printed off and laminated these coloring sheets from ColoringCastle.comhttp://www.coloringcastle.com/. They could definitely be used with other loose parts, blocks, playdough, clay or dry erase markers as well.)

We had some great books at home and found several more at our local library. Some great sub-themes to a unit on trees can include birds and animals who live in trees, plants and planting, recycling and being kind to the environment, the four seasons and foods and materials we get from trees. I came across a great list of suggested tree-themed reading along with corresponding activities on one of my favorite blogs, Fantastic Fun and Learning.

I hit up another great blog, Picklebums, for some fun, free printable planting themed playdough mats. I printed and laminated them to use with playdough, clay, loose parts and dry erase markers.

One of our favorite books of all time and a great one for a tree theme is Bill Martin's Chicka Chicka Boom Boom. My son has been really into his letters lately and alphabet themed activities. This shelf is set up to incorporate that (along with another favorite alphabet book) with a laminated picture of the famous coconut tree--ready to use with magnet letters or dry erase markers. This is a great way to sneak some letter review into the middle of the year. I taped our laminated coconut tree to a cookie sheet for a magnetic surface. It can be used independently or with guided activities to spell a name, word, to work on certain letters or even the whole alphabet as you retell the story. We also have an audio version of the book that my son loves to read along with (or listen along with in the car).

We did some Art Center revamping for this theme as well. We swapped out some materials from our last unit and swapped in a scrap paper/recycled greeting card tray and a recycling bin for items we collect at home that we can use for cutting practice, process art, collages and craft projects...

....and a variety of other things! My son took to the recycling bin right away! He has big plans for our little cardboard tubes!

We are excited to embark on our tree unit (pun definitely intended), but for now I will leave (yup, I did it again) with this:

Happy Playing!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Around the World: Shalom from Israel!

This made for a great Table Time activity this
morning when the "teacher" overslept a bit
and hadn't had coffee before her pupil woke up!
Shalom from Israel! Our home preschool Around the World unit would not be complete without a visit to Israel. The curriculum I have created for the year will include a longer unit on Israel closer to Yom Ha'atmazut (Israeli Independence Day), but we did make a two day stop on our worldwide trip this week. We began our visit by learning about the Israeli flag using a playdough mat (just a print of Israel's flag that I laminated), some blue playdough, a rolling pin and Star of David shaped cookie cutters.

We used a couple of books we already had at home to assist us in our learning journey.

This book has great photographs of various destinations in Israel and takes the reader through the spectrum of the rainbow--including Hebrew words for color names!

We teach our son a variety of words in Hebrew and Yiddish. This book has great illustrations and a variety of useful vocabulary words that would enhance any Jewish home!
Our Israel visit was also a great opportunity to incorporate a long-term project we've been working on as part of our Jewish curriculum. We've been creating a book of the Twelve Pesukim, twelve Torah passages selected by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson as the twelve most important pieces of Jewish literature for children to learn by heart. My son has been learning to repeat and say these passages from the time he could first speak and he feels so proud to be creating his own book.

We had a lot of fun pretending to visit a kibbutz and playing with the farm animals there. He loved singing some of his favorite farm themed songs while we were at it!

We took a creative spin on learning about the Dead Sea and made some "Jaffa Orange Scented Dead Sea Bath Salts." To make your own at home...
You will need:

  • Epsom salt
  • Sweet orange essential oil
  • yellow and red food coloring
  • a ziplock bag and container/scoop for the salt
We scooped some Epsom salt into the ziplock bag. My son decided we needed four cups! To that I added several drops of essential oil and a few drops each of yellow and red food coloring.

Next it was time to seal the bag and shake it up! 

The results smelled wonderful and took on a lovely shade of orange! My son is very excited to try a bit in his bath tonight. These would also make a great homemade gift and could be made with any of your favorite essential oils and with or without food coloring.

 The bath salts smelled good enough to eat, so the last part of our trip included some edible (or drinkable) fun with squeezing our own orange juice! I recently purchased a simple citrus juicer from Walmart to use with my son. There are certainly a lot of electronic options out there, but I love the gross motor, fine motor and sensory development aspects of using the old fashioned kind. We love to do kitchen activities together and they can be very involved sometimes when it comes to baking and cooking. This was about $4 well spent and proof that you don't need a lot of tools or a lot of ingredients to have a great experience getting your kids into the kitchen!
We talked about and observed the parts of the fruit: the rind/peel, the pulp/fruit and the juice inside!

We did not have any Jaffa oranges available but we had recently bought some Cara Cara pink oranges and they were up to the task of being squeezed into some very sweet and tasty orange juice! It took some practice and demonstration to learn how to use his hands to squeeze and turn the orange halves simultaneously, but he mastered it and was quite pleased.

As an added bonus, he actually enjoyed trying (and finishing) what we made! Many times this is not the case with our baking and cooking adventures...
We had a great time on our visit to Israel. We have just a couple of more stops now to the continents of Australia and Africa where we will playfully and artfully explore the vast array of wildlife on a pretend Safari! Until then, happy playing!

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Around the World: Namaste from India!

 Namaste from India! It's hard to believe we've "traveled" to ten amazing countries in this unit and we are dwindling down with just a few more stops before we return home to the United States at the beginning of next week and then move on from our Around the World unit. I wondered at the beginning of this how my toddler would do with a learning theme I had only taught to four and five year olds before. We've both learned a lot! For me, I have really seen how adaptable this subject matter can be to toddlers--especially if you include toddler-friendly methods of exploring it. We used a lot of multi-sensory exploration, kitchen activities, dramatic play, building materials to teach about architecture, repetition of familiar songs, some arts & crafts and a lot of opportunities to look at great library books--both fiction and non-fiction. Having a variety of approaches really helped keep things exciting and interesting for us and ensured that if one type of activity was not a real winner, another one would be.

Repetition of predictable routines was also an invaluable tool. Every time we've "traveled" to a new country, we've done so with the same songs, a bit of airplane dramatic play and a stamp in our passport upon arrival. This is not something that gets boring for children, but rather something that is familiar and ignites interest and enthusiasm. For most of our destinations, I've also provided a non-fiction book to leaf through so my son can see photographs of familiar concepts in a novel environment. He especially likes to see pictures of other children, food, transportation and animals. Including select children's fiction in the mix also enhanced our experience. My son loves helping in the kitchen and was really interested in the colorful photographs of food and spices in our book about India. I was very excited to offer him a hands (and nose)-on experience of painting with spices!

I am never sure exactly how my son will respond to any activity. He can display a great deal of excitement only to remain with a project for a few minutes and then move on. Other times, he may be hesitant to try or begin something, but sit with it at length. I was really impressed with how long this activity held his concentration and interest! It encouraged a lot of language development as well as he initiated conversations about using spices in cooking and what he was painting about (in this case, "robots" and "snakes," as my husband had participated a bit in our homeschool activity by showing our son a video of snake charmers in India and a robot used to help catch snakes!).

To set up our activity, I filled a plastic tray from our recycling bin with a variety of colorful and aromatic spices: turmeric, paprika, cinnamon, ground mustard, dill weed, and chili powder. You could use any spices you have on hand. I wanted at least some of the scents to be familiar (like cinnamon) and some to be particularly rich in color (like chili powder and turmeric). I also wanted to include a little texture variety (hence the dill weed). I also filled a recycled plastic container with school glue that I added vanilla extract to for scent. It did not take on quite as rich of an aroma as I'd hoped but I didn't want to use too much pure vanilla extract in glue! We started the activity by setting out the spice tray and a magnifying glass. I allowed my son to observe the spices up close and notice the different colors and textures. I did not dissuade him from touching them either! Next, I explained that we would now be using them for some artwork and making a spice painting. I set out the glue dish with a brush. He hesitated a bit primarily as though he wasn't sure what to do. I demonstrated dipping the brush in glue and "painting" it on the paper (we actually used a thick matte cardboard that was recycled from a frame shop). I pinched a bit of one of the spices between my fingers and sprinkled it on top. That was all the instruction my son needed and he went to town!

Many times, my son does not like the feeling of his hands getting sticky or to have his hands dirty. I provide a wet washcloth next to messier projects so he has the option to wipe off his hands without having to leave an activity. This time, he mostly wanted to wipe them on his shirt! If you're concerned about staining, you may want to use a smock or cover-up! We did cover our work table with a disposable tablecloth so we could easily shake our finished work over the top and then roll it up and toss it. My little artist had fun sprinkling spices on glue, sprinkling them in glue, painting with the now very colorful glue and exploring the different textures as it thickened with spices in certain areas of his artwork. Then, he went back to sprinkling spices over the top. It was incredible to watch his concentration and curiosity in action. This was truly process art at its best. I was not focused on the end result and he was totally focused on the experience.

When I taught my son the way to greet others in Hindi, "Namaste," he recognized the word from our yoga activities. yoga would surely be a part of our visit to India. We love the Cosmic Kids Yoga series on YouTube for home yoga sessions. We've also checked out some wonderful DVDs for children from our library and even come across or created some routines at home through online resources like Pink Oatmeal.
My little yogi!

Lastly, we took to our kitchen to make an adapted version of this simple recipe for Indian Rice Pudding. I'm hopeful that my particular eater will want to actually try it, but if not, I definitely think it is a suitable breakfast food for me!

That's all for this leg of our trip. Join us in Israel next time where we will try our hands at replicating the Israeli flag with playdough, making our own homemade "Dead Sea" bath salts, playing about farm life at the kibbutz, juicing oranges like the ones that grow in Jaffa, making hummus from scratch and tasting some of our favorite Israeli cuisine. See you there--and until then, happy playing!

Monday, January 23, 2017

Around the World: Kon'nichiwa From Japan!

 Kon'nichiwa from Japan! That's where our most recent Around the World adventure took us. My son loved seeing photos of Japanese school children in a non-fiction book we borrowed from our library all about Japan. This post, however, is about more than just our homeschool travel adventures... If you've been following along here for a while, you've probably read a lot about our learning activities and seen photos of an actively engaged and eager little student. Much of our time is like that, but not all of it! Teaching is a profession that requires one to play a number of roles and when we teach other people's children, we do a great deal of multitasking. Work is brought home and we spend a lot of time thinking, planning and troubleshooting both in and out of the classroom. When the home is your classroom and your student is your child, there are some additional roles we play. We don't stop being Mommy when we teach and our attachments and investments are as enormous as the love we feel for our children. All of the questioning, guilt, concern and pressure we put on ourselves daily as mothers and wives also becomes a part of our inner dialogue now as Teacher--and it doesn't end when the school bell rings! Add to that the fact that we NEVER leave the office--whichever office it is. When home is the classroom, there is teaching and learning to do, laundry and phone calls, dishes and cooking... One of the greatest accomplishments I've come to achieve in homeschooling this year is being able to quiet the unhelpful voice running through my head, and being able to relish the ability to adapt and change our plans as our family needs fluctuate.  Being able to give and receive support in groups of others in my position has been invaluable. Collaboration as a homeschool educator is not quite like it is in a school environment, but there is a great wealth of support and encouragement thanks to online groups and I am also truly blessed to have the greatest support and encouragement from my own family! So in today's post, you'll still see cute photos of my enthusiastic little pupil, but you'll also read about some of the less photogenic moments of our day and the parts that don't get caught on camera. I think that's quite important!
     My son has been VERY busy playing since we did a little remodeling/reorganizing in our play area and I've encouraged him to take his time with play activities rather than force school activities to happen in a particular time frame. We did fewer "formal" preschool activities toward the end of our week last week and more open playtime. I truly value that as one of the greatest benefits of our homeschool model. Life is full of opportunities to work--everyone needs a little more playtime! When he is particularly engrossed in an activity, I might work toward a transition by giving prompts, using a visual timer and singing familiar transition songs if we must move on to another activity or leave the house, etc. However, if we are not on a specific schedule and he is particularly engrossed in another activity, I might just set out materials to invite him to a school activity, let him know that it is available and then gauge his interest level from there. In times I have truly wanted a child (even my own) to engage with a material or activity and he/she is resistant or not interested, I've had greater success by sitting with the activity myself and saying nothing at all than with persistently encouraging the child to participate. So after going through our traditional Morning Circle mostly alone and then weathering the storm of tears that happened when my little student decided he did want to do Morning Circle after all, I held him on my lap and said "it really looks like you want to play with your toys and that's OK! It's so exciting to have our new drawers and your very own art center and there is enough time to do everything. We can spend some time playing and when you feel ready, we can do more school." And he was off to play as I set out some origami on our work table. Sure enough, he came over to the table after a few minutes, still mixing up a pretend cake from his kitchen and ready to try his little hands at folding paper into a few of his favorite animals!

He loved looking through pictures in the origami animals book we borrowed from our library and picking a few of his favorites to try. At his age, his biggest role in folding was assisting with creasing and flipping over the paper when instructed. We happen to have some origami paper at home, but you could use (and even decorate) your own regular paper and cut it to a square in your desired size.

We made dogs, cats and bunnies! He loved "adding two noses" to this dog and playing with all of the animals throughout the afternoon. We even used blocks to build a little doghouse and playground for them.

Smiling at our creations! Origami is a great, mess-free activity that little ones can enjoy with help from a larger set of hands and older children can really get into independently!

We've loved learning about and viewing the flags from different countries as we "travel" around the world. This week, I created a journal activity for my son to "build" his own Japanese flags out of familiar shapes and materials. I provided one sample already done as well as a photo in a book we checked out from the library. I provided the remainder of the materials (3 pre-cut white rectangles, 3 red dot labels and a glue stick) on a tray. The first day I set this out, my son was so excited and dug right in! He did not even wait for instructions and got right to his own version of putting together the Japanese flag. And then I made a Mommy mistake. I intruded. I gave instructions on how to do it properly and he grew very insulted and frustrated. I was in a bit of a rush as well and about to head out to my very part time job and the babysitter was on her way. I suggested we put away the materials and try again another time when we were less frustrated and to be quite honest, I felt horrible about it. I thought about it as I was driving to work and as I was driving home. Why was I so hard on him? I wouldn't be so hard on another student? Why did it matter if he put glue on the sticker or glued it the "wrong way?" I also had provided a brand new activity with several variables and steps and not provided any step-by-step instruction in a way that he could understand at his developmental level. Lucky for me, my toddler has a much more positive attitude than I do with these things (and that's when he becomes my teacher)! I set it out the next day, we sat together and took it step by step and he was quite proud and pleased to try it again! After he completed putting the flags together and gluing them where he wanted to on the journal pages, we counted together the total number of Japanese flags: four in all. No, this was not the "picture perfect" teaching scenario--but what we did learn through the experience is that everyone gets frustrated and that it is OK (and even helpful) to take a break from our intense emotions and return to a situation later when the power of the waves has lessened.

And my other Teacher-Mommy snafu last week? My husband made AMAZING sushi for us for dinner on Thursday night and we scarfed it down before I could take a photo!

Today I wish you all happy parenting, happy teaching and happy learning--these are all part and parcel to an environment of happy playing!

Friday, January 20, 2017

An Updated Peek In Our Playroom

A current view of our toy/material shelves. I try to keep only
a few materials on each shelf. Heavier ones are kept on the
bottom for easier accessibility. Having some of our theme based
learning trays on top keeps them readily in view and the
 trays make for easy storage and transport. 
I recently came across a great article on the blog "Pocket of Preschool" about setting up and planning a preschool classroom art center. As a classroom teachers, my art centers often grew and transformed as my students did, and this natural flow was never something I struggled with. At home, I admittedly fell into a bit of a rut. I'd had a burst of inspiration right before my son turned two (after reading a different blog article) to start keeping some art materials at child level for him to access independently and took on the task of teaching him how to get the markers or crayons he wanted to use, bring them to the table (keep them at the table!) and put them away when he was done. Over time, I added a few things here and there, but it was still always the same collection of materials and many of the other art supplies and accessories we use daily were still out of reach. In our home preschool, I rotate and swap other materials, toys and books all of the time. After reading about the importance of doing this in a classroom art center, I was suddenly inspired again to revamp the way we were utilizing our art center at home. While checking out other posts on "Pocket of Preschool," I also came across this one on ways to incorporate and use more STEM related activities. The wheels were turning and it was time for a bit of a playroom/classroom revamp here!

My goals with the updates we made were:

  • to foster independent play and exploration by creating an inviting and accessible environment.  This is always a huge one for me! I want my play and learning space to truly be geared toward my target audience--my child! If he can't easily see or access materials, he will likely not use them at all, grow frustrated at trying to, or require my assistance constantly throughout the day. 
  • to inspire and encourage more child-led art exploration. We do a lot of artwork here--both process art/child-led activities and adult-directed projects. On occasion, my son will take out his crayons or markers, but then needed my help to get a piece of paper and an art mat. Most of the time, our art activities were initiated and set up by yours truly. He may have a hand in gathering the materials that were at his reach and much of the time that artwork is child-led, but he could not really do much completely independently with our previous set-up. As a result, he does enjoy doing art activities but does not often initiate them.
  • to incorporate more STEM/STEAM activities into our routine using the toys and materials we already have. As you know if you've followed my blog so far, we LOVE science here. Much of our science, technology, engineering, art and math experiences are incorporated into our free play and some of the time we also focus on these skills through our themed learning activities. I'm very big on using what we have and not reinventing the wheel. That said, organization and storage are often a challenge in our smaller space. I love an overall minimalist approach and for our shelves to not be too busy with too much stuff at any one time. My son has some toys and activities he loves to do all of the time, so I don't want for those items not to be accessible to him. Manipulatives and building toys in particular are so integral to the development of STEM based skills, so another major goal in our playroom revamp was to organize a way for these to be available consistently while still having a calm and inviting shelf space. Thus my "STEAM Cart" idea was born!
Our new drawer organizer with picture
labels to help identify what's inside each drawer!
I did make one purchase for this playroom revamp: a ten drawer organizer. These are available at a lot of craft stores, office supply stores and online. I am currently using it as my "STEAM Cart" to store a variety of manipulatives, building toys and and certain related art materials. Plastic drawers are such a versatile organizational tool. These would also make an amazing art cart, quiet box/work box center or homework center. My plan for now is to adjust, swap and rotate materials in our drawers as we explore new themes and units. In the beginning, I kept it pretty neutral as I wanted to introduce the concept to my son. 
I was curious how he would react. I do plan to use labels with pictures so he can identify from the outside what is inside each drawer. Sometimes when something is "out of sight" with my little guy, it is also "out of mind," and he may be less inclined to play with something that is not readily visible. I planned to take him on a tour of the STEAM Cart and show him how to open/remove drawers, combine certain materials, clean up when he's done, etc. He found them before I even got the chance and got right to it! I stand corrected... He loved opening each one to see what was inside and immediately took to this new set up. He was so excited by the novelty of it all (even though none of the contents are new) that he insisted on cleaning up his gears and putting the drawer away before we left for his playgroup this morning! He was so busy with it, in fact, that he's yet to notice the new art center. He will surely have an opportunity to explore that once his nap is over.

Here's a peek in our playroom right now with some of our favorite things:

Play-dough and dry-erase shapes and colors practice are great materials for inspiring fine-motor development while including building/engineering, math and art!
While I do often teach my son to put away one toy before taking out another, I also like to introduce the idea of combining a couple of toys together. Adding little people or animals, cars or blocks, even natural materials like rocks and stones to building activities can encourage new ways of building, exploring and encourage abstract/dramatic play.

We're also loving the drawers for smaller building sets, manipulatives and puzzles.

Combining a book, prompt/invitation or challenge card can inspire new activities with familiar materials. As part of our Around the World theme, we took on the challenge of building the Great Wall of China on
a smaller scale from the comfort of our living room!
Wall space at child-level is also a commodity that is often overlooked. I love rotating through a variety of activities to encourage vertical work, which is so very important to development. Craft paper, contact paper, felt, dry erase/chalkboards and more can be great ways to utilize such space. This is a simple set-up for a sticker wall--literally just craft paper taped to the door and an envelope with some stickers. Peeling and sticking are great for the development of fine motor skills!

And our art center...
Now paper, art mats, crayons & markers, and writing materials are
all readily accessible to my son. Additional materials (like the chalk
pastels, rubber stamps, chalk/chalkboard) might be rotated
and swapped out over time. When we don't want this area
to be readily accessible, we just drape a sheet over the front.

Our "Writing Center" is ready to go with pencils/colored pencils,
scissors and glue sticks, his journals and a few coloring books.
The materials in here, too, can be rotated or swapped over time
to introduce and inspire new ways of practicing and developing
fine-motor and pre-writing skills.
Hope you enjoyed our little tour. Happy playing!