Willow Tree Wisdom

 

My fondest early childhood memory was time I spent in our willow tree. It was a grand weeping willow with branches that nearly touched the ground and had perfect climbing branches. I remember needing a milk crate to pull myself up onto the first limb, but once I was up there I could escape to my own little world.

The rustle of the leaves, the light greenish yellow leaves, the aromas of nature all around, the texture of the bark…I can vividly remember that tree and often escaped there, even now when I feel worried I bring it back into my memory. Perched atop an old weeping willow is my ‘happy place’.

As a child, I often played school while perched in the tree and my imagination soared. I could hear my older brothers playing in other parts of the yard or across the street with friends. I could hear my mother working in our greenhouse or in the yard, but more than anything I wanted the solitude that my willow tree offered. In my tree I could forget the dilapidated house that we lived in, forget how awkward I felt when I was around other children, and best of all, in my willow tree perch I didn’t need to talk to anyone.

As fate would have it the name of town that we lived in was Willow Grove, and I remember thinking that sitting high up in a willow tree in a town of the same name must have qualified it as some sort of magical place. 

Now as an educator I am often at professional trainings and the speaker asks us to reflect on our fondest memory and to consider why that particular memory sticks. I remember when we first moved to that house that it was in shambles. The basement was filled with trash from the previous owner, there was no running water, the floors were creaky, the walls unfinished, and no heating. I can remember my mom’s optimism and vision of what the house would become but I knew that she hated it as much as I did. Though we made slow improvements to the house it never felt like to me a home, so whenever possible I remember wanting to spend time outdoors. The willow tree was an escape.

The first year living in that house I was in first grade, and I remember riding the school bus and trying not to cry but by the time I got to school I would lock myself in the girls bathroom and sob and rock until someone forced me to come out. School was dreadful and hard. I remember being pulled out of class for intensive speech therapy and was certain that I was the stupidest child in the class. I also remember slowly making progress and slowly feeling a bit better. I remember my mom meeting with my primary grade teachers and talking with them about why I was so fearful.

We lived in that house for four years and though many of my memories of those years are blurry and painful I remember my willow tree as a place of solitude and escape. When it was time to move I remember thinking how glad I was to leave the hell-hole of a house behind, but my heart ached to say good-bye to my willow tree.

As a child I felt that when I was in my “teaching tree” I was wise, powerful, and joyous. I didn’t need words to communicate and I could just be who I was. It was then that I discovered Mother Nature could be my most trusted teacher and I began to listen to the wind to help my world make sense. As we left that house for the last time the willow branches waved goodbye, but I knew that another one of nature’s glorious ‘sit spots’ awaited me. And luckily every new home that I have moved to has had some “glorious-just-perfect-for-me” place to sit and listen.

My home is now well insulated, built with sturdy walls, and most days relatively tidy…but I still continue to prioritize heading outside to a favorite ‘sit spot’ to listen to nature’s guidance. 

 

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The Sky Isn’t Falling: Being Present for Children

 

img_5404One of my favorite childhood stories was “Chicken Little” and as an early childhood teacher it’s in my top 10 read aloud books. I love this story because of the dramatics, the voices that I can use, and the how a simple misunderstanding puts everyone into a frenzy. Do you remember the story?

“The sky is falling, the sky is falling. I must run for my life.” And the heroine of the story, Chicken Little” is off to let the king know that something horrible has happened when, in fact, it was just an acorn that had hit her on the head.

In this classic tale, Chicken Little didn’t take time to “Stop and Think”.

Chicken Little didn’t think to reach up on top of her head to discover the source the thump. If she had she would have found an acorn and not the whole sky.

I love dissecting this story with children and talking about cause and effect. I want children to realize that sometimes things will happen to them, like a child accidentally bonking them on the head with a ball, and that it is our choice in how we react to the event. It is affirming for them to know yes, you got a bonk on your head, but why did that occur. Is it that your classmate meant to harm you or did their aim go astray when tossing the ball somewhere else? We get to teach children to reflect BEFORE they react, which really is a life lesson that we all could use.

My favorite version of this classic tale is by Rebecca and Ed Emberley because the illustrations are vivid and the dialogue is engaging. In this version ~ “Chicken Little was not the brightest chicken in the coop. He was very excitable and prone to foolishness.” This is a great phrase to explore with children, what does it mean to be “prone to foolishness”? In this version her friends are described “being witless”  and joining in without any further questions and without a plan. Lucky Ducky is described as “not wanting to be left out”, which opens the conversation about actions we take because others are doing something. In the Emberley version there is quite a plot twist at the end that is an age appropriate conversation to have with children about following someone without question.

Reading several versions of Chicken Little helps open up a discussion about how sometimes we think that ‘the sky is falling’ or some other really bad thing is happening. But if we take time to “Stop and think” and to “talk with a grown-up” that our worries might be really simple things to fix.

In most versions of this tale the main characters decide that they need to go on a journey to tell the King that there is an emergency that requires his urgent attention. This group of friends band together based on Chicken Little’s account of the incident. She had “seen it with her own eyes, heard it with her own ears, and felt it hit her head”. The sense of community that all her friends, who happen to have great names, (Henny Penny, Ducky Lucky, Cocky Locky, Goosey Loosey) help her step before the king and announce that she has discovered that the sky is falling.

After reading a couple of versions the children realize that in fact the world is not in a state of crisis. It is an acorn and not the atmosphere caving in upon itself. I try to drive home the point that if Chicken Little and her friends took the the time to “Stop and Think” they would have likely discovered the acorn themselves. (How empowering!) Or if they were that concerned that they could go to a grown up in their life and they would have helped them realize what was happening without needing to go on such a long journey.

So much valuable teaching from a classic tale!

With my grown-up students that I reach through leading professional development and community college there are also lessons for adults. In modern day, social media driven society, think of the many times that a perceived threat is magnified by a group of well being friends.  The hint of a scandalous story or revelation of a vague post by a friend leaves us wondering.  The quakes of social media with Twitter wars, viral videos, and Facebook feuds that suck us in and we spend way too much time on a screen journey. Isn’t this much like Chicken Little….are we running in a circle trying to help restore social order?

Society is defined as when two or more humans connect and interact. Those interactions are so much more important in real life, and our sense of belonging comes from working together.  As parents and care providers we need to focus on ‘social order’ of our homes or our classrooms which is where we have a meaningful impact. If we are constantly distracted with our screens and technologies are we really able to connect with our children, spouses, coworkers, and friends?

For people who work with children a daily basis it is so important to stay present in the NOW. Listening and interacting with the children in our care. Helping them to develop their own sense of belonging and to find their voice to communicate how they are feeling. Assisting children in expressing their own unique creativity through engaged PLAY. Honoring children’s stories and helping them to discover who they are. Offering learning environments built on mutual respect, safety, and the belief that every child matters. To do this work we must be in the present moment, and NOT on a screen.

As the adults in the learning environment we need to leave our grown up conversations about politics, current events and judgements at home. When doing the important work of caring for children we need to focus on building empathy and creating safe haven. We need to realize that TIME is the most important resource that we have, so we bring our best self into our programs and we focus on the children and families that we serve.

Though someone else might think the “sky is falling” and is alerting the world via social media, we do not need to like, retweet, or comment on it while we are working. Instead, we need to be fully present…exploring the acorns alongside the children!

 

 

Dough Recipes for PLAY

Feel free to print out this list to share with families. You might even attach a little note that says “Our class KNEADS fresh play dough every two weeks. Can we count on you to mix us up a bunch?”

person flattening dough with rolling pin
Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

 

 

Cloud Dough

Materials: 8 cups flour, 1 cup vegetable oil

Directions: gently stir the two ingredients together until well mixed. Add scoops, spoons, measuring cups, sand molds, silicone bowls, plastic cookie cutters, and popsicle sticks for cutting.

To color cloud dough: add crushed chalk, powdered paint, or “candy coloring” or “oil based food coloring”. (Regular food coloring is water based and will not mix with oil in the recipe.) To contain the mess: put the dough into a under the bed storage bin and lay it on a tarp

 

No Cook Play Dough

Materials: 2 cups flour, 2 tablespoon vegetable oil, ½ cup salt, 2 T. cream of tartar, up to 1.5 cups boiling water (adding in slowly until the texture feel right), food coloring.
Directions: Mix the dry ingredients together. Add food coloring to the boiling water and then stir into the dry ingredients. Stir until the dough combines. Allow to cool a bit and then knead for a few minutes until the dough feels smooth.

 

Kool-Aid Play Dough

Materials: 1 ¼  cup flour, ¼ cup salt, 1 pkg unsweetened Kool-aid powder, 1 cup boiling water, 1 ½  Tbsp vegetable oil
Directions: In a bowl, mix flour, salt and kool-aid.  Stir in water and oil. Knead with hands for about 5 minutes. Store in ziploc bag or air tight container. This play dough smell great which may be too much temptation for younger children, but it’s vivid color is awesome!

 

Seed or Grain Dough– make homemade dough as usual. When offering it to the children, set out small bowls of a variety of seeds or grains. Children can pretend to plant the seeds into the dough. Once the seeds are kneaded into the dough it has a great texture. Seeds to try —sunflower, flax, squash, pumpkin, wheat berries, corn, rice, poppy, or any excess seeds that you gathered from the previous growing season.

 

Bright White Play Dough

Materials: 1 cup cornstarch, 2 cup salt, 1 tbsp oil, 1 tbsp cream of tartar, 1 cup boiling (or nearly boiling) water, few drops liquid glycerin (makes it smoother), silver glitter

 

Directions: In a bowl, mix all the dry ingredients, then add the oil, grown up pours in boiling water, and mix. Let cool for a bit, then knead until smooth, add in glitter.

 

White Play Dough is great for making snowmen, add items to encourage snowmen creations:  buttons, small piece of shiny pipe cleaners, beans, and beads!!! Maybe for carrot noses make rolled orange paper beads?

 

 

Salt Dough

Materials: 1 cup salt, 2 cups all purpose flour, 1 cup luke warm water

 

Directions: Mix the dry ingredients together, then gradually stir in the water until it forms a dough consistency. Knead the dough for 5 minutes so that it is smooth. Let children create ornaments or 3D creations out of the salt dough, if the item will be hung, use a straw to poke a hole in it prior to baking.

Bake at 200F until dry. Most thin ornaments will dry in 1 hour, but thicker creations may need 2 hours. Check on the items, and if anything seems to be curling, flip over part way through the baking time.

After cooled, children can paint their creations with acrylic paint and a grown up can seal with clear varnish or polyurethane spray.

 

Communicating Food Education & Mealtime to Families

One of my core beliefs is that we need to integrate food education into our programs. If we are serving snacks and meals then we have a captive audience to talk about food! Now there are many things that I could say about my beliefs surround food education but today’s focus is some simple ways that we can communicate to families how we approach meal time. The way you approach mealtimes will likely change and I encourage you to keep thinking about your approach. I know my teaching practices shifted radically after I attended a week-long VT FEED training at my children’s school in 2011. There is no one-size-fits-all and therefore your approach might vary from mine, but this is how I frame meal time in my program. If you utilize the food program or work in a center be sure that your views match the guidelines in place. This blog post is written with the audience of families in mind, and I welcome you to ‘cut and paste’ & edit it for your own newsletters or print materials that you share with the families in your programs.

person holding black and brown food tray

Photo by rawpixel.com on Pexels.com

Research shows that a child needs up to 15 exposures before they will begin to like a new food, and if you are like me it’s hard to keep buying foods that I am not sure my child will eat. So here at Utopia Child Care we are working on becoming ‘adventurous eaters’, and each month we offer a wide variety of foods for your child to sample. It’s important to us that you child try new foods but at no time do we require any child to eat the foods we serve. Some of our approaches include:

  • We communicate to children the concepts “I don’t like it yet” and explain that as children get older they often begin to like more foods. Most young children want to be ‘big kids’ and sometimes this frame of mind helps them embrace the adventure.
  • We have a rule at meal time: “Don’t yuck my yum”. This simple phrase helps children learn to be respectful of other children’s food preferences and sets the tone that we can each like different foods.
  • We ask staff to avoid giving negative comments about particular foods or food groups.
  • Food is never used as a reward or as a punishment.
  • We will explore the “The Two Bite Club” and will be sending home a book for you to read with your child (see link below). This book is published by the USDA and explains MyPlate, food groups, and suggests that children try two bites of a new food.
  • We serve food family style which means that each child is able to serve themselves from dishes. This gives us the opportunity to explore making sure there is enough for every child, serving the amount that we think we will eat, and knowing that there is plenty for all of us. And yes, it does get messy, especially on spaghetti day, but it is an important motor skill to learn.
  • We teach about manners and how to use a napkin.
  • We also learn how to have an ongoing conversation with our friends at the table without talking over each other. There are no digital distractions during mealtime.
  • And best of all….we get to build community while we share a delicious meal.

 

Additional thoughts for providers ~~

Diversity and respect – as providers and educators it is essential that we honor the choices that a family makes about food. Families may have religious, ethical, medical, environmental, or spiritual reasons for choosing to eat they way they do at their home. Whether or not we are able to provide their needs is a conversation to have PRIOR to the child starting in a program. It is through open communication that parents can decide if what the program offers meets their needs.

Clean Plate Award – it’s engrained into our brains not to waste food, but more current research suggests that we teach children to listen to their bodies when they are full.

Garden- children who have access to picking fresh veggies from a garden (especially one they help plant and care for) will eat foods they have never tried. Their excitement about harvesting and connecting in the garden opens up their food palate like no other trick I know!

Compost- teach children where our trash, recycling, and compost go after we are done with a meal. Our food scraps, if composted, can be turned back into soil and the cycle begins again. Though the broccoli is still better off in your tummy then in the compost bin! J

“Outside Food” – the food struggle is real and parents will want to bring in food from the fast food joint they pass on the way to your program or extra snacks or special treats because it’s Tuesday. Picture the scenario from the parent’s point of view. They are running late and need to grab a cup of coffee before work, so they negotiate with their slow poke three year old that if they hurry up and get into the car they can have a treat. Been there, done that as a parent. The path of least resistance involves a munchkin from Dunkin or a breakfast sandwich from the drive through. If you do not want to allow ‘outside food’ into your program my suggestions is to have a clear written policy in your handbook that you consistently reinforce.

 “Two Bite Club” is an educational storybook published through the USDA. It is now available in English and in Spanish, was introduces “MyPlate” to young children. The cartoon characters model trying foods from every food group by eating just two bites, and there is a certificate at the back of the book for kids who take on the challenge as well. This book is now available as an eBook, can be downloaded as PDF, or ordered for FREE from this link https://www.fns.usda.gov/tn/two-bite-club-english-and-spanish

 

 

Don’t just take my word for it…for further reading:

“Creating the Nutritionally Purposeful Classroom” (2014) https://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/ycyoungchildren.69.5.8.pdf?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents

“Autonomy at mealtime: Building healthy food preference and eating behaviors in young children” from the Early Childhood Education Journal (1996) https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02430547

Check out the amazing resources published by VT FEED – Vermont Food Education Every Day and its parent organizations Shelburne Farms and NOFA-VT  https://vtfeed.org/feed-resource-library

 

Tech in Early Education?

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When asked about the role of technology in early childhood classrooms I get this little churn in the pit of my stomach. I have not embraced the need for screens for young children, and with the limited hours that my preschoolers are with me I want to offer them the very best that I can. So I have graciously declined having more than one iPad in my classroom and have removed all the desktop computers so the floor space could be used for (dare I say it) a learning center that is more developmentally appropriate. I also think in terms of economics…how many quality learning tools could I purchase with the money it would cost to buy a class set of iPads.

A few weeks ago in the grocery store a local early childhood educator that I know stopped to chat and told me she was working on her Master’s research project. Her topic of focus what technology in early ed and she was in the midst of reading 15 current research articles and soon would decide what her research would focus on.

I literally started to bite my lower lip. Positive self talk began in brain, “Be respectful, don’t jump up on soap box. Let her talk. Maybe you are getting old and grumpy, perhaps her research view might be more up to date.”

As we chatted I politely said that though other ECE providers are excited to learn that they will have 1:1 iPads for all the children in their programs, I have successfully held out. I mentioned wanting to spend more time in nature and to develop the indoor learning environment so it was play-rich, and that I believed there was no role in preschoolers needing to go to kindergarten with iPad skills.

The conversation ended politely but I thought maybe I should have a stronger opinion. Maybe I should voice my concern about the glare, the zoned-out-ed-ness, or the addiction that most all of us face with our smartphones, iPads, and laptops. Maybe I should question how our disconnected society of social media has trickled it’s way down to toddlers. Our passive consumerism now begins before our babies talk. YIKES!

So the next time someone asks my opinion I am going to reverse the question and ask them, “What kind of tasks that the child is engaged with on the screen?” I will listen attentively, and then my follow up question will be, “So is the app sort of like a digital worksheet?” Likely most conversations will end there and we will agree to disagree.

I know in my bones (and valid research supports) the fact that worksheets are NOT best practice for learners of any age, and especially more so for our youngest learners. Most apps are worksheets in disguise with cartoon characters, bright lights, things the move fast, and sounds. So just as we had to stand up and push back against spending our day completing workbooks with 3-5 year olds we need to push back against the invasion of technology.

We know that ample research proves the importance of PLAY in early childhood. We should no longer feel the need to defend our practice of creating uninterrupted blocks of time for children to play. Child-directed play where the learner gets to choose which part of the learning environment to spend their time. We need to be ready to protect play and we need to take an active in our role of explaining the value of play to our stakeholders.

This is where the one lonely iPad comes in handy. Through digital story telling, documentation panels, and/or weekly newsletters with photographs we can use the power of technology to make learning visible. We can show our administration the importance of play and demonstrate to them what the children are learning while engrossed in deep and meaningful play. Many administrators where preschool is located in a PreK-8 school have limited understanding of early childhood and developmentally appropriate practice. As professionals we can take what we know and show them through photos or videos how our children are learning and growing in all domains.

So the next time I am asked about the best use of technology in an early childhood setting I won’t have a queasy feeling in my stomach. I’ve got a boiled down one minute speech, which by the way you are more than welcome to borrow, steal, cut and paste, make into a meme, or sing from the mountaintops.

“The most powerful use of technology in an early childhood classroom is in capturing the action of ‘kids at play’. Through video, photos, or digital storytelling we can illustrate for parents and stakeholders the many ways that children grow through play. We can harness the power of technology to make visible the deep learning and engagement that happens every day in our early childhood programs.” ~April Zajko

 

For my college student friends – further reading from national organizations related to the topic:

NAEYC Position Statement on Technology and Media

American Academy of Pediatrics – The Power of Play 

 

 

 

 

 

Private and Quiet Spaces

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Imagine in your mind a preschool classroom and likely you immediately think of a busy, noisy, and chaotic room filled with little people running to and fro. Then imagine that you are a “quiet child”, what does this busy classroom look like to you?

As an early childhood educator, I want to ensure that my classroom is welcoming and inviting to ALL children. So as I design my classroom and set up my learning centers I want to ensure that there are spaces that are offer privacy and quiet for children to go to seek solitude. This might be the writing center that is sized for just two children at a time or a listening center with only two headsets. This might also be a small table in a corner of a classroom set up with a felt board or puzzles that invites just a couple of children at once.

The expectations of these private and quiet areas are explicitly taught to the children. We work towards learning not to interrupt children who are playing in these areas, that our voices are softer, and that we call all have a turn in the area when space allows.

These quiet and private spaces are not used as a punishment, and staff don’t send children there as time out. Rather these spaces are seen as an oasis that children learn to enjoy to select on their own. I share information with parents about how we use these spaces and encourage them to create a similar area at home.

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In addition to spaces for two children I also like to create an area that is designed for one child. I call this space “Tucker’s House” and introduce it after reading the book “Tucker Turtle Takes Time to Tuck and Think”. Tucker teaches young children in an age appropriate way how to manage his anger when things don’t go well. Including the soft turtle puppets and calm down toys are two other tools that support this area of the classroom. “Tucker Turtle” is a scripted story from the Center on the Social and Emotional Foundations for Early Learning, which can be downloaded for free at this link: http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu/resources/strategies.html

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I believe that creating these spaces for privacy and quiet help to empower children to know that when they feel like they need to take time to themselves that they can. Often I find that children retreat to these quieter areas and observe what is happening in other places in the room. It is important that we remember that about one third of the population is ‘introvert’ and that it is not our role to make children more extrovert.

One of the best books that I have read in my career is “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” This book really helped me understand that our ‘quiet children’ do not lack energy and are not missing social skills. Instead we need to honor introverts for who they are and that means that we create space for them to be in the role of observer, time to be reflective, and support in finding quiet amongst a busy classroom environment.

 

 

 

Nature Collections

 

Sometimes it’s the simplest of ideas that spark the best learning opportunities for young children. Inspiring children to create their own nature collections is one of those simple ideas that can be revisited throughout the year.

 

For the last eight years I have had the pleasure of teaching preschool in Vermont. And if you know anything about Vermont (or New England) one of the most beautiful times of year is autumn and people flock from all over to come ‘leaf peeping’. Children also love to go for autumn walks to gather treasures from nature. These first walks of the school year are memorable because the children are just getting to know our outdoor space and beginning to find all the JOY that is waiting for them to discover among the trees.

I love having the students bring nature materials into our classroom. It helps them to have ownership and increasing their sense of belonging. I do not like to do a traditional ‘show and tell’ because it quickly turns into ‘bring and brag’. Instead, I like to suggest that children bring in items they have found in nature and invite them to add to Nature Table all year. Children love visiting this part of our classroom and spend lots of time investigating the treasures we bring back from our walks and the looking at the materials classmates have found on their own journeys in nature.

Below is a sample handout that I print out and send home with my students. I attach it to a small brown paper lunch bag, and give the family about a week to return it filled. Again, a simple idea but one that encourages families to put down the cell phone and to head outdoors! Children beam when they bring back their filled bag, and are eager to spread out the treasures and chat about what they found!

Happy gathering!

~April

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Homework: Fall Nature Collection

We would like to give our students some outdoor ‘homework’ this week. We hope this encourages your whole family to go outside in the fresh autumn air to explore nature together.

Please take this bag along with you as explore so you can collect a variety of fall treasures to share with friends at school. Be sure to talk about the changes you see in your backyard and talk about how things look different from the summer. Point out the many colors of leaves, and smell the aromas of fall.

We will explore these treasures during the next few weeks, so please return their filled bag by _______________. We will gather all the materials together to compare and contrast what all the children found. We will use the ‘loose parts’ to build, explore, and play with by doing a variety of activities during the week. (NO MUSHROOMS PLEASE!)

Thanks for participating!

Mrs. Z