Life Lesson ~ Embrace Being a Tortoise

Proud of showing up and finishing the Groton Forest Trail Run 10K ~ Sept. 10, 2022

🐢 🐰 This week I was wavering in deciding whether or not to even show up. I was registered for the Groton Forest Trail Run 10K. I know my pace and I knew it would be hard. The three friends I had planned to race with all decided not to race. It was going to be a sunny and warm, but I also knew the humidity would slow me down. I had made a commitment to myself to participate but my summer training plans had gotten derailed so I felt like I had some great reason to skip it. I contemplated it all week and finally the day before I decided to commit to just showing up and finishing, regardless of my time. So the morning of the race, I wrote this reflection on my favorite Aesop fable. I definitely believe that there is a powerful life lesson on embracing being a tortoise! 🐢

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

“The Tortoise and the Hare” is one my favorite stories to share with children. This Aesop Fable resonates with my work as an early childhood educator, my life as a busy mom, and my fitness routine on my mountain bike and hiking mountains. When we let ourselves get into self limiting we can feel like we are too slow or barely keeping up. The lesson of “The Tortoise and the Hare” is a perfect reminder to live an intentional life and to shift our thinking!

Tortoise is in her own race, calm, steady, moving at her own pace, and not worried what others think. She shows up, does her best, and doesn’t allow competition to steal her joy.

Hare on the other hand, mocked Tortoise for being so slow and even had the audacity to take a nap mid-race. Hare wanted to boast and brag, and for Tortoise to see just how slow her pace was.

When Tortoise came upon Hare napping in the grass, she just continued on her merry way.

And it wasn’t until Tortoise was nearly to the finish line that Hare woke up. Despite his frenzied rush, going as fast as he could, pushing his legs to their maximum, wanting to prove to the others that he was still fastest even with the nap..but he just couldn’t get to the finish line before Tortoise.

At the finish line there was also a Community ~ other animals there to cheer and celebrate. In my version of this tale, I know that Tortoise was humble and kind. She had no interest in boasting and instead savored being in the company of others. She encouraged others do their own thing and to continue to work on being their best selves. She knew it had nothing to do with that finish line. That it wasn’t about the time or how many minutes it took to finish the race. It wasn’t about the data on her fit bit or the number on any scale for that matter. Rather it had everything to do with being present and enjoying the journey.

The lesson to me? Calm and consistent wins the race. Yes, there are likely others who seem ahead of you in life. Yes someone may have already achieved what you are still working hard to make happen. Yes, hare is a better runner but being frenzied isn’t how you want to feel. When you focus on doing your best and no longer allow the pressure of someone else’s judgement then no one can stop you. You find JOY in the journey!

How do you want to feel? Really think about this. You might be bombarded with the message that life is about winning, beating out others, and proving your worth. Can you step aside from those belief and tap into HOW you want to feel instead?
🐰 Frenzied and boastful?
🐢 Calm and consistent?

For me, I am going to enjoy the journey. Calm and consistent. Yes, I’ll eventually see you at the finish line! Probably with a stash of pretty leaves in my pocket that I gathered or a photo of a cool mushroom that I stopped to admire. But that’s the beauty of the loving your journey ~ you have the confidence to pause and savor the little moments! 🐢

Which direction are you headed? I want to encourage you to begin that thing you’ve been wanting to do! Whether it’s a race, a new business, or a writing that book…Calm and Consistent and Community will get you there! And I will be right over here cheering you on!

Rooted and ready,

April

Featured

Setting Up a Quiet Space Outdoors

Often we see quiet spaces or calm down spaces indoors in early education programs, but what could it look like if created a similar space outdoors? I believe children benefit from having a similar structure in their learning environments, both indoors and in their outdoor classroom. Here are some tips to get you started!

(Do you have pictures of your outdoor quiet space? I’d love it if you share them so I can add a variety of pictures to this blog post!)

Tips on creating your Outdoor Quiet Space:

  • Establish a space in your program as a “quiet” place and teach that this is a place a child can go when they need to relax, reset, and calm down. 
  • In one program they had designated spots outdoors as “Quiet Zones”. They used rope and triangle cloth flags to indicate these spaces (see picture above). This could be an easy way to create multiple areas and children could even help with the creation of flags so they had some feeling of ownership or belonging to the space.
  • I often establish a bean pole trellis (see picture below) that is easy to create and affordable. I just set up five bamboo poles that are 6 feet tall. Tie the top and create a trench around the base to plant bean seeds. This is a small enough space that creates some privacy and feels cozy. This same structure could be covered with cloth for similar privacy earlier in the season or when the plants have died off.
  • Another affordable space would be to build a simple fort structure. My son built the photo below for an outdoor program in my area. He built a solid main structure and the children added pine branches, other sticks, and leaf debris to create privacy.
  • Maybe the space is mobile ~ What about establishing a special “Quiet Chair” ~ perhaps tucked away in the garden or in an area of the Outdoor Classroom that tends to be less busy. Having a folding chair makes it mobile and could give children the options of moving their space or having multiple spaces.
  • Reinforce that this is a safe and cozy space that helps us feel calm and safe and that children can choose to go to this space to play alone for a while
  • Offer calm down materials, which outdoors might look like a bin that you bring out from storage with a few board books, a non-breakable sensory jar, and various loose parts to explore. 
  • Post a visual of the calm down technique you use in your program. To make this work outdoors, I laminate the visual and post it on the storage bin so it’s protected from the elements. In my preschool classroom I use the Tucker Turtle Technique. (see resources below)
  • Create a durable mini version of books that you use to teach social emotional skills. Lamination can help them last longer and you still may need to replace them yearly. 
  • Introduce the space during outdoor circle time and model how it is used. For our indoor “Tucker Turtle’s House” we only allow one child to be in the space, but I find this harder to manage outdoors. I would decide with your teaching team if it’s an ‘alone space’ or if a pair can be in there together. 
  • I tell a lot of social emotional stories with my turtle puppet. There are many life lessons that we can
  • Reinforce with simple tales of how turtles see things differently. Moving at their own pace, taking time to tuck & breathe, resting when they need to, have calm and confidence to race a speedy Hare, and the list goes on. 
  • Work with small groups to practice using the space and revisit it often so children remember why the quiet space is there. 
  • Reinforce the quiet place when you see them experiencing strong emotions or if a child seems like they need to regroup
  • Reinforce to staff that this space is NOT used as a punishment.
  • What if your group is on the go? Instead of a designated spot for the quiet space, maybe have a piece of cloth or small portion of yoga mat that serves as a spot that children can go to be alone. 
  • Our space indoors is a wooden cube, and using more durable materials I can imagine creating something similar outdoors though I have not yet created that myself. (If you have, I’d love to have additional pictures to add to this post!)
Affordable & easy quiet space ~ bean pole trellis!
Simple fort structure & kids add pine branches or leaf debris

Related Resources:

“The Quiet Chair” ~ tucked away in the garden

Resources for teaching “Tucker Turtle” from the Pyramid Model / Challenging Behavior 

https://challengingbehavior.org/?s=tucker+turtle

Check out Susan Cain’s Ted Talk and Book – “Quiet: The Power of Introverts”

Read more thoughts on my blog post ~ “Private & Quiet Spaces”

Daily Routines for Teacher Wellness

One of the keys to taking charge of your own personal wellness is to take ownership of your daily routines. 

This week I invite you to start small with ONE healthy habit. Something that is achievable and you know that you can stick with. Maybe drinking water or going for a ten minute walk. No matter how small that habit will help build momentum to other healthy habits. 

Then BRAINSTORM a list of different routines to try out throughout your day. Experiment and try out simple and easy morning & evening routines until you find something that feels right. This is not meant to be regimented and rigid, but rather more like an experiment to see what feels best for you! Start with small healthy habits and achievable actions. 

Try to find a mid-day mini-routine that acts as a reset before post lunch slump comes. For me, 2pm is the time that I seem to want to grab a sugary treat or raid the staff room candy jar. I have found that if I take a couple of minutes to make a cup of tea that I am more energized and can finish out my work day on a happy note!

Explore & have fun with this process! For me, one routine is to make sure that I make time to be outdoors everyday. I find a quick walk on my trails in the forest, a little bit of time in the garden, or even sitting out on the patio noticing the birds helps me refocus, especially after a long day working with children. This time outdoors helps me to feel more connected to nature and to myself!

Photo by Hassan OUAJBIR on Pexels.com
  • Tips for successful routines:
  • Explore what routines work best for you and prioritize those habits in your daily schedule. 
  • Small, realistic, achievable goals. 
  • Written Self Care Action Plans are more effective than thinking about or dreaming about what you might do. Write it down and make a commitment to YOU! 
  • Consistency & preparation are key to making routines easy to implement
  • Accountability partners can help you meet with success!
  • Enjoy the process, gentle self awareness & positive self talk make a HUGE difference! 
  • Set backs, stumbling blocks, life happens – just pick up and keep going! 
  • Remember, your wellness is vital to your physical and mental health so take the time to invest in yourself!
April Zajko, M.Ed, is an experienced nature-based early childhood educator and serves as a professional development leader, college faculty member, and educational consultant. April brings straightforward practical knowledge, rooted in best practices, with humor and tales from the classroom. April is committed to supporting educators bring nature based approaches into their classrooms and early childhood programs. April moderates an active Facebook group called “Nature Inspired Teacher” where she supports educators who want to to dive deeper into this powerful way of supporting children. 

Cozy Winter Nook

 

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We don’t have to escape to a fancy hotel or retreat center…instead we can create a nurturing space at home! Though if you ever get the chance to stay at the Shelburne Farms, pictured above, take the opportunity.

Imagine carving out a space in your home that makes you feel warm and cozy. Maybe it’s a spot to sit and read, maybe it’s a spot to paint, maybe it’s where you lay your yoga mat, or maybe it’s just a spot to do absolutely nothing! 

This week I want you to brainstorm ways that you could create a “Cozy Winter Nook” that offers comfort and softness for you to enjoy over the next couple of months. Winter is a perfect time to embrace slowing down and taking time to nurture ourselves.

This can become a space that is your own personal retreat that you can look forward to at the end of each day. Or a space for you to linger longer during the weekends. We should be making time and space for “purposeful rest” and intentionally schedule in time as a way to refuel and recharge yourself. 

Step 1. Brainstorm: “If you were to add items to a drawer in your bedroom (or a basket) that reminded you to rest, what would you put in there?”

Step 2: Create SPACE: Begin to create the PHYSICAL SPACE by decluttering an area that feels good for you to rest…but don’t get so wrapped up in cleaning that you forget to sit & enjoy your cozy nook! We often need a gentle reminder that rest is important so also create MENTAL SPACE and agree that when you visit your cozy nook it isn’t to be “productive”. Think of what nourishes you and helps you relax…reading for pleasure, painting, journaling, doodling, meditating, etc.

Step 3: Commit to using your space for rest and relaxation on a regular basis. What frequency feels right to you~ daily for 10 minutes, 3 times per week…

What ground rules do you want to set for yourself ~ phone in a different room, little sign you put on the door so the family leaves you alone for 10 minutes…

Set yourself an achievable “Purposeful REST Goal” and write it down as part of your “Wellness Action Plan” 

Step 4: Reflect Write down a few words about how your cozy nook supports you. Post it somewhere so you are reminded to revisit and prioritize “cozy nook time”! When we take time to reflect we begin to be intentional with how we spend our time and reminds us to see the beauty all around us.

P.O.W.E.R. ~ Path of Wellness, Environment, & Relationship

“P.O.W.E.R. – Path of Wellness, Environment, and Relationships” Hybrid E-Course – Are you ready to reclaim your inner power and clear a path toward the life you envision? Join me this summer for a six-week online course that will help you reconnect to your most powerful self.  With all that is happening in the world it is easy to feel like we are giving away our power, burning our candle at both ends while we are on a hamster wheel not getting to where we want to go. This course will help you identify how to refuel so that you prevent burning out.

We will will practice recognizing and addressing issues related to vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue.

We will explore the eight domains of wellness and determine which areas to add focus and attention.

We will discuss ways to improve the environments that we live, work, and socialize that align with our core values.

We will brainstorm how to develop nurturing and supportive relationships as a way to build support one another.

Throughout the six week course, participants will hear inspiring stories of growth and transformation that others have found on their own path back to their P.O.W.E.R.

“P.O.W.E.R. – Path of Wellness, Environment, and Relationships” – the summer course begins the week of July 11th and runs for six weeks. There will be six meetings “in real time” on Zoom for one hour ~ day of the week & time to be determined. There will also be at your own pace assignments to help integrate the strategies into your life.

Investment: $197

Registration is not yet open ~ but to get on the list to be notified, email – April Zajko, M.Ed. ~ aprilzajko@gmail.com

April Zajko, M.Ed. is the founder and owner of April’s Teaching Tree, a consulting business that aims to deepen our roots in connecting to nature and stepping into our full powerful selves. April has led professional development programs for hundreds of teachers and child care providers throughout the state of Vermont, and is now exploring ways to share her knowledge with people around the globe. April provides online and in-person professional development and consulting with a focus on integrating nature, art, and self care. Her flagship e-course, “P.O.W.E.R. – Path of Wellness, Environment, and Relationships” helps individuals reclaim their inner power and clear a path toward the life that they envision. 

Summer Professional Development with April Zajko, M.Ed.

Thanks for all those who attended “April’s Teaching Tree” trainings in May 2020! All of our trainings were held via Zoom which worked better than anticipated.

Nearly 200 Vermont based early childhood educators attended trainings this month led by April Zajko! The feedback has been amazing and I appreciate the sense of community and mutual respect that we have in our early childhood field here in Vermont.

Topics in May 2020 included:

Growing Outdoor Classrooms (6 hours) ~ introduction and practical training in how to naturalize your outdoor space

POWER: Path of Wellness, Environment, and Relationships (6 hours) ~ a personal empowerment, self-care, and community care model training offered 1 hour a week for six weeks

Natural Loose Parts (2 hours) ~ explore open ended materials that foster deep engaged play

Visioning Our Future with April & Dawn Irwin (6 hours) ~ a leadership and advocacy course offered 1 hour a week for six weeks

Finding Your Way: Ethical Decision Making (6 hours – offered as 2+2+2 model) ~ explore the NAEYC Code of Conduct and practice with real world and relevant scenarios

Sponsors in May 2020 included:

Building Bright Futures Caledonia, Essex, & Orleans

Let’s Grow Kids – “Make Way for Kids Grant” & Stephanie Carvey in Rutland, VT

Growing with Wonder in Essex, VT & Dawn Irwin

Northern Lights at Community College of Vermont

 

 

I hope to offer these same trainings again in June & July 2020! I am also designing “Nature Inspired Teacher” as a 6 hour ONLINE training. Another new training in June will be a 2 hour “Sensory Gardens”. If your network, organization, or center would like to sponsor a training send me an email! aprilzajko@gmail.com 

Please follow me at April’s Teaching Tree either on Facebook or Instagram for updates on upcoming trainings & for free ideas on nature-inspired early childhood topics!

June 2020 trainings: (I will update this as more sessions open)

“Finding Your Way: Ethical Decision Making” on June 24 & July 1 ~ There are slots open for my *FREE* 6 hour training funded by Northern Lights-   Register on the Northern Lights calendar at:  https://northernlightsccv.org/trainings/finding-your-way-ethical-decision-making-for-professionals-21/

My “Sensory Garden” training will be funded by Northern Lights at CCV. The first three sessions are full, so they will open another training on June 24 6-8pm. Registration is not yet open but check back next week on the Northern Lights calendar.

Visioning Our Future with April & Dawn Irwin (6 hours) ~ a leadership and advocacy course offered 1 hour a week for six weeks  (FULL) 

Thanks again for your ongoing support! Offering high quality professional development for early childhood educators is my teaching passion! I am honored that so many attended my trainings and I hope that they inspire your work with children!

With gratitude,

April Zajko, M.Ed.

aprilzajko@gmail.com

 

Sound Advice for Healthy Families

Last night I got to briefly chat with many moms that I know in my community. I was standing at my table promoting our new Music Booster’s Club and had our first bake sale. After about the third interaction, I thought about the Peanut’s character Lucy who would set up a booth and charge her friends for her sage advice.  I didn’t actually use Lucy most famous reply, “Snap out of it! Five cents, please.” Rather, I listened and nodded my head in understanding. Life is busy and so many things are all happening simultaneously that we often feel like we just need to take a moment to check in with a friend.

Image result for peanuts comic advice five cents

So if you are looking for some “sound advice” about parenting and raising healthy kids I narrowed it down to three main thoughts.

  1. Families are busy, but more than anything our children need to know that we are there to listen day or night. Our relationship with our children is built on trust and open communication.
  2. Children need daily unstructured outdoor time in order to thrive. Childhood is short and we should protect their time to be kids. We should turn off our own devices and head outdoors with them to boost our own health! Wellness is achieved by daily healthy habits which can be a simple as a walk in the neighborhood or playing in the backyard!
  3. Eat dinner together as often as possible…I think shared meals is the best way to reconnect with one another. Both positive communication and healthy foods feed our children and ourselves. Take the time to make sit down at the table together!

I don’t think I will build my own booth like Lucy…but I do intend to write my weekly blog posts as a way to help parents and teachers find simple ways to ‘grow a holistic view of childhood’.

Be well,

April

“A growing body of scientific evidence identifies strong correlations between experience in the natural world and children’s ability to learn, along with their physical and emotional health. Stress levels, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, cognitive functioning—and more—are positively affected by time spent in nature.” ~Richard Louv

Grieving While Teaching

 

Reflecting on our values and our teaching practices is one of the most powerful ways to deepen our roots and to grow. Sharing those reflections with others is one way that we can mentor or support other teachers experiencing the same thing that we’ve gone through. So I offer my reflection of figuring out my core values while grieving, and how to navigate grieving while teaching….and I hope that it helps in your own journey.

As a lifelong learner, I continue to learn and grow. I believe that my teaching evolves each year, but at the foundation is one core value that I hold as my ‘true north’ ~ “LOVE”. Throughout my career my administrators, co-teachers, assistants, families, and children all remark how my classroom feels warm, nurturing, and safe. It’s a place that oozes with love and positivity. Parents especially appreciate how I create a sense of belonging and the trust that they feel by my approach with their children.

The fact of the matter though as teachers some years are tough because of our personal lives and so I want to share about one of my most difficult years of my life. One week prior to the start of school, my father passed away suddenly from testicular cancer and all I wanted to do was to climb into bed and keep the covers over my head. How on Earth could I manage to pull myself together to be an upbeat, organized, and fully present preschool teacher?

By some sweet miracle the school contacted me and said that preschool would have to be delayed opening by one week because of the odor of the gym floor being replaced. I was so grateful because I needed that week to pull my emotions together after the grief of losing my father. I felt like I needed to spend more time outside in nature alone, and to explore my own roots – who I was, what my values were, where I was going in my life, and figuring out who I was.

Before I knew about the delay in our start for preschool, I was so torn about taking care of my own health and being a fabulous teacher. I rarely take sick days, strive for perfection, and am in over-drive creating the best possible classroom that I can. At that time though I knew I couldn’t “pour from an empty vessel’ and knew I needed to take time for myself, time to grieve, and to process my emotions. So a huge gratitude to the universe for the delay in the gym floor so I could miss a week and still be there to start the school year with my preschoolers.

Creating community is one of my top priorities in teaching, and so I knew that I need to get the school year going on positive note despite my deep sadness. Chester Raccoon from the book “Kissing Hand” became my mascot in my classroom. I bought a raccoon puppet and used the puppet to teach about emotions. I thought a lot about how that kiss left in a palm could travel to the heart at anytime so the love of a parent could be felt, whether or not they were present. Though the book is about separation when a child goes to school, the parallel for grief work was very healing to me.

In many ways as we work through grief we wear a mask. Especially for our students and our own children at home, we want to be able to be present and upbeat so we put on the mask of ‘happiness’. Though I realized that I also needed to take time to grieve and to heal so I had to prioritize my ‘alone time’ when I didn’t have to have the ‘everything is okay mask’. This part of the grief journey means connecting to others who have experienced the same loss and who support your vulnerability.

At this same time my mother was also undergoing ovarian cancer treatment which meant that I was making frequent visits to be with her. My parents had been separated since I was three years old, and so the chances of them both having cancer at the same time was more than symbolic to me. As I visited with my mom we chatted about many things and I felt more comfortable to ask her heartfelt questions than I ever had as a child.

It became clear in January that her diagnosis was terminal and I tried my best to come to terms with losing both parents in less than a year. It was simply unfair and unjust. I went through a phase of anger, but I knew that I needed to find “BALANCE” in my life to not be swallowed up by grief. This journey helped me become much more intentional about how I spend my time and how I prioritize my own personal health and the time that I have for my own family. At first it felt selfish but I realized that I taking care of ourselves, including taking sick days and bereavement days, is how we can continue to be our best selves.
On Easter Sunday, I sat by my mother’s bedside and held her hand as she took her last breaths. The words to the song, “Turn, Turn, Turn” were playing in my mind as I sat there taking in the fact that this was the last time I would be with her. My lifelong champion, confidant, and closest friend would no longer be a phone call away. How could I live in a world without my mother? My ‘true north’ felt completely pushed off course and I knew that reorienting the sails would take work and effort. That night as I laid in the guest room bed, my mind was spinning, and I cried myself to sleep. When I woke up, I felt something renewed in me a deep sense of purpose.

With the loss of my mother, I decided to take two full weeks off before going back into my classroom. I knew that my assistant teacher would do a great job, and that the children would be just fine without me. Letting go of perfection or thinking that I needed to put on a superhero cape was a HUGE shift in me. During those two weeks, I let myself truly grieve.  I reflected on what I needed to do to be able to survive the last couple of weeks of school. Some days it felt like a survival situation and ‘just keep swimming’ was my mantra. The end of year tasks weren’t completed with perfection but it good enough really was enough. This was the first time in my career that I understood the vital importance of life / work balance, and when we reorient our priorities to care for ourselves we feel like we matter.

Five years have now passed since my father’s death and through reflection and inner work I can offer these thoughts:

– By striving to be a nurturing mother to my own children I honor the memory of both of my parents.

-By letting go of perfection and being a ‘flawesome’ teacher, parent, or spouse, I am happier and more content with my life. Owning our flaws is the best way to stop perfection from gnawing at us. My new mantra is “Purpose over perfection”

– By living with intention, I re-prioritize my life so that the precious time that I have here is lived fully, in alignment with my values, and with JOY. Before I commit to something, I check in to see if it fits with may values and life goals.

-By connecting with others I can create a new sense of “BELONGING” and though I felt like I had lost my ‘true north’ my memories always connect me to my parents, and other family and friends who have passed away. Connecting in real life to a small circle of friends who support and cheer each other on is vital to our health and happiness.

-Gentle self awareness and daily self-care makes the grief journey easier. Taking time to pause, breathe, and to remember that kiss in Chester’s palm is way that I can reset.

-I believe that when we are clear on our core values our decisions and path is easier to see. For me, my core values of love, balance, and belonging help me keep my life steered in the right direction.

 

Grieving while teaching can be very challenging and if you find yourself in that journey…my advice is to be gentle with yourself. Take time when you need it and communicate with your school team & home team when you need support. I believe that when we let go of ‘perfection’, we give ourselves some breathing room.  As I think of the two people who had a profound impact on who I am, my parents, I know that their best qualities are deeply rooted in me and that keeps me grounded. Taking the time to grieve, to rediscover our roots, and to connect to others is essential.