Unplugged Play

You might ask if we REALLY need a book to remind us how to play?

Sadly, I think that the answer is YES! We need print resources to remind parents, grandparents, and community members the importance of unplugged play.

My top pick is this encyclopedia of a book…”Unplugged Play” by Bobbi Conner

“Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure fun.” is a book that every home, child care center, or after school program should own. This book spans the ages of 12 months to 10 years, and the sections are broken up into toddler, preschool, and grade school which helps both new parents and providers in figuring out age appropriate games and activities.This easy to read book lays out hundreds and hundreds of ideas to help inspire PLAY with imagination, creativity, movement, and the best medicine of all, belly laughs.

“Unplugged Play” is essentially like an encyclopedia of information for families and care providers that will last for years! The books suggestions on how to stock the toy cupboard can help at families decided on what types of toys and materials to invest in for their child! 

Let’s put PLAY back into the driver’s seat of our children’s lives. Instead of buying them a new digital device, educational app, or some other toy with bells and whistles….consider giving children the best gift…unplugged PLAY!


Additional books for inspiring traditional play:

99 1/2 Creepy Crawly Jokes, Riddles, and Nonsense by Holly Kowitt

Anna Banana 101 Jump Rope Rhymes – Joanna Cole

Book of Cards for Kids by Gail MacColl

Crazy Eights and Other Card Games – Joanna Cole & Stephanie Calmenson

Eentsy, Weentsy Spider: Fingerplays and Action Rhymes – Joanna Cole & Stephanie Calmenson

Fun on the Run: Travel Games and Songs – Joanna Cole & Stephanie Calmenson

Hand Clap! “Miss Mary Mack” and 42 Other Hand-Clapping Games for Kids by Sara Bernstein

Let’s Play: Traditional Games of Childhood by Dusan Petricic & Camilla Gryski

Marc Brown’s Favorite Hand Rhymes

Pat-A-Cake and Other Play Rhymes – Joanna Cole & Stephanie Calmenson

Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Other Party Games – Joanna Cole & Stephanie Calmenson

String Games by Richard Darsie

Unplugged Play: No Batteries. No Plugs. Pure Fun. by Bobbi Conner


Standardized Testing – Opt Out or Show Up?

Standardized Testing – Opt Out or Show Up?  April Zajko, M.Ed.


One of my favorite education bloggers is Teacher Tom. I have been quietly reading his blog for years and most days I agree so wholeheartedly with his writing that I talk out loud while I read. If you were in the room you would hear, “Seriously! Yes! For real….finally someone has the guts to name it for what it is.”

Today’s post on Teacher Tom’s blog about standardized testing though doesn’t ring true for me. Tom’s stance is that opting out of standardized testing as “the patriotic thing to do”, and that by not allowing your child to take the state test you are “wrestling control of public education from the hands of billionaire who will standardize our children in the quest of profit and efficiency.”



As a public school teacher who is willing to do most anything to see our students succeed, I feel like his rhetoric is a slap in the face. I have great pride in the years that I worked in various public schools and know that my fellow teachers would do anything to help a child to succeed.

Wait a minute…by contrast then:

Is Teacher Tom saying that by allowing my children to take their standardized tests means that I am an unpatriotic American?

Is sending my kid to school on a testing day like throwing my offspring into the hands of evil billionaires who will “standardized” them during their testing sessions?

Is it up to me to opt out of testing to make a stand for democracy and prove my love of John Dewey?

Is Tom telling me that I should make OPT-OUT signs, carry a pitch fork, and demand the billionaires get out of my kids school?

Is Tom spreading fear to parents who are on the fence about whether or not to participate in state testing, and is he instituting some rhetoric that only the far, far left would find logical? In a polarized time I am feeling the need to push back and show the world how wonderful it can be to be a moderate, who questions educational practices, and supports the teachers of their local school.

Background info on me:

I have a very different point of view on this topic, so I thought I would respond by creating my own blog post and offer a counterbalance to parents who are on the fence about testing.

As a former public school teacher and product of public school up-bringing I feel like I have a different perspective. I began teaching in the era of No Child Left Behind, but had a mentor who offered a voice of reason understanding that all children will reach 100% proficiency because we write it as a goal. Instead, we meet children where they are and differentiate their instruction so everyone gets what they need.

Policy makers, as well as ‘progressive educators’, live in their own world, and may not be in touch with the same reality I have experienced. I am respectful enough to read and listen to differing views, but as some point, we need to remember that all voices have value. While Teacher Tom might think that his words are inspiring parents to take action to opt out, he might be completely blind to how hurtful his words are to public school educators around the United States.

In my view of the world, I have been given tests throughout my life and being able to pass the tests meant that I was continuing on my educational journey. When I think back to my childhood, the first test I can remember being given was in first grade and I knew I flunked…miserably. As a result, I ended up in daily speech therapy and I felt weird that I had to leave right in the middle of everything to go work on saying ‘spaghetti’ and a whole string of really hard /s/ words.

I can also remember being ability grouped for small group reading and wondering if I would ever be in a group other than the bottom one. I can remember my spelling list being shorter than most of the other kids, and that for most tests I was pulled to the side of the room for extra help. Honestly, it felt crappy, I would tell my mom all about it, and she pushed me to try harder the next day. I also remember other kids earning stickers and praise for talking in class, but those words did not come easy for me so I would sit quietly or stare out the window.

Language and literacy did not come easily for me for many, many years. My mom recounts how I didn’t speak until I was almost four, and how the pediatrician called it ‘stubborn, hard-headed selective mutism’.

Once I entered school I had to work hard in order to be able to speak, and I had to participate in extra testing so my teachers knew how to help. My mom was an incredible advocate for me, knowing that the squeaky wheel got the grease. Still to this day there are times when I want to retreat and not speak…so I write it down.

Testing (both in elementary school and getting into graduate school) showed that my written communication skills are a strength and verbal skills still need to be developed. The purpose of testing is not to prove you are a smarty-pants, not to rank students, and not to be used in a punitive way.

I know that state testing in 2019 and the testing that I had as a kid in the 1980’s are dramatically different. However, as a Reading Specialist and Licensed Early Childhood Educator I have had the opportunity to see the assessments that are given and how they have evolved. Teachers work diligently to support ALL learners in administering any assessment, and most would like to see a decrease in the number or length of state assessments. Instead of ‘opting out’ parents can be advocates by talking with their child’s teachers about the test, asking for ways they can support their child at home, and talking with the school administrators about the issues they have with the testing culture of the school. Just ‘opting out’ without this dialogue is not advocacy!

If I tried to talk in person to Teacher Tom about this I would be tongue tied or fumbling my words or more likely, hanging out in the bathroom avoiding him. Through testing, showing up and failing forward, I have learned so much about myself as a learner…which has also made me a better teacher.

In my elementary days, our annual tests were used as screening tools and were used in moderation. Today many educators and parents alike both believe there is too much time and emphasis put onto state testing, and I agree. The quantity of testing and the number of days spent on testing should be an ongoing conversation. How we differentiate our instruction and meet the needs of ALL learners should be the dialogue in every school. Pushing back so that our preschoolers and primary grade children are learning through play, and clarifying the curriculum that our children receive should NOT be reduced down to just math and literacy. Advocating that our children need time to have physical movement throughout the day, unstructured recess time, time outside in nature, and hands-on learning are powerful conversations that we should all be engaged in. Educators, administrators, community members, parents, and most importantly students who feel there should be a shift away from a test driven focus of school should feel empowered to speak up!  Connecting with others and expressing our concerns and pushing for a more balanced approach to the education in their schools is powerful….and long overdue.

Not showing up for a test and thinking you are saving the democracy is foolish at best. ~ April Zajko, M.Ed.

Sending the flag up and saying ‘abandon ship and opt out’ doesn’t fix what’s broken in our nation’s public education system. Teacher Tom openly admits to living inside his own bubble, which is an amazing parent cooperative model of child care in Seattle that honors children as individuals and using PLAY as the way to teach all the young children who are enrolled. Many early childhood educators, myself included, would be delighted to work in such a supportive environment. But reality check…..the majority of us do not teach in such a setting, nor can we afford to send our children to a program like it.

So here we are in the boat, keeping it afloat, and trying to steer our educational practices back to solid land. Reading the research, working diligently to offer play based learning in our early education environments, teaching a diverse classroom of learners and meeting their needs every day,  and feeling berated and defeated when ‘progressive’ educators cast stones making public school teachers feel like bedfellows of evil billionaires.

Teacher Tom’s post today is ludicrous and insulting. It’s exhausting, and one of the reasons many public school teachers like myself can no longer ‘be in the arena’. Stones are cast from the cheap seats, but few of those hurling insults at us will show up to advocate for real change.

The talking points I have with my own kids about state testing:

  • Throughout life you will have tests. Some tests are done on a computer. Some are done with pen and paper. And some require to you to speak when you would rather remain silent.
  • I want you to show up. Try your best and give it all you’ve got.
  • There might be times when you doubt what you know. Don’t worry I doubt stuff all the time and I have a couple of degrees.
  • Stretch. Relax your shoulders.
  • Cheer on your friends ~ remind them how smart they are because maybe no one gave them the pep talk I am giving you.
  • Take your time. Finishing first only shows that you went too fast, so go back and check your answers. If you are the last to finish and have to move to another room, so be it.
  • Name an activity you want to do when you get home today.
  • Yes, we will buy gum and let you share it with your friends on testing day.


Closing Thoughts:

Now that you are a parent YOU get to decide what is best for your family. There is no one right answer for all children. As for standardized testing, you get to choose to Opt Out or Show Up.

Parents do have that option to OPT OUT, and in some instances this might be the right choice. Such as testing causes too much anxiety, your child has a concussion, or there are difficult things happening in their child’s life that makes testing too much of burden. Parents and children have the right to refuse testing, and in most states the parent needs to write that request down each year and discuss it with their school. If you are Opting Out, think about your reasons and talk with the administrator at your child’s school about your concerns. When administrators understand parents concerns they reflect on practices and consider other view points.

Within my educational journey, as I was sitting on lawn waiting to graduate from the University of Virginia with my Masters in Education, I thought about how many steps it took to get to that seat on the lawn. I thought about the many teachers who pushed and encouraged me to try just a little bit harder. I am so glad that my public school recognized that I needed to be tested, and that my mom agreed to allow me to receive special education services. It’s because of testing that I didn’t fall through the cracks, and through my mother’s fiery determination that there was no stigma whether I fell in bottom quartile, right in the middle of the pack, or tested into a gifted program. In fact, in my education journey I have experienced what it feels like to be in all those phases. Through my educational journey testing was a reality, and because I kept showing up I gained confidence and developed my own unique voice and view on education.

May we move towards a constructive, respectful dialogue that looks our national public education system in terms of the needs, problems, and possibilities….and stop casting stones at the very people how show up in the arena, day after day, year after year.

“For in spite of itself any movement that thinks and acts in terms of an ‘ism becomes so involved in reaction against other ‘isms that it is unwittingly controlled by them. For it then forms its’ principles by reaction against them instead of by a comprehensive, constructive survey of actual needs, problems, and possibilities.”
― John Dewey


Presentation Tips 101

Whether you present to 10, 100, or 1000 people want to hear your message. #getupandsayit

One of the skills that I working to develop is my confidence, poise, and pacing when I do public speaking. It’s a hurdle that I have been able to jump and I talk about it in this post, Confidence Boosting Tips.

Today thought I would like to share “Presentation Tips from the Experts”….my students this semester at the Community College of Vermont!

Here is a condensed list of tips that my Curriculum Development students wrote in their post presentation reflections. I asked them to write a Pep Talk for themselves for the next time they have to present. Their ideas were so good I had to share them with you!

  • Repeat a simple phrase in your mind, some suggestions include: “You got this girl.” “The only failure is if you don’t try!” “It’s only 10 minutes out of your life.” “Breathe. Smile. Speak from your heart.”
  • Breathe – if you don’t breathe you will die. Breathe, slowly, deeply. Exhale when you need to pause.
  • Practice in front of mirror or someone kind before doing your presentation in class
  • Dress for success, but don’t wear anything itchy. Wear your favorite outfit, and smile. Red is a bold color to go with my bold message.
  • Never let them see you sweat, so wear something that feels cool. Turtle necks and sweaters are out.
  • Drink water, being hydrated makes you feel better.
  • Power poses – stand tall, shoulders back, move around so you don’t look stiff
  • Look at the audience and be confident. Eye contact is hard for me so I look toward the audience just focus on their hairline.
  • Note cards help me stay on track, but I need to make sure I don’t stare at them.
  • Fumble on words, have a few little mess ups, but just keep on going.
  • No one is expected to be perfect, and when we own our flaws we find our strength #flawesome
  • We’re all human and everyone will experience “first times” throughout life.
  • Before hand do something that helps you relax – stop by to visit a friend for a few minutes, sit and enjoy a quiet moment, drink a coffee and calm my thoughts, take a nature walk, read a funny story.
  • Give yourself credit for the work you put into your research and preparation
  • Smile and just do it.
  • Pack a special treat: “As soon as I am done I can eat that chocolate in my bag!”
  • Life will present itself with many challenges, but when you have message you want others to hear…Get Up and Say It! (And we will be right over here cheering you on!)


#flawesome  #getupandsayit

Bedside Manner ~ Asking for Compassionate Care

Ten years ago today I needed to have a fetal ecocardiogram, because my baby had an irregular heartbeat. My husband and I traveled to a larger hospital a couple of hours away, and I was as nervous as I had ever been.

Once we got into the room, we got settled and I tried not to panic at what might be the news. The doctor came in and had the strangest bedside manner ~ stand-offish, conceited, and slightly distracted. He asked us not to talk until the procedure was done, and then he got started like we weren’t humans but a car coming in for service.

As the probe ran over my belly, I watched on the screen and feared the worst. There was my baby’s heart being displayed on a giant screen, what were all those structures and who knew what the outcome would be. After what felt like an eternity, the doctor scrubbed off the probe, wrote a few notes, and pushed some buttons. It took all of my energy not to scream, “what the f- is the outcome?” as the doctor nonchalantly took his sweet time. I glance squeezed my husbands hand, and he noticed my tightened jaw, and offered me a few calming words.

Finally the doctor came back to the bedside and explained that all is well with our baby’s heart, answered all the questions on list we brought with us, and suggested that likely her irregular heartbeat will normalize at birth.

Deep breath…thank him for his service, and realize that though he has done this procedure hundreds or thousands of times his disconnection does not invalidate our parenting feelings and fears.

Being a parent is by far the scariest thing we will ever do because many times we cannot control the outcome, though we would do anything in our power to give our children the best opportunities in life.

If you find yourself in that position of having a professional at your bedside that is sort of checked out, remember it is your right to be heard. Remind the health care professional that this is scary or confusing to you. Once you name how you are feeling the staff are often much more compassionate, but if you still aren’t heard, remember that you have the right to raise your concerns. You are the protector of your own health and your children’s health. Never feel inadequate in asking for what you need!

#hearthealth #parentingishardwork


Confidence Boosting Resources

Getting up in front of a group of people is nerve wracking, but it’s one of the best hurdles that I have ever learned to jump.

In fifth grade my amazing teacher, Micheal King, at Star Hill Elementary School required us to stand up in front of our class, put on a little microphone, and talk. I can remember it vividly because he created a classroom built on respect and trust. His expectation that every student would attempt presenting with a microphone became the norm, and slowly we each became more comfortable doing so.

Mr. King also believed that all his students were writers, and that each of us had important stories to tell. During our writing time he often played an instrumental version of “Chariots of Fire” and would circulate encouraging us as we wrote. It was in that classroom that I knew that writing held great power, and began to write a little bit each day.

To this day, when I get up to speak I hear those encouraging words of my fifth grade teacher because he was the first person outside of my family that saw me for my strengths. He encouraged me to own my story, to stand up tall, to speak my truth, and to face my fears head on. It is teachers like Mr. King who inspire children to wake up eager to go to school, and who have a lifelong positive ripple effect on their students’ lives.

Now, several decades later, I get to stand up front of my community college students. I share my impact story of Michael King, and I to set the expectation of all of my students to share their voice throughout the semester. I cultivate in my students both written and verbal skills, and much to their chagrin, I require at least one in class presentation.

On presentation day I ask, by show of hands. ‘how many of you would rather be somewhere else doing nearly anything else?’ To date the data indicates that the vast majority are not eager for public speaking, but afterwards nearly all agree that it was worth the effort invested.

To help my students feel prepared I offer several ‘warm up exercises’ to lighten the mood and create a sense of camaraderie before they present.

Often I lead in with a worst case scenario presentation. I use our rubric and do everything in the lowest point category, and I ham it up and let my goofy theatrics take center stage. Within the confines of the safety of classroom, with the friendships that developed over the course of the semester, and with the door shut…. I know that leading in with how disastrous it could look will bring a smile to even the most nervous student.

So here are some tools to build your confidence for a class presentation, job interview, or conversation with a difficult co-worker….

Written Affirmation – on an index card write or draw yourself a message to keep near you either in your pocket or on the podium. I often pick an inspiring quote and doodle something that reminds me of my happy place…among trees!

Strike a “Power Pose” – Watch this three minute condensed talk by Amy Cuddy who studied non-verbal expressions of power and dominance.  Her research finds that we can become more confident by changing our posture. “Power Poses” help us to create a presence that we are confident, passionate, enthusiastic, captivating, comfortable, and authentic. Try it out…and then I encourage you to practice your power poses for two minutes for the next week and see if it helps build your confidence! (If this short clip resonates looks for the full version as well!) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7dWsJ-mEyI

Listen to the Prince – You want to be more confident? Watch this 4 minute clip for some practical tips! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJgqqtbhAHk

“Dragon’s Breath” – Another confidence builder is learning how to cultivate your breath. World class athletes, yoga gurus, motivational speakers, power lifters, and preschool teachers can all harness their inner power and find their calm by bringing their attention to the breath. Breath is a tool to calm ourselves! My favorite breath before presenting is to breathe in through my nose, and out of my mouth. Check out this link for free printable breath cards to teach to children! https://childhood101.com/fun-breathing-exercises-for-kids/

Talk with others who you admire ~ how do they find their confidence? For me, before I stand in front of a group of people I hear Chariots of Fire, I think of Mr. King’s encouraging words, and I speak from my heart. The impact of teachers is lifelong, and we pay it forward by empowering each other!

“You either walk into your story and own your truth, or live outside of your story, hustling for your worthiness.” ~ Brene Brown

‘S.T.E.A.M. in Early Childhood’ Summer Workshop Series 

These two hour trainings are geared for both parents and child care providers of children ages 0 – 8 years old. By utilizing a holistic approach to education we can foster deep engaged play for ALL children. The Vermont Early Learning Standards will be our framework, and practical low cost fun activities will be our focus.

Pre-registration required. 6:00 – 8:00 p.m.;

Location = St. Johnsbury ;

Fee = $20 per class or register for the series for $100

 “What If Everyone Understood Child Development?” – Wednesday, May 22nd

Gardening ALL YEAR with Children – Wednesday, May 29th

Mathematical Learning through Messy Play – Wednesday, June 5

Engineering with Eco Art  – Wednesday, June 12

Process Art for All Ages– Wednesday, June 19

Natural Materials Make & Take Workshop – Wednesday, July 17

Constructivists Approach to Learning Environments – Wednesday, July 24


College level courses: (Register for courses directly through the CCV website – https://ccv.edu/)

Child Development – Summer 2019 – CCV in Saint Johnsbury

Introduction to Early Childhood – Fall 2019 – CCV in Saint Johnsbury

Leadership, Mentoring, & Supervision for Early Childhood & Afterschool Practitioners – Fall 2019 – CCV in Saint Johnsbury


Block Center Inspiration ~ Photo Blocks

Many years ago when I was helping to set up a new preschool program at my local museum we were on a very tight budget. Much thinking went into deciding which materials we should buy first, which could we attempt to make ourselves, and which could be purchased later.

There’s no one answer to those questions but for me I felt strongly that wooden blocks were an excellent investment. Now almost ten years later, I was visiting that program, and was please to see the same shelf and set of blocks are still there. Well loved and cared for I wonder how many different creations and configurations those blocks have been made into. How many hours of engaged play have been spent with those materials?

Today it was quite heartwarming to see this current group of preschoolers building and creating with those same wooden blocks for most of the free choice time. As they were building, I noticed that some of the blocks had laminated photographs taped onto the blocks. After asking one of the children they explained that a while back when they studied the town the teacher made the blocks so they could re-create the town and make maps. What a wonderful way to bring the town to life in the block center, and though I have seen this done in other classrooms, I would have to say that this particular set was especially beautiful.

It’s these kinds of personalized touches that make a learning environment feel like home. Though programs can buy all sort of materials from teacher catalogs, investing in simple well made toys is the best investment that any early childhood program can make. Personalizing the materials to the place that you live is even more rich and rewarding!

~Be sure to subscribe so you will be notified when our first e-course is ready to launch this summer~ 

 “S.T.E.A.M. Learning Environment Blueprint”