Up or Down the Slide?

Guest Blog by Jacki Leader

Every time I am at a playground, whether it be at a school or in a community park, an interesting phenomenon occurs. Children of all ages try to climb up the slides.  If we stop and reflect on this phenomenon it makes sense.  There is a sense of thrill and excitement when you try to climb up a slide. It might be a gentle slope of a small slide being conquered by a toddler or the twists of a tornado slide by a school ager.

As you witness this phenomenon, there is an echo of voices saying “stop, we don’t climb up the slide, we slide down”. The chant is given by teachers and parents all over the country. There is a reason why we hear these reminders on the playground, we need to keep the children safe. It can be quite dangerous for a child to climb up a slide as another child is sliding down.

However, if we reflect on the purpose of this behavior, the children are not trying to be unsafe. They instead are trying to take a risk and climb to the “top of the mountain” to conquer a new goal.

Safety, however, is always a factor so are there benefits to allowing the children to climb up the slides, and if so, how can we keep them safe?

The benefits of climbing up slides encompass multiple developmental domains:

  • Children gain confidence in their abilities.
  • Children build perseverance every time they try, fail, and try again.
  • Children gain self-confidence and pride when they finally to succeed in making it up to the top.
  • Children develop and refine their gross motor muscles as they climb an incline.
  • Children problem solve and try new techniques in their efforts to get to the top.

While all of these are valid benefits, we still must make sure to keep the children safe. Is there a way to do this and let them try to climb up a slide? Careful planning and conversations with all staff are important aspects when deciding if you can allow this behavior.  Here are some suggestions to consider:

  • Have a designated time that children can go up the slide. Make sure the children are aware of when they can climb up.
  • Post up and down arrows so the children know which way they can do the slide.
  • Have staff members close by when children are allowed to climb up the slide to provide support and safety.
  • If you have multiple slides consider rotating the slides to up slides for the day.

You may not have the ability to allow the children to climb up the slide but hopefully this blog has given you some things to consider.

Engaging Students in Physical Science

Physical science is one of the three content items in science. (The other two are life science and earth & space science). Physical science deals with the properties of materials and objects. This includes things we can observe, such as height, weight, color, and transparency, but it also includes how objects respond in different situations. A big part of this is exploring the position and motion of objects. This is perhaps one of the easiest and most fun ways to incorporate science into your classroom. As you attempt to put physical science materials into your space, consider these four criteria of a good physical knowledge activity from Constance Kamii:

  • The child produces the movement.
    This means that the child is in charge of the activity, not the teacher. This isn’t just an observation activity…the child is really involved and is in charge of producing the movement.
  • The child must be able to vary his/her actions.
    There must be something the child can do differently in order to learn more about the object(s). For instance, can the child place the car in different places along the ramp, or make the car start or stop, or make the car go faster or slower. These all provide the child with an opportunity to figure out how these materials work, and how his/her actions influence the position and movement of the objects.
  • The reaction must be observable.
    The child must be able to observe the result of varying his/her actions. Without this observation, the child will be unable to draw any conclusion. Remember that observable doesn’t just mean seeing the result…you can observe with any of your senses.
  • The reaction of the objects must be immediate.
    When the child varies his/her actions, he/she must be able to see the results of that action right away in order to construct knowledge. If the reaction is delayed, the child may not be able to form proper conclusions.

Let’s look at some activities that meet these four criteria:

Catapult by Joyce Brewer

In this simple catapult activity, children are exploring simple machines and determining how the placement of the marker cap (fulcrum) influences how far the pompom travels.

Created by Melinda O’Connor

This simple balance is created out of popsicle stick. Placed on a V-shaped cardboard to enable the popsicle stick to balance, this is then glued to the cardboard base with a bent paper clip wrapped around the V-shaped cardboard holding in place the popsicle stick to form the balance.

This pendulum activity is always fun for children. Make modifications by using an adjustable length (such as using baby links or paper clips), adjustable weight of the pendulum bob, or adjustable weight of the materials being knocked over. Remember to only change one variable at a time though so that children can make accurate observations about the materials.

Inclined Planes by Rebecca Scholtz

Make your ramp area interesting by changing the texture of the ramps so that children can make comparisons about how the texture influences the speed and distance.

This adjustable ramp was made out of cardboard boxes and allows children to determine how the incline affects speed and distance. Remember to use the same materials for all three ramps until after children have had an opportunity to create some conclusions. Then you can experiment with different materials, such as the ones in this picture.

These are just a sampling of physical science materials. Each one has so many options for extending the activity…..what ideas do you have? How could you use these in your classroom?

Teaching to the Brain

We’ve all heard of teaching to the test, and we all know that this strategy has no long-term success for children’s learning. Instead, I suggest “teaching to the brain”….using what we know about how the brain develops to influence what we do in our classrooms. During the first five years of life, the brain develops at a rapid speed. Although the brain can be trained to memorize pieces of information, true learning and understanding comes from experiences that are tailored to the way the brain develops during these important years. So how can you apply what we know about the developing brain in connection to plan appropriate environments and experiences for young children that maximize the foundation for later learning? Here are 9 Brain-Based teaching strategies.

  1. Build Healthy Relationships
    Healthy development depends on the quality and reliability of a young child’s relationships with the important people in his or her life, both within and outside the family. Children who have positive relationships with their teachers are more excited about learning, more positive about coming to school, more self-confident, and achieve more in the classroom.
  2. Promote Communication
    Just as children want to connect with us, they want to communicate with us. There’s a very predictable pattern to language development, and it happens pretty quickly. Have extended discourse with children, go beyond the here and now in your conversations, and use sophisticated vocabulary.
  3. Encourage Curiosity and Creativity
    Exploratory behavior and creativity is a talent that is highly prized in the working world. That’s because good ideas make money. Children are naturally inquisitive. They are naturally curious and creative. Unfortunately, they learn from school that teachers value right answers more than provocative questions, so they learn to stop asking questions. Use open ended materials, ask thought-provoking questions, allow for trial and error and problem solving, and allow a lot of time for exploration.
  4. Value Play
    Play is the highest form of research (Albert Einstein). Direct instruction really can limit young children’s learning. Teaching is a very effective way to get children to learn something specific—this tube squeaks, say, or a squish then a press then a pull causes the music to play. But it also makes children less likely to discover unexpected information and to draw unexpected conclusions. Play is important. Play is how we learn.
  5. Improve Executive Function Skills
    Executive functions lay the groundwork for school success. Executive functions are a better predictor of academic success than IQ. Children who are behind their peers in these skills show more aggression, have difficulty getting along with others, are disruptive in class, and are slower to master academic skills in school.
  6. Plan for Physical Activity
    Voluntary gross motor activities, such as games, running, dance, and other active movements wire the brain to make more efficient connections. This supports later academic learning. We should be encouraging more, not less, physical activity in our classrooms.
  7. Develop and Teach Emotional Intelligence
    Human beings have an incredible ability to display many emotions, but only six of them are built in at birth. Unless children are taught these emotional states early (ages 0-3), when they enter school, they’ll be emotionally narrow. Teach children to recognize their own emotions, those of others, and how to manage their own emotional states.
  8. Practice Stress-Relief
    Chronic stress is a very real issue at schools for both staff and students. Recent studies suggest 30-50% of all students felt moderately or greatly stressed every day. For those from poverty, the numbers can be higher. Teach children better coping skills, offer them predictability, social support, and control over some of their choices.
  9. View Differences as the Norm
    Don’t expect children to be ready to learn the same thing at the same time. This contradicts research that says all children have different rates of brain maturation. Celebrate the unique differences, abilities, talents, and interests that children bring to your classroom.

Does much of this sound like good DAP (developmentally appropriate practice)? Yes! That’s because developmentally appropriate practice is based on what we know about the developing brain and the developing child. What are ways that you put these strategies into practice in your environment?

The Problem with Worksheets

You never want to get on a plane where the pilot learned to fly from worksheets. ~ Todd Whitaker

I was teaching a class recently, and I noticed a common theme…as much as teachers have heard that worksheets are not appropriate they just seem to have a hard time letting go of them. I think the problem is that perhaps deep down they still believe that worksheets have some value to children, or that if they aren’t using worksheets then they aren’t really teaching. That could just not be further from the truth.

So what’s wrong with worksheets?

  • Worksheets often have a “right” answer. Which means that they also have a wrong answer. However, the wrong answer doesn’t allow children to use trial and error to learn from it. Instead, the wrong answers on a worksheet lead children to believe that there is no value in risk-taking because only the right answers are valued. Seeing a lot of wrong answers can also reduce a child’s belief in her/his ability.
  • Similarly, worksheets can only be used in one way. This means that children aren’t using higher order thinking skills like they would if they were playing with concrete materials.
  • Children are concrete learners, which means they need concrete objects in order to learn a new concept. Worksheets are abstract, and are therefore incapable of teaching this type of learner. This is what makes them developmentally inappropriate.
  • Since worksheets can’t teach children of such a young age, that means the only thing they can do is present, or test, a concept that children already know. And if children already know it, then why are we wasting our time on it?
  • Worksheets are task-oriented activities rather then learning activities. When completing a worksheet, the goal becomes to finish the worksheet rather than learn the task at hand.
  • They don’t allow children to work together or collaborate on a project. At an age where social skills are of the utmost importance and are still forming, the activities in our classrooms should promote collaboration, not discourage it.
  • Worksheets do not allow for creativity, divergent thinking, or the opportunity to display learning in different ways.
  • Most often, all of the children in the class are working on the same worksheet. This goes against common logic, because we know that not all children will be at the same level of development.
  • Worksheets waste valuable time, focus on teaching only rote skills (Volante, 2004).
  • Overly academic approaches may offer short term success, such as children being able to recite alphabet letters or rote count, but this comes at a cost. Children from overly academic schools may not have engaged in the higher-order thinking activities that help them understand why things are the way they are. They don’t have a firm foundation for later success. They also have less time for social skills development and often show higher levels of test anxiety compared with their peers from play based schools.
  • Any concept portrayed in a worksheet can be taught better in a hands-on, meaningful way.

As Marilyn Adams said, “If they can do the worksheet they don’t need it. If they can’t, it won’t help them.”

Letting go of worksheets creates more time in your classroom to allow children to explore their interests in a meaningful way. And when you allow children to make choices, they become more motivated. Motivate children and you cause a release of dopamine in the brain, which unlike other neurotransmitters is spritzed on the brain causing it to reach larger areas. Motivate children and you increase learning.

There are numerous ways to engage children in meaningful literacy, math, and science concepts without the use of worksheets. What are your favorite play-based activities?

Math Made Fun

Math is one of my favorite areas to plan for in the preschool classroom. Sometimes teachers get so focused on the counting sequence that they forget about the other types of math activities that are just as, or even more, important! Number sense is just one area of math development that should be an important area of focus for preschoolers. Number sense for preschoolers is really a group of related math abilities that are key predictors of children’s math achievement. In essence, they are the skills that children need to work with numbers in a variety of ways. These skills include the ability to:

  • understand quantities, such as knowing how many are in a given group of objects
  • compare quantities of objects using terms such as more, less, equal, larger, and smaller
  • recognize the relationships between individual items and groups of items (i.e., when counting a group of objects, when the child says “3” it means the whole group of three….not just that individual item that was named “3”)
  • understand the symbols that we use to represent quantities (i.e., numerals)
  • order a group of objects (1st, 2nd, 3rd or largest to smallest)
  • add and subtract with concrete objects (i.e., having a group of three bears, adding one to it and understanding that you now have 4 bears)
  • problem solve – such as figuring out how many paintbrushes are needed for the special activity based on the number of children that are seated at the table)

As you can see…these skills go far beyond just being able to recite the counting sequence! What are some specific activities that you can implement in your classroom to promote these skills?

Lily Pad Sensory Table Activity

In this sensory table activity, children have 12 coasters and 12 frogs. As they practice putting one frog on each “lily pad” they are practicing the skill of 1:1 correspondence.

Numerals

Numerals are such an abstract concept for young children. While they may be able to recognize the numeral and name it, they also need to be able to start associated the quantity that the numeral represents with the numeral. Many activities that work with numerals offer no support for helping children understand this association. I like to add “quantity dots” to my numerals so that as children begin to match up the numeral to a quantity they can check their work to ensure that they are choosing the right numeral.

Turtles in the Pond

In this fun activity, children are matching the number of shapes on the turtles back to the numerals on the pond. The turtles have a clothes pin on the back so that they can be clipped to the correct pond. The dots on the numerals help children know if they are choosing the correct numeral.

Sink the Boat

This sensory table activity includes a variety of marbles and boats. Children attempt to predict how many marbles it will take to “sink the boat”. (Not intended for children under age 3).

Ice Cream Math Manipulative

In this math manipulative, children roll the die and then take the corresponding number of ice cream sundaes to put on their tray. Game play continues until both children have filled their trays. Sometimes, children continue rolling the die to remove the ice cream cones from their tray and return them to the basket.

 Teddy Bear Math Manipulative

In this game, children choose a card with dots from the deck and then take the appropriate number of bears to match the card. They can even put the bears right on top of the dots if they are still in the beginning stages of quantification.

Short Path Game

In this short path game, children roll the die and move their game piece to the town. Since this game is designed for younger children, we’ve given each child his own game board to eliminate confusion and conflict.

Long Path Game

For children who are ready for a little more, this long path game gives them a longer path and a shared board. The “bonus spaces” throughout the game allow children to customize the rules of the game.

I also love these activities on using 10 frames and 5 frames from Pre-kpages.com:  https://www.pre-kpages.com/developing-number-sense-in-preschool/

What types of math activities do you plan to encourage number sense?

Building Relationships with Children Who Have Challenging Behaviors

We always talk about how important it is to build relationships with children, but let’s be real. Some children are just really hard to build relationships with. I remember when I first went back to school to get my early childhood degree, one of my professors went around the room and asked why we went into this field. Of course, most of the answers sounded something like, “I love children!” She proceeded to tell us that we better have another reason for going into this field because that one wasn’t good enough. We all looked at her like she had three heads! She proceeded to tell us that of course, we should like children. But that alone is not going to sustain us through the challenging moments of being an early childhood teacher. She continued to say that one day we would find a child that we didn’t like….and then what? I thought that was just cruel…they’re just small children…what could they possibly do that would make me not like them?

Fast forward a few years when I was teaching first grade…I found the kid I didn’t like. It pains me to say it…but I just didn’t like her. Her behaviors were challenging, but that wasn’t why I didn’t like her. I could never quite put my finger on it…perhaps our energies were just conflicting. But I just didn’t like her. She, however, loved me. Which probably made my dislike of her even stronger. It was a tough year. I tried to make sure that I was building a strong relationship with her despite my personal preferences. I tried my best to learn to like her. It didn’t work always work, but over the year we did find some common ground. I can say honestly that she thrived in my classroom.

No matter how much you may love children, the same thing will happen to you at some point. You’ll find the child that challenges every cell in your body. You’ll find the child that makes it hard to build those positive relationships. Your challenge, then, is to push forward and continue to find a way to make a connection. Because it’s only through connection that learning occurs and behaviors change.

Challenging Behavior can appear in many different ways. It is also highly subjective…what one caregiver considers challenging, another may not. The important thing to remember with any type of challenging behavior is that the child is trying to send you a message in the only way that he/she feels capable of at the time. When you can look for the message, it becomes easier to respond in an appropriate manner. Responding in an appropriate manner can help you build healthy and positive relationships with the child. Stanley Greenspan talks about five specific types of challenging children.

The Highly Sensitive Child

Children who are highly sensitive tend to react more strongly to events than you might anticipate. Their perceptions of the world can be much more intense than the average child, and any type of change can be overwhelming to this child. They may be cautious, fearful, shy, worry a lot, or be anxious. As they grow, this may lead to moodiness, irritability, or depression. You might notice that highly sensitive children react more sensitively to touch, loud noises, bright lights, or change. They may also get easily overwhelmed by their own emotions.

Strategies:

  • Prepare children for upcoming changes as far in advance as possible and limit the amount of changes and transitions.
  • Use picture schedules or visual schedules so the child can anticipate what will be coming up in his/her day
  • Tune in to the child’s sensory system. Remember, he cannot control how his body is processing sensory information! If you notice the child reacting to bright lights, try dimming the lights in the classroom. If the child holds his hands over his ears at group time, give him a pair of headphones to wear.
  • Help the child label and talk about his feelings. Validate what the child is feeling and show empathy towards him.
  • Provide gentle but firm limits.

The Self-Absorbed Child

The child who is self-absorbed is caught up in her own world. She tends to be quiet, easily tired, shows little enthusiasm. You may find this child to be more passive and not as responsive as other children. Caregivers may need to show more enthusiasm and effort to engage the child.

Strategies:

  • Be sensitive to the child’s natural energy level, and do not expect the child to enjoy the same type of activities that others may enjoy.
  • Provide a quiet space where this child can get away from everyone for some alone time.
  • Children in this category can have vivid imaginations. Provide them with an outlet for imaginary play such as puppets or dramatic play areas and props.
  • Resist insisting that the child spend time with or be friends with the other children in the classroom. Respect the child’s speed and preferences when it comes to establishing relationships or spending time with others.

The Defiant Child

We all probably have experience with the defiant child….the child who is stubborn, always trying to be in control, and engages in constant power struggles with those in charge. Children who are defiant can swing from being avoidant and passively defiant to being angry and argumentative.

Strategies:

  • Don’t take it personally. As hard as it is, try to avoid getting angry and administering punitive punishments as this just makes the situation escalate.
  • Avoid power struggles. The key to avoiding power struggles contains 5 elements:
    • Say what you mean.
      Avoid saying things to the child that you don’t actually mean just because you are upset. Choose your words wisely.
    • Mean what you say.
      Make sure that you are only saying things that you actually plan to enforce. For example, telling a child that Santa Claus won’t come if they continue misbehaving isn’t typically something you actually mean. Be cautious when establishing limits and consequences.
    • Know what you can’t control.
      As much as we’d like to think we can control everything, we can’t. We can’t actually control children’s eating, sleeping, and toileting for instance. We can’t control IF a child picks up a toy. Think carefully about whether you actually have control over what you want the child to do, or if you just wish you had control!
    • Know what you can control.
      Think creatively about what you can control. You may not be able to control whether the child picks up the toys, but you can control what choices are available to the child UNTIL those toys are picked up.
    • Follow through.
      Make sure that you follow through on what you say you are going to do. This builds trust with the child. State your limit and the consequence one time, and then follow through on the consequence you established.

The Inattentive Child

This child is highly distractible. He tends to be restless, fidgety, always on the go, and may quickly shift his attention from one activity to the next. Caregivers may find the child rarely finishes an activity that he started.

Strategies:

  • Be sure that your space is not overwhelming with distractions. Avoid covering every wall with something decorative. Avoid hanging things from the ceiling as this can be a distraction as well. Choose carefully when putting things on the wall to avoid “visual clutter”.
  • Provide the child with fidget toys during activities to help keep the child’s attention.
  • Allow for lots of movement and breaks. Avoid asking the child to sit for long periods of time, and offer lots of opportunities for active play.

The Active Aggressive Child

The active aggressive child tends to be more impulsive than most and may react physically to situations without even thinking. She may hit, punch, or kick to express her anger. She becomes frustrated more easily than most children, and has a hard time controlling her impulses. You may also notice that she has less sensitivity to touch, pain, or sound.

Strategies:

  • Be as warm and nurturing as possible. It’s sometimes hard to show this type of care with these children, but the less warmth and nurturing an aggressive child gets, the more her aggressive behaviors will increase.
  • Provide firm structure and limits for the child. Establish boundaries and consequences and be sure to follow through.
  • Help the child to express her feelings in appropriate ways. You may allow the child to push against a wall or squeeze a stress ball or twist a towel when angry. Avoid allowing the child to hit anything, even a punching bag or bean bag chair. Since the child has a hard time controlling impulses she might not differentiate in the moment between what is ok to hit and what is not.
  • Don’t give in to angry outbursts. If the child gets her way through this behavior, you have just reinforced that it works.

I’ll leave  you with this final quote by Ben Stein. “Relationships are the fertile soil from which all advancement, all success, and all achievement in real life grows.”

Building Positive Relationships

Relationships are an essential component of an early childhood classroom. One of my favorite quotes is by Jack Shonkoff, editor of the book Neurons to Neighborhoods in which he says, “Without relationships, there is no development.” If you think back on your own experiences, I imagine that the times when you learned the most were the times when you felt connected to the teacher. I love this video by Rita Pierson as she talks about building relationships with children:

I get so inspired listening to her. And then I think about the experiences that many children have when they arrive at school Another one of my favorite videos is this short video from Atlanta Speech School  called Every Opportunity. We have the ability to influence how children perceive their environment:

Here are some tips to help you get on the right start to building positive relationships with children in your classroom:

  • Greet each child warmly using his/her name. Consider using a greeter apron. A greeter apron has different symbols on it that represent different types of greetings, such as a heart for a hug, a hand for shaking hands, a happy face for a smile, or a #5 for a high five. Children can choose which way they would like to be greeted in the morning, including not having a greeting at all.
  • Learn how to pronounce (and spell) each child’s name correctly, even if you have to ask multiple times. No one feels special when his/her name is constantly mispronounced.
  • Allow for unstructured play time each day. Let children be the leaders when playing instead of making all of the decisions for them. This shows children that you value their thoughts, desires, and feelings.
  • Have casual conversations with children during free play time instead of always “testing” them or doing “teacher talk”. Sometimes we ask so many questions that children don’t think we are really interested in what they are doing.
  • Be consistent and mean what you say. It’s not mean to follow through on your word. It actually helps children to feel safe. When you set a limit with a consequence and then provide multiple chances, it can become very confusing to children what the boundary actually is.
  • Talk to children about their interests. Strive to learn what they did over the weekend, who they saw, what they liked most, etc.
  • Respect children’s feelings. It’s ok for children to be angry or sad or frustrated. Teach children that feelings are ok, and show them appropriate ways to express their feelings.
  • Limit TV and Other “Screen Time”. Electronic devices take time away from connecting with human beings. Use the time children are with you to make live connections.
  • Speak privately to children when an issue arises. Make sure that they don’t feel humiliated in front of others.
  • Play games in which children learn how to take turns. This prepares them for conversational turn taking.
  • Get on the child’s level when talking to him/her, and make sure you are using a pleasant and calm voice.
  • Acknowledge children’s accomplishments by using specific feedback about their actions.
  • Give children time to develop relationships with other children in the classroom.
  • Provide children with opportunities to practice skills such as how to get someone’s attention, how to solve friendship squabbles, and how to take turns.
  • Learn basic words in a child’s native language.
  • End each day with a warm goodbye, and start each day fresh with no leftover emotions from the previous day’s events.

What other ways do you build relationships with children?

Welcoming Children with Respect

Yesterday was one of those days where I just did not feel like being social. I was feeling a little stressed, and while I wasn’t in a bad mood or anything, I just didn’t want to socialize. This didn’t seem to sit well with some of the people I interact with on a daily basis. They were expecting the typical energetic and social me…and when they didn’t get that I was bombarded with questions about what was wrong. That made me want to interact even less.

Nothing was wrong. I wasn’t in a bad mood. No one did anything. In my eyes, none of my relationships had changed in any way, nor had my feelings about those relationships. I just wanted to be in my own space and in my own head for a while. And most importantly, I didn’t want to feel like there was something wrong with me for feeling that way. I just wanted my preferences and feelings to be respected and honored.

Then I started thinking about children, and how my day yesterday relates to how we treat children. How often do we greet children at the door of our classrooms expecting the typical, cheery response…and then start over-analyzing when we don’t get it? Do we become irritated when someone doesn’t want to participate at group time or answer a question we’ve asked? Do we hover with questions about what is wrong when a child plays solemnly by himself rather than with other children? Do we really honor and respect children’s feelings and preferences from the moment they enter our classrooms? What are some of the ways that we, as teachers, can make it easier for children to show us how they would like to be treated that day….and allow them the flexibility to change their mind at any time without judgment or question? It’s an interesting question…and one that could be answered in many ways.

One of my favorite ideas that I heard at a conference once (perhaps from Conscious Discipline?) was to have a greeting apron or a greeting board. On this apron or board, you can have a variety of options that children can choose for their morning greeting. Each option would have a picture next to it, such as a picture of two bears hugging to indicate that the child wants a bear hug, a picture of two people giving a high five to indicate a high five greeting. The number of options is unlimited!

  • Bear hug
  • High five
  • Wiggly handshake
  • Smile
  • Wink
  • Wave
  • Thumbs Up
  • Fist Bump
  • Bow to each other
  • Clapping
  • Sogi – This is a Polynesian greeting in which you press your nose against the other person’s nose and inhale deeply at the same time
  • Sing a song
  • Use sign language
  • Blow a kiss
  • Just say hello

After we welcome children in the classroom, how can we continue to respect their individuality? I’m thinking about my own behavior in a classroom and how sometimes I want to participate but other times I just want to listen. Could we give children cards at group time to sit in front of them in which they get to make that same choice? What are other times during the day when we can respect their preferences? What do you do in your classroom? I’d love to hear from you!

Creating Meaningful Literacy Experiences for Preschoolers

Creating literacy-rich environments is certainly a buzz-phrase in preschool classrooms. It seems that everyone is always looking for new ideas to make their classrooms literacy rich. What seems to be missing from a lot of these conversations is meaning. It’s not enough to just have a lot of print in your environment. Research has shown us that just putting a lot of print in the environment doesn’t really help children attend to it. In fact, they may even start to ignore it. Rather, current research suggests that we should make sure that we create print-rich environments that are meaningful. Gone are the days when we label everything in the classroom, such as the door, the chair, and the window. These labels have little to no meaning to children. Instead, we have to look at the children in our classroom and determine what type of print would be meaningful to them. There are some universal activities that are meaningful to preschoolers, such as anything having to do with their name. However, what might be meaningful to one classroom might not be so meaningful to another classroom.

I encourage you to question everything you put in your environment to determine if it is actually meaningful to the children. Are the signs that label each area (Dramatic Play, Blocks, etc.) meaningful to children? Or are they just something that someone, somewhere along the way, told you that you had to have? (I’ve yet to see these signs as actually being required in any quality improvement program or accreditation standards even though many teachers insist that they are required). Are the labels you have on your shelves helpful to the children? Or are they a nuisance? Is the alphabet poster something that children use, or does it add to the visual clutter of the room? The answers to all of these questions may be different for every classroom. My point is that you have to be the one to critically evaluate whether something is meaningful or not.

So….what are some examples of activities that other teachers have found meaningful? Let’s take a look…..but even with these suggested activities….don’t forget to ask yourself if these will be meaningful for YOUR group of children!

Meaningful Labels

Some labels are meaningful. These labels help children know where to put the art materials when they are returning them to the shelves.

Meaningful Print in the Science Area

This science center has an example of meaningful print. While the children are not able to read this print yet in this preschool classroom, they will notice that the print has changed and will likely as the teacher what it says.

Reading Area

This cozy reading area is a big hit with children. It includes many cozy features, including pillows, rugs, and plants.

Listening Center

This listening center was made from PVC pipe and a cheap curtain. You can imagine how much children loved getting away to this area!

Books in the Block Area

Don’t forget to include books in other areas though!

When children walk into this classroom, they locate their name on the woodchip and then place it into a basket. Teachers can then use the basket to talk about who is here (or not) at group time or other times during the day.

Writing Table

This writing table is inviting to children. The table is set up for 2 children, because writing during the preschool years tends to be a social experience. The table has blank paper, blank books, fill-in strips with the words to a popular song the children were singing, children’s name cards (and teachers), pencils, alphabet samples, and word cards to put in the fill-in strip blanks.

Job Chart

Job charts are another way to include meaningful print into your classroom!

These small alphabet blocks are fun to put on top of these laminated name cards. Note: The name cards had all capital letters because the alphabet blocks were not available with lower case letters and this class was not yet able to match case on the letters. Typically, all name cards should use Sentence Case – with a capital first letter and lower case letters for the rest of the name.

Compound Words

This compound word activity can be fun for older preschoolers. Children try to find the two words that make up the compound word.

Sorting by Syllables

In this activity, children sort word cards by the number of syllables they hear.

This is just a sampling of activities to start your literacy program. What ideas do you have, and what makes them meaningful to children?

To Teach a Second Language or Not?

One of the questions I get asked alot by teachers is whether they should be teaching a second language in their classroom or not. There is so much pressure from parents and administrators that it becomes hard to know what to do.

There is no doubt. Children who learn a second language before puberty have an advantage. They learn the language as a native speaker and have increased cognitive abilities. Second language learning during early childhood boosts problem solving skills, critical thinking, listening skills, memory, concentration, and overall academic achievement. With benefits like these, it may seem like a no brainer…..why wouldn’t you introduce another language into your classroom? To answer this question, you need to answer a different question:

Are you a native or fluent speaker of the language?

If you answered yes, then you should absolutely include the language in your classroom. You can do this by reading books in the language, conducting circle time in the language, or just having conversations in the language. You can label objects in both languages in the midst of conversation….but it should all be done with the give and take of conversation that happens naturally with human communication.

If you answered no, then the answer is simple. You should not try to teach the language in your classroom. If you do, you will teach incorrect grammar, incorrect pronunciation, and will be more likely to present isolated words without the meaning that generally surrounds those words. Remember…conversation is a give and take…not a quiz about specific words! When you learned your first language, you learned it through natural conversation…not from someone quizzing you about specific words. Research tells us that children learn best through the natural give and take of conversation.

Children learn language from human interaction. Not from videos or audio tapes that try to teach a language. Engage children in conversation in the language(s) that you speak fluently. That’s what will help their language outcomes advance.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I teach some sign language to children without being fluent?

  • Yes. Again, the key here is to incorporate it into your everyday speech. It can be helpful to teach young children some basic signs to help communicate their needs, but the signs should be taught in the context of conversation, not in an isolated situation. For example, when you ask the child if he wants more milk, you might sign the words for more and milk.

What about TV programs that teach a second language? Aren’t those good for children?

  • The research is clear. Children need human interaction to learn a language. While they may learn isolated words from a television program, they will not learn the structure of language that is necessary for becoming fluent. It’s also important to limit the amount of screen time that children are exposed to.

What if I have a child that speaks another language? What is appropriate then?

  • If the child speaks another language, it would be appropriate for you to learn some words in that child’s language in an attempt to communicate with the child. You might try to read a book to the child in his home language, or count in his home language. The difference here is that you aren’t trying to “teach” the home language…rather you are just trying to communicate with the child.

Should I have signs in my classroom in more than one language?

  • Only if you have children in your classroom that speak that language. There is no need to label everything in every language, but it is ok to label some things in the child’s home language. However, if no one in your class speaks Spanish, then there is no need for Spanish labels in your classroom.

Should I try to convince the child’s family to speak English at home rather than their home language?

  • No. Encourage the family to keep their home language intact. This facilitates communication between the child and the parents and keeps a cultural connection open. It also ensures that the child doesn’t surpass the parent’s communication skills in the only common language that they have together.

Obviously the decision about whether to teach a second language or not is a complex decision with many considerations. It’s a hot topic, and there are bound to be strong opinions on each side of the decision. It’s important to consider each classroom and each family on an individual basis to decide what is best for that situation rather than making across the board decisions. Only then can we be culturally considerate.