This week’s teacher feature highlights one of our toddler classes who explored the idea of helping others by setting the table. The teachers, Lauren Bundy, Morgan Parr, and Julia Smith, had been brainstorming ways to discuss topics such as “family”, “love”, “community”, and “traditions” to help their toddlers prepare for the upcoming holidays. It occurred to them that their class could practice setting the table as way to show that they cared for each other. To experience coming together, the toddlers visited FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 at the National Museum of American History.
The topic of our lesson was “What brings us together?” which we explored by talking about setting and eating at the table. To prepare for the lesson, I thought about the lesson in terms of how we would incorporate the topic in our day. I thought about a circle time activity, a museum visit, and finally bringing it all together by actually carrying out the activity at meal time. Working with toddlers, I have found it to be best if we work on a lesson in small bits throughout the day, rather than at one sitting.
We were inspired to choose this topic because our Dragonflies love food. And they love seeing pictures of their families. We thought about the holidays and Thanksgiving and we decided to explore the idea of “What brings families together?” We hoped that our class would come away from this lesson with the idea that sharing and taking care of others can be fun. This is something that we work on throughout the year, because a big part of coming to school is learning how to get along in a group setting. We also had some more concrete objectives, which included where to put a placemat, learning to serve food, and understanding the importance of using plates while eating.
Songs are how we end every circle time. It’s a cue for them to get ready for the next part of our day and helps them retain something from the lesson.
We sing songs at every circle and always end circle with a song. These songs help the children retain information from the lesson and also act as a cue that we are going to get ready for the next part of the day. To end this circle, we sang a new song that specifically dealt with the topic. The song was called “Thank you for the food we eat” and we sang it to the tune of “London Bridge is Falling Down”.
This song was fun to sing and helped the Dragonflies learn that saying thank you can be enjoyable. We also liked that the song could be interpreted to show thankfulness for the food itself and also to thank the person whose hands helped prepare the meal.
Having the toddlers set the table was challenging in some ways. The toddlers are working on developing their fine and gross motor skills so just physically placing the placemat was a challenge. Teaching toddlers requires a lot of scaffolding. Meaning that we work with them to help them complete task that is just beyond their reach of completing themselves. Inviting a toddler to challenge themselves keeps their interests engaged even if you have to help them. And letting the child engage in the challenge, helps foster a sense of independence.
For this activity, we first explained how to set the table. Then we showed them an example. Before having them set the table, we asked them to verbal describe the steps that they would take to set the table. Then finally we let them try it for themselves while providing assistance when needed.
Pouring the milk into the cup was an example of skill that our toddlers were not quite ready to do completely by themselves. We wanted them to practice this skill because the only way to learn is to practice! It can be hard to watch a child do something that you know is going to result in a mess. But we realized that cleaning up is usually not as bad as we think and even cleaning up can be a learning opportunity.
The class walked over to the National Museum of American History to sit at the large table in the FOOD exhibition. The table in FOOD was different from the classroom tables. It was very large with many white chairs surrounding it. The first challenge for the class was figuring out how to climb onto the chairs. Once up, the class was able to gaze across the table and see their classmates and teachers.
We chose to visit the National Museum of American History’s FOOD: Transforming the American Table 1950–2000 exhibit because it has a communal table where we could experience coming together. While visiting the FOOD exhibit, we gave our class the opportunity to practice setting the very large table. Our class loved visiting the exhibit and it gave them the chance to experience setting a table outside of our classroom and in the larger community.
It is always helpful to make connections outside the classroom. For this lesson, we repeated the experience of setting the table, but this time it was in a new setting. We purposefully chose to repeat the activity, because each time we repeat something we talk about it in a slightly different way, which allows our class to build more connections. While in the FOOD exhibit, the large table became the focus of our toddler’s attention. We were able to compare this large table to other tables that the class had seen elsewhere.
We then sat around the table and talked. In some ways this was very similar to our snack and lunch times. We frequently sit with the kids and talk to them about their food, some element of the lesson, or just little things. However, we did focus our conservation on the large table and the experience of coming together around it.
Even though we chose to visit this table because of its large communal size, we were surprised by the size of the table compared to our toddlers. In our classroom, everything including the tables and chairs are child sized. Compared to the tables that we had just eaten snack on, this table was enormous. This extra element made it more exciting and also made it more interesting to compare and contrast. Both the toddler sized tables in our classroom and this large communal table in the exhibit were tables and yet they were drastically different from each other. We were able to enjoy our time sitting at both tables even though they were different from each other.
When we stopped to look at Julia Child’s Kitchen, the toddlers noticed the things that were familiar to them like the table and chairs and plates. They also noticed many of the kitchen tools, tableware, and appliances. This was a fun experience because it was yet another table in a different context! Sometimes tables are in the kitchen!
Before leaving the exhibit, the class paused to watch some videos of Julia Child preparing different recipes including rinsing salad greens. As they watched, Lauren, Morgan, and Julia were able to more thoroughly introduce their class to Julia Child and began discussing the ideas of preparing meals for others.
Reflecting back on this lesson, we could have done some things to simplify and avoid distractions. For example, rather than trying to set the whole table, we could have focused on putting the cups out. Once the children mastered that task, we could have added passing out a different item like plates. We also found that the plastic food was quite noisy when it dropped to the ground at the FOOD exhibit. It might have been better to bring stuffed or felt food with us to the museum.
Since we finished this lesson, our toddlers have been setting their own table during snack times. We now choose one child to help us pass out each item (cups, plates, and utensils). Since they have responded so well to this, we have continued to practice pouring. Now at snack time, we give each child a small pitcher with milk or water to pour into their own cup. We also have them scoop out a small amount of fruit for themselves with a spoon. They love being able to have the independence of getting their own sustenance. Most of them are able to pour and scoop their own drink and food without any mess at all; even with those who have a little spill, it’s minimal. And this gives us an opportunity to allow them to use a washcloth to clean up.