Teacher Feature: Toddler Class Explores Setting the Table

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.

Cover Photo

Preparation:

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Lauren began the day by having a class circle where she showed the contents of her picnic basket. Lauren handed out the plates and requested that each child hand their plate to their neighbor. She gave clear and concise instructions and was clearly excited when each child successfully passed on their plate.

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.

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After passing out the plates, Lauren pulled toy food from the picnic basket. Passing on the toy food proved more challenging for the toddlers, but Lauren was undeterred. She made sure that every child had at least one piece of play food before encouraging them to pass on their food. She also allowed time for the children to play with and explore the food at their own pace.

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.

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The class finished their circle by singing several songs. Many of the children chose to follow Lauren’s lead and tapped their legs as they sang. Rather than collecting the toy food and plates before starting the songs, the children were encouraged to play and interact with the toys as they sang, which helped them to make connections since the song directly related to the topic at hand.

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.

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After circle, as is their normal routine, the class began to prepare for snack by washing their hands and finding their seats. To build off their normal routine, the toddlers were given the opportunity to help set the snack table. One child passed out the cups while another handed out spoons.

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.

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Once the table was set, the toddlers had the chance to practice some self-care skills, which allowed them to be more autonomous. They carefully scooped out cut apples onto their plate and with the help of a teacher poured milk from a pitcher into their cups.

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.

Lesson Implementation:

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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.

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Upon getting to the large table, which is in the middle of the exhibition, the class once again practiced setting the table. Doing the task in a new setting was exciting for the toddlers. They had to learn how to navigate the new space and to use their already practiced skills on the large table.

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.

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The class then began doing what many people do when they sit at the table; they began conversing with each other. While some children talked and pointed, others listened and observed, and still others took the opportunity to play and explore. The group was able to enjoy their time together while sitting at the table.

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.

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Then the class walked by Julia Child’s Kitchen and stopped to look at her table. While carefully looking, Lauren, Morgan, and Julia led their toddlers in a discussion comparing Julia Child’s table to other tables that the class had seen. They asked, “At your home, is the table in the kitchen like Julia’s or in another room?” This helped the class discuss similarities between their homes while celebrating the differences. It allowed them to gain a better understanding of their class community.

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!

Reflection:

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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.

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When the class had completed the lesson, each child had the opportunity to help another child. Many helped to set the various tables and others helped to pass out food. The children experienced the challenge of passing on something that they valued and would have liked to keep for themselves, but with the support of their teachers, Lauren, Morgan, and Julia, all were able to be successful at the various tasks.

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.