Object Feature: Louise Bourgeois’ Spider

It was during a recent conversation with one of our faculty, that made me pause and consider Louise Bourgeois’ Spider at the National Gallery of Art. To be honest, I wasn’t immediately drawn to this piece. I’m admittedly not a big fan of spiders, but, as is often the case, when you learn more about something it opens up new doors.i-k7Trf6j-X2

Size and Location

On the surface, this piece has a lot of elements that make it ideal for young audiences, most noticeably its location. I truly enjoy being in sculpture gardens. They are an all-ages space – conducive to movement and activity for children and still, contemplative, and provocative in a way that appeals to adults. The sculpture garden is a community space akin to a central square or other public space that features art. It is family friendly space that speaks to different generations who can learn and be inspired.

The piece is also worth highlighting for its size and 3-dimensional nature. While I rarely say “no” to using smaller artworks, a large piece that allows a child to move around it and view it from multiple perspectives, is always ideal. So caregivers and educators, if you visit, make sure that you leave time for ample careful looking. Notice things like the texture of the material, the details of the legs, and how it looks from different perspectives.i-ctMrDxC-X2

Content Connections

The artwork is an ideal segue into STEM, social emotional, and literary learning. First, it’s a spider. Spiders, while not always a crowd favorite, serve an important and definitive purpose in ecology. As an insect eater…. Young children don’t always see spiders as important or as helpers, but this immense artwork provides the opportunity to introduce the spider in a way that is new to a child. This makes me particularly excited as we think about museums as catalysts for children for learning about and protecting their community. In this case, being able to impart some information about the importance of spiders in our ecosystem, one can help children connect to their environment and understand that all living things play a valuable role.


My colleague recently shared with me about the significance of the spider. Ms. Bourgeois created spiders in the latter part of her career as a symbol of her mother. Like the spider, she saw her mother as a protector. She viewed her as strong, but also vulnerable. While these are abstract concepts for young children, they can be illustrated by looking closely at the spider. Notice that it is large and tall, yet its legs outstretched like a hug. The spider is a childhood recollection, so the spider’s size is like that of an adult. Have the children imagine a favorite adult, how do they express their love or what do they do to help keep you safe.

Though I would not likely add onto this during a single lesson with young children, its worth noting that spider’s figure is also very delicate. I encourage you to look closely and find what areas of the sculpture look vulnerable or contradict its overall looming presence. Interestingly, Bourgeois’ memories of her mother reflect her father’s ten-year affair with her governess.

Finally, for learners of all ages, connecting art to literature is a way to enhance and build on both the literary and visual experiences. The first thing that came to mind was Charlotte’s Webb, but of course there are many child friendly stories out there that would accompany this sculpture. For example, Eric Carle’s The Very Busy Spider.

i-ZwMc9ms-X2Learning Extensions

Go on a hunt for spiders and spider webs.

Create a web together using string.

Visit the Insect Zoo and look for different types of spiders or Learning Lab – notice similarities and differences.

Spiders have eight legs, but did you know that most spiders have eight eyes too.

Make spider webs by laying paper down in an aluminum pan and moving tiny balls around that have been dipped in paint.

Teacher Truths: Working with Toddlers

Welcome to Teacher Truths presented by the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, SEEC. Each episode of Teacher Truths take place between two SEEC faculty members and explores a topic related to education. Have a topic you’d like to hear about? Email SEECSocialMedia@si.edu.

This week features a conservation between Kat Schoonover and Shannon Conley who are both toddler teachers. They spoke about working with toddlers and focused on toddlers growing independence and need for communication. Please listen and enjoy!

Highlights from the conversation between Kat and Shannon:







Playing WITH Children


Young children are capable learners and at SEEC, we have strong beliefs about young children and how they learn best. One belief is that adults should play with children, be silly, sing, have fun, and get dirty. While we recognize and value the benefits of child play without adult involvement, we see many benefits for both adults and children when grown-ups join in the fun.


Adults need to play too! While society tends to view play as a pastime exclusive to childhood, research has shown that adults need to play  in order to maintain a joyful and healthy life. Play, whether it be participating in a kickball league, painting, or engaging in improv theater, maintains cognitive skills, strengthens relationships, and reduces stress. Stuart Brown, physician and founder of the National Institute for Play, feels that play is essential and recommends building playtime into our everyday lives to avoid feeling stuck and stressed. Innovative companies are even bringing play into their work spaces. For example, Tim Brown, CEO of design firm, IDEO, incorporates a preschool-like play setting that allows employees to innovate new, creative solutions through play. At SEEC, we feel similarly, which is why we use play to teach concepts at our educator workshops. Not only is it engaging, and fun, but it builds community among educators, and provides practical applications that can be used in the classroom.


Playing with children not only provides benefits to adults, but children as well. When an adult chooses to participate in a child’s play, they are sending a powerful message that what the child is doing is valuable, and their learning is important. Plus, playing with children builds strong relationships, whether that be a teacher-child or caregiver-child relationship. Not sure where to start? Try simply asking, “Can I play with you?” Generally, children will be more than willing to invite you in and tell you how you can be involved!


When adults play with children, they become models of social emotional skills. They are able to model being a graceful winner or loser in competitive games, demonstrate teamwork, and  show children how to navigate social interactions. For example, “I see that Adam is a pirate too, can we make room for him on the ship?” or “Roberta, it looks like you’d like to play! We’re building an ice cream parlor, what would you like to do?”


Adults also have the ability to open other avenues of thinking and inquiry through play that children might not think of on their own. For example, if the children are pretending to sail on a boat, asking, “Where are you going?” or “What will you do when you get there?” helps children expand their thinking and possibilities for their play. Vivian Gussin Paley, noted play theorist, believes in the power of an adult to help make connections for children that they might have otherwise missed. She likens the adult’s role to a Greek Chorus, commenting on or repeating what players have said. For example, “I heard Sally say that the baby is crying. How do you think we can make the baby feel better?”

Have we convinced you of the benefits of play as an adult? Would you like to come and PLAY with our SEEC team at the Smithsonian while thinking more about play in the community with young children? Join us for our Play in the Community seminar on May 6 & 7. Learn more and register.

The Intersection of Art and STEM Skills

A few years ago SEEC was approached to write a journal article about what STEM learning looks like at our school. Several educators and administrators collaborated to write about STEM learning examples from our classrooms, such as learning about the planets, and the Earth’s relationship with the sun and moon. The publication responded by questioning whether SEEC’s approach to STEM was developmentally appropriate. They felt that children were not capable of understanding these complex concepts. This experience prompted us to reflect on how we approach STEM learning in our classrooms. Ultimately, after careful consideration, we stood by our approach and belief in children capabilities.


While many people think about colors, seasons, letters, and numbers as typical  preschool topics, SEEC explores concepts beyond that. We believe that children are capable of understanding complex topics, if taught in a developmentally appropriate and engaging ways, and if topics are scaffolded or addressed one layer at a time. Children often inquire about concepts that are complex and do not have easy answers. By delving into these topics, the children are much more invested in the learning as they are intrinsically motivated.

One way we address complex STEM topics with young children is through the use of art as a starting point. Moreover, visual literacy and observational skills related to STEM are very much interconnected.i-QcnkS7k-XL

For example, to begin a lesson exploring wind, this pre-k 4 class observed The Girl I Left Behind Me by Eastman Johnson at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  The children noticed a girl, possibly a teenager (there was a debate about her age), her hair blowing in the wind, a storm brewing, and bumpy ground. This careful looking prompted questions from the children such as, “Is she going to get caught in a storm?” and “I wonder what is that brown thing she’s holding?” The act of looking at the artwork built the children’s skills in observation, curiosity, focus, critical thinking, prediction based on evidence, listening to other perspectives, and communication; all skills used in STEM learning. After our observation session the children were eager to share their personal experiences with wind and curious to learn more about wind. We read a book to find out why wind occurs. Then we used tools, such as an anemometer and the Beaufort scale, and experimentation to understand varying wind strengths.


Research also supports that careful looking at artwork helps to develop STEM skills. For example, one study found that medical students became more effective in diagnosing their patients after they had practiced observation and communicating about artwork at a museum. They began to notice details that they were missing before and were more open to hearing other perspectives from fellow medical professionals and the patients themselves.

While we hope children will understand the content we share, our main goal is for the children to leave our school with the foundational skills to engage in STEM experiences in years to come. We feel that by connecting art and STEM, they have more opportunities to engage in STEM content and practice STEM skills.

Want to learn more about how to create engaging STEM lessons via art? Join us next Thursday, April 18th from 5 PM to 7 PM at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. For more information, click here.

Upcoming Family Day: National Academy of Sciences

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Arctic Family Day: CPNAS 2018


With Yoshino cherry trees around the Tidal Basin and National Mall about to bloom, everyone is excited for the upcoming festivities that take place annually in the District. We, at SEEC, are particularly thrilled to get the chance to partner with the Cultural Programs at the National Academy of Sciences for the third year in a row on their upcoming family day that will be held the day of the Cherry Blossom Parade, Saturday, April 13th.

This family day will be especially exciting as it includes the Institute for Genomic Biology’s interactive DecisionTown. DecisionTown will have 17 stops that will ask visitors to make a choice regarding the future of the town. Participants will explore topics like, DNA sequencing and personalized health, the accuracy of eyewitness accounts, and food and health. There will even be a laser show featuring important scientific achievements. When you’ve done your decision-making, you will go to the Town Hall and become a DecisionTown Citizen.

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Arctic Family Day: CPNAS 2018

As if that weren’t enough, SEEC will be hosting activities in conjunction with CPNAS’ photography exhibit highlighting the work of Dornith Doherty. In addition to their aesthetic beauty, Doherty’s photographs explore the importance of seed diversity through the documentation of seed banks. SEEC was particularly excited to use this exhibit as inspiration for programming. 

We hope to explore four key questions; 

  • What are seeds?
  • Why is the relationship between seeds and food?
  • What is seed diversity?
  • Why is seed diversity important?

Arctic Family Day: CPNAS 2018

We will answer these questions through hands-on activities that will appeal to children and adults alike. Families will have the chance to explore seeds and different foods, they will create ideal seed environments through an interactive game, and they will plant their own seeds to take home. Finally, visitors will be invited to join a short session with a SEEC educator demonstrating different types of seed dispersal.


Arctic Family Day: CPNAS 2018

Plan on spending the morning watching the parade and walk down to CPNAS for a fun and educational day. The event is free and registration is encouraged.




In Depth: Preschool Class Explores Activism

Recently we outlined one of our preschool classroom’s week exploring activism. We wanted to give some context about how the week came about, how the teachers planned the lessons, ideas for implementation in your classroom, and resources used. The following is from the Koala teachers, Katie Heimsath and Morgan Powell:

Context & Planning

We divided a week of lessons into four sections: community service, public art, using words, and marching together. While there are many different forms of activism and advocacy work, these four made the most sense for our group – they were age-appropriate both in scope and content, and simple enough for us to really delve into over a week. We started with our trash clean-up, which is a more concrete activity that produces tangible results, and then took a more scaffolded approach as the week went on.  Our school was fortunate enough to partner with many people and teams, like Teaching for Change, Julie Olsen Edwards who is the co-author of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, and the early childhood team at NMAAHC during multiple professional development days to learn more about anti-bias education. While planning this week, and all of our curriculum, we take into consideration the four core goals of anti-bias education:

Goal 1: Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities.

Goal 2: Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections.

Goal 3: Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts.

Goal 4: Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions.”

-As cited on NAEYC’s website

By using the research and expertise of these incredible leaders, we planned this week with many kinds of diverse examples of helpers, including children, etc. When looking to fill our bookshelf, we made sure that there was a large representation of many kinds of lifestyles, cultures, and people. As we mentioned before, the concepts we built on during this week are woven into the fabric of our days and the framework of our classroom, and is therefore easy for us to continue practicing.

Ideas for your Classroom

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Mural blocks – Print pictures of murals or public art from your community sized for wooden blocks, and use clear packing tape to secure the pictures to the blocks for students to play with inside the classroom. Alternative block images: recognizable buildings from your school’s neighborhood or landmarks from your community.

11Movable Mural – Place a large white sheet on top of a tarp, fill spray bottles with liquid watercolors, and invite students to take turns adding colors to the class mural. After completely drying (if possible outdoors), ask students where they would want to hang up this movable mural in the classroom or somewhere in the school.

Book Connection: Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isabel Campoy (Author), Theresa Howell (Author), Rafael López(Illustrator)

10Student Blocks & National Mall – Print full-body pictures of students sized for wooden blocks, and use clear packing tape to secure the pictures to the blocks for students to play with inside the classroom. To create the National Mall we used a green yoga mat and map of the Mall; a green blanket or green construction paper could also create a miniature National Mall inside the classroom which the student blocks can “march” on.

Book Connection: We March by Shane W. Evans

9Click, Clack, Moo Students Who Type – Set up a station with old keyboards, notepads, pens, and the book Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin. Students can pretend to be the cows in the book, typing away at the keyboards and “writing” letters to Farmer Brown.  

Online Resources

Teaching for Change is a non-profit whose goal is to provide teachers and caregivers with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write, and change the world. 

Social Justice Books is a project of Teaching for Change that selects lists of books for children on a variety of themes, reviews books to bring attention to any potential bias, and promotes books by diverse authors and illustrators.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)on Anti-Bias Education.