Teacher Feature: Toddler Classroom Explores Winter

It’s Teacher Feature Thursday!

This week we are featuring Melinda Bernsdorf, Meredith Osborne, and Megan Gallagher in the Toucan toddler classroom.  Inspired by their change of clothing and season, the teachers decided to focus on winter. I was able to join their class for a lesson led by Melinda. She decided to focus on showing the children the different ways animals stay warm in nature. Below you will find a reflection from Melinda, Meredith, and Megan and images from Melinda’s lesson.
Graphic reading Winter, Toddler Exploration and showing toddler classroom at Natural History Museum.

What were your topics of exploration? Why did you choose them? Where did they come from?
This lesson was the beginning of a week in which we were exploring how to keep warm during winter. We had recently finished a unit on senses and wanted to expand the skills we were building to focus on more specific questions. Besides being seasonal, talking about how to dress during winter fits the daily needs of our students. As the weather turns colder, we spend more time in the classroom getting ready to head outside. We have noticed that this can lead to some frustrating transitions, and saw an opportunity to explore connections between our physical needs and those needs of something well-loved by our class this year, animals.

Why and how did you choose the visit?
The location for the visit was easy to pick. The National Museum of Natural History has a fantastic collection of animals in the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals, including a section focusing on animals of North America that live in the Far North, where it gets very cold. This exhibit space explores different adaptations that northern animals have made in order to comfortably live in these places, such as layers of blubber, thick undercoats, hibernation, burrowing underground, or camouflage to hide from predators.

As a class, we have visited this area of the museum frequently as we really love  animals. The students feel comfortable in this space and recognize their favorite animals. This enables us to move beyond the immediate reaction of surface interest, and go more in depth on a specific subject regarding these animals. Additionally, there is a quiet space directly in front of the animals we wanted to discuss that is well suited for a class of our size to sit and have a lesson. It is a bit out of the way of the main traffic of the museum and is shaped like a little nook, which always helps lessen the surrounding distractions.

What were your learning objectives? (What did you want your children to take away from the lesson?)
We wanted to open the conversation with our students about winter clothing. We also wanted to deepen their understanding about adaptations in animals, the ways in which animals are different from each other, and the ways in which animals are similar to people and have similar needs. The idea that fur and blubber are like jackets that animals always wear is a fairly abstract concept that we wanted to make more concrete with as many connections as possible. We also wanted our students to have fun, exciting sensory experiences that engaged their thinking surrounding our discussions. We treated this like a science experiment, helping the students to ask meaningful questions, gather information, and draw conclusions in a natural, unstructured way.

What was most successful about your lesson?
This lesson turned out to have some great moments that we were able to expand on throughout our week on winter clothing. We introduced a new song that got our students excited about winter clothing. We took a song that our student knew well and allowed them to move their bodies (Head Shoulders, Knees and Toes) and wrote new lyrics to fit our lesson. We sang “Hats, mittens, scarves and boots, Scarves and Boots! Hats, mittens, scarves and boots, scarves and boots. Sometimes we even wear snowsuits! Hats, mittens, scarves and boots, Scarves and Boots!” Our students also really enjoyed exploring the ice. At one point, some of the students started bringing some soft animal toys to the ice, letting them also feel the cold. This was a great organic opportunity to talk about the fur and fleece that lambs or bears have and ask thoughtful questions that call for analysis of the information we discussed.

How did the lesson reach your objectives to expand the topic?
We were able to talk about all the things we wanted to discuss in a fluid and natural way. The students were engaged and excited about lots of different aspects of the lesson. It set a good foundation for conversations we continued to have with the students and gave them lots of experiences that connected to our topic, giving students chances to process the information in many different ways.
What was successful in terms of your preparation and logistics?
When visiting museums with toddler students, we try to have very realistic expectations of their abilities and needs. We bring along objects and learning aids that reinforce our message, but that also serve the function of filling a toddlers needs to touch and explore. Each student had a laminated picture of winter clothing or a Far North animal which they were able to hold, feel or stick in their mouth throughout the lesson. Because they were laminated, they were easily wiped down and used throughout the week as we revisited this topic. I also brought adult sized scarves, hats, and mittens made of animals fibers the students could put on to illustrate the idea that fur and fleece keeps warm air close to animal bodies, just as jackets and scarves keep warm air close to people’s’ bodies. One scarf, made out of buffalo fleece was especially cozy!
The students had multiple chances to touch and feel animal fur and fleece. We were able to bring some along to the museum where we could explore these objects while looking at the animals they might have come from. Again, in the classroom they got to explore these objects along with the sensory exploration of ice and cold. It was great that we were able to bring enough of these objects that every student was able to explore them at their own pace and comfort level.
The ice experiment went as smoothly as it did because of preparation. The water was frozen inside of plastic baggies, which allowed the students to see the ice and feel the cold, but kept our objects and students from getting covered in cold water. Each adaptation had its own space so that students could move from object to object, feeling comfortable with the exploration. Some of our students weren’t sure about touching the animal fur, but enjoyed feeling the ice through the fleece or with mittens on. Others loved the feel of the “blubber” bag, made of butter, but didn’t want to put their hand in the gloves.

What could you have done differently to better achieve your objectives and expand the topic?
While we think this lesson went really well for an introduction to a topic, there is always the opportunity to try things another way. In choosing to wrap the ice with the pieces of fur fleece and “blubber,” we were able to let the students have a freer exploration without the necessity of taking turns, but it may have made more of an impact if we had wrapped their hands instead. The contrast of their hands directly touching the ice versus their hands covered in fur not being able to feel the cold may have been more concrete.

What was challenging regarding logistics?
Although it was early December here in Washington D.C., a time we would usually be wearing coats and hats outside every day, this December it was still really warm and we barely put on sweaters to go outside the entire week! It was a much more difficult concept to approach when our students didn’t really have a frame of reference for what it felt like to be cold outside. Because of their age, this is the first winter in which they have any agency over being warm or cold while outside due to the way they dress themselves.

What recommendations would you have for another teacher trying out this lesson?

While the museum aspect of this lesson was exciting and gave the students a great perspective on the size of the animals and the way they might look in their habitats, this lesson can certainly be accomplished in a more traditional classroom setting. Pictures of animals, books displaying animal winter activities, and larger pieces of fur (or even faux fur if necessary) can be used in the classroom to explore this topic. The ice experiment could be a great activity in a group of winter centers as well. We had out winter dress-up and a small tent covered in blankets to act as a hibernation cave, and these helped to control the flow of traffic in the room, so as to naturally limit the number of students that wanted to be at the ice experiment table.

Here are a few images from their unit on winter:

Toddlers standing underneath photograph of Arctic landscape.The class headed straight to the National Museum of Natural History to start exploring their topic! They first stopped in the Icelandic photo exhibition to find some cold environments. These two are pretending to shiver from being in the ice landscape behind them.

Toddlers listening to teacher talk about animals with fur in Natural History Museum.Their next stop was animals of North America in the Mammal Hall.
Toddlers looking at photo of person wearing hats and gloves.Melinda brought along photos of winter clothing and animals for the children to hold in the gallery,Toddlers and teacher looking at animal fur.She also brought along animal fur that corresponded to the animals in the exhibits. She explained that animals have different ways to keep themselves warm and safe in the winter.

Teacher wearing hat and gloves and showing to her students.Melinda then explained that people don’t have fur to keep them warm so we have to get dressed for the winter instead. She got dressed in winter attire and proceeded to sing a winter clothing version of “head, shoulders, knees, and toes” (lyrics above). 
Child wearing a fur hat.The children then took turns trying on different winter clothing items. Melinda included some clothing that mimicked fur or were made from the wool/fur of animals so that the children could feel how warm these animals are kept by their skin. 
Toddlers touching ice.Toddlers holding bags of butter to replicate feel of blubber.When they got back to the classroom, Melinda had several bowls on the table with large blocks of ice. She then covered each block with a different material: butter bags to mimic blubber, wool, and fur. This gave the children the opportunity to feel the cold and how these materials can protect them from it. One child also tried wearing a wool glove to touch the cold butter. Toddler touching ice with stuffed animal.One little girl brought a stuffed wolf to the table because she had matched the fur in the bowl to the animal.
Toddler and teacher holding block of ice together.This lesson inspired lots of curiosity and provided many different interactions between the children and teachers!

Melinda, Meredith, and Megan finished up their unit on winter and started exploring transportation. Check out our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest for more ideas from their unit on winter! See you in two weeks with our next Teacher Feature!

Object-Based Learning: More than You Think

Object-based Learning

Museum educators have been practicing object-based learning (OBL) for years. It has been written about and discussed extensively. This blog isn’t so much meant to expand on that literature as it is meant to explore how OBL is used within the SEEC model.

First, let’s define SEEC’s learning environment. We are so much more than a daycare. We consider ourselves a school whose approach is defined by high quality early childhood practice. Our curriculum is emergent, and we use the community – not just museums – as part of the learning experience. Moreover, our Office of Engagement focuses on family learning via both long-term and stand-alone programs.

Definition

How does SEEC define OBL? At the center of our definition is, of course, the objects on display at the Smithsonian. All of our classes, even the infants, visit the museums regularly. While the experience will look different for each age group, all children benefit from being in front of an object. There could be an entire blog on this topic, but we recognize the importance of seeing the real thing – the awe and wonder it inspires. For children under two, who can not necessarily grasp the significance of these objects, the value often resides in their exposure to new spaces, things, and environments.

Tactile

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Because our children are young, we add an additional layer to the OBL experience – the tactile component. Children are concrete learners who explore using their senses and therefore, employing objects that can be handled or physically experienced adds to their learning. This can be a toy, like the boat pictured here, or it could be an element that somehow better describes an object. For example, manipulating a ballet shoe while looking at one of Degas’ dancers.

Sensorial

i-7TcWGD7-X2At SEEC, we expand upon this idea to curate a sensorial experience by adding components like feeling the wind while looking at this painting at the National Gallery of Art by Winslow Homer. The moving air, though not a physical object, certainly takes on that role with the learner. What’s important for the young learner is that they get to observe the wind portrayed in an actual object, like a painting, and feel the air moving on their faces. These experiences enhance their understanding.

Experiment

i-dRHXWcf-X2Likewise, the “object” can also be defined as an experiment. Imagine that a class visits the transportation hall at the American History Museum or observes vehicles moving on a street. The group could experiment with wheel shapes. A teacher constructs a car out of cardboard and uses a simple ramp to demonstrate how the car moves with wheels that are square, circular and triangular. Students quickly see the benefits of having a circular wheel and begin to recognize differences in shapes and how they connect to things in their everyday life.

Nature

i-VpKNHf2-X2For educators working in or using informal learning environments, object-based learning should be considered through a wider lens – one that helps young children to experience and explore via multiple modes. Finally, OBL also corresponds to nature-based learning. Just this week I observed how a lesson on nests with toddlers incorporated both museum objects and nature. The lesson started out by looking at nests sculptures displayed outside the Natural History Museum and concluded with the children making their own nests by collecting twigs, grass, and leaves. To add an additional layer and to help the children better interact with the animals, the children helped throw birdseed and watched as the birds came to eat.


To learn more join us for our Learning Through Objects seminar on March 13th and 14th.

Family, Love, Traditions; SEEC Quotes

Children sitting in front of river with their arms around each other.

While we do our best to document and accurately share what happens at our school, we recognize that when we share the children’s perspective it’s still through our adult voices. In an effort to capture the children’s unadulterated voices we decided to try out a new type of blog entitled, “SEEC Quotes”. For the first installment, we focused on family, love, and traditions.  Any names included have been changed. Enjoy!

Who do you love?

 

3-year-old: “Dog, and mom, and dad.”
Me: “Anybody else, do you love anybody else?”
3-year-old: “Levi (friend).”
Me: “Anyone else?”
3-year-old: “Mark.”
Me: “Who is Mark?”
3-year-old: “A baby that lives in my house.”

2-year-old: “My mommy and daddy and Mina.”
Me: “Your mommy and daddy and Mina? Who’s Mina?”
2-year-old: “A baby.”

Other quotes:

3-year-old: “My mommy.”
Me: “Anyone else?”
3-year-old: “My daddy.”
Me: “Anyone else?”
3-year-old: “Mark.”
Me: “Who is Mark?”
3-year-old: “A baby that lives in my house.”

“My friends and whole family.” – 6-year-old

“My family and my teachers and my friends and my cousin and my grandma and grandpa. I love them so much I don’t even want them to die.” – 5-year-old

“My family…I think that’s maybe all…maybe my friends too.” – 5-year-old

3-year-old: “My mom and dad and sister.”
Me: “Anyone else?”
3-year-old: “Myself!”

“I love my mamma, my dada, my puppies.” – 2-year-old

“The kitties the most…except they got me right there..one got me right there (showing cut on hand).” – 3-year-old

Who loves you?

 

5-year-old: “My friends and whole family.”
Me: “What about your teachers?”
5-year-old: “Oh, I love my teachers.”
5-year-old: “I love my cousins.”
Me: “Do you think your teachers love you?”
5-year-old: “Oh yea!”
5-year-old: “They always love you, even when they die.  They will still love you. They’ll always love you.”
5-year-old: “No matter what.”

Other quotes:

“My grammy and pop pop and my aunt.  I know they love me because they always give me lots of hugs when they see me.  And they give me kisses and I already know they love me.” -5-year-old

“My dad.” – 2-year-old

“My mommy, grandmas…I have two grandmas…grandma Susie and grandma Courtney.” – 2-year-old

“My mama and my dada and my puppies.” -2-year-old

Who is your family?

 

5-year-old: “Grammy and pop pop and my sister and my sister.”

Other quotes:

5-year-old: “My mom and my dad…that’s it. That’s my normal family.”
Me: “Who is in your non-normal family?”
5-year-old: “My cousins, my grandma…she’s 92 years old.”

What do you do with your family that’s special or makes you feel happy?

 

“Eat chocolate.” – 3-year-old

“I like to hug my cousins and my family” – 3-years-old

“I like to play frisbee with my dad.” – 3-year-old

“I like to make silly faces at my other cousins.” – 3-year-old

“My family celebrates Christmas and we always go somewhere for Christmas, with my best cousins, my best grandma and grandpa, and my best friends.  We have special food, we invite guests, and we have a special party at the end.” – 5-year-old

3-year-old: “Going for a walk.”
Me: “Where do you go on walks?”
3-year-old: “Far away.”

Other quotes: 

“We play with blocks. We make a tower.  I like eating.  I eat apples and pears.” – 2-year-old

“Play games, I don’t really have a favorite game, but I like playing the Shopkins game with my grammy and pop pop” – 5-year-old

“Sometimes I go to the driving range.  Sometimes I go to the movie theaters.” – 5-year-old

“Sometimes I spend time with my family at Christmas, I’m going to do that at Christmas, yea I am.  My family members are traveling to us.” – 5-year-old

“Open presents.” – 6-year-old

“We paint, and we celebrate Hanukkah, and we open presents.” – 6-year-old

 

What do you with your family to help others?

 

“My daddy is a superhero and because he has special blood that he gives to people who are super sick.” – 5-year-old

3-year-old: “Give bags to homeless people.”
Me: “What’s in the bags?”
3-year-old: “Stuff.”
Me: “What’s in the bags, do you know?”
3-year-old: “Love!”
Me: “Love?”
3-year-old: “Yes.”
Me: “How do you put love in a bag?”
3-year-old: “A zip bag!”
Me: “And you put real love in it?”
3-year-old: “Yes!”

Other quotes:

“We give money to charities. We give money to them because they don’t have any homes or anything.” -5-year-old

“Clean up my mom and my dad. Sometimes I set my table. Sometimes I help someone like my grammy and my mommy mostly with setting the table and cleaning up.” – 5-year-old

“Sometimes we give money to homeless people.  We give food to homeless people.” -5-year-old

“We donate and give money, that’s it, and give food, that’s all we do, and we donate other things that I have.” – 5-year-old

 

 

 

Teacher Feature: Infants Explore Decomposers

This week’s Teacher Feature highlights an infant lesson on decomposers. Educators Lida Barthol, Jill Manasco, and Julia Plant brought their class on two different visits which can be seen below. They first went to the O. Orkin Insect Zoo at the National Museum of Natural History to look at the centipede and learn about the insect’s role in decomposing. On the next day, they walked to “Mushroom” by Foon Sham which is part of the Life Underground exhibit.Cover Photo

Preparation:

Infants look at compost

The class had been learning about compost and even had a compost bin in their classroom where they could observe some of their food scraps decompose. For this lesson, they were hoping to focus on how insects are involved in the decomposition process.

What inspired you to teach this lesson?

One of our teachers, Jill, was devoting her time to improving the school garden. We knew that the children were interested in dirt and wanted to expand upon their interest and knowledge while utilizing the revitalized garden space! Also, the children loved to eat and explore food, so we thought a fun entryway into dirt and gardening would be to talk about how decomposers help enrich the soil so that our food is able to grow.

 

Infant look and touch real worm

Before heading to the  O. Orkin Insect Zoo, the class had the opportunity to observe and touch worms, look at images of worms, and sing, “I’m a Little Wiggle Worm.”

 

What were your objectives?

We wanted the children to gain an understanding that all living things need to eat, and that eating is good for us. We hoped that by studying compost and learning about decomposers, the children would begin to see that although not everybody eats the same things, everybody needs to eat to live and grow.

Lesson Implementation:

Infant looks carefully at centipede Smithsonain Insect Zoo Natural History

While in the O. Orkin Insect Zoo, the educators lifted each child so they could get a better look at the centipede. As the children observed, the educators talked about what the centipede was doing and how it was moving.

What was it like viewing the centipede in the O. Orkin Insect Zoo?

When visiting the Insect Zoo, we brought with us laminated images of centipedes for the children to look at and hold. We find it beneficial to give the children something to engage with when they are sitting in the buggies and waiting their turn to get a closer look. We took each child out one by one and brought them closer to the live centipede so that they could see it and observe its movements. As we walked through the Insect Zoo, our class noticed other insects that might play a role in the decomposition process and we paused to look at the ones that caught the children’s eye. We also brought images of our compost bin at different stages of decomposition and discussed how these insects may have helped our compost to decompose.

 

Infants crawl through tunnels Play

The infants returned to their classroom where they used their bodies to explore how different insects move. They wiggled like worms and crawled like centipedes.

How did you extend the learning when you returned to your classroom?

When we returned to the classroom, we looked at our own compost and talked about how one day the decomposing fruits and vegetables would become dirt, where centipedes could live. We wiggled through the tunnels, pretending to be worms that might live in the dirt, and crawled through them like centipedes. While moving our bodies like insects, we sang our favorite composting song “Dirt”. See lyrics below:

Dirt, dirt, dirt

It’s where you grow your plants

Dirt, dirt, dirt,

You’ve got some on your pants!

During our composting unit, we compared the movements of worms to those of centipedes and sang “I’m a Little Wiggle Worm” while wiggling through the tunnels. See lyrics below:

I’m a little wiggle worm,

Watch me go.

I can wiggle fast

Or very, very slow.

I wiggle all around

And then I go

Back, to the ground to the home I know.

Infants learn about mushrooms

The next day, the class turned their attention to mushrooms which they explored by watering a growing a mushroom plant and visiting “Mushroom” by Foon Sham.

Why is exploring an important part of infant learning?

We tried to set up our lesson so that everyone had a chance to participate if interested. For activities that required lots of teacher supervision, such as looking at compost, we practiced taking turns and using gentle hands. Through these activities, we are encouraging the children to explore using their natural curiosity, and to grow their independence as learners.

Infants taste mushrooms

While viewing “Mushroom” by Foon Sham, the children were given mushrooms which they could manipulate, smell, and even taste.

 Why is it important to engage infants’ sense when teaching?

Young children are very tactile learners, and this class in particular enjoyed learning through touch. We knew that when visiting exhibits in museums that the children weren’t able to touch, we needed to bring something for them to hold to help engage them in the lesson and make the topic more concrete. Bringing a real mushroom for the children to hold, touch (and sometimes taste!) helped the them to compare the sculpture to real mushrooms.

Reflection:

infants explore garden

After this lesson, the educators invited the parents and caregivers of the children to see their outdoor exhibit on gardens. 

 What recommendations do you have for another teacher trying out this lesson?

Be prepared for the compost to become very fragrant! The children loved looking at the compost, but as it begins to decompose, it gets rather stinky. It might be beneficial to have an outdoor space to move the compost to so that the children can still look at it but won’t have to smell it all day in their classroom.

 

Top 5 – Valentine’s Day Literacy

Graphic featuring children's books, Valentine's Day Literacy
Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, and we’ve put together a list of our Top 5 books that can be read in conjunction with the holiday. While none are specifically about Valentine’s Day, they each explore a relevant theme. We’ve also included ideas on how to extend the book reading into an activity at home or a visit in the community. Happy reading!

Cover of book by Michael Hall entitled, My Heart is Like a Zoo.

  1. My Heart is Like a Zoo by Michael Hall – With its bright colors and whimsical artwork, this book is sure to appeal to young animal lovers. Plus, all the animals are made from heart shapes. Can you count the hearts you see?

    Extend it: 
    Explore the shape of a heart! Cut hearts out of felt and allow your child to play with them on a fleece blanket. See what kind of patterns or combinations you can make together. Can you make any of the hearts into an animal shape?
    Series of 3 photos showing children reading and playing with hearts.
    Cover of boo, Dear Juno, by Soyung Pak
  2. Dear Juno by Soyung Pak – Valentine’s Day is all about expressing affection to those you love, but what if a loved one lives far away? This is a story of a boy who sends letters back and forth to his grandmother who lives in faraway Korea. With the ubiquitous nature of email, many young children are not as familiar with physical mail. Dear Juno illustrates how a physical letter or drawing can capture a feeling of love and closeness that will be sure to leave your child wanting to send some snail mail.Extend it: Visit the National Postal Museum or the local post office to learn more about the mail system. Then create a valentine for a family member or friend and mail it to them. Let your child help stick on the stamp and deliver the mail to the closest mail box! Children lined up a National Postal Museum.
    Cover of book, Loving, by Ken Heyman.
  3. Loving by Ann Morris – This book may be almost 30 years old, but it still resonates today. The photographs and text illustrate the ways in which people express their love for each other, from giving a child a bath to giving a hug. The photographs depict a variety of people and environments around the world, which sends a message that we might have differences, but there are similarities that all people have in common, one being love.

    Extend it: 
    Discuss with your young one something that you do that shows them you love them. Tell them what they do that makes you feel loved. Ask a grandparent or older family friend to tell you about what their parents did to make them feel loved and see if it’s similar to what you do.Several photos of children showing affection towards each other.Photo of the book, The Kissing Hand, by Audrey Penn
  4. The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn – Sometimes things scare us, but with support and encouragement from loved ones, we can face our fears. This story illustrates this notion, as Chester the raccoon, who is apprehensive about starting school, feels love from his mother all day long through the kiss she plants on his hand. With all the changes that young children experience, this is a great story to illustrate that the love of their family is with them, wherever they go and whatever they do.Extend it: Visit to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to see “Untitled” (for Jeff) by Felix Gomez-Torres. Read the book in front of the large scale artwork. Compare Chester’s raccoon hand to your own hands and the hand in the artwork. What is similar? What’s different? Then think about what loving message you want to leave on each others’ hand. Bring a couple sheets of paper and pencils. Trace each others’ hands and then take some time writing or drawing loving messages on each others’ hand outlines.
    Photo of book, See a Heart, Share a Heart by Eric Telchin.
  5. See a Heart Share a Heart by Eric Telchin – Eric Telchin, author and photographer of this book, finds hearts in some unexpected places! From the beach to a piece of wood to an onion – he’s captured all the hearts he’s seen over the years. You can even go to his website to see more hearts he’s spotted.Extend it: You tend to see lots of hearts around Valentine’s Day, but what if you searched for them in unusual places? Take a walk outside and hunt for heart shapes. Can you create heart shapes from leaves or sticks you find on the ground?

For more ideas of how to make Valentine’s Day a meaningful, engaging and educational experience with your young children, see our Top 5: Valentine’s Day, 7 Valentine’s Day Ideas for  your Classroom, and our Valentine’s Day Pinterest board.

STEM in the ECE Classroom

At SEEC we believe that young children are capable of understanding complex STEM concepts when taught in engaging and developmentally appropriate ways. A recent study from The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America, found that while teachers are also excited and capable of teaching STEM skills, they need more knowledge, support, and training to be effective. A policy report from The Early Childhood STEM Working Group states that many educators have STEM anxiety, which can lead to avoidance of STEM teaching, with negative STEM mindsets being unintentionally transferred to students.

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Why do early childhood educators have this feeling of inability and uneasiness surrounding STEM? Research illuminates one possible reason: many adults in the United States do not feel that they are knowledgeable enough in STEM subjects. Reflecting from our own experiences lesson planning, we also recognize feeling uncomfortable when the children are curious about a STEM concept we know nothing, or little about. However, at SEEC, we do not believe you have to be an expert in STEM to explore it with the children. After all, early childhood educators are experts in so many areas already: child development, social emotional skills, collaborating with caregivers about behavior challenges, first aid, documenting learning…and the list goes on.

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At SEEC we believe in lifelong learning, so when we’re confronted with children’s enthusiasm surrounding a topic we’re unfamiliar with, we see it as an exciting opportunity to seek out new knowledge and model learning for children. To prepare for a new STEM subject we have several tools and strategies:

  • Community: We talk to colleagues, families, and community members who have an knowledge in the area. This can be a great and authentic way to make home-school connections, or relationships with community members.
  • Online research: While we research on our own, we also involve the children in this process to build technology competence, as well as inquiry and critical thinking skills. With the younger ages, we might use our class iPads to look up the topic and narrate what we’re seeing with the infants and toddlers while showing them what we’ve found.
  • Libraries: Often times our teachers will take their class to the library to pick out books related to their topic. If they can’t get to the library with their class, they will look at the library online catalog and choose books together.
  • Museums: We’re fortunate to be located on the Smithsonian campus, so we utilize the museums to seek out answers to our burning questions. If you’re not located near a museum, we suggest using Smithsonian’s Learning Lab to visit the museum digitally.

A group of four children look at an artwork with a museum educator at the National Museum for Women in the Arts.

Apart from our preparation techniques, we also utilize art and inquiry as a strategy for incorporating STEM into everyday lessons without much prior prep time. We often use artwork related to the STEM topic to practice inquiry and critical thinking. The educator does not necessarily have to know much about the subject matter, but can participate in the question asking and careful looking. This will provide questions that the class would like to research further and can focus your exploration. It’s helpful for the educator leading the group to know where to start with a topic, especially if the topic feels overwhelming.

To support educators outside our school, we share STEAM lessons we have created through our blogs, such as lessons on blood, wrecking balls, butterfly wings, seed dispersal, and more. We also offer Educator Workshops to share our practices, and how to use artwork as a powerful vehicle to develop STEM skills.


Want to learn more? Join us for our educator workshop Full STEAM Ahead on Thursday, February 20th from 4 PM to 7 PM at the National Museum of Natural History.

Beyond Stereotypes: Teaching about Native Peoples in Practice

We take a look back at a blog that we published three years ago around Thanksgiving, hoping it will help educators think about ways they might consider talking about other cultures all year around.


As we discussed in our previous blog, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center have teamed up to provide teachers with a framework for exploring culturally diverse topics in their classrooms. We believe that early childhood educators are in a unique position to craft experiences for young children that will help them appreciate the diverse world around them. We also feel that it is important for children to see themselves reflected in their classroom in order to develop a positive sense of self.

Though we published the first blog just before the Thanksgiving holiday, we specifically wanted to post the follow-up afterwards as a reminder that teachers can explore American Indian culture throughout the school year.

Before we look at the lesson, it is important to note that I had only a week to implement it and I struggled with how to use the limited time frame best with the students. Ultimately, I decided that it was important to begin the lesson with what was familiar to the students and build on that.  Had I had the opportunity to continue the lesson, I would have most certainly spent more time exploring Wampanoag culture and ensuring that the children were introduced to the Wampanoags in a contemporary context.

Lesson Objectives

  • observe natural materials and weather in our own environment and how these elements vary in other environments
  • demonstrate that not all homes look the same, but all homes do have the job of protecting us.
  • introducing three different types of American Indian homes and explore the natural materials out of which they are made.
  • investigate the materials used to construct wetus and how those materials serve as protection against their environment

Day 1

We began our morning with a visit to the National Mall where we used our senses to explore what was part of our environment. I wrote down the children’s responses and then we headed to the National Gallery of Art where we sat in front of Albert Bierstadt’s Mount Corcoran. Together, we recreated the landscape with representative objects and worked as a group to create a “soundscape.” To create the soundscape, we identified a sound for each element of the landscape. Once complete, we assigned a sound to small groups and then produced our soundscape all-together.

Day 2

When we were on the Mall, I observed the children were noticing elements of their environment that were man-made, so I thought it was important to use day two’s lesson to distinguish between the natural environment and human-made environment. This discussion transitioned nicely into a conversation about weather, which was another natural component of our environment. We identified different types of weather by making a list and then creating our own weather movements. We watched a weather report and read Sky Tree by Thomas Locker. While we read the book, we paused to use our weather movements when they were mentioned.

Day 3

Before heading out for the morning, we reviewed the different types of weather and discussed the weather that day. We walked to the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden to visit Roy Lichtenstein’s House I. We spent a few minutes walking around the house and then I asked the students to share what they noticed. Following their observations, I asked them if they thought that the house was a good one. There was a consensus that it would not be a good house to live in because it wasn’t real – it was open on the backside. I agreed that I didn’t think the house was doing what a house or home needed to do. I asked them what homes were for, to which I heard responses like: “to play in, eat in, sleep in.” I agreed and pulled out a blanket – I said the blanket was a lot like a home – it could keep me warm when it was cold, it would keep me dry if it rained. I concluded that both the blanket and the home could protect me from things in my environment.

I asked the group whether they thought that everyone lived in the same type of home. We had a short discussion about what our homes were like, the other educators with us shared that they lived in an apartment. We then began to make a home collage. Students shared photos of their homes and we placed them on large sized paper. I also brought photos of homes from around the world and as we placed them on our collage. When we finished, we discussed the similarities and differences.

Day 4

I began this class by asking the students about the Thanksgiving holiday that was coming up. Each child excitedly shared what they were planning to do for the holiday. I shared was formed around the idea that two groups of people came together to have a meal.   One group had come to America from a place called Europe and another had lived on the land we call America for a very long time. I explained that these people who had been living here for a long time were often referred to as American Indians and that in fact, there are many groups of American Indians. I shared a map and said that each group has their own language, clothing, traditions, and of, course, homes. I also pulled out our sensory bins that were representative of a Eastern coastal environment, a desert environment, and an Arctic environment.  We looked at the bins and discussed their physical features and imagined what the weather would feel like.  We wondered together whether the homes in these environments would be the same or different.

We then walked to the ImagiNATIONS Activity Center at NMAI and invited them to play in the Native homes area.  When we sat down, I asked them what they noticed about the different homes. After sharing their own observations, we talked about how each of these homes came from a different type of environment – a lot like our sensory bins. I brought objects that demonstrated the connection between these homes and their environment. For the iglu, I had a simple bottle of water; for the tipi, I had a photo of a buffalo, and for the adobe house, I had some mud and straw. I shared my objects with each student in the circle and left them with the reminder that Native peoples live in many places throughout the country and their homes tell us a lot about their environment.

Day 5

On our last day together,  I reminded them about that Thanksgiving meal. I said that many people assume that the American Indians who ate with the Europeans during that meal lived in tipis. We paused to recall the tipi we had seen the day before and then I shared with them that the Native peoples who were at the meal so long ago actually lived in wetus and they are called Wampanoags.  Using 1621: A New Look at Thanksgiving by Catherine O’Neill Grace, we explored some of the photos of what life for the Wampanoags looked a long time ago. I was careful to note that the photographs were of people pretending to be from a long time. They were helping teach people today about what life was like in the past.

We proceeded to watch parts of this video. We looked at the materials of the winter and summer wetu. We decided that all of the materials were from nature and we took a closer look at cattail reed mat provided by NMAI that would have covered the roof of the summer wetu. We talked about how the rain water would slide off the reeds and keep the house dry. We also blew through the mat so we could feel the way the breeze could come through and help keep the space cool.

We ended our morning by taking a nature walk and collecting materials. We broke out into smaller groups and built houses out of our materials.

In addition to the lessons, the teachers planned the following learning centers for the children to interact with during free-time.

  • Dramatic Play – Kitchen, office, or playing house
  • Fine motor – blocks or other loose parts for building (include photos of different types of houses from all over the world)
  • Environment – This sensory station recreates three different types of environment
    • North Eastern – Wampanoag – inland/coastal environment with forest, ponds, grass, sand, and water
    • Choose two others.
  • Dramatic Play – weatherman
  • Puzzles and Maps – United States

By no means is the lesson an all-encompassing study of Native Peoples or the Wampanoags, but it is a realistic snapshot of how with a little planning we, as educators, can begin to develop lessons that share more accurate information that help our students see that the world from multiple perspectives. Let us know what you are doing in your classroom to help combat stereotypes and create an inclusive environment.