This post was written by Maureen Leary, Director of Toddler and Kindergarten Programs
Value of Virtual
When the Smithsonian closure due to Coronavirus health concerns was announced in mid-March, none of us had a clear sense of how long it would last. Once it became obvious that it was going to be more than a few weeks, SEEC faculty immediately transitioned to conducting distance learning through online platforms. Teaching young children this way is neither ideal nor intuitive, but we knew we needed to quickly develop these skills to better support our families. At SEEC we believe it’s important for us to offer virtual interactions for a number of reasons. It provides personal connections during a time when we can’t experience them directly; it offers an anchor point for themes and topics that families can explore in their own way and on their own time; it inserts some amount of structure into the days and weeks that have been completely upended; it allows children to retain a level of comfort and familiarity with peers and educators during what has turned into an extended closure with no definitive end.
The Challenges of Virtual
Many families are craving the connections and routines that suddenly disappeared from our lives, and appreciate the opportunity to see each other virtually. That said, we also know that consistently participating in these interactions can sometimes be a challenge. Maybe your child is tired, hungry, grumpy, or just uninterested. It could be that you have a work conflict and you can’t prioritize your child’s meeting over your own. Perhaps you’re feeling overstretched and just don’t want to add one more thing to your day. Skipping your child’s scheduled activity might cause feelings of guilt and worry, and cause you to wonder if it’s ok to be missing these online interactions. At SEEC our answer is always an emphatic yes. We encourage families to follow their children’s leads on what helps the day go smoothly for them. It might be that they’d rather go outside during a virtual circle time, or that they just have no interest in it at all. Maybe they refuse to talk or get frustrated with how the conversation goes. All of this is developmentally appropriate and totally ok. Enrichment can be found in so many ways, in moments small and large, and doesn’t always have to be carefully orchestrated. What’s really important right now is that all of us, children and adults, feel cared for and supported.
Tips for Virtual
If you do choose to participate in an online “circle” here are some helpful hints compiled from conversations we have been having with our SEEC community.
Some children are camera-shy. Don’t insist that they talk or even appear on the screen. Giving them repeated exposure to the format and letting them develop comfort with it at their own pace is likely to increase their participation. And if it doesn’t, that’s ok, too!
If your child is reluctant to talk but does want to be included, suggest they give a virtual high-five or a thumbs up as a way to connect with others.
Check with your child’s teachers about scheduling some one-on-one screen time. Even just 10 minutes of individual attention this way can pay big dividends.
Some families have found it’s easiest to pair distance learning with snack time, so the child is staying in one place and not becoming distracted by other surroundings.
Alternatively, if the weather’s nice and it’s hard to be inside, try bringing your screen outside and participating that way. We’ve seen toddlers actively engage in circle time while also riding a tricycle down the street!
One final, related note: a recurring concern with the current environment is that young children are getting more screen time than is recommended. This is an issue we are always thinking about, and while we agree it’s best to limit screen time for young children, we do believe that distance learning offers important benefits, especially as we practice social distancing. At SEEC, we generally advocate for the limited use of screens when they are a single element of a larger, interactive experience. Of course, there may be families who opt out entirely of distance learning for the screen time concern alone, and that is also a decision we respect. We always want families to do what feels right for their own well-being, and it certainly won’t be the same for everyone. We encourage you to trust your instincts, be responsive to the needs of your child, and reach out to your child’s educators if you have any questions or concerns.
Please welcome guest blogger Anna Forgerson Hindley of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. As the Supervisory Early Childhood Education Coordinator at the NMAAHC, Anna Forgerson Hindley’s work focuses on positive identity development, interrupting structures of racism and prejudice, raising healthy, courageous and compassionate children in a highly diverse and inequitable society and introducing African American history to young children in age-appropriate ways. She holds a Master’s degree in Museum Studies from The George Washington University.
The beginning of a beautiful friendship: NMAAHC + SEEC
As the head of the early childhood education initiative (ECEI) at The National Museum of African American History and Culture , I am thrilled to connect with SEEC as a guest on this blog. Our two organizations have a special relationship full of mutual respect from which we continually learn from each other. SEEC’s nearly 30 years of teaching young children in museums and philosophy of learning through objects has shaped how we design programs for children at NMAAHC. In turn, as SEEC increasingly commits to anti-bias education, we have been able to support their efforts through trainings and by being a resource when questions emerge about racial identity, race, history and bias.
SEEC educators are masters in using objects, art and community spaces to broaden children’s understanding of the world. They were eager to visit NMAAHC when we opened last fall to explore learning opportunities for young children yet had questions – thoughtful, important questions – they sent to me. The following question is just one of the many they submitted but is what I am asked most in my work. If you are reading this, you likely have a young child – or many young children – in your life. Whether you are a parent or an educator or both, you may have grappled with this same questions.
How do we talk about race with young children?
This question and the follow-up professional development I led for SEEC staff last February inspires what I share with you now.
This is a personal, lifelong journey
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
– Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist
Part of NMAAHC’s mission is to be a place of healing and reconciliation and to provide space to have constructive and respectful conversations about race and identity. As I have developed the early childhood education initiative at NMAAHC, I have deeply considered what this means for our youngest visitors – and continue to think about every day!
The work of early childhood education has the power to affect what society will be in the future. We can help build strong children who will grow to make the world more equitable, just, and kind. Never doubt that the work you do – as a parent or an educator – is important and POWERFUL!
While it may be easier to build strong children than to repair broken men, it does not mean the work we do is easy. In fact, when we commit to respecting and embracing differences and acting against bias and unfairness and focus on positive identity development for all children, the work is often hard, at times emotional, and requires us to look at our own identity, bias, and baggage.
All of us must reflect on these things so we can begin to peel back the layers to get clearer about our experiences throughout our lives and the assumptions we make now. The following questions may help as you reflect:
When were you first aware of your race?
What do you remember from childhood about how you made sense of human differences? What confused you?
What childhood experiences did you have with peers or adults who were different from you in some way?
Once we reflect on where we have been, we can start to understand the assumptions and potential bias we hold. As a white educator, I have the responsibility to continually examine and think critically about race, justice and my own privilege. I encourage you to take time to reflect on yourself before you start to think about the children in your lives. Be kind and honest with yourself, knowing this is a lifelong journey.
Teaching race with young children
My friend and mentor, Julie Olsen Edwards, explains that the notion of race is a social construct designed to fraudulently divide people into groups ranked as superior and inferior. The scientific consensus is that race, in this sense, has no biological basis – we are all one race, the human race. Racial identity, however, is very real. And, in a racialized society, everyone is assigned a racial identity whether they are aware of it or not. Young children are not immune to this.
At NMAAHC, our programs explore, celebrate, and uplift differences while simultaneously seeking ways to connect with the ways we are similar. Part of this is to support understanding and the development of each child’s healthy racial identity, although we do not always directly discuss race. Talking about racial identity and race looks different at different ages. The conversation must be layered throughout childhood in age appropriate ways that connect to what is happening developmentally.
Children are not colorblind. Talking about race with young children honors who they are as learners but the conversation looks vastly different for a one year old than it does at five. I recently sat down with Julie Olson Edwards and Candra Flanagan, coordinator of the student and teacher initiative at NMAAHC and my thought partner, to think about what this means for the different stages of early childhood.
Knowing that infants recognize race at 6 months of age, it is appropriate, and beneficial, to talk about how we are different while uplifting the message we are all the same. We all play but some of us like blocks and some of us like books! We all have bodies but all our bodies look different! This age is a time to celebrate the diversity of humanity and create a healthy, positive emotional framework when discussing identity.
Between two and half to five years of age, children are sorting, organizing and classifying to make sense of their world and their language is expanding rapidly. Children are able to begin to understand the complex social construct of race when we introduce skin color and where it comes at this age. We get our skin color from our biological parents. There can be different shades of skin color in the same family. Every person’s skin is different and every family is unique – isn’t the diversity around us beautiful! At this age, children begin to recognize justice and fairness in their own lives so purposeful and thoughtful conversations and explorations allow children to construct personal meaning about these concepts. Although conversations about fairness and justice at this age are appropriate, children need to have a solid sense of identity, race and self before talking about racial injustice.
By 5, 6, 7 years of age, children are able to have conversations about injustice and being treated unfairly based on identity (race, gender, etc.). Before you enter this conversation, reflect and center the goal to respect and embrace differences and prepare children to act against bias and unfairness. If you are an educator, consider the following questions: Who is in the classroom? Who is the only? Who are the few? And who is the teacher in relationship to the students? Inherent in labels of race is hierarchy and built in power dynamics. If the previous layers of honoring difference and establishing sameness, celebrating all the different shades of people, and an understanding of where skin color comes from are not in place, jumping to a conversation of racial inequity and injustice may leave children confused or worse.
Other points to consider:
Keep practicing. You are going to make mistakes. Pick yourself up. It is going to feel really awful because it is most likely that your mistake will be at the expense of someone else. It will certainly be in front of others. Apologize. Make amends. Keep practicing. Keep going. I practice this every day and still mistakes. Recently I coauthored an article with Julie Olsen Edwards about inclusivity in museums and interrupting racism with children. One of the main examples I use is a book that I happen to love – but also happens to strongly reinforce gender stereotypes. I was so focused on one aspect of identity (race), I unintentionally forgot to consider the importance of intersectionality. Learn from your mistakes and keep going!
One does not equal all. For young children, how we as adults speak impacts how children view and understand self and others. Generalizations, even if they say only things that are positive or neutral, communicate that we can tell what someone is like just by knowing her gender, ethnicity or religion. Thus, hearing generalizations contributes to the tendency to view the world through the lens of social stereotypes. Another pitfall related to generalizing, which often occurs in classroom settings, is when a child is asked to be a spokesperson for their race, culture, gender or religion. Let me say this in a different way, do not single out a child to speak for all girls, all Muslims, all Chinese Americans, the entire Latinx community, etc. This is particularly damaging when a child is asked to share without even volunteering to speak.
It’s not just black or white. The United States is a highly diverse nation full of people from every race, culture and ethnicity. This is one of the strongest characteristics of this country and is one worth celebrating. Yet, particularly in conversations about race, we often are stuck in a binary of white and black. However, many children in our lives identify as biracial or multiracial or those who do not identify as black or white. Biracial and multiracial children can feel conflicted or confused by the “this group” v. “that group” mentality when they identify with both groups. As adults, we are in the position to positively (or, unfortunately, negatively) impact the lives of young children. Which brings me to my final point,
Each child has a tribe. Whether we are parents of young children, educators of young children, or both, we are part of our children’s tribe and it is important for the tribe to communicate. Educators, it is not only respectful but necessary to have conversations about anti-bias education with the families of the children in your class. Parents, your child’s well-being includes the development of a positive sense of self and a healthy racial identity. Ask your children’s caregivers how they plan to support this for your child. The more we can come together as a tribe around our children, the better we all will be for it.
While this is hardly a comprehensive list, hopefully it either helps you begin or inspires you to keep going so we can achieve together what we hope to see for the young children in your lives – a fairer, more inclusive, and equitable world. As with any complex subject, there are countless questions, things often get murkier before they become clearer, and a single blog post certainly isn’t going to have the space to get as deep as we’d like. Yet every journey consists of many steps so let us embrace this moment as our next step towards creating a more equitable world.
Author’s note: I would like to acknowledge Anti-bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves by Louise-Derman Sparks & Julie Olsen Edwards. The framework and goals of anti-bias education is central to the work we do at the NMAAHC in early childhood education. In particular, Julie’s experiences, vision and teachings have guided me in my understanding and her words and wisdom are peppered throughout this article. The reflection questions I have shared are adapted from the anti-bias Stop & Think exercises. I would also like to thank Candra Flanagan for being my thought partner and for her work with students in 3rd – 12th grade. Her editing, perspective and friendship has profoundly shaped my work.
This blog was authored by Katie Heimsath, Director of Preschool Programs
The Impact of Quarantine on the Family
As adults, we have access to information and possess the cognitive skills to understand what is happening in the world. At SEEC, we often talk about the importance of talking to children about difficult subjects. Giving children the language to identify and express what they might be feeling or are curious about makes it easier for them to navigate complicated situations. Even though young children might not yet be able to understand the complexities of a global pandemic, they recognize when something feels different and are perceptive to the changes in our attitudes and emotions.
Living and working at home during quarantine is no easy feat. Our lives and daily rhythms have been turned upside down and most of us are feeling stretched and limited in one way or another. Many of our SEEC families have reported an uptick in meltdowns and tantrums from their children
Typical tantrums can stem from a predictable or obvious problem, like if a child is hungry or overtired. Our current situation adds a new layer of emotion for children and adults alike: we miss our friends and being able to go out in our communities, we’re worried about our health, and we are adjusting to new routines. To add to that, no one knows when it will get “back to normal.”
How Can I Help My Child?
The best way to help your child is by being there, both physically and emotionally. Being close in proximity helps children regulate their emotions and feel a sense of security, so it’s no wonder that picking up a crying baby is soothing to them, or that some children feel better after getting a hug. If it seems like it would help, offer a hug or your lap to sit in while your child works to calm down.
In addition to the emotions, a tantrum generates a lot of tension and energy in a child’s body. Show them ways of releasing tension like taking big, deep breaths. Help them focus their energy on something calming like watching the clouds, or redirect their energy by mashing some play-doh.
It is important to also acknowledge your child’s feelings. Young children are still learning how to identify and understand their emotions, and giving a name to a feeling is one way to reinforce this learning. If they’re pre-verbal, try helping out by saying, “you look like you feel sad” or “you didn’t like when that happened.” If you can objectively narrate what happened, it can help the child feel heard and understood. If they’re verbal and able to tell you what they’re feeling, your role is to sympathize. If they told you they were feeling sad because they couldn’t eat snack with their friends at school, you could say, “I feel sad about that sometimes, too. I like eating with my friends. We both miss our friends.”
Emphasize that you’re there to help and problem-solve together. For younger children, you could offer one or two suggestions for moving forward. You could say, “It made you upset when you fell. I can help you up,” or “You didn’t like it when your brother took your toy. You want a turn. Say ‘me next!’” For older children, ask what would help them feel better or give them a suggestion. Then do it together! For some of the quarantine specific situations, it’s okay to admit that you don’t know the answer. Say something like, “I don’t know when we’ll go back to school, and that’s frustrating for me. I don’t like it when I don’t know when something will end! But, there are people working very hard to figure out that answer, so I know they’ll tell us when they can.”
Adults Feel Stressed Too
In a perfect world, we could all follow three easy steps to help our children get through a meltdown. We’re not in a perfect world, and we’re not even in a situation that feels normal to many of us. If you’re stressed or you overreact during your child’s tantrum, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Simply acknowledge what happened with your child! It’s powerful for a child to observe a person they love showing how they handle their big emotions. Remember, as adults we unconsciously regulate our emotions to make it through tough situations. If you have an opportunity to make that visible to your child, they’ll have one more example of what they can do to cope. It is also a chance to give yourself grace and a powerful reminder to your child that there is always an opportunity to try again.
This post was written by Melody Passemante-Powell, Director of Infant and Toddler Programs.
Schedules are a big part of most of our lives, and most people recognize the importance of these routines, especially for young children. Quarantine has turned everything upside down for many families, and some are wondering, how much of a routine should we try to maintain? To help you think through this we have posed some questions to consider first, and then outlined some tips and ideas based on structure level and age group.
What are my family’s needs? All families are different and it is important to recognize that one size does not fit all. Some thrive off of rigid schedules, while others need a lot of flexibility, and most of us fall somewhere along the middle of this spectrum. Think through what works well for your child(ren) and what works well for the adults in your home. These don’t always align so finding some sense of balance is the overall goal.
What is my family’s capacity? Unfortunately during quarantine many of us are both acting as full time caregivers and working to meet job requirements at the same time. Consider how much the adults in your family realistically have the capacity to implement in terms of routines and schedules while also giving the attention needed to other responsibilities. Also keep in mind how quarantine is impacting your child(ren) and what they have emotional/mental capacity to do on any given day.
How Your Days Might Look
High Structure: You plan your days to closely mirror each other, or if your child in enrolled in school, you can schedule your days to match what a typical day would look like at school. For example, try having meals, outdoor time (if possible), circle time, etc. around the same time of day as they would occur at school.
Medium Structure: You can plan to have some components of the day happen in the same way and at the same time, while still leaving a bit of flexibility in the schedule. One way to navigate this is to look at each day as having a loose agenda, and you can talk through what will happen during the day, but the exact details of when and how each part will happen aren’t planned out in full.
Minimal Structure: You can keep it loose and just see where the day leads you. You can let your needs/wants and your child(ren)s needs/wants guide what happens for the majority of the day.
Tips and Ideas Based on Age
Infants/Toddlers: This age group understands time in short intervals, so it’s best to find ways to break the day into smaller sections vs. talking through what will happen throughout the entire day in one sitting. It can be helpful to use the “first, then” method with this age group, using phrases like, “First we will eat snack, then we will go on a walk.” Visual cues to use as reference when talking about what will happen are also very useful for this age group. These can be in the form of timers, or photos/pictures of what will happen next.
Preschoolers: In general preschoolers can handle a little more complexity in terms of thinking through multiple components of the day. A visual schedule is great for this age (a series of photos of what will happen along with the word label, posted in sequence, or attached to a keyring so the child can carry it around to access what will happen and in what order). Timers are another useful tool, and there are so many to choose from (sand timer, Echo/Alexa, stopwatch, or these sensory timers) so you can use what works best for you. ()
School Age: Most school age children can get a sense of a full daily schedule if you choose to use one. Visuals of some sort never hurt, and if your child(ren) can tell time you/they can create a chart (nothing fancy, you can use paper and a ruler to make the lines!) of what each day or each week looks like based on the day and time. Seeing what their day and week look like mapped out might be helpful for time management and daily planning.
Do what works best for your family on any given day. There is no right or wrong way to do this.
Set yourself up for success. If what you are doing just isn’t working for your child(ren), or for you, change it up. The point of a schedule is to HELP everyone, if that isn’t happening most of the time, it is time to reassess!
Resist the temptation to compare. It can be hard to see or hear about what other families are doing, especially if it seems like everything is working beautifully for them. Remember the grass has a tendency to seem greener, but what you and your family are doing on any given day, even if it involves meltdowns and a to do list with zero check marks, is just fine.
Families across the world are hoping to resume their normal lives as soon as possible, but the truth is that our new normal is likely to look very different. Though children may be able to return to school at some point, it is likely that schools could have different schedules and/or additional closures. Parenting right now is hard, harder than normal. So, how much is enough? And as an adult, how do you juggle your own worries and workload with that of your child’s? There is no magic answer, but it is important to remember a few things:
Not all families are alike, don’t compare yourself to others.
Your children need to feel safe and loved – that is probably the most important thing you can do.
There will be days when schedules won’t be followed or there was more electronic use than you would have liked – it is okay.
This is a traumatic situation, it is as important that you take care of yourself as it is for you to take care of your child. You will be a better caregiver for it.
When you let your emotions get the best of you, simply say you are sorry to your child. Caregivers are human and make mistakes – allowing a child to observe that can be an important life lesson.
Don’t feel like you have to take advantage of every lesson and resource you see online. If you decide to take advantage of resources, choose what speaks to you and fits within your wheelhouse.
Cheers to all the caregivers out there – our team knows how hard you are working.
One of the reasons we enroll our children in preschool is so they learn how to interact and engage with their peers, so it makes sense that many caretakers are currently concerned about their child’s socialization. It is helpful to remember that not too long ago, many children didn’t attend formal school until they were five. While we recognize that there is value in preschools and play dates, the quarantine isn’t going to erase what gains your child has made in this area. It will no doubt be a difficult transition when we return to our routines, but it will be temporary and you shouldn’t worry that your child will fall behind.
In the meantime, you can do some simple things at home that will help support your child’s development:
Identify Feelings – “I can see you are feeling sad because you are crying.” or “I think the dog doesn’t like that because they barked at you.” You can also use books to have deeper conversations about how characters are feeling.
How Can You Help? – When you identify an emotion, think out loud with your child about what you can do to be helpful. Maybe a sibling could use a hug or maybe there is a household chore that would help the whole family feel less stressed.
Play – Your child doesn’t need to play with their peers to learn skills like sharing or taking turns. As an adult, it is okay to say “I had the toy in my hand and it upset me when you took it away from me.” It might feel a little silly, but it communicates the cause and effect of their behavior.
Regardless of age, you should share the facts about COVID-19. Children naturally begin to fill in the blanks if you don’t share information with them and they often begin to build a narrative that can be scarier than reality.
What Does Age Appropriate Mean?
As an educator or caregiver, you have a sense of what your children can handle. Think ahead about what you want to say to them if you can and remain positive (see below). Don’t dodge their questions, but also don’t add a lot of detail on top of what they are asking. Be clear about what questions children have, they don’t always know how to articulate their concerns, so it’s helpful to restate their questions to ensure you are on the same page.
Children, even tweens and teens, need to feel safe. For younger children, it is helpful to point out that there are a lot of community helpers who are involved in keeping us safe and healthy right now. The very fact that we are all staying home is something that will help lessen the spread of the virus. For older children, you can share additional facts or try to focus on how communities are coming together to support each other.
Feeling in control is important even for very young children. Explain to them that we all have a part in this and that their role is good hygiene. Establish new handwashing routines in your home/school, children love visual schedules or reminders. Posting photos of when and how to handwash can be very effective. We’ve all been told to sing the “Happy Birthday” song, but why not mix it up and find different songs. Come up with new ways of showing love that might not involve hugging or kissing, like a funny dance. Make them feel in charge and coming up with creative approaches can go a long way for young children.
For older children, you may want to speak more about their responsibility to older generations and how social distancing is one way that we are keeping people safe. If you have the resources, think about other ways you can support your community. Maybe it’s making a meal to bring to a neighbor or sharing on social media about where families can get meals while schools are closed.
Limiting and monitoring what your children are exposed to regarding Covid-19 is important. You may not think they are listening to the news program you have on or that conversation you are having with a spouse, but they are. Be mindful of time, access and the messages you are sending.
Children of all ages need extra care right now. Depending on your child’s personality and age, take time to check-in with them and show a little extra affection. Understand, too, that a child’s behavior might change during this time because of stress. As caregivers, we want to show some additional patience and latitude.
Dealing with Stress
As adults, our instinct is to protect our children. Realistically, though we are not going to be able to shield children entirely from the anxiety of the Covid-19 situation. As adults, our role it to model healthy behavior. Think about how your family, your classroom and your community can combat stress. Physical exercise (outdoors if possible), creative outlets like journaling, cooking or drawing and mindful habits like meditating or quiet reading can help feed the soul.
Are you tired of being inside yet? Now that the holidays are over, and the weather is colder, many of us with young children are looking ahead on the cold winter months wondering how we’ll get our little ones to move and groove while stuck inside. As adults we might see a cold, dreary day as the perfect time to cuddle up inside with a book or netflix, but young children see it as another day to be active, move their bodies and explore, no matter the weather! We’ve gathered some gross motor activities that look like tons of fun, and can be done inside on those days that are less than ideal to stay outdoors for long.
Dreaming of snow? We love this idea from STA Classroom. Set up an area with packing peanuts and/or fiberfill , and let your kids go to town shoveling “snow”. Chances are, if they’ve seen a caregiver shoveling, they’ll love to have a chance to try it out themselves.
There’s something about a parachute that just appeals to children whether they’re a toddler or kindergartner. Parachutes are great because they don’t take up too much room to store, and come in multiple sizes. Parachute play is not only exciting, but playing stop and start games help children develop the essential life skill of self-control. Check out PreK + K Sharing for numerous ideas of how to get moving and incorporate learning with a parachute!
Balloons are another item that kids seem to universally love! This Balloon Tennis idea from Vanessa’s Values requires minimal materials, and is sure to keep children moving for a long time while practicing hand-eye coordination.
Whole Body Painting
One of our favorite indoor activities here at SEEC combines art and movement! We love to paint, and painting doesn’t have to use only your arm, but can use your whole body. On those days when you can’t get outside, try one of these painting activities.
Set out a large sheet of paper, add some paint, turn up the music, and let your children create a masterpiece by painting with their feet.
Our toddlers loved this basketball painting activity. Set out a large piece of paper against a wall, attach a basketball hoop (if you don’t own one you can make a simple hoop by cutting the middle out of a paper plate), get some bowls of paint with large pom poms and let your child dunk the paint balls to their heart’s content!
If you want something easier, simply tape a large piece of paper to the wall and encourage your child to paint all the parts of the paper. This will get their whole arm and body involved as they move up and down the paper.
Who doesn’t love an obstacle course? Beautiful Somehow has a ton of ideas to make a creative and fun indoor obstacle course out of items that are already in your home or classroom. The obstacle course featured not only engages children’s whole bodies, but also their imaginations!
Please comment and share some of your favorite indoor gross motor activities; we’d love to hear your ideas! And check out our Indoor Gross Motor Fun Pinterest board for more ideas!
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.
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:
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.
Their next stop was animals of North America in the Mammal Hall.
Melinda brought along photos of winter clothing and animals for the children to hold in the gallery,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.
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). 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. 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. One little girl brought a stuffed wolf to the table because she had matched the fur in the bowl to the animal.
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!
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.
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.
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.
At 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.
Likewise, 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.
For 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.