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.

Infants look at and touch a 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 a tunnel

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 playing with a box while learning 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 tasting 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:

Pictures of books, pots, and soil for the lesson
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.

Teacher Feature: Infant Class Explores Farm to Table

“Teacher Feature: Infant Class Explores Farm to Table” was originally published on January 4, 2018. We are posting it again to help people embrace teaching farm to table units.

This week’s teacher feature highlights one of our infant classes. The teachers in the class, Mallory Messersmith, Morgan Powell, and Rosalie Reyes, were inspired by National Farm to School Month to lead their class on a month-long exploration of food and community. For this outing, the class went to the United States Department of Agriculture Farmers Market to learn about locally sourced fruits and vegetables. Below you will find images from the lesson and reflections from Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie.

Teacher holding a child while looking at tomatoes

 Preparation:

Image on the left is a child in a stroller reaching for an apple
Image on the right is teachers pointing at a sign about vegetables
The preparation for this outing began well before the day of the visit. The class had spent several weeks exploring local produce before venturing out to the USDA. The teachers, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie, educated themselves about National Farm to School Month and did some research of their own.

Rosalie first learned of the National Farm to School Network while attending DC Teacher’s Night: Connecting Teachers with Environmental Education at the United States Botanic Garden. This nation-wide initiative is meant to promote connections between communities and fresh, healthy foods by focusing on educational activities related to agriculture, food, health, and nutrition. After attending the teacher’s night, Rosalie joined the National Farm to School Network and was excited to see resources for early childhood education.

Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie were then inspired to create a unit around the idea of farm to school because of the many diverse areas of exploration that the study of fruits and vegetables offered their class, including colors, shapes, and textures. Additionally, they noticed that many of their students were starting to eat new solid foods. They sought to align their lessons in the classroom with the developmental milestones the children were experiencing regarding eating new foods.

Variety of pictures of children playing with stamps
The teachers transformed their classroom for this unit. They carefully thought about how to organize the room to best fit the needs of their students and were excited to create experiences that were conducive for learning.

To begin preparing for their unit, Morgan, Mallory, and Rosalie chose a collection of art prints and  created their own works of art to post throughout their classroom. They paid special consideration to their students’ cubbies where they posted images of fruits and vegetables. Mallory even crocheted fruits and vegetables to add to the classroom. Since many children in their class were actively learning to crawl, the teachers taped images to ground for their class to explore while on the move. They also researched and chose children’s books to add to their classroom collection and brainstormed which produce to highlight with the class.

Variety of pictures of children exploring different fruits and vegetables
The children also took part in the preparations for the outing well before the actual day. As a class they explored fresh fruits and vegetables. They often started with the whole produce and then began cutting and breaking them apart to see what was inside. The process of exploring the fruits and vegetables quickly became a sensory experience for the infants as they touched, smelled, heard, and even tasted the various produce.

The class explored most of the produce using sight, touch, smell, and sound. The children were able to use their sense of taste when interacting with the avocados and strawberries for a more immersive experience. For both strawberries and avocados, the children looked at and touched images of the produce. They then compared the images to the real produce before and after it was cut up. Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie believed that it was important for the children to be able to make connections between the whole product, which the children do not always see, and the cut up portions that the children regularly eat at snack time. To finish the experience, the class had the opportunity to sample! The strawberries were a big hit, but many students were a little more cautious about the avocado. This immersive, multisensory experience left the children with a greater understanding of the food that they eat.

The teachers also combined this multisensory teaching approach with thinking routines including See, Think, Wonder to encourage curiosity and new understandings. Since many of their infants were preverbal, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie would verbalize out loud the different things that they saw, thought, and wondered while the children in their class were exploring the various fruits and vegetables. The teachers were careful to keep in mind that this might be the first time that their class had been exposed to many of the images and objects and allowed time for the infants to experience and make discoveries. One particularly fun lesson that built upon the multisensory and thinking routine approaches, was when the infants were exploring the red cabbage. As the children were bending, breaking, smelling, and feeling the texture of the cabbage, Morgan began to read Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert. As she read, she asked questions about the colors, textures, and sounds that the class heard when they were peeling the leaves of the cabbage.

Lesson Implementation:

Children in a stroller looking at several baskets of apples
The USDA holds a Farmers Market on Fridays throughout the spring, summer, and early fall. SEEC classes regularly visit to see the produce, buy snacks, and enjoy sitting on the grassy lawn.

Mallory, Morgan and Rosalie chose to visit the USDA’s farmers market in part because of its accessibility, since it is just off the National Mall and not far from their classroom. They also wanted to embrace the community aspects of the visit, as the farmers market is a great place for people to gather. This community space has picnic blankets and open space for people (including this class) to sit, gather, and reflect on the experience of being at the farmers market. It was a perfect fit for this lesson because it encouraged the children to make connections between the familiar foods that the class eats every day and the less familiar, whole, unprocessed, muddy foods that they saw at the market. Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie brought objects with them to enhance this community visit, including soft and hard toy fruits and vegetables and a board book to read to the group.

Teacher smiling at a child while on a plot of farm land
As the class approached the farmers market, they paused at the People’s Garden. This small urban garden in the heart of Washington, DC expanded the children’s experiences in and understanding of the city that they live in.

 At SEEC, teachers regularly take their classes on museum visits where they connect ideas that they are learning about in the classroom with museum objects. They often extend their lessons beyond the museum doors while still using the same techniques that they used on the community visits.

When asked to explain why it is important to take infants on community and museum visits, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie cited this quotation:

 “Our connections to the people, animals, and plants around us make us who we are. Humans are not a solitary species; we need one another to survive. In the same way that children need opportunities to get to know the natural world so that they can develop a strong relationship with it, they need that same opportunity to connect with the human and human-made community that they are a part of. When children develop a strong relationship with their community at an early age, they grow up knowing and feeling a strong sense of belonging.”

Source: https://shelburnefarms.org/sites/default/files/cultivatingjoywonder_all_smaller.pdf

Variety of pictures of children exploring soil on a farm
Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie encouraged their class to touch and explore the dirt when they noticed that their class was interested in it. Some teachers and caregivers might be hesitant to encourage their young children to play in dirt, but at SEEC we believe it is a vital part of learning.

While strolling through the People’s Garden, the class paused for a moment and reached to grab handfuls of soil. This part of the lesson was actually completely spontaneous! The teachers noticed students pointing towards the ground and saw it as an opportunity to follow their curiosity and facilitate hands-on learning. Through these early experiences with soil, children learn that soil is a living system full of healthy and fascinating relationships. The educators were also able to connect back to soil later during the visit by pointing out dirt on some of the produce the children were examining at the Farmers Market.

Children exploring a squash
As the class passed through the booths at the farmers market, they paused to examine some produce like this butternut squash.

While exploring the butternut squash, the children not only touched the smooth sides, but also noticed how the textures of the squash changed as Rosalie rotated it. When she turned the squash on its side, the children immediately reached out to touch the small, dry area of the squash. Even though the children could not talk yet, the teachers, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie, were able to follow each child’s nonverbal cues. The teachers paid special attention to the things the children were pointing to, the changes in their facial expressions, and their use of sign language. In fact, throughout the lesson the children regularly signed “more” as they moved from one booth to another, signaling that they wanted to explore different types of produce. When the children signed “more”, it helped Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie know that the children were enjoying their visit and wanted to continue.

Children in a stroller, with a teacher showing them a tomato
As they walked, the class continued their sensory exploration by touching smooth red peppers, bumps on an acorn squash, and the rough stems of a pumpkin. Both students and teachers seemed to believe that their trip to the USDA’s Farmers Market was a huge success.

Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie were so excited to take their class to the farmers market because this was their first trip outside as a group! The teachers had spent the month hoping that they could visit the farmers market for this unit and on the last Friday of the month they were able to make it work! Even the journey to the Market was exciting for the students; they experienced the sights and sounds of a beautiful autumn day outside in Washington, DC. The class noticed squirrels, fall foliage, and insects on the trip across the National Mall. Once the class arrived at the market, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie were happy to see their students so engaged with a variety of produce. They also embraced the unplanned moments, including feeling the dirt and meeting a big, fluffy dog which made their outing extra special.

Children sitting on a picnic blanket being read a story by their teacher
The class gathered on a blanket to play with toys from the classroom and explore produce that they had bought from the farmers market. A major component of this time was Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie singing various songs.

After the visit to the vendors at the market, the class gathered on the grass near the market. As part of the Friday Farmers market, the grassy area has lawn games set up as well as communal picnic blankets, which the class used for their outdoor story time. The teachers made sure that each child was engaged by offering them toys from the classroom and produce that they had recently purchased from the market.

Once everyone was settled in, the class looked at some pages in a book and sang a variety of songs. They sang a variety of autumnal songs that the music teacher, Ms. Allison, had introduced to the class during October. One song was about a pumpkin, big and round; another song was about autumn leaves falling down. They sang the pumpkin song as the children touched the pumpkin. As children began venturing off their blanket and started to explore the leaves they found on the ground, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie sang the autumn leaves song. It was clear that the children enjoyed the songs as they rocked their bodies to the beat and even clapped along.

Reflection:

A child sitting on a picnic blanket holding a pumpkin
While the group was engaged singing and looking at books, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie encouraged individual exploration. This child discovered that he could lift the pumpkin by its stem as the class sang the song “Orange Pumpkin – Big and Round”.

Since their class is composed of young children, much of the beginning of the year is focused on learning and supporting each individual child’s feeding and resting schedule. This complicates finding time to go on outings. However, when the opportunity arises to go on a trip, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie, jump on it, as they know the benefits of getting their class out of the classroom for experiential learning.

When thinking about what the class could have done differently, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie thought it would have been nice to bring food for their class to eat while on the picnic blankets. They explained that bringing food to taste would have enhanced their class’ experience beyond seeing and feeling by adding the sense of taste.

After the visit, the class continued to build upon what they had experienced that day. The children decorated canvas bags which would be perfect to take to the Farmers Market for shopping. To decorate, the children mixed and splattered paint with their hands, feet, and brushes. At the end of October, the bags were sent home with a small gourd inside. It was a great way to finish off the month!

Songs & Emergent Literacy

Drum and LiteracyIf you visit our toddler and twos classes you are bound to hear joyful voices singing songs as they begin their morning routine. The classes sing hello to each student, use songs during their morning circles, and to help ease transitions throughout their day. While a chorus of young voices is undeniably sweet and fun, their singing is helping to set a strong academic foundation by strengthening the children’s pre-literacy skills.

Songs & Vocabulary

When children hear a song, they are exposed to new words. The words that young children hear, whether spoken or sung, are the words that form their vocabulary. The repetitive nature of many song lyrics, combined with the fact that children are likely to hear the same song many times, gives them the opportunity to fully learn new words. Later in their academic lives, this understanding of a variety of words will help with their ability to read and their overall reading comprehension.

Songs, Sounds, Rhymes

clapping hands songs

For very young children, listening to songs exposes them to the many different sounds that make up our words. As you sing a song, you emphasize certain sounds and by doing so, you highlight the building blocks of our language. Singing gives the youngest children the opportunity to mimic and communicate with these sounds in a way that is ideal for toddlers. When singing, they are given the freedom to be loud, let their voices ring, and play with sounds. Additionally, a child whose words often slur together or who regularly skips words while speaking is often able to sing a tune in such a way that an adult will know what they are singing. This can hold true even in cases where the adult is not able to understand many of the individual words being sung. Children rely on the sounds they learned while singing when they start sounding out words and when they are developing the ability to read.

As young children develop pre-literacy skills, they begin to have the ability to rhyme. Singing songs such as Willoughby Wallaby Woo, Down by the Bay, and Silly Nilly Name Song allow children to explore rhyming sounds while singing. Pausing before you say the rhyming word can give the children the chance to fill it in, which helps children progress from hearing rhymes to creating their own rhymes. These singing games can provide hours of entertainment while challenging young children to explore sounds and rhymes.

Songs, Symbols, & Letter Recognition

A crucial component of learning to read is recognizing that the letter “m” means the sound “mmm”. In order to learn this, children must first understand the use of symbols, because the letter “m” is a symbol for the sound “mmm”. Children begin recognizing symbols well before they are ready to read and symbol recognition is considered an important pre-literacy skill. While using songs to help children understand letters may seem unlikely, song cards offer the ideal opportunity to pair singing with symbol recognition.

Songs cards are images that are used to represent or be a symbol for a particular songs. For example, an image of a sun might be used to represent Mr. Sun and a star might be used to represent Twinkle, Twinkle.  When using song cards, make sure that image is large, engaging and/or colorful. Also be sure that the images are double sided and laminated for durability. Then dramatically spread the song cards out in the middle of the circle and encourage the class to explore the cards. As they pick up the images, sing the corresponding song. Over time, children will learn that specific images represent their favorite songs and will go out of their way to find these images. Young children love using these song cards because it helps them to communicate what songs they want to sing  without having to come up with the name of the song or even the tune. In essence, song cards help young children to learn about symbols in a way that is appealing to them by helping to fulfill their need to communicate their wants and desires.

How Books Help Young Children Develop From Head to Toe

“How Books Help Young Children Develop From Head to Toe” was originally published on November 19, 2017. We are posting it in celebration of our up coming professional development workshop Emergent Literacy using Objects on November 21, 2019.


This week’s blog is written by Melinda Bernsdorf. Melinda has been working in the classroom with toddlers and twos for a decade and strongly believes in the magic of a good book. She studied Developmental Psychology and Learning at St. Joseph’s University and was an educator at SEEC from 2014 – 2018. When traveling, she always brings home a children’s book (or two!) to add to her library. For this blog, she drew on her experiences as a toddler teacher to write about books and how they can help children develop physical skills. 

SEECstories.com (1)

Children’s literature is so fantastic with funny stories, catchy rhyme schemes, and interesting information presented in novel ways. Educators and researchers often praise children’s books, citing their importance in supporting vocabulary development, but children’s books can also meet developmental needs of infants and toddlers beyond language acquisition. These other developmental domains, such as motor skills, are often overlooked when talking about the importance of providing literature to young children. Although it may seem counterintuitive, when young children engage with books, they are also engaging their bodies in ways that help them grow physically.

SEECstories.com (2)When our toddlers begin the school year, they devote a lot of their resources to the development of their emerging physical skills. It takes a lot of energy and hard work to figure out the complex series of muscle movements needed to walk, climb the stairs, hold a peer’s hand, or interact physically with another toddler. In one of our toddler classes, we used Eric Carle’s From Head to Toe as a platform for our students to work on these physical skills in meaningful and enjoyable ways while also integrating vocabulary and early literacy skills in our lessons. Our class was so inspired by this book, that we decided to create a unit that focused on body movement and used the book as jumping off point.

SEECstories.com (4)Toddlers are intrinsically drawn to the repetition of a familiar and beloved book. Their interest in multiple exposures provides opportunities to increase their knowledge and contextual understanding of the new vocabulary. Additionally, these multiple exposures allow children to mirror and repeatedly practice movements depicted in the images of the book. Often these movements link directly to physical skills that toddlers are working on mastering. The book, From Head To Toe, was a great fit for developing physical skills because of its simple, repetitive narrative that drew in our students, and for its playful directives that allowed each child to practice moving their individual body parts like each animal. We decided to create a unit using From Head To Toe that focused on one body part each week. Using the book as a starting off point, we were able to explore how we can use our arms and hands, legs and feet, and head and neck.

SEECstories.com (5)First, we set up the room to give our students many opportunities to freely play and explore the book and concepts we were covering. We had copies of the board book on the bookshelf and a bulletin board showing each animal. We moved the climber directly below the bulletin board to both give them access to the board, enticing them to practice physically going up and down the stairs, and to encourage them to extend their hands to touch the pictures.

SEECstories.com (6)During circle time, our toddlers held photographs of animals’ feet, legs, knees, and toes, as they were encouraged to bend their own knees, wiggle their own toes, and kick their own feet. They gained mastery over their actions in a controlled manner, while also increasing their ability to sit in one place for an extended period. This helped them to expand their capability to focus on one thing, which is very different kind of physical work for toddlers.

SEECstories.com (7)In our classroom, we invited our students to continue using their arms and hands in meaningful ways with art activities and sensory choices that connected to From Head to Toe. They loved waving their arms like a monkey while throwing the paper packing material in the air!

SEECstories.com (8)We did not just focus on gross motor movements, but spent time finding, identifying, and moving our facial features. We also practiced the small muscle movements that are involved in communication by smiling, frowning, and using our mouths to form different sounds.

SEECstories.com (9)We also brought the book into the museum, stomping our feet alongside an elephant, clapping our hands next to a seal, and bending our necks with a giraffe.

SEECstories.comAcross these lessons and experiences, the constant was Eric Carle’s book. We referred back to the work, over and over again, not only because our students loved it and asked for it (which they did!), but because we could offer them the chance to work on the difficult physical tasks of developing new motor skills, without asking them to shift their attention and devote resources to a new topic of exploration. By choosing an age-appropriate, well loved book, we were able to extend our students’ focus, offering them meaningful learning opportunities in multiple disciplines while they were engaged and having fun. We allowed them to do the hard, physical work of being a toddler in a way that was exciting, enticing, and very enjoyable.

Interested in learning more about literacy and young children? Check out our upcoming seminar Emergent Literacy Using Objects.  

Looking for other books that help young children practice their emerging physical skills, check these out: 

Teacher Feature: Toddlers Explore Butterflies

This week’s teacher feature shows how one of SEEC’s toddlers classes explored caterpillars and butterflies by reading books, looking at sculptures in the Smithsonian Pollinator Garden, and pretending to be butterflies by wearing wings and flapping arms. Below you will find images from the lesson as well as reflections from the educators, Nuriya Gavin, Stephanie Lopez, and Julia Smith. 

Teacher and children looking at butterflies

Preparation:

We were transitioning from a unit on construction and building to a unit on animals. A couple of weeks before this lesson, we had explored the idea that animals build different types of homes for themselves. For our lesson, we explored butterflies and talked about the process of a caterpillar building a chrysalis and becoming a butterfly.

Children playing with blocks. Children looking at a diorama of a house. A child wearing a construction vest and safety googles
Before learning about bug homes, the class had been exploring architecture and buildings. They visited the National Building Museum, the Dolls’ House at the National Museum of American History, and Are Years What? (for Marianne Moore) by Mark di Suvero at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden where they learned about principals of engineering.

In addition to connecting to the idea of animals as builders, we were drawn to learning about bugs and insects because the weather had been getting warmer and we were seeing more bugs out. We started eating snack outside and would see ants and other bugs as we ate. The children were also fascinated by the worms and grubs they dug up in the dirt box on the playground.

Children sitting in a circle listening to "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" being read
To start the lesson, toddler Educator, Nuriya Gavin, held a morning circle where she introduced the topic and read “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” by Eric Carle. 

For objectives, we were hoping to show the children that some animals and bugs build homes by focusing on the caterpillar building a chrysalis. We wanted to introduce children to the life stages of the butterfly and help them to gain an understanding that even though the caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly all look different, they are the same organism. Lastly, we wanted for our class to experience an outdoor butterfly habitat and have the opportunity to hunt for bugs while outside.

Lesson Implementation:

Children sitting and standing in a circle pretending to be caterpillars and butterflies
In addition to reading the book, Nuriya led the class in flapping their arms like a butterfly and passed around butterfly puppets and toy butterfly replicas for the children to hold and explore.

As a toddler class, we keep our circle times short but engaging. We typically start by asking the children what they already know about the topic we are going to explore. Then we will give them some new information usually using a book or video. In this instance, we talked about the bugs we were already familiar with and liked hunting for before turning our attention to butterflies. We discussed butterflies as we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. We picked this book because of its big format and interactive design. We had butterfly puppets which we used to demonstrate how a butterfly moves. Knowing that some of our children get nervous around flying bugs, we wanted to give our children the opportunity to explore the toy butterflies before experiencing the real thing. To finish the circle time, we gave the children a chance to move their bodies and flap their arms like wings.

Teachers and children looking at a chrysalis
The class gathered around sculptures of a caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly which are part of HABITAT, a Smithsonian-wide exhibition. The caterpillar, chrysalis, butterfly sculptures are featured in the Bug B & B exhibit.

For our museum outing, we chose to visit the wooden sculptures that are part of the new HABITAT installation. These caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly sculptures happen to be in the Pollinator Garden which is an area that we frequent. We often walk through the garden on our way to other visits and take the opportunity to check out the flowers and watch them grow, as well as look for bugs such as bumblebees. We noticed the new installation popping up around the Smithsonian museums and the National Mall. We were excited to make use of the new sculptures and very happy that we could tie it right in with our lessons!

Children pretending to be butterflies, while wearing wings
Educators, Nuriya, Stephanie, and Julia, found a safe space near the sculptures in the Pollinator Garden where the children could engage in free play. While playing, some children began crawling like a caterpillar which inspired the educators to encourage the children to pretend to make a chrysalis and then to emerge from that chrysalis as a butterfly.

In general, when we approach objects, we let the children look at them and explore them individually at first before explaining the purpose of our visit. This allows the children to form their own ideas and experience a deeper understanding. In this case, when we let the children look at the wooden sculptures of the butterfly, caterpillar, and chrysalis, it triggered their imagination. They began flapping their arms like wings which reinforced the simple but important concepts that butterflies have wings, that they can fly, and that the movement of the wings is called flapping.

We encouraged the children to flap their arms like wings because from a practical point of view the children in our class can only sit or stand quietly for so long before they really need to move their bodies. So, we found a nice contained space within the garden where the children could continue pretending to be butterflies. Children this age need very concrete reminders of their physical boundaries. The stone bench that encircled this area was perfect for defining boundaries and freed us to engage even more actively in the play because we didn’t have to worry about the children running off.

We found it useful to both observe and actively join in on play. Sometimes watching gives us a better idea of what children are thinking as they play. For example, Julia watched the children starting to crawl along the benches pretending to be caterpillars. As she watched, she thought that they might be interested in exploring how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly so she pretended to curl up into a chrysalis and burst out like a butterfly. This was the perfect way to teach the children about one of our more complicated subjects – the idea that the caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly are all the same organism. Pretending to be the caterpillar, then forming the chrysalis, and finally emerging as a butterfly helped the children to realize that it was the same animal going through different stages. Since the children were partaking in free play, Julia opted to jump right into the play by physically pretending to be a caterpillar going through a metamorphosis. She provided the example and the children were able to decide if they wanted to join in going through the stages or if they wanted to continue with their free play.

Reflection:

Toddlers playing outside pretending to be butterflies while wearing fake wings
Children were free to play and engage with the materials in whatever ways they wanted. While some children chose to partake in the metamorphosis game, others watched, others continued to play by themselves, and some went back and forth between the group game and individual play.

To follow up this lesson, we continued to learn about different bugs. When we learned about worms, we talked about how caterpillars and worms are different because worms don’t have legs. While playing with model magic, some of the children decided that they wanted to make caterpillars, so we talked about how caterpillars move. Since they had many questions and   seemed curious, we watched a few videos showing caterpillars moving, eating and transforming into a chrysalis and butterfly.

Children outdoors looking at a leaf
The educators unexpectedly found milkweed on the way to the sculptures. While this was not part of the planned lesson, they stopped to talk about the relationship between the monarch butterfly and milkweed.

For other teachers trying out this lesson, we recommend really thinking about physical outdoor spaces that you could use for free play. We don’t think our lesson would have gone as well if we hadn’t had a safe space to allow the kids to play for a long time. In a more open environment, we would likely have cut the play much shorter as the kids got more excited and wanted to run and spread out. Play always works best when everyone, children and teachers, are comfortable.

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After the lesson, the toddlers continued to explore bugs. For one visit they went to the National Museum of Natural History’s O. Orkin Insect Zoo’s tarantula feeding.

If we had the opportunity to do this lesson over again, we would have incorporated the milkweed that we saw in the pollinator garden and tied it into the lesson plan more thoughtfully. We could have spent some time talking about monarch butterflies and exploring their unique relationship with the milkweed plant. It also would have been nice if we had seen more actual butterflies or caterpillars, but that is harder to plan.

Teacher Feature: Infants Explore Tea

For this week’s Teacher Feature we will highlight how our infant class investigated tea. Educators Brandi Gordon, J. Kelly, and Rebecca Morgan Parr took their class to the Smithsonian’s Enid A. Haupt Garden where they saw a tea plant in the Moongate. Afterwards they went back to our center where they made and drank tea. Below you will find images from the lesson and a reflection from the educators.

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Preparation:

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Prior to this lesson, the class had been learning about food and different things that people eat and drink. Inspired by the drinks that their parents, caregivers, and teachers had been consuming, they recently began exploring hot drinks including tea and coffee.

This tea lesson felt like a natural topic to explore after our class finished learning about fruits, vegetables, and other foods that grow from plants. We followed the interests of the children in our Duckling class who were interested in their teachers’ drinks. They children wanted to drink, touch, and taste our tea and coffee. In general, letting small children drink or handle hot beverages is not acceptable. We did not want to leave their interests ignored, so we decided to teach about them instead. We wanted to explore why some beverages feel hot and felt it was an excellent opportunity to reinforce language and safety ideas.

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To learn more about tea, the class visited the Smithsonian’s Enid A. Haupt Garden where they were able to look at a tea plant.

For our objectives, we began by expanding upon the past units’ objectives. We had been teaching our Ducklings that many plants become the food that we eat, so visiting the tea plant was another way to do that. We also wanted more opportunities to explore our community, visit local shops, and see different parts of our school like the staff room, where we boiled the water to make tea. Another objective was to introduce our class to the idea of temperature. Lastly, we wanted to expose them to many kinds of tea as well as show them various beverages that exist in the world.

As educators, we had our own set of objectives for ourselves. We wanted to follow our class’s interest even if it was an unconventional topic. We wanted to weave the ideas of safety into a lesson. And we wanted to allow the children to embrace having sensory experiences. It was nice to remind ourselves that getting messy is ok and can be fun!

Lesson Implementation:

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While looking at the tea plant, the educator Rebecca explained that people pick leaves from this plant to make tea.

Before the visit and on the way to the Moongate, we talked to the Ducklings about how we were going to see a tea plant. At the Moongate, we took the students out of the buggies and helped them into the circular marble seating next to the tea plant. We compared the real tea plant to the pretend tea plant and looked closely at the leaves.

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Since plucking the tea leaves off the real tea plant would damage the plant, the educators brought their own pretend tea plant which was made by taping images of the tea plant to a cardboard box. To help the children experience plucking, they velcroed tea leaves to the box which the children were encouraged to pull off and put in a teapot.

The great thing about the pretend tea plant was that the children had the opportunity to pull off the leaves without hurting a live plant. After the Ducklings pulled the leaves off the box, we encouraged them to place them into tea bags which in turn they placed into our toy teapots. Then we poured pretend tea into their cups to drink. Many of the children loved pretending to drink out of the cups. As they pretended to make and drink the tea, we sang I’m a Little Tea Pot.

Some of children were more interested in playing with the water from the rain. They smacked their hands down on the marble seating to splash. We talked to the Ducklings about how we ingest plants for eating in many ways and that plants also go into tea. They had seen flowers throughout our gardening unit so the idea that some flowers can go in tea seemed to excite them.

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The class returned to the center, to watch Kelly brew tea. Kelly talked about the different plants that can be used to make tea and poured hot water over tea leaves so the children could watch the steeping process.

We took our students into the kitchen area of the staff break room, where they began the beginnings of a circle time by sitting on the floor with their teachers. Kelly showed the class the electric kettle, tea bags, and the tea strainer. We gave out some tea bags to allow the students to explore. Some of the Ducklings started to rip the tea bags. We decided to encourage their exploration of the loose-leaf tea and asked questions like “What does that feel like?”

 

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Children were encouraged to explore tea using their senses. They smelled tea, touched tea (and even pulled apart tea bags), and eventually tasted the tea.

We allowed free exploration. Some of the children enjoyed ripping the tea bags, some of them preferred chewing a strand of lavender, others placed dried rose petals into our tea strainer. We let the children stand up and sit down as they wished but made sure that they stayed within the confines of the small kitchen area so we could see everyone.

We tried to encourage our students to explore many kinds of sensory options. We also know that they are at an age when most things still go in their mouths for exploration and provide important details about the world around them. Tea is something they can learn about through all the senses–sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. They could see the tea, hear the water boil and steam, they could touch the dry and rehydrated tea leaves, smell the tea as it is brewing and finally taste it.

Reflection:

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To conclude the lesson, the class had the opportunity to drink tea and as they drank, they engaged in conversation. Some children chose to clink cups as if they were cheering before drinking.Enter a caption

We followed up by this lesson by having the students “paint” with tea bags on a big sheet of paper. We continued to make different varieties of teas and visited the United States Botanical Garden to see different herbs that are used in tea (like mint.) Later in the afternoon, after everyone had woken up from their nap, we gave all of them a cup with the tea we made so they could try it as well as practice using open-face cups.

For other teachers trying this lesson, we recommend making sure whatever tea you use is decaffeinated and that the teas taste good to a child’s palate. Try to make sure you give enough time for the students to explore the objects and try to see how you can explore all the senses. Be flexible and open to mess– this is a great opportunity to allow each child to be an investigator, a scientist, a creative, and as always, their most curious self.

 

 

Changes: Advice from Parents on Preparing for a New Sibling

Over the past year, we have created a blog series on potential changes that may occur in a young child’s life in the hopes that we can help provide some resources for families, caregivers, and educators. For this blog, which focuses on helping young children adjust to a new sibling joining their family, we polled SEEC educators on what they did to prepare. Below you will find their experiences and advice and since we are all always learning from each other, please be sure to comment and share what worked (or didn’t work) for you.

 

Take a New Sibling Class

Signing up for a sibling class or a sibling tour of the hospital can help prepare young children for the birth of the new baby. Many hospitals offer classes like these and they can help young children to feel comfortable in the hospital, which eases some of the tension that comes with meeting the new baby for the first time.

New sibling classes can also teach young children how to do tasks that will help when the new baby comes. These tasks may include diapering, singing songs to the baby, or bringing mom a snack. Practicing these tasks ahead of time means that your child will be able to start immediately helping when the baby arrives. Your child might even start seeing themselves as a “helper”. As one of our parents explains, “I made sure that I gave my oldest specific tasks to help with the baby so she would feel included. She was able to help me diaper the baby and I wonder if that wasn’t something that helped her not regress when the baby was born.”

Preparing the Room

Several parents cited the importance of having the new baby’s room or crib prepared before the baby arrives. Some parents explained that having the crib set up helped children to think of and verbalize their questions as it served as a concrete reminder that the baby was coming. Other parents said that having the crib set up ahead of time made it so that their older children did not experience too many changes at once. The older child was able to get used to sleeping in a bed or even sharing bedrooms with older siblings before the baby came.

 

Books

Another great way to help families prepare is to read books together. Books can give adults language for how to discuss the changes that are coming up and they can help give children an idea of what life will be like with the new baby. Some of our favorite books about getting a new baby are You’re Getting a Baby Brother! by Sheila Sweeny Higginson, Hannah Is a Big Sister by Alyssa Satin Capucilli, The New Baby at Your House by Joanna Cole, and Peter’s Chair by Ezra Jack Keats.

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Picking out Presents

A fun way to prepare for the new baby is to have the older siblings pick out presents to give to the baby. Take them to the store and have them pick out a special present. Children can help with the wrapping process too. When the baby is born, bring the presents to the hospital and have the children give it to the new baby. The baby can also have presents to give the older siblings. Make sure that the gift to the older siblings is hospital friendly and they can play with it when they meet the new baby.

Setting Aside Time for Older Sibling

Setting time aside to ensure that the older siblings still get individual attention is crucial. It can be as simple as going for trip to the playground without the baby or signing up for a weekend class. We recommend checking out our Weekend Family Workshops. Many parents find it valuable to set time aside for the whole year. One parent recommended joining a CO-OP preschool so the older child could have their own opportunity to learn and the parents could volunteer once a month. Another option is our Smithsonian Early Explorers program, which is a caregiver child program that meets twice a week on the National Mall.

Other Life Changes

If you want to learn about how SEEC educators teach about getting a new sibling, check out “How to Take Care of a Baby Shark (and Baby Human)”. Much of this advice can be applied to other changes that might occur in a young child’s life. For example, we believe in discussing the changes with young children in frank, simple terms. This includes talking about difficult topics including death, which you can read more about in our blog “Changes: Talking with Young Children about Death”. All children go through changes as they grow up. In fact, the act of growing up might be one of the most universal changes but it is also a change that some people do not think to discuss with young children. Our blog “Changes: Facing the Strange at the Smithsonian American Art Museum”, provides tips on how to talk about the strangeness of growing up.

Teacher Truths: Working with Toddlers

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

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

Highlights from the conversation between Kat and Shannon:

 

 

 

 

 

 

Biting From All Perspectives

 

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When young children who are in the process of becoming verbal interact with each other, biting often occurs. At SEEC, we choose to look at biting holistically and consider the viewpoints of all the individuals involved. In a manner similar to looking closely at a painting or walking all the way around a sculpture to gain perspective, the educators at SEEC consider the viewpoints of both the bitten child and the biting child, as well as their caregivers. In this way, we are better able to discuss the situation and search for potential solutions.

While it is a perfectly normal behavior, biting brings with it a cloud of complexity because the caregivers of both children often have strong  reactions to the biting.

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Parent of the Bitten Child

When a caregiver hears that their child was bitten, their first thought is typically,  “My poor baby!” They are overwhelmed with the natural instinct to protect their child and are worried that they failed to do so. Moreover, biting is seen as terrible offense to most adults. If I was walking down the street and someone bit me, I would be quick to call the police. When adults are confronted by the physical evidence of the bite, their emotions are heightened and they feel naturally protective.

Bitten Child

“OUCH!” is the first thing that goes through a child’s mind as they are bitten. They immediately need comfort from an adult. In my classroom, we would pick up the child or give them a hug. We would also offer a special ice pack to the bitten area. These special ice packs are infrequently and selectively given out and are consequently highly sought after – the ice pack soothes their discomfort and at the same time, gets them excited for a treat, which helps them move past the incident.

After the initial shock, young children begin to process being bitten, which is different from the way an adult would. Children are beginning to learn about their world and how people respond to them. Being bitten is actually a learning opportunity that helps them better understand social interactions. The bitten child may learn that grabbing a toy out of their friend’s hand upsets them or, that climbing on top of another child is potentially scary and painful.  The bitten child begins to understand that his/her actions impact others and when others are hurt or upset, they make act out.

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Parent of the Biting Child

Parents of children who are biting may feel confused and wonder why their sweet child would hurt another child. If the child continues to bite, the parents often feel guilty and begin questioning their parenting abilities and even their own child. As an educator, I have worked with caregivers on both sides of the issue and I  notice that the experience is much harder for the caregiver/s of the biting child and work to reassure them that biting, in very young children, is normal and natural. I have found it useful to talk about how the child is biting to communicate their needs. I will often point out that biting can be an immensely effective way to communicate for children who are not yet able to talk efficiently.

Biting Child

For young children who are preverbal or are in the process of becoming verbal, biting is a way to communicate their wants and needs to others. Young children bite for a variety of reasons, some of which may be because they are excited, frustrated, angry, overstimulated, or scared. Children do not bite because they are mean or bad. Biting occurs because young children are trying to navigate the world and they lack both the communication skills and the impulse control to handle situations in grown-up ways.

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Educator

In my class, when a child bites, we treat everyone in the situation individually. We immediately comfort and support the child who has been bitten. We explain to the child who bit that biting hurts other people’s bodies. We look closely at the situation and ask ourselves questions about what we as adults can do to prevent future bites. We also talk to the child’s family to get additional perspectives and gain a better understanding of the child’s experiences at home. We then will work together to come up with a plan. Sometimes our plans take longer than we would like, so we have to wait for the children to develop the appropriate communication skills and impulse control, but we keep evaluating, thinking, and working with the children and families.

5 Books on Families

We thought it might be helpful for us to share some books that we read in our classes that focus on families. These books highlight the ideas that everyone’s family is unique and different (and that is a good thing) while making sure to draw that connection that families are defined by love. Here is our top five list of books on families:

The Family Book by Todd Parr

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The Family Book by Todd Parr provides a lovely overview of families. Its clear and simple prose along with its vibrant colors makes it appealing to even the youngest children. The phrases that are written in the book can almost become mantras for children. After reading it several times, you may hear children saying, “Some families are big” or “Some families are small”. It also touches upon more complex ideas surrounding families including death, adoption, and single parents. The Family Book ends with a message that helps children embrace their unique family.

Loving by Ann Morris

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This book shows images of families from around the world who are taking care of each other. The  photographs highlight families from around the globe that are highly relatable to young children. For example, it depicts children shopping in San Francisco’s Chinatown, eating dinner at a table in Harlem, and a mother nursing a baby in Kenya. The photos not only speak to family, but other universals like adults caring for children and food. The love between the adults and children is clear on each page and the index  provides additional context for each photograph.

A Tale of Two Mommies by Vanita Oelschlager

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This books features three children playing on a beach. Two of the children ask the other child questions about having two mommies. Both the questions and the answers to the questions appeal to young children and have a wide variety. As the child answers, it becomes clear that both mommies take care of and love the child. This books helps children to discover answers to questions about different families that they might be pondering without ostracizing others.

Stella Brings the Family by Miriam B. Schiffer

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Stella Brings the Family is about a child whose class is celebrating Mother’s Day. Stella, however, is worried because she has two dads and doesn’t know who she should bring to the Mother’s Day celebration. She discovers that she has a family that includes Daddy and Papa and also includes Nonna, Aunt Gloria, Uncle Bruno, and Cousin Lucy. She decides to invite them all to the celebration since they all help to take care of her.

Kids Need to Be Safe: A Book for Children in Foster Care by Julie Nelson

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This book addresses a more complicated topic –  that not all children have a traditional family to take care of them. The text is simple and repeats the idea that, “Kids are important. Kids need to be safe.” Children can see this theme supported by illustrations of children being cared for by foster parents and other adults. These illustrations can allow for deeper conversations and potentially provide children who have experienced foster care the opportunity to share their experiences.

These are examples of books on families that we have read to children. Do you have any books that you would like to add to this list? Please let us know!