Caregivers and Play: A Sneak Peak at Our Upcoming Seminar

Play at SEEC

Though our school is not strictly play-based, it recognizes the importance of play and incorporates it into our unique brand of object-based learning. Much like other early childhood schools, you will observe our children engaging in play during classroom choices and playground time. You can also find our children playing in the museums, but not just in the play-based spaces. We think creatively about how to safely incorporate play into our museum or community visits.

Caregiver Perspectives on Play

Over the years, we have heard from educators that often caregivers don’t appreciate or understand the value of play. I won’t lie, I too, was at one point one of those parents. Before beginning my career in early childhood education, I enrolled my daughter in a play-based cooperative preschool and one of my biggest concerns was if they would incorporate letter/number recognition into the curriculum. That was more than ten years ago and my outlook has drastically changed.

I have also observed sentiments similar in parents today. I recall a specific conversation with a parent whose child had recently transitioned from a play group to a SEEC program. The parent was happy about the transition because she felt like all the kids did “was play.” Through discussions with other educators, in and outside of SEEC, I have found that other parents share a similar concern about the role of play in the classroom.

I don’t mean to suggest that all caregivers feel that play is not important or even that they don’t see ANY value in the act of playing. In fact, there was recently a heated discussion at the school one of my children attends regarding recess. Some of the students had been missing recess due to make up work or for disciplinary reasons and that did not sit well with our parent community. I think it is important to note that there is a range of parent perspectives on play.

Starting the Conversation

At the same time that we have been reflecting on how parents feel about play, our team has also been focusing in how we can support our parent community and the community at large. It occurred to us that our upcoming workshop, Play: Engaging Learners in Object Rich Environments would be an ideal venue to explore parent attitudes towards play and strategize ways we can engage parents in a dialogue about the value of it.

In order to have this dialogue, we feel it’s important to better understand caregivers’ beliefs surrounding play. Therefore, we have begun to collect data that will inform that understanding and thus far, we have hit on some themes:

  • It’s a waste of money to pay for someone to watch their kids just play.
  • Play doesn’t look like traditional learning.
  • Play doesn’t look like hard work, so it’s not important.
  • Playing won’t teach them how to hold a pencil, read, or write.
  • Playing won’t give them the skills to be successful in life.
  • Play looks like chaos.

Over the next few weeks, we will be collecting more feedback from parents and look forward to sharing their perspectives at our upcoming seminar in July. We are excited to think together about this as a group and look forward to sharing more broadly in future postings.

Building the Next Generation of Democratic Thinkers

SEECstories.com (4)In a recent article Smithsonian Secretary Skorton posited that museums can help people regain trust in “traditional democratic institutions”. His argument centered around a study indicating that many Americans have lost faith in the institutions that are the foundation of our democratic system. He spoke to the fact that not just Americans, but citizens across the globe seem to be losing trust in their own societies and pondered how a democracy can function without the trust of its citizens. Secretary Skorton sees museums and libraries, not only as institutions that provide reliable and objective information, but also as places where questions can be posed, dialogues can be had, and a variety of perspectives can be explored. As leader of the Smithsonian, moreover, he sees museums as places where communities can come together to better understand themselves and the world around them.

As an organization, SEEC, also sees museums, libraries, and the larger community as sources for information, discussion, and reflection. We were particularly excited when in the same article, Skorton noted the role of educators:

I have seen how our museums and centres engage visitors and transform the way they see the world—especially our youngest visitors, who light up with the joy of new discovery. Through our education programs, we reach millions of national and international students, often using objects from our collections to demonstrate experiences and viewpoints that differ from what they might have encountered. By revealing history through the lens of diverse perspectives, museums humanize other cultures and contextualize present-day events and people.

SEECstories.com (5)The Secretary’s comments made me think more about the role museums can play in supporting a young child’s civic education. When I look specifically at SEEC, I see our school and programs as supporting a child’s understanding of democracy via museums in three ways.  One of those ways, is asking them to understand the importance of objects from other cultures or historical periods. Many don’t see young children as capable of this type of perspective-taking, but with the right approach, young children can develop this type of understanding and empathy. One of the ways SEEC educators manage this is by taking what is familiar to children and applying it to the unfamiliar. Consider the collection of footwear on display at the Smithsonian Castle from the National Museum of the American Indian. The shoes, at first glance, may feel strange to a young child living in contemporary American society, but an educator can encourage a child to think beyond their own experiences by beginning with what they do know. A faculty member might inquire: “Why do we wear shoes? When do we wear certain types of shoes?,  How do shoes help us?.” By applying these answers to the American Indian collection, children begin to see the many things we, humans, have in common. At the same time, a child are also able to acknowledge and celebrate the differences they observe. This type of lesson, especially if repeated, makes a lasting impression. We might be different, but those differences can be celebrated. It also underlines how we are part of one human family who shares many commonalities.

SEECstories.com (1)Secondly, young children who consistently spend time in museums can begin to understand and appreciate the role museums can play in learning, exploring, and questioning. During a recent conversation with a SEEC educator, he shared with me that in his Pre-K classroom children are routinely encouraged to ask questions and look for answers. He tell his class, that he, himself, doesn’t always have the answers and encourages them to seek answers via trusted resources. The children in this classroom have created a shortlist of “go to” places where they can get trusted answers. Of course, at the the top of this list is the museum.  For our SEEC students who have spent much of their young lives in these institutions, they understand how museums provide not simply information, but concrete manifestations of this knowledge. Consider the toddler who is learning about colors and visits the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. His knowledge is expanded by exploring the artworks and seeing the many different hues of blue. Similarly, consider the kindergartner who is learning about Rosa Parks and after viewing her portrait by Marshall D. Rumbaugh at the National Portrait Gallery. Through age-appropriate conversation, she can gain deeper insight into Parks’ role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Both children are learning that the museum is a place where they can turn to for both factual information and for viewpoints other than their own.

SEECstories.com (3)Finally, the very nature of how we teach at SEEC (and I think you could say this is true for many museum and classroom educators) reaffirms trust in democratic discourse. SEEC lessons often begin with a question and are composed around a conversation. For example, we might pose a scientific question like, “Why do cars have wheels?” or something more abstract like, “How do you think the woman in the painting feels?.” By simply engaging young children in conversation we are helping them to develop socially and emotionally. By framing these conversations within a museum, we can also encourage children to see the institution as a place in which dialogue is part of the experience. Within that dialogue, educators can facilitate conversations that encourage children to listen to and respect the ideas of others – something which will hopefully cultivate a generation of leaders who can engage in conversations resulting in positive democratic change.

SEECstories.com (2)As early childhood educators, whether in the classroom or the museum, we have a unique opportunity to frame the museum as a place where children can acquire knowledge throughout their life. Museum education is so much more than learning a new fact. It is a place where people of all ages can apply new information in a way that helps them value different perspectives and understand the ideas of others. While SEEC is uniquely situated to achieve this as a school on the Smithsonian campus, all schools and museums can support these democratic values. Classroom faculty can engage in conversations at their schools utilizing museum objects as a focal point via online resources. Museum educators can cultivate educational experiences that are friendly to all families and and frame developmentally appropriate experiences that support young children as capable learners. If we can support learning in this open-ended way, museums can and will remains stalwarts of democracy.


References

Skorton, David J. “How Do We Restore Trust in Our Democracies?” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Mar. 2018, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-do-we-restore-trust-our-democracies-museums-can-be-starting-point-180968448/#FsSTi0ZDsl6qSVV0.99.

Celebrating our Faculty

Every year, SEEC hosts a dinner in honor of its educators. This annual event takes place at a local restaurant where we enjoy food, drink, and each other’s company. In addition to the  festivities, we also use a portion of the evening to honor our faculty. This year, our center directors took a moment to individually recognize each of SEEC’s educators. Though our administrative team feels that SEEC is an amazing school because of its unique approach to learning and location on the Smithsonian campus, they also know that at the heart of this school are the amazing individuals who spend their days loving, teaching, and nurturing our students.

Once we concluded sharing about our team as a whole, a few special educators were singled out for their work. We began by recognizing Jessie Miller, the recipient of the Diane Homiak award. This award is a long-standing tradition at SEEC that recognizes the commitment, creativity, and contributions of a stellar educator. Jessie is an educator in one of our Pre-K 4 classrooms and has been teaching at SEEC since 2012.  She is originally from Norfolk, VA and completed her Master’s in Early Childhood Education at George Mason University in 2015. In numerous nominations from both current and former parents, as well as her colleagues, Jessie was singled out for the creativity she brings to the learning experiences she creates, her boundless enthusiasm and energy, her caring nature, and her ability to tap into the innate curiosity of her students in meaningful ways.

SEEC also  recognizes educators from each of its three centers who are team players. These educators were selected for their willingness to lend a hand, positive spirit, and for contributing to a strong sense of community.  Support educator, Dana Brightful was honored for her work at our preschool location at the American History Museum. Dana realized her passion for teaching young children while in college and has been part of the SEEC family since 2005. Silvana Oderisi, kindergarten teacher, was acknowledged for her work at one of our Natural History locations. Before joining SEEC, Silvana completed her Bachelors in French from George Mason University and taught as a Corps Member of Teach for America. Finally, an entire team from one of our infant classrooms was awarded the team player award for our second Natural History location: Rosalie Reyes, Morgan Powell, and Mallory Messersmith. This threesome truly exemplifies the spirit of SEEC.

All in all, we had more than 30 different educators that were nominated by families and peers this year. It was a difficult decision, but we are so proud of our team and are thrilled to be able to honor their hard work and dedication.

SEEC’s Take on Emergent Curriculum

The following post was authored by Dana Hirsch who has been at SEEC since 2005 and has taught  almost every age group. She is currently the Director for Preschool Programs. Dana studied Child Development and Family Science at North Dakota State University, and has a Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction for Early Childhood Education from George Mason University. Her three-year-old daughter is currently a student at SEEC. For this blog she drew upon her experience in the classroom, and intimate involvement with writing SEEC’s current emergent curriculum approach.

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Dana teaching a PreK-4 class

During my career as an educator, and now director, I’ve had the pleasure of working with every age from infant to kindergarten.  People often ask me which is my favorite age, and my answer is always the same; “I don’t know, I love different things about each age.” While each stage of development is unique, there is one element that permeates through all ages and is one of my favorite parts of working with young children: the way curiosity leads to connections. It doesn’t matter if you have a classroom full of five-month-olds, or five-year-olds, they are all naturally curious about the world around them and even the youngest children are able to communicate their interests.

 

The Evolution of Curriculum Development at SEEC

Until the early part of 2013, SEEC followed a curriculum that used museum and community visits as way to explore pre-set monthly themes. This type of curriculum was helpful in allowing educators to plan far in advance and demonstrated how similar topics could be approached in different ways.  However, educators began to realize that they were often competing with the interests and curiosities of their students.  For example, during the month that the school focused on clothes, there was a construction project nearby. We recognized that the vast majority of the children were interested in the site and what was happening.  Such instances encouraged us to wonder, could we focus on the children’s interests and create learning opportunities from that?

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This class is looking at setting the table after returning from the Thanksgiving break.

Simultaneously, we were working as a team to reexamine what we believed about children and learning.  This reflection launched us in a new direction that moved away from monthly themes. We began to observe our students more closely in order to understand the emerging interests of individual classrooms. This different approach was still very much steeped in our model of using museums and the community. Essentially, we took many of the guiding principles of our program – hands-on, object based, experiential learning – and used them to support an emergent approach.  Hence, the emergent curriculum we follow today.

At SEEC we believe that children who are encouraged and enabled to explore the things they are curious about will develop a lifelong love for learning.  Children learn best when they are able to make meaningful connections, so we want to foster that natural “emerging” curiosity and desire for knowledge by giving the children every opportunity to ask questions, find answers, and have hands-on, object-based experiences.  We know that all of these things together create meaningful experiences which is at the heart of learning for young children. By blending our museum-based approach with an emergent curriculum, we have seen the curiosity and inquiry of our students soar to new heights.

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A 2-year old class put on a show about their favorite book, Abiyoyo.

So, What is an Emergent Curriculum?

An emergent curriculum allows educators the freedom to choose a topic that is of interest to the children in their classroom and use that topic as a platform to provide experiences and learning opportunities that naturally foster curiosity and a sense of wonder, two important elements of SEEC’s philosophy.  Educators have the ability to follow the lead of the children because the curriculum is not prescribed and does not follow a set timeline. The exploration into a topic can last as long as there is interest.  As the class explores the topic, new questions or interests may emerge that change the initial direction of exploration or bring in new elements.  Teachers follow the path that the children’s questions and exploration leads them.  The children in turn learn how to ask questions, probe deeper, and find answers they were not expecting.  They are able to make connections that are more meaningful because they are interested and curious about what they are exploring.

The other benefit of the emergent approach is that educators are able to maintain the children’s attention better because they are focusing on that which is interesting to them. The emergent approach allows educators to create lesson plans that target specific areas of development while maintaining a love for learning. For example, a child who needs a little extra support with her fine motor abilities may normally show disinterest in these types of activities. However, if she’s interested in flowers and plants, gluing small pieces of paper petals (or even real petals) may help engage her. Another child might struggle to enter into play with her peers and, as a result, avoids dramatic play with others. However, she’s shown an interest in space and rockets

so her teachers decided to create a rocket themed dramatic play area. This gives her some extra encouragement to explore this kind of play and thus, she is able to work more on developing her social skills.

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Thinking about emeralds

Emergent Curriculum’s Endless Possibilities

When I was first introduced to the idea of using an emergent curriculum, it took some time for me to figure out what that really looked like in the classroom and how best to implement it.   At first, the idea of having the freedom to choose to any topic at all was both freeing and intimidating.  Where do you start?  How do you choose where to focus?  What do you mean you cannot plan out the next month in advance?! For me, the hardest part was finding the balance between having a plan but being flexible enough with it to follow the interest and curiosity of the children. It took time and practice to notice the children’s interest. I observed them during circle time, at community/museum visits, playing with choices, and on the playground.  I learned to allow myself to spend an extra day or even an extra week on a particular topic because the children just seemed so interested rather than steamrolling ahead with what I had planned. As someone who really likes to plan things out and be organized, this really took some getting used to. However, after some time implementing this type of curriculum, I began to see how much the children’s curiosity and genuine desire to learn and explore blossomed.

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Dramatic Play

Emergent Curriculum in Practice

When SEEC first transitioned from a theme-based approach to the emergent curriculum we have today, four of our preschool classrooms decided to focus on the same overarching topic: The Wizard of Oz.  At that time there had been a lot of interest in the ruby slippers on display in the National Museum of American History.  Many of the children were interested in the movie and liked to pretend to be the different characters.  Those children who weren’t initially interested picked up on the interest of their peers and gravitated towards it as well, so it seemed like the right area to explore. What was so interesting, though, was how the direction that each classroom took differed from one to the next — each based on the group’s particular areas of interest.

emerald city

Building the Emerald City

One classroom chose to specifically focus on the characters themselves.  Their exploration involved a lot of dramatic play and costume design.  Another classroom choose to think more about the natural elements of the story such as weather, plants and flowers. From there, they even explored human anatomy using the characters as a comparison.  Two classrooms focused on the Emerald City, but in very different ways.  One classroom explored architecture as it related to the buildings in the city and the other on emeralds themselves.  This initial interest in emeralds led to a unit focused on geology – something the educators had never expected.

Using an emergent curriculum approach has transformed the way we think about teaching and learning at SEEC. There are a myriad of possibilities with emergent curriculum implementation and exploration. I think the success of this approach is largely because it supports children at every age in making meaningful connections and developing a lifelong love of learning.  I know adults often pick up on things much more quickly when interested in a topic, why would children be any different?

Object Feature: Freer|Sackler Reopens

Cynthia Teaching

Teaching in the Japanese Screen Galleries in 2001

The Freer and Sackler Galleries, one of the jewels of the National Mall, reopened just a few weeks ago and our faculty is grateful to have it back. For those of you who don’t know, the Freer|Sackler is comprised mostly of Asian art with a small collection of 19th century American art.  I love this museum. I worked here at the beginning of my career and it is still one of my favorite museums in which to teach.  When I began working in early education though, I observed that many of my colleagues struggled using this collection with young children. I can see their perspective — many of the concepts and traditions represented throughout the collection can be complex and unfamiliar.

With the reopening, it felt like the perfect time to explore the Freer|Sackler through the lens of early childhood education. At SEEC, we believe that it is imperative to introduce children to cultures and ideas other than their own. We feel that this exposure helps them develop empathy and perspective and moreover, it prepares them to be global citizens. We also feel strongly that all the children in our school should be represented through our lessons. It is vital that children see themselves reflected in their learning environment.

Over the course of our almost 30 years, SEEC has worked hard to define approaches that engage children and help them make meaning of objects that might have little or nothing to do with their daily life. Because we know that small children connect best with what they know and do regularly, I wanted to highlight a few ways to approach this collection. The following list is by no means complete, it is more of a snapshot of the techniques an educator, or even a parent, can use with children.  If you discover something I haven’t, please leave a comment – we are always looking to learn from our educator community.

Storytelling

Gandharan Frieze


Scenes from the Life of the Buddha; Pakistan or Afghanistan, Kushan Dynasty (late 2nd – early 3rd century); stone, Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art; F1949.9a-d 

Storytelling is a tool for the young and the old alike, and the Freer|Sackler houses its fair share of good stories. The Museum includes stories of Hindu gods, the life of the Buddha, and Chinese folktales – just to name a few.  With some research and dramatic flair, an educator can bring these stories to life. At SEEC, we often make books for our younger students. This helps us gather information and format it in an accessible way for our students.

Key pieces:

Connecting the Familiar with the Unfamiliar

Young children are concrete learners. If you take something with which they are

Bell

Explore the sounds a Chinese bell makes.

familiar and put it next to something with which they are not familiar, you make a connection.

Here are some connections:

  • Music – Resound: Ancient Bells of China is a great exhibit not just because there are bells, but because there are several hands-on components that allow children to understand sound and to hear the difference between Chinese and western bells. Consider bringing a real bell or shaker on your visit to provide a hands-on experience.
  • Animals – There are many examples from which to choose, but of course one of the most prominent work is the Peacock Room by James McNeill Whistler. When visiting the Peacock Room, bring photos of peacocks and/or peacock feathers. Encourage the children to look closely at both the peacock and the room to notice shapes, colors, similarities, and differences.
  • Seasons – The American art galleries in the Freer have a great collection of paintings depicting different seasons and weather. There are so many contextual objects that you can use when exploring seasons. Educators might consider bringing seasonal clothing and/or photos, ice packs, or sensory bottles containing seasonal colors or natural elements.
  • Writing/Books – In addition to a gallery that explores Buddhist sutras, there are other examples of writing from all across Asia throughout the Museum. Bring examples of your favorite children’s books and/or special books that might be important to you or to one of your student’s families.

    Guardian Figure

    Guardian figure; Japan, Kamakura period (1185–1333); wood; Purchase, Freer Gallery of Art; F1949.21

  • Human Body, Gestures or Movement – There are two galleries devoted to how the human body is depicted on the Indian subcontinent. You can also find other examples, including this Guardian Figure from Japan. Don’t be afraid to encourage children to move their bodies in these spaces. The opportunity to move and explore their own body will enrich the experience and develop their gross motor skills.

Do you ever wonder why babies put things in their mouths? That is how they learn. Young children begin to understand their world by using their five senses (actually there are seven, but that is another blog – vestibular and proprioception). So I was especially excited to see that Freer has a whole room devoted to Islamic art and the senses. Plates, candlesticks, incense burners, and illustrations of music are just a few of the objects you will encounter. While you obviously can’t burn incense or make a meal in the galleries, educators can easily pair these objects with in-classroom activities that might inspire our sense of smell or taste.  It might also be an opportunity to reach out to your classroom families, the objects in these galleries come from a wide geographic area and might help you make some personal connections in your community.

The Sackler  has a Tibetan shrine room that will allow children to be in a space where they will encounter sumptuous images while listening Buddhist chants and watching the flickering of candlelight. The accompanying app, Sacred Spaces, has a lot of information to help inform your visit. If you have the time, you can distill a few key points that can help your students make stronger connections.

Beauty

Looking at Buddha

At SEEC, we believe that young children should be introduced to art, begin to develop a visual vocabulary, and embrace their own creativity. The works throughout the museum, but especially in the American galleries, offer young children the opportunity to explore and notice similarities and differences.

Charles Lang Freer’s taste in collecting art was influenced by the Aesthetic Movement in the late 1800’s, which advocated for “art for art’s sake.”  The artists associated with this movement were more concerned with making art that was an expression of creativity and beauty. I think this quote, taken from the Freer|Sackler website, sums it up well.

.. it was through American art of his own time that Freer developed the habits of quiet contemplation and intelligent comparison that he hoped to share with future generations of museum visitors.

I think Freer would be satisfied to know that SEEC’s students are using his art collection to begin  developing their own aesthetic and appreciation for museums.

 

 

Beyond Stereotypes: Teaching about Native Peoples in Practice

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


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

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

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

Lesson Objectives

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

Day 1

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

Day 2

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

Day 3

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

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

Day 4

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

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

Day 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letting the Children Be My Guide…

We are pleased to have our new Executive Director, Meredith McMahon, authoring, what we hope will be the first of many, Director’s Blogs.


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Earlier this year I moved into the role of Executive Director at SEEC, which has been both exciting and daunting at the same time!  While I’ve been at SEEC for more than 13 years, this new position brings new responsibilities that often leave me feeling like there aren’t enough hours to get everything done.  I know I’m not alone in feeling rushed and like I never have enough time, but I’m fortunate that one of the very best parts of my job is being surrounded by children. As I think about how to find balance in my days, I’m reminded that these youngest children are pretty great models – there are great lessons in how young children approach their days that can offer help to those of us who find ourselves constantly on the go or rushing to get to the next thing.

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We should all get up and move around!  If you watch a SEEC class engaged in a whole group activity, you’ll likely see children engaged in a book, conversation or discussion of an object, but it’s not a given that they’ll all be sitting. That’s true whether it’s toddlers or kindergartners. We recognize that some children can focus better when they can move around, instead of concentrating on keeping their bodies still.  For me, that’s a reminder that a quick walk (or in my case, a few minutes in a classroom) can clear my head, and it’s time well-spent if it means that I will come back to what I’m doing a little fresher than where I left off.

SEECstories.com (7)We should engage our senses! From their earliest moments, children use their senses to build knowledge and a growing understanding of their world. So much is new for them that they utilize their senses to create meaning in new experiences. I love watching the expressions on the faces of our infants when they feel new textures or experiment with sounds. They remind me that I should take a moment to appreciate the smell of fallen leaves and the crunch of the acorns underfoot. I should take note of the warm sun on a cool fall day, and I should tune into the sounds of music and laughter.

SEECstories.com (13)We should approach problem solving the way young children do, actively and open-mindedly!  Children have a seemingly never-ending stream of questions, and at SEEC we encourage children to ask these questions. Across our classrooms teachers encourage children to wonder out loud – it’s one of the ways we can figure out what we want or need to know, and it allows us to connect our questions.  At times I find myself stumped by a question or an issue, and wondering out loud with colleagues can get us all thinking creatively. I’m so fortunate to be surrounded by talented people who willingly share great ideas. The children remind me that asking together and thinking out loud can yield solutions, whether we’re big or little.

SEECstories.com (11)I could go on and on about ways we can all learn from the youngest around us, but I’ll offer just one last thought on what I can learn from our youngest: what if we all tried to recapture some small sense of wonder?  Young children are fascinated with even the smallest details, and they notice much that we overlook.  They find joy in little, unexpected ways. Imagine if we could match the level of joy a toddler finds in discovering that perfect piece of mulch or a satisfyingly smooth stone.  We can all get easily frustrated by life’s ups and downs, but I find myself trying to keep that joy and wonder in mind in those challenging moments – I just need to find my piece of mulch!

Ask for help when you can’t work it out on your own.