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.

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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.

What We Believe

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At SEEC, we respect young children and recognize that through care and education we can support their development and foster their love of learning. We take time to reflect on our practice, try new techniques, think about what benefits our students and as a result, our approach to learning subtly changes over time. We embrace a variety of pedagogical approaches and adapt them to our unique museum school hybrid.  But because our model can be hard define in a single catch phrase, our faculty has had to think about the best ways in which to effectively communicate our educational approach, especially to our caregivers. Caregivers are an essential component to all of our programs. They participate in our weekend and part-time programs and while they are not present during our daily school operations, they most certainly connected to the classrooms and also benefit from understanding our work.

It is with these factors in mind, that the team of educators who work with our family programs sat down last year and began to construct a document for caregivers. We hope this provides insight into our methods and an understanding of how deeply committed we are to creating meaningful learning experiences for your child. Educators – we hope you enjoy reading and will share with us some of your own beliefs.

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  • that children are individuals who develop and learn differently. If you let them choose what speaks to them, you will set them up for a lifetime love of learning.
  • that caregiving is a hard job and is not to be judged.
  • that young children are developing their ability to sit, listen, cooperate, and control their emotions. As adults, is it important to remember that this is hard work and we should try to balance our expectations with a child’s individual progression.
  • that our programs are for fun and family.
  • that playing is learning.
  • in playing with children, being silly, singing, having fun, and getting dirty.
  • in asking open-ended questions and wondering out loud, even with infants and toddlers.
  • SEECstories.com (2)in taking time to stop, look carefully, and describe the objects we encounter in the classroom, community, and in the museums.
  • in encouraging children to try new skills and not be afraid to fail.
  • in a community of learners. Learning truly begins at birth and should continue into adulthood.
  • that having a calm body and adult hand will keep us and the objects we visit safe, but this will not preclude us from looking, talking, singing, and playing during our museum visits.

How We Teach

Not all children will be interested in ALL of our teaching methods so we use a variety of techniques to engage them. Follow your child’s lead and be flexible; there is no one way to learn.

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The world is our classroom and we not only use museums, but parks, stores, libraries, and beyond.

Objects
Objects help engage the senses and provide a concrete and memorable learning experience. They are more powerful than words and pictures alone and children are more like to remember and connect with them.

Observations
Observation encourage minds to focus, eyes to look closely, and brains to develop a deeper understanding.  We often start lessons by asking, “What do you see?”

Questions2
Questions require children to be active participants in the learning process and because of this, inquiry is more powerful than simply sharing information. We also ask questions as a way to create dialog and cultivate flexible thinking. Thinking out loud helps us see how others are thinking and therefore, expand our own thinking.

Preverbal Learners
Posing questions to children who are preverbal is still important. Look for nonverbal cues such as pointing, looking, and giggling and respond to them.

Experimentation
Experimentation is a process by which children explore a topic. Children experiment as a way of understanding cause and effect relationships or as a way to solve problems. Anything a child does more than once can be considered an experiment. We will ask “What would happen if …” as a way to harness a learner’s natural desire to experiment.

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Exploration allows children to discover and learn about a topic in a variety of ways.

Math
Math concepts are interwoven into lessons. Examples you might observe are: counting, representing quantities, noticing differences in quantities, observing patterns, and categorizing.

Fine motor
Fine motor activities allow children to use the small muscles in their hands to help them learn how to do things like dress independently, and write.

Movement
Gross motor activities engage a child’s large muscles, for example running, jumping, and climbing. Movement helps children learn what their bodies are capable of, as well as provide necessary and fun outlets for physical movement.

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Our art activities focus on the process, rather than the outcome. Participating in process-based art encourages creativity and problem solving and develops fine motor skills.

Sensory
Sensory activities are those that stimulate a child’s senses. Young children have a more meaningful learning experience when their senses are engaged.

Play
Play can be defined in many ways, but typically involves some element of imagination.  Play helps children explore roles, ideas, and situations, and often builds social skills as they navigate play with peers or adults.

Literacy
Research has proven the importance of reading with young children, and that positive experiences with books help create a love of reading.

Singing
Singing is important tool with young children, science has proven that music helps children better remember concepts and vocabulary. It also helps children transition from one activity to another.

 

Learning Lab as a Tool for Early Educators

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We are pleased to share a guest blog post by Maureen Leary, Director of Kindergarten and Toddler Programs at the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center. Prior to becoming a Director at SEEC last summer, Maureen spent 16 years as the Kindergarten Spanish teacher, among other roles at SEEC. Maureen is also the parent of three SEEC alumni. 


Technology has immense power to improve our lives and put a world of information at our fingertips. However, for those who work with young children, the relationship with technology may sometimes feel a bit complex. Screens are ever-present and young children are true digital natives, meaning they will never know a world devoid of online tools. So, while it’s important to be mindful of reasonable uses of and limits on screen time, it’s also critical for adults to lead the way in modeling positive online behavior and habits for children. Finding appropriate and interesting tools to achieve is a quest I’m sure many teachers share with me.

What Is Learning Lab?

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From the first moment I was introduced to the Smithsonian’s Learning Lab, the platform has been an inspiration to me as an educator. In a nutshell, the Learning Lab is an online database of Smithsonian collection items that also includes lessons and tools created by users. I have found the Learning Lab to be a unique, dynamic resource with the potential to enrich and enhance both museum and classroom learning experiences. In the year since I first explored the Learning Lab, I have created a number of my own collections to both use in the classroom and to share with families. Using collections allows me to have all my digital resources in one place, both readily accessible and easily customizable. I always include information for families about how the individual resources were used in my lesson, and how the lesson was structured overall. My hope is that the shared viewing of these these collections by adults and children will both offer insights into the learning experiences and spark meaningful conversations about them.

Learning Lab In Action

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One of my favorite Learning Lab experiences with students was during a Kindergarten lesson on Spanish artist Joan Miró. Before leading my students on a visit to two pieces of art by Miró at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, I created a Learning Lab collection to introduce his life and work to my students. We watched a video of the painter at work and listened to family members talk about his art and how it affected them as viewers. We looked at various images of his work on screen. Finally, we watched an animated version of one of his paintings – the individual components moving playfully across the screen to gradually create a cohesive whole. These technological pieces laid the groundwork for a more hands-on exploration of Miró’s work, both in the classroom and in the museum. To wrap up our classroom time we played a dice game that I found online called “Roll-a-Miró” that encouraged the children to create their own Miró-inspired drawings. Later, while settled in front of “Woman before an Eclipse with her Hair Disheveled by the Wind” at the Hirshhorn, we discussed what we saw in the painting and looked again at prints of the images we had seen on screen earlier. The children were given various loose parts to experiment with (foam pieces, pipe cleaners, etc…) and they worked together to create Miró-inspired pieces of art. Over the course of the day the exploration moved seamlessly from the screen to the classroom to the museum, and demonstrated that hands-on activities and screen time are not mutually exclusive concepts.

1For the Miró collection and others I’ve made, I’ve found that the customizable aspect of the Learning Lab is one of its most appealing features. Users can search collections and adapt already existing ones, or create their own from whatever resources they find, both on the Learning Lab and on other platforms. The Learning Lab also has tools embedded to help users customize their resources to suit their needs. I’ve enjoyed making use of “hot spots” to mark places on works of art that I wanted to focus the kids’ attention on, and to feature open-ended questions to spark discussions. Another teacher I work with tried using the hot spots in a more child-led way, by asking the kids choose a spot to mark, and to include their own observations or questions. Her class had a great time making notes on a photo portrait of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, which the teacher then shared with families via email. Not only is this a fantastic way to expand the learning experience to include families, but it could provide inspiration for adults to do a similar exploration on their own with their children, on whatever topics interest them. Similarly, the sorting tool offered by the Learning Lab allows users to create activities that include whatever images are relevant to their particular topic. Searching the Learning Lab for images is a great place to start, but users are not limited to that content.

Learning Lab and Families

In addition to my classroom work, I have also used the Learning Lab in an outreach project with preschool children and their families who live in the Kenilworth neighborhood of Washington, DC. I was very encouraged by the enthusiasm for Learning Lab that I encountered from both kids and adults, and how they connected it to other experiences. In one case the collection was tailored to a museum visit the children had just completed, and they were visibly excited to make the connection between what they saw on the screen and what they had seen in the museum. (“Look, mom, it’s the animals we saw today!”) The adults in the group were reassured by the educational nature of the Learning Lab and and the age-appropriate digital environment it provides. The interactions I observed in this setting reinforced the importance of adults acting as “digital mentors” with children. Technology is everywhere, and children have a natural interest in using it in an active way. It’s up to us to create a positive relationship with it for ourselves and our children and students.

SEEC SHARES: Kicking Off the New Year

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Our social media team is always trying to think of creative ways to showcase our faculty and their work, so we decided that this year we would periodically review the latest lessons in all of the classrooms and share clever approaches and activities. Like many schools, SEEC uses an online app to share lesson plans, educator messages, and daily photos. This is an important tool for our resource team, allowing us to observe the school as a whole, learn what the faculty is doing, and how different themes translate across age groups.

It being September, it seemed like a perfect time to examine how our faculty is transitioning into the new year. Like most classrooms, SEEC is busy getting to know their new students and families, and helping children get accustomed to new routines and expectations. I hope you enjoy reading about some of their unique approaches.

Getting to Know Each Other

3Our threes and fours devoted an entire day getting to know each other. They kicked things off when the PreK-4 class received a photo of a friend in the PreK-3 class and were asked to match the person to their photo. Once they found a match, the two classes practiced walking on trains. At SEEC, our classrooms walk, holding hands with a partner and positioning teachers in the front and back — like a train. They chose the National Gallery Sculpture Garden as an outdoor space to play team building games with a long, stretchy rope. After which, they read a book about friendship. The PreK-4 classes ended the day by giving their younger friends thank you cards.

Teambuilding/Classroom Culture

1 In keeping with our emergent curriculum, another PreK-4 class decided to work as a team and spent the morning discussing school year expectations. The educators were careful to record the children’s thoughts as well as their own. They plan to use this discussion as a permanent part of the classroom and the foundation for a successful school year. My personal favorite part of this lesson was that they solidified this idea of teamwork by visiting an exhibit at the American History Museum illustrating how to make a circuit. Students had to make a

1connection with their bodies between two metal poles to complete the circuit.

Getting to Know Ourselves

The toddler class began their second week of school by exploring their hands and feet. Not only was this an important way to learn about their own bodies, but it was a way to underscore their classroom routines. In this case, the teaching team emphasized hand-washing (a new independent activity for the toddlers) and walking on trains. It was also an opportunity for the class to practice using their “walking feet” in the museums and on the sidewalks.

Routines

2SEEC is lucky to have both an art and music educator and the first few weeks of school are always spent getting to know our newest students in the infants classrooms. This allows the children to acclimate to their daily routines and slowly get to know and build relationships with our enrichment staff.

Community

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To get an overview of the Smithsonian community, kindergarten visited the Castle where there are small displays from most of the museums.

Our kindergarten class, which often includes students new to our school, spent some of their first days getting to know their community. While we are lucky to have such a large campus to explore at SEEC, I know that is not the case for every school. However, I love the idea of learning about one’s community both inside and outside of the school walls. Such an exploration opens up opportunities to explore natural surroundings, get to know people who work at the school, to visit nearby businesses, or to observe the roads and vehicles nearby.

 

I hope you have enjoyed reading about some of our approaches to launching a new school year. Hopefully your year is off to a good start too. As always, please feel free to share your thoughts and ideas here.