Over the weekend SEEC hosted a program about pollinators for the National Museum of Natural History. Included in our offerings was a planting station. I wanted children to think beyond the pretty butterflies they see outside and connect how pollination impacts our everyday lives. I was excited when I was given the green light to include real dirt as part of our activities but I’ll admit to being concerned about how caregivers would respond to their children getting dirty.
As a mom, I didn’t think twice about my girls getting dirty. But awhile after I started working at SEEC, a colleague gently reminded me that I should not assume that all caregivers felt the same as me. Since then, I always put out smocks and kept wipes nearby. I also try to provide a variety of options for play so that caregivers and children have a choice in the type of activities in which they engaged.
While we want to be respectful of caregivers and their feelings, SEEC also feels it is important to share the benefits of play and especially playing in dirt. If we can share information with caregivers in a thoughtful manner, we hope to educate them about our methodology without making them feel like their perspective doesn’t matter.
So what are the benefits of getting dirty? For one, getting your hands into the dirt can be great sensory input. Many children delight in the feeling as dirt falls through their hands. This input allows them to relax and engage in their environment naturally. Playing in the dirt also offers children infinite imaginative possibilities. I know many of us have memories of making mud pies outside – dirt and nature can supply so many opportunities for play. Getting dirty also allows a child to connect with nature and these early experiences provides a foundation for a future appreciation and connection to the environment. Not only does playing in the dirt help child develop a conservationist attitude, it also encourages their sense of exploration and wonder. (Read more about the benefits of nature play.) There is also evidence that dirt can be good for us and actually strengthen your child’s immune system.
In the end, I was pleased that so many caregivers embraced our planting activity. Even though we were inside, many families embraced the experience. My personal highlights were an older child who reveled in the feeling of placing the dirt on her lap and a toddler who focused for close to 20 minutes on moving the dirt out of the container and onto the tarp. I so enjoyed watching how they both engaged with this playful work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Young children are concrete learners. If you take something with which they are
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; 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.
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.
We are pleased to have our new Executive Director, Meredith McMahon, authoring, what we hope will be the first of many, Director’s Blogs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Community 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?”
Questions 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.
Exploration 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.
Art 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.
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?
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
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.
For 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.
Each August our staff takes a week to reflect, assess, and prepare for the upcoming school year. Staff development week is a long-standing tradition at SEEC — one that we look forward to, to connect with our colleagues and lay the groundwork for the upcoming year. It is an especially important way to bring the entire SEEC team together. Our school is physically divided into three centers so staff development week makes us feel like one family and helps provide continuity across the program.
Melody Passemante-Powell, director of infant and toddler programs, kicked off the week with a team building presentation. She got the morning started by sharing inspirational quotes about education. This exercise had a deeper purpose though. It helped us see that while everyone believed that the education of young children is important, not all of us had the same perspective of how to achieve that. She used this as a launching point to think about how important it is for us to consider alternative perspectives and not make assumptions when interacting with staff, children, and families.
Anti-Bias, Objects, and Technology
Our team at the Center for Innovation in Early Learning (CIEL) followed with a presentation on anti-bias education. SEEC has always been thoughtful about creating an inclusive learning environment, but with the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and of course, current events, the issue has grown ever more important. We spent the morning focusing on the anti-bias education framework as outlined by NAEYC and considering it in terms of our unique school model. We concluded our time by asking faculty to begin building a tool that would help us reflect on the anti-bias nature of our classrooms, lessons, and relationships.
CIEL also led the group in an exercise reiterating the importance of connecting our lessons to the museum objects. SEEC believes strongly in facilitating activities and careful looking strategies that connect our lessons to the museum object, and we had fun demonstrating this with our colleagues. Our final CIEL segment was a collaboration with our administrative team that explored technology and early childhood classrooms. The large part of our presentation was thinking as a group about how we feel about technology and how it fits into our school. We are compiling the feedback in the hopes of continuing the dialogue.
Executive Functioning and Early Intervention
We were also lucky enough to have a few guest speakers. Occupational therapist, Judi Greenberg, from Child Development Consultants led us in a great discussion about executive functioning skills. Greenberg reminded us of the importance of executive functioning and helped us think of ways we can help develop these skills in our students. She also reviewed signs that a child might be struggling with executive functioning and ways we can help them. We also had an informative session with DCPS’ Early Stages reminding us of their array of services and the benefits of early intervention. It felt great to know all the ways we can support our families.
Of course there was a lot of time for our faculty to work on preparing our classrooms and they are looking great! Now that it is all wrapped up, we can’t wait for the children to arrive on Tuesday.