We March! Preschool Class Explores Activism

This blog is written by SEEC’s Pre-K 3 Koala class teachers, Katie Heimsath and Morgan Powell.


We believe all children are extraordinary everyday change-makers. In our classroom, one student’s inquiry can launch a full-on investigation into a topic, changing the direction of what we’re learning in our classroom. When students learn to take responsibility for their actions and solve problems collaboratively, they are acting as change-makers, supporting and sustaining the culture of care and advocacy within the classroom. Every day we witness and encourage our students to wonder and explore the world around them, advocate for themselves and others, and understand the power of their words and actions. Our preschool class, the Koalas, recently explored how community helpers use their words and actions to benefit their community. To wrap up this unit, the class reflected on how they also use their actions and words to create change.

6

We started the week with a lesson recapping all that we had learned about community helpers. Our unit spanned over eight weeks, and included a typical line up of helpers like police, firefighters, doctors, as well as other unexpected helpers like bakers, barbers, and DC Metro officers. We recounted the many different kinds of helpers we had met, observed, or read about, including what tools and equipment helped them to do their jobs. It was important for us as educators to note that help comes in many different forms and helpers can look very different than what we might initially picture in our minds. As members of our community, we’re not required to have a specific job to help out, and we don’t need to be a grown-up to be a helper! So with that in mind, Katie asked the class what they could do, as children, to help their community. She wrote down their ideas and posted them in the classroom for others to see. Throughout our discussion we kept coming back to the idea of helping out at clean up time, so we looked at photos of different groups of people doing neighborhood trash clean up. Next, we decided to take our cleaning skills out of our classroom and onto the National Mall. We agreed on some rules for safety, like wearing gloves and checking in before picking up something sharp, and went to work. The class responded really well to this activity. At the end we had tangible evidence of our hard work in the form of two bags of litter from our community.

5

The following day we shifted our focus to public art, specifically looking at muralists who make their art in public spaces in order to share their creativity and ideas with everyone. We introduced this topic through a book: Maybe Something Beautiful by Isabel F. Campoy and Theresa Howell.  Based on the true story of the Urban Art Trail in San Diego, this book celebrates creativity and public art. Centered on a young artist’s experience, Mira inspires a muralist and her neighbors to work together to create murals in her community. As Morgan read, she illustrated parts of the story by using wooden blocks to represent the buildings in a neighborhood, adding colorful blocks when Mira and the muralist started painting, and finally displaying blocks with images of DC murals at the end of the story. We discussed as a class how public art, unlike art inside of someone’s home, is accessible for everyone to see and enjoy. We looked at photos of murals in DC and talked about the ideas, stories, and feelings the artists may have wanted to share. Students then worked together to make a mural of their own, using a white sheet and watercolor paint in spray bottles, an activity we worked on in our classroom as well as during our community visit in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden.

Our next lesson focused directly on the power of words and collective organizing. Again, we chose a book to start our conversation, which turned out to be a fantastic decision since many children in our class were already familiar. Morgan read Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin, a story about a group of cows who want electric blankets since their barn is cold. They get their hooves on an old typewriter and write letters expressing their needs to Farmer Brown. When Farmer Brown refuses, the cows go on strike and form a coalition with the hens. Eventually, after much negotiating and lots of letters, the cows and hens get electric blankets. After the book, our students had a spirited discussion about fairness and the power of words.

2

We discussed how real people use their words to voice their needs, support, or disagreement. Morgan bridged a connection between how the cows used their words to get what they wanted in Click, Clack, Moo and how marchers use their words on posters and signs to create change. Each student had the opportunity to talk with Morgan individually about what they care about and how they can help each other. After our eight-week community helper unit, the students had lots of ideas around community involvement and how they themselves can be helpers. Some of the students had so much to say it could not have fit onto one sign, so Morgan had to pinpoint a few words or one idea. For example, one student shared, “I help people find the books in the classroom and go over the schedule for the day and also count numbers all the way up to one hundred!” So Morgan asked, “It sounds like you care about helping people learn, could your sign say, ‘Help People Learn!’?” If the student agreed, Morgan wrote down their words. If not, we continued our dialogue to ensure the students’ ideas were authentically heard. Once the message was written down, all students had the chance to decorate their signs with paint crayons. Writing down students’ ideas and words demonstrate to them that their words matter, that their ideas are worth writing down and sharing with everyone.

1

We finished the week by coming together as a class for a march on the National Mall. To kick off our march, we visited the National Museum of American History’s  American Democracy  exhibit to see the collections of signs from a variety of marches and protests from decades of political engagement. The children were able to see signs that other people have made to express their thoughts and feelings through their words. At the request of the group, we read a few of the signs and guessed at what they might be talking about, keeping in mind that some of the topics might be a little bit complicated for three-year-olds. We offered a simple and true answer, which validated their curiosities and allowed us to draw parallels to the signs they had worked so hard to make the previous day.

3

After observing the signs, the class sat down and listened to  We March by Shane Evans, read by one children’s grandmothers who is an activist herself. We had learned of this connection through the child’s parents, and knew we wanted to include her in this experience. We’re always looking for ways to bring in a home or family connection. The book we chose is an excellent example of how to pare down a large concept for young learners. It identifies the process of a marching experience, in this case the March on Washington which culminated in Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historical “I Have a Dream” speech. The book is told from a child’s perspective, uses simple and direct language, and includes lovely illustrations.

4

When we finished the book, Katie took time to individually read every student’s sign as we passed them out, giving the group a chance to hear what each child was marching for. It was a moment of validation and an easy way to honor the hard work and opinions of our students. The next step was the march itself! We discussed how we would be moving as a group by walking in a “follow the leader line” and explained that they could hold their signs however it felt comfortable. We had seen a short video in the exhibit of people carrying signs, and most of our children replicated what they saw and carried their signs in front of their bodies or over their heads. As we exited the museum and crossed the street to the Mall, we started a chant that went, “We are the Koalas! Listen to our words!” Since each child was marching for a different reason, this chant included everyone. By the end of the march, some of the class had taken this chant and turned it into more of a call and response, and took turns with a partner alternating the phrases. Our students noticed that people were watching them, reading their signs, and waving.

This week was full of big topics and ideas that, when labeled with the words activism or advocacy, might seem too much for three and four-year-olds to grasp, much less actively participate in with the agency our students did. However in our classroom, as well as in our whole program, we strive to weave these concepts into our everyday interactions with one another. We practice concepts like fairness when we take turns or share toys, we work together to clean up and set up areas of our classroom, and we frequently make art for ourselves and others to make our space feel more beautiful. We also do a lot of work identifying and expressing feelings and opinions to others. From the earliest age SEEC students are taught that their words and feelings matter. As they get older, they begin to learn the responsibility of listening to others as well. This communication can look like signing “more” or “all done” in the infant classroom or hearing “my turn next” in the two’s classroom to watching a small group of four’s discussing what is or isn’t inclusive behavior or friendly to their classmates. All of these actions are a type of advocacy, either for oneself or another, and is a skill that can be developed at a very early age. Planning several lessons to highlight how we can be community helpers felt like a natural extension of this work and gave our class an outlet to express their ideas on a larger scale, and they met the challenge with an incredible passion.


Resources we used to prepare for this week and that continue to inform our work:

Be on the lookout for a follow up post containing ideas to try in your classroom! 

Objects Speak to Us

Just like a song or smell can spark memories and strong emotions, so too can objects. We all have personal objects that may seem ordinary to others, but are invaluable to us because of the person who gave it to us, the memory attached to it, and more. Museum objects can hold similar meaning to people, often for many different reasons. Objects, both every day objects and museum objects, are at the heart of our education pedagogy. We feel strongly that they can teach young children so much from critical thinking skills, to perspective-taking, to science and literacy skills.

A few years ago we published a blog, Objects Teach Us, that explored some of our faculty’s favorite museum objects, and now we’re back with another edition including favorites among our faculty and students.

Some objects are favorites because of the memories they hold and the people that the object reminds us of:

8.png

Phoenix the Whale 

Charlotte, age five, enjoys Phoenix the Whale in the Ocean Hall of the National Museum of Natural History. She explained that Phoenix, “reminds me of my cousins because they all love to play in the ocean, and it [Phoenix the whale] is an animal that lives in the ocean.”

7The Doll’s House

Meredith McMahon, SEEC’s Executive Director, loves the The Doll’s House at the National Museum of American History.  Meredith explains, “I first fell in love with it when I visited when I was just 6 years old, back before NMAH was even know as American History (it was still the museum of history and technology!).  I loved all of the detail to it, and they had a small book about it that I got as a souvenir of our visit. I poured over the photos in the book, marveling at the detail and imagining myself as part of the story.  And now, every time I see it I’m reminded of the amazing experience I had that day with my mom and my older sister – it was my first trip to the Smithsonian, but clearly not my last!”

9

Henry the Elephant

Director of Infant and Twos Program, Melody Passemante-Powell, loves Henry the Elephant who presides over the rotunda at the National Museum of Natural History.  Melody explains, “I always felt warmly about Henry and I feel even more connected to him since he was cleaned and renovated the year my daughter was born! For me it’s how iconic he is and was to me prior to working at SEEC and what it stands for now, a meeting place for our classes Halloween parade, an example of how things can change so much over time and still remain the same in some ways. A timeless symbol of the museum and in ways, our school.”

Some objects are special because they are multifaceted and allow multiple perspectives when teaching young children:

6

Life in All Directions by Roxanne Swentzell 

Toddler teacher, Julia Smith’s favorite object is Life in All Directions by Roxanne Swentzell at the National Museum of the American Indian. She explains, “My favorite part of the piece is the the expressions on every mask in this piece. They are all expressing strong emotions but it’s not exactly straight forward what they are feeling. The kids tend to find the masks particularly fascinating and will call out lots of different emotions to describe their expressions.  The artist’s back story also adds to the context of this piece. Roxanne Swentzell had a speech impediment as a child that made it difficult for her to express herself so she turned to art to express her emotions. Roxanne’s story and the many faces in this piece are very relatable to the kids, and it is an excellent way to talk about their many emotions.”

SEECstories.com (42).png

Tibetan Buddha Gautama

Cynthia Raso, Director of the Office of Engagement, loves this Tibetan Buddha Gautama located at the Freer Sackler. “Visually, I am drawn to the contrast of the gilded body and the rich blue of the hair. The artist captures both the compassion and serenity of the Buddha through the simple, curvaceous lines.  The way his fingers delicately dangle and almost enter the viewer’s space makes one feel like one is present in the moment when the Buddha becomes enlightened. Beyond the aesthetics of the piece, it is also one my favorites about which to teach. If approached in the right way, it can be a great experience for young learners. It forces them to look closely and explore the sculpture’s iconography. In this picture we are looking at the lotus flower on which the Buddha sits. Before we visited the Museum, we had fun playing with a lotus flower sensory bin full of real mud. It helped the children understand the significance of the lotus, a flower that grows up from the murky water into the sunlight.”

SEECstories.com.png

Honoré Daumier Busts

Kindergarten teacher, Sharon Jensen, loves the Honoré Daumier busts at the National Gallery of Art for personal and professional reasons.  “I admire the artistic talent, but mainly I find them hilarious! The satire is clear immediately, and even removed from the context of political commentary, these faces will make you aware of the artist’s opinion of each man. I love the caricature-like features and ridiculous hairdos, but the exaggerated facial expressions are my favorite part! They remind me of the grotesques and gargoyles peeking out from medieval churches. They are a wonderful way to explore emotions with children, and how our faces can show how we feel inside.”

Other objects represent parts of our personality and passion:

SEECstories.com (40)

The Hope Diamond

Weekend educator, Christina Reitz loves the Hope Diamond at the National Museum of Natural History. “The diamond satisfies, for me, the two sides of being a museum-goer and a museum professional – enjoying rare objects and being inspired by the exhibit design. Both the diamond’s exhibit and the mineral and gem hall are perfectly designed to heighten a sense of wonder and awe. Every time I walk by and the room is filled with visitors, all waiting patiently for the diamond to turn toward them, I’m filled with both a simple joy at a beautiful object and a deeper appreciation for the work we do.”

8

Fish by Alexander Calder

Director of Kindergarten and Toddler Programs, Maureen Leary is partial to Fish by Alexander Calder that is in the Hirshhorn collection. Maureen says the piece is special to her, “for a number of reasons. This mobile touches on my love for the ocean, my admiration for Calder as a versatile artist, and the importance of reusing/recycling, as Calder made the mobile using found objects. I have fond memories of visiting this piece with SEEC students to make a connection to the story “Swimmy” by Leo Lionni (who is one of my favorite children’s authors!).”

SEECstories.com (41).png

Nature’s Best Photography Exhibit

Nature lover and infant teacher Mallory Messersmith enjoys the entire Nature’s Best Photography exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History. “I love the variety, all the different colors and perspectives. I also like that it changes! Sometimes my favorite thing is just to go walk through and enjoy a little nature through a photographer’s lens!”

Other objects are favorites because of their function and purpose:

9

Beaver

Nicko, age five, loves the beaver in the Mammal Hall of the National Museum of Natural History, “because I like when they cut down trees.”

10

Acorn

While many of us are partial to objects within the museum complex, Dr. A’damski, our resident science teacher, favors an object that can be found outside of the museum: an acorn. He reasons, “It represents food for a host of animals large and small. And if it doesn’t get eaten may grow for a few hundred years into a majestic tree…”


Want to learn more about using objects to engage young children? Come to our Learning Through Objects workshop on March 14 and 15.

Beyond the Classroom: Benefits of Learning in the Community

Have you ever read about a place you really wanted to visit –  a new restaurant or a faraway country? Have you ever been lucky enough to actually visit that place? How was the experience different from just reading about it? Once the sounds, smells, and sights flooded your senses – how did your understanding of that place change? Now imagine you are a young child with limited experience of the world. How do you think their understanding is enhanced when they get to experience the very thing they are learning about?

At SEEC, we believe that learning is richer and more meaningful when it is taken beyond the classroom and into the community. True we are fortunate enough to have access to a  complex of museums, but we feel strongly that this type of learning can take place no matter where a school is located. Learning in the community not only deepens  understanding, it also sparks interest, provides inspiration, broadens horizons, offers multiple and varied exposures, and cultivates a connection with the community.

Sparks Interest and Excitement and Provides Inspiration

6

You never know what you might find when you walk out of your classroom door and into the community. One of the benefits of learning outside the classroom is the unpredictability of what you will encounter. Just being outdoors sparks wonder and inspiration. Actually experiencing something with all your senses is more exciting, effective, and memorable than just hearing about it via a traditional didactic lesson.

1

While our classes generally have a destination in mind, they always take the time to explore when the children express interest in something. Educators can harness that interest to create learning experiences on-the-spot and back in the classroom. Children often become excited because they identify something related to what they are currently studying. For example, this preschool class had been learning about construction and happened to spot a cherry picker and safety equipment on their walk. These spontaneous sightings give the students autonomy over their own learning and broaden their understanding of a topic – all things that would not have happened if they had stayed in the classroom.

Connects Abstract Concepts to Concrete Examples

4.png

Young children think concretely, so it’s important to pair new ideas with tangible examples. After talking about wind in the classroom, one of our toddler classes went to blow bubbles and watch how the wind carried them away. After that, they held up a parachute to see how the wind moved it. Similarly, our kindergarten class had been learning about a severe type of wind storm called a haboob. Luckily, they were not caught in a haboob storm themselves, but did get caught outside on a particularly windy day and were able to appreciate the affects a strong wind in a whole new light.

Offers Multiple and Varied Exposures while Broadening Horizons

2

For young children, many of the concepts explored at school are completely new, without much background context. Going into the community allows children to gain multiple and varied exposures to the same concept, deepening their understanding and giving it a nuance they would not have from only one example. Last school year, our older infant class was interested in the bread they had at lunchtime. Their teachers took this opportunity to learn more about bread, how it is made and its many varieties. They went to the National Gallery of Art to see James Rosenquist’s White Bread, and to Paul Bakery where the chefs were gracious enough to give the children dough with which to play and demonstrate how they bake the bread.

1.png

Providing multiple and varied exposures also expands a child’s perspective of a topic. By going into the community children begin to see a world outside of themselves and their immediate surroundings. For example, when one of our preschool classes was learning about boats, they went to the National Museum of the American Indian to see a boat that was not as familiar to them, broadening their understanding of what a boat can be. They also went to the DC Marina where they encountered boats with which they were more familiar. They also had the chance to meet with a boat expert at one of the stores who helped them expand their knowledge of boats.

Cultivates a Connection with the Community and Fosters Citizenry

5

Children are growing up in a society in which the biggest challenges are not relegated to their community alone. Global warming, immigration, and diminishing natural resources, just to name a few, are global issues that will require the future generation to  respect others and understand how humanity is interconnected. Learning in the community allows children to observe the impact of our actions and develop an appreciation for that which is different. It is also the place where children can see how we help each other and work together to solve our problems. For example, one of our preschool classes recently went to a local convenience store to replenish their first aid kit while another class helped to clean up litter on the National Mall. Inviting community members into the classroom is another way to have a positive impact on young children. Children can gain so much when they are able to interact with the very people who are responsible for cultivating and nurturing their community. These personal encounters also make students feel connected to the community as a citizen themselves.


Schools are in a variety of locales and settings, and getting out into the community can be challenging, however we strongly believe the benefits outweigh the drawbacks. Even a patch of grass right outside the classroom opens up immense opportunities for learning.

Join us for our upcoming workshop Learning Through Objects on March 14 & 15 to learn more about taking learning outside of the classroom and into the community!

Inquiry Tools

A few years ago several of my three-year-old students asked me a question, and I responded, “How could we find the answer to your question?” They stared at me and said, “We’re asking you because you’re a teacher, and teachers know everything!” While flattering, I had to tell them that I most certainly do not know everything. Instead, there are many other ways in which we can seek the answers to our questions. This moment illustrates the importance of directly teaching children the skills, even as young children, to find the answers to their wonders.

At SEEC, we define inquiry as asking questions, but also as the process to find the answers. In order to ask effective questions and have the tools to seek answers, children must be curious, know how to observe, describe, make connections, and communicate. From infants to kindergarten, our classes foster these skills to ensure our children leave our school with a love of learning, a ferocious curiosity and the ability to find the answers to their questions.

Recently, one of our four-year-old classes, led by Will Kuehnle and Jessie Miller, spent some time discussing what it means to be curious, and what tools could help them explore their curiosities.

5

To begin their experience they went to the National Gallery of Art to see The Thinker (Le Penseur) by Auguste Rodin. They looked at the sculpture and pondered how its body language depicted thinking. They even tried to pose themselves.

8

Next, they discussed four tools to use when we have a question: asking an expert, observing, reading a book, and/or going to a museum. After discussing these inquiry tools in the gallery, the class headed outside to the National Mall to make these ideas more concrete through play.

6

The children got into groups and went through stations, each representing one of the inquiry tools they previously identified. At the “Ask the Expert” station, the children dressed up and pretended to be experts on different topics. One child would ask a question while the other child listened. The conversation would continue back and forth while one child spoke and the other waited and responded. The teacher could step in and model this for the children as well as praise them when waited for their turn to speak. This was a great opportunity for the children to practice patience and listening.

2

At the “Observe” station, children observed what they saw on the Mall and recorded these thoughts through writing and drawing. This was an open-ended activity that allowed the children the freedom to observe anything in their surroundings. It gave the teachers a glimpse into what the children find most interesting and, since SEEC uses an emergent curriculum, will serve as a guide for possible future topics for the class

4

The “Read a Book” station contained several books where children could flip through and gain knowledge through their reading.

7

Lastly, the “Go to a Museum” station had blocks for the children to build a museum where they might be able to answer their wonders.

1

 

Back at school that afternoon, the class had an opportunity to play at the stations again if they wished.

 

3

Recently, during storytime a child asked a question about something in the book. The other children were quick to suggest finding a book on the subject or visiting a museum to find out more information. The teachers have also observed students using language such as “curious” and “inquire” more often in their day-to-day conversations. By spending time practicing listening, vocalizing questions, and exploring how to find answers, the students have built a strong foundation that will serve them as they progress in school and life.


Join us on January 17th to learn more about Fostering Wonder with young children.

SEEC Speak Part 2: Social Emotional Language

Every community, whether it be a neighborhood, family, school, etc., has a unique culture with its own language. Schools typically have common phrases, as it is helpful for children to hear consistent messages from the adults around them. Here at SEEC we call the phrases that are unique to our school “SEEC Speak”, and in a previous post we detailed some of our most common phrases. We’re back with another installment, this time focusing on social emotional language. Developing social emotional skills is a huge undertaking and can often leave children feeling frustrated as they don’t have the language to express their big emotions during a conflict with a peer or adult. At SEEC, we use simple phrases from infancy that build upon one another to give children the skills to problem solve on their own.

Infants – “Space”

For preverbal children, adults narrate and explain the situation to all children. The adults talk about what each child each is doing and how those actions impact the other children. One-year-olds, who are starting to become mobile, often find themselves too close to other children, so we begin teaching them the concept of “space”. While we may use a variety of words to narrate and explain the situation, we will highlight short, simple phrases, such as “space” and often pair them with a physical sign like holding your hand up like a stop sign. One-year-olds soon begin to understand the power of these short, simple phrases and will begin to say and react to “space”, particularly when prompted by an adult.

Toddlers – “Me next”; “In hands”; “Check on body”

As toddlers’ ability to speak increases, new social-emotional phrases are introduced. Adults can empower toddlers to verbally state their own wants and needs. The phrase “me next” helps the child explain to another child that they would like a turn next. Some adults are bothered by the fact that “me next” is not grammatically correct, but these short phrases are the clearest to the children and are often all the toddler is capable of saying. A longer phrase may be too complicated and force the toddlers to resort to acting physically rather than using their newly acquired language.

Toddlers need a way to differentiate what objects are being used by others and what objects are free to be played with. For these young children, we keep things simple by teaching them “in hands”. If an object or toy is in a child’s hands that means that they are using it and another child cannot take it. This clear phrasing helps empower young children and decreases confusion.

One way that we build empathy in young children is by highlighting how a child is feeling and then working with other children to come up with ways that might make that child feel better. For example, if a child is hurt, another child might “check on their body” by gently patting the hurt child. “Checking on bodies” is a simple and effective way to help another child feel better.

Twos – “My hands”; “I don’t like that”; “Stop that”

Two-year-olds love saying and practicing our “SEEC Speak” phrases. They understand the power and usefulness of these phrases but struggle to say them in the moment when emotions are heightened. It is helpful for them to practice “SEEC Speak” phrases when pretending. Acting out scenarios helps them to learn and say our phrases. While practicing phrases like “in my hands”, “I don’t like that”, and “stop that”, two-year-olds will often add in nonverbal cues to help their peers understand them. They may shake their head to imply “no” or they may speak in a strong, authoritative voice, all of which helps to make their message clearer to their peers. While two-year-olds will often struggle to say these phrases without adult help in the heat of the moment, practicing these phrases helps them to develop their social-emotional skills.

Threes – “No, thank you”; “Stop”; “That hurts my body”

Sometimes adults underestimate a child’s ability to communicate when they are preverbal, and then overestimate a child’s ability to use words once they can talk, especially when experiencing big emotions such as frustration or anger.  While three-year-olds have many words, it is still useful to give them a specific prompt when they are upset, other than “use your words” as they might not know what words to use. Our threes often use “no, thank you” or “stop” when peers do something they do not like, or “that hurts my body” when play turns too rough.

Fours – “I don’t like it when…”, “That hurts my feelings”

In preschool, children are better able to articulate their feelings to peers and adults. When very upset, a child may only manage to say, “I don’t like that” or “stop”, however many will follow up that statement by explaining what it is they do not like. This is helpful for the other child, as sometimes children can be confused as to what behavior is bothering someone else.

Kindergarten – “What can I do to make you feel better?”

By the time children reach kindergarten, they’re able to effectively reflect on their actions that may have hurt a peer’s body or feelings, and help make the situation better. Our kindergartners often use the phrase, “How can I make you feel better?” when they apologize to a peer. This is more concrete than a simple, “I’m sorry” and allows both children to have a conversation about the situation resulting in action. I recently overheard the following conversation:

Child 1 was running on the playground and accidentally ran into child 2 who hit his head on the fence.

Child 2: Why did you do that?

Child 1: I’m sorry, it was an accident. What can I do to make you feel better?

Child 2: Don’t run so fast next time when we’re coming onto the playground.

Child 1: Okay.

They ended their exchange with a hug, and while child 2’s head still hurt, he clearly felt that he had been heard and an effort had been made to make him feel better.


What phrases do you use with young children to support their social emotional growth?

Weapon Play in Early Childhood: How to be Developmentally Appropriate and Responsive to Current Events

“Bang, bang. Got you!” Have you ever heard these words on the playground? Even though many adults are uncomfortable with children engaging in weapon play, it happens regardless. Recently, our school has been discussing whether weapon play should be allowed, and if so, with what parameters. As our executive director, Meredith McMahon, put it, we need to consider three key perspectives when making this decision: what is developmentally appropriate for the children, what the expectations are in their future schools, and what is currently happening within our larger society.  Balancing these three considerations and the multiple perspectives of faculty and families has made this a difficult topic to navigate.

2

Developmental Appropriateness

While it can be jarring for an adult (especially those who have been affected by gun violence, as some of our SEEC community has) to see a child pretend to shoot a peer, children do not have as much life experience as adults and therefore do not fully understand the complexities of weapon play. For example, while school administrators in North Carolina saw a five-year-old turn a stick into a gun and threaten to shoot and kill her classmates, the five-year-old in question saw herself playing an imaginary game in which she pretended to be a castle guard and defended her friends, the king and queen. Children often see their favorite super heroes or movie characters using weapons, both real and imaginary. For a child whose entire lived experience is fodder for their play, it can be hard for them to understand why guns, lightsabers and swords are off limits.

In our experience, simply saying no to all weapon play, especially without an explanation to why it is being disallowed, will do little to stop the play. Instead, children might become more effective at hiding this kind of play. As one faculty member said, “They’re still going to do it, they’re just going to do it behind your back. It takes away from your relationship and ability to guide them through it and lead them to best practices in playing it.”

Research has also shown that there is no correlation between weapon play as a child and later weapon use, but instead is linked to higher social competencies. Weapon play is just one facet of a child’s play and through it children can learn communication and problem-solving skills as well as develop their imaginations. For example, one of our preschool educators shared a recent experience with her class on the playground in which the children were pretending to shoot things. She asked what they were doing and they told her that they were using bubble blasters to trap bugs, specifically mosquitoes. They began going around the playground together looking for bugs and pretending to trap them or blast them away so they wouldn’t get bitten.

3

Future School Expectations

While we at SEEC can discuss and commit to a stance on weapon play, we recognize that our students will eventually leave SEEC and attend a school whose rules around weapon play will most likely be different. In recent years, many news stories have emerged detailing how young children have been suspended for engaging in weapon play, or simply drawing a weapon to accompany their drawings. We want to ensure we are preparing our students for the next step in their academic career, which means preparing them for expectations in their elementary schools.

As our older children get ready to make this transition, our faculty discusses what they can expect going to a new school; that some rules that they have at SEEC may stay the same, and some may be different. We’ve been including weapon play in this discussion, however one PreK-4 educator expressed concern that a child could leave before these conversations take place (due to a family move, etc.) and that we will not have prepared them fully.

1

Current Societal Climate

The current climate in the country and world is not something to be taken lightly. As one faculty member pointed out, children hear and see images related to weapon violence through the media, whether it be in passing on the news, the radio or on the cover of newspapers, books, and websites. Mass shootings and police shootings of unarmed citizens are an all too common reality in our country. People of color are disproportionately affected by these killings, making these occurrences not only disturbing, but a social justice issue. At school, we also have active shooter drills, in which the children hear the language “there has been an active shooter reported in the building,” while we practice hiding. To think our children are not absorbing weapon related images is naïve and to ignore how the current state of the country affects them and their future is irresponsible.  At our most recent meeting, several of our team thought broadly saying, “What kind of voice do we want our school to be? Weapon play is important, but we’re impacting these children’s lives every day and I would love our world to be less violent.” Another said, “This is a hard topic without one clear answer, but what are we doing, proactively, to promote peace and foster a culture that values that?”

No matter what our final decision may be, our team is committed to creating language around this topic to use with the children (similar to our current “SEEC Speak”). Communicating our reasoning and intentions with families is also imperative to ensure continued open lines of communication as questions and concerns arise. Our book club is also planning to read Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones for our next meeting to further our understanding on this complex topic.

What are your thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

Natural Moments with Literacy

Emergent Literacy_Pete's a Pizza_Playing with Books

It sometimes feels like we are at a cross-roads in education. On one hand, many schools are focused on academic assessments and goals – even in the early years. On the other hand, there is a growing movement to slow down and let kids be kids. Does learning how to read earlier really make a difference? My personal experience suggests that earlier is not necessarily better. My eldest daughter, whom I, admittedly, pushed in preschool to learn the alphabet, is an excellent reader. But my youngest daughter, whom I never pushed, is also an avid reader and has been reading “above grade level” for a couple of years now. As caregivers, it is hard to know what is the right approach. We want the best for our children, but we too feel pressure. We also feel compelled to prepare our children for their next steps. So while many of us, educators and caregivers alike, might not subscribe to the idea the reading earlier is better, we still might feel obligated to help prepare our children for the demands that society and our educational institutes place on them.

At a recent professional development day workshop, we were asked the question of how we address issues of literacy, especially within our emergent curriculum. This question made our team stop and think — not because we don’t consider literacy, but because, we realized, it is embedded naturally into the work we do with children. When we think about literacy, we think about how it supplements the children’s natural curiosity, how it enriches the environment and play, and how it connects to our learning within museums and the community. At SEEC, we are not necessarily teaching children how to read but offering them literacy rich experiences that connect to topics in which they are interested and make sense within their daily routine. As part of our reflection on literacy, we compiled a photo journal of what it looks like in our classrooms.  We look forward to continuing our discussion at our upcoming workshop Emergent Literacy Using Objects.

Environment 

Words and letters can be seen on almost every element of  our classrooms. We are careful to put signs at children’s eye level even if the children are too young to be able to read them. Children see adults gaining important information from looking at these signs and will often go up to them and try to decode information as well. To make this more developmentally appropriate, we pair the written words with images. These images make the signs and letters more meaningful to the children and helps them to pair words with ideas.

Emergent Literacy_signs with words and pictures_transportation_graphs

 

Emergent Literacy_signs with words and pictures_bathroom_handwashing

 

Transitions

Having a group of young children move from one activity to another always proves to be a challenging time in a classroom. We regularly use games and songs that focus on letters, reading, and literacy to help ease the stress that comes with transitions. As children grow we make these transitional games more challenging to meet their developmental needs. For example, in our two year old classroom each child may try to find the first letter of their name before they leave circle to wash their hands before snack. This game is adapted in the four year old room to trying to find all or most of the letters in their name. This activity helps to keep the group engaged and focused as they prepare to begin a new activity.

Emergent Literacy_letter_transitions_ (1).png

Play

Children learn through play and play has been show to be vital to children’s overall well being. Yet many parents and educators grow concerned that children will not have the opportunity to learn basic academic skills if they spend all their time playing. At SEEC, we integrate play and academic learning by providing opportunities for both to occur simultaneously. For example, if children are pretending that they are at a restaurant, we will put out pads of paper and pencils so the pretend server can write down the order.

Emergent Literacy_Play_Mail_restaurant_menu.png 

Sensory play also encourages young children to try to pick up and explore new materials. While interacting with these materials, children are strengthening the same muscles and coordination that they will use when holding a pencil and writing.

Emergent Literacy_fine motor_play

 

Community/Objects

Our use of community, museums, and objects is a key component to literacy at SEEC. In some cases, it is as clear-cut as narration for our youngest students. Children who have the opportunity to learn outside the walls of their classroom, also have the chance to expand their own world. As they see things, our educators are there to respond to them and help them build their vocabulary. For our older children, our faculty often finds naturally occurring instances to recognize letters and symbols. For example, reading street signs. We also feel that using the community can help children connect words with real objects and thus, facilitate their understanding. Children learn that the color blue can be a deep, dark blue in a painting at the Hirshhorn and also the light blue they see in the sky. Our community also allows us to explore language and literacy via different perspectives like the one pictured below. In this case, children learned about the artwork of Xu Bing and thought creatively about how to apply language to their own artwork.

Emergent Literacy_letter_objects_xu bing