Teacher Feature: PreK 4 Class Explores Archaeology

Today we’re featuring Pre-K 4 teacher Jessie Miller of the Honey Bear classroom. The class has been exploring topics related to digging, and I joined them for a lesson at the Freer Sackler Galleries about archaeology.  Below you will find images from the lesson, as well as reflections from Jessie. 

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The children had recently shown a growing interest in digging and the creatures and objects they were discovering underground. To build on this interest, we decided to start a “can you dig it?”unit where we would explore a variety of topics related to digging, such as underground animals and insects, construction, gems and minerals, paleontology, archaeology, etc.

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 The class visited the Freer Sackler Galleries for their lesson on archaeology. There are many wonderful exhibits at the Freer Sackler, but for this lesson, they looked for gallery 21: Feast Your Eyes: A Taste of Luxury in Ancient Iran.

Engaging the children throughout the entire journey from classroom to the museum and back to classroom creates excitement and curiosity. This also scaffolds their learning and gives them multiple exposure to a topic. For example, we will often tell them the name of the exhibit we are looking for before we leave the classroom, then ask them what we are looking for before we enter the museum, and once we find the exhibit inside. This gets the children looking for letters, words, and/or numbers, as well as sparks their interest about our learning topic for that day.

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After finding the gallery, the class walked through it, stopping at artifacts that they wanted to look closely at. Jessie went with the groups’ pace and read information about each object that interested the children. They wondered and predicted together what each object was used for and from what materials they were made.

I chose this exhibit because it has a variety of objects to explore rather than just one. I also wanted the exhibit to provide our class with enough space to move around freely. This exhibit in the Sackler Gallery tends to have less foot traffic, and it has an array of objects to observe. The word ‘ancient’ in the title of the exhibit indicates the objects are from a long time ago, which was perfect for us to use in our exploration of archaeology.

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Near the end of the exhibit, the class sat down in a circle in front of the photograph Panorama of Persepolis by Ernst Herzfeld. Jessie asked the children to remember what paleontology is and the class recalled that it is the study of fossils or things that were once alive. Jessie asked if they saw any fossils in the exhibit or in the photograph behind them. The children said that they couldn’t see any fossils, but perhaps there were some beneath the surface in the photograph. One child said that they weren’t sure about fossils, but that the pillars in the photograph looked old because she could see holes, scratches, and dents on them.

The children had learned about fossils and paleontology the day before this lesson. We explored the fossil hall in the Natural History Museum and observed a variety of things paleontologists study. The main learning objectives of this lesson were to reflect on what we had learned about paleontology, compare and contrast paleontology and archaeology, and provide the children with some authentic objects archaeologists would work with. These objectives provided the children with exposure to these two fields of science, and their similarities and differences.

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Jessie told the group that the pillars or columns were old and in the country of Iran. All the artifacts they had seen in the galleries are from Iran as well. To better understand where Iran is located, the class looked at a world map and sang the song, “7 Continents“, which they often sing when locating a place on the map. Jessie told the group that Iran is on the continent of Asia and pointed out where it is.

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Next, the group thought about the difference between paleontology and archaeology. While both fields dig into the Earth to find clues about the past, paleontology is the study of fossils, and archaeology is the study of objects that are human-made. To further explore this, Jessie gave each child an object to examine. Then, everyone had a turn to place their object either in the paleontology group if it would be studied by paleontologists, or the archaeology group, if it would be studied by archaeologists.   

I already had some previous knowledge about these two topics and had created related lessons in the past. However, I wanted to prepare myself a bit more for this lesson through online research and books to make sure my knowledge was up to date. I also relied on the exhibits we visited to provide us with information. For example, as we ventured through the exhibit before sitting down for our lesson, I made observations about the objects we were seeing along with the children, and then read the titles and descriptions from the labels so we could have organic conversations about the pieces in the exhibit.

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 When the game ended there were two distinct piles for each field of study. The children understood that paleontologists study fossils, or things that used to be alive, while archaeologists study objects or buildings that were human-made.

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Jessie reiterated that we know how people lived long ago because of the artifacts that archaeologists dig up and examine. She shared some pages from the book A Street Through Time by Anne Millard, which shows the same street and how it might have looked from the Stone Age to modern day. 

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To end their lesson Jessie gave the children a challenge: pick an artifact in the exhibit that made them curious, observe it closely, and sketch what they saw.

Going into the lesson I wanted to make sure the children had time and space to complete structured as well as unstructured activities. Sometimes providing the children with too much freedom in a space can cause silliness but by preparing them for the sketching activity and giving them specific guidelines to follow they completed the activity with no issues.

 Back in the classroom, we asked each child to describe the object from the exhibit they had chosen to sketch. We wrote these descriptions on their paper with the date and a title, and then hung them up in the classroom. Once they were up in the classroom, we could refer to them later and encourage the children to share them with their families and friends. This provided multiple exposures to the topics we were learning about and enhanced their curiosity to learn more.

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If another teacher wanted to try this lesson, I would recommend finding spaces for the lessons and activities that give the children enough space to move around and explore. I would also recommend being prepared with a few things, such as a book and activity or two, but also leave plenty of time for organic conversation to happen. By building in time to just wander around and chat about what you are seeing, the children get more unstructured time to simply enjoy the space and objects and share their thoughts with their classmates and teachers.

After this lesson, the children were provided with a variety of tools, such as paintbrushes, gloves, magnifying glasses, pencils, and sketch paper, that would help them to explore little “dig sites”with sand, and mini objects that an archaeologist would study. We also picked out books from the library related to digging and incorporated story times into multiple parts of our day. This lesson was one of our final explorations in our “can you dig it?”unit, so we spent the following days reflecting on and making comparisons between the digging topics we had explored over the previous weeks.


After exploring digging, it was time for our preschoolers to graduate! For more digging ideas, visit our Dinosaurs, Can You Dig it?, and Ancient RomePinterest boards.

Teacher Feature: Three-Year-Old Class Explores Amphibians

Today we’re featuring Maya Alston and Amy Schoolcraft, the teachers of the three-year-old Wallaby class. The class has been busy exploring the Animal Kingdom, and I joined them for a lesson about amphibians and frogs at the National Museum of Natural History. Below you will find images from the lesson, as well as reflections from Maya.

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For the past two years, a mallard duck has made SEEC’s playground her nesting ground to lay her eggs. Every year we section off a part of the playground for mama duck to lay her eggs safely and use this as an opportunity to engage the children about the importance of respecting her space while she cares for her babies. This was the Wallabies’ first time experiencing the process, and while they have always shown interest in animals through play, we noticed that this experience really seemed to stick with them and pique their interest. Amy and I decided this was the perfect time to begin a unit on the animal kingdom.

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For their lesson, the class headed to Q?rius, an interactive learning space at the National Museum of Natural History, for their lesson.

Q?rius is a space dedicated to encouraging young children to be curious and investigate through hands on exploration. I wanted my students to be active participants and be able to have tangible objects to help them make these connections. I took some time to explore Q?rius on my own first, imagining how my children could engage with objects that were relevant to our lesson. From there, I began to piece together what I wanted the lesson to look like based off what the space offered.

Since it was also my first time going to Q?rius, I wanted to make sure the space was appropriate for my students. I took time to explore on my own as well as speaking with Q?rius employees about what objects they had related to amphibians.

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Q?rius has many objects and specimens to examine closely. Maya led the class to a case and took out a specimen box without showing the class. She gave the group some clues as to what might be in the box including making a frog noise with a frog musical instrument, and showing them an image of a frog. Between both clues many children exclaimed, “a froggie!”

For this unit, we wanted our students to understand the concept that animals belong to different groups. While animal kingdoms are generally taught in later years, I wanted to build a foundation of the concept of categorizing animals based on physical traits, habitat, and other characteristics unique to that animal group. In this lesson, we began exploring amphibians.

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Maya shared two frog skeletons and allowed each child a turn to look closely. They noticed the difference in sizes between the skeletons.

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Next, the class went upstairs to the Q?rius jr. space, a dedicated area of Q?rius for young children. They sat down and Maya told the class what they were going to learn about today: amphibians. They practiced saying the word and Maya explained that amphibian means two lives; one life in the water, and one on land. She asked what animals they know of that live in the water. The children listed animals such as sharks, fish, and dolphins. Next, she asked what animals live on land. They identified many animals including butterflies, cheetahs, birds, bunnies, and elephants.

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Maya reiterated that amphibians are special because they live in both the water and on land, such as frogs. She showed them images of more amphibians including newts, salamanders, toads and caecilians. The group remembered some previously learned knowledge about how many legs insects have (six) and arachnids have (eight). Maya let the class know that many amphibians have four. The class counted the legs of the amphibians together. The group explored another physical aspect of amphibians – how they feel. The class felt their own skin and described it as smooth and soft. Maya let them know that amphibians are smooth and soft as well, but they’re also moist, meaning they’re always a little bit wet.

I knew very general information about amphibians and frogs, but to prepare for this lesson I took some time to research as well. Sometimes the children have questions that I might not have been expecting, so it’s always helpful to come with some additional information prepared.

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One of the children brought up how bunnies feel, and Maya took this opportunity to transition to her next point. She asked the group what bunnies like to do. They excitedly said, “hopping!” Maya told the group that frogs also like to hop. The class began jumping and hopping like frogs all over the circle. Maya let them have some time and then said, “3, 2, 1, and done.” The children took the cue and sat back down in their circle.

While I had not planned for the group to jump like frogs at this point, it was the children’s way of staying engaged and actively participating with the lesson. I really want them to connect with our lesson in a way that speaks to them, and most often, it is through movement. It makes our lessons feel a lot more organic and can even help to push the conversation along. I’ve found my lessons to be much more fun and exciting when I allow the kids to steer the direction we go in just a little during our discussions. It’s an excellent way to gauge their interest and see what they know already.

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Next, they explored frogs more deeply by looking at plastic frogs, and playing wood frog guiro musical instruments. They enjoyed stroking the wooden frog’s back with the mallet and listening to the ribbit-like sound. They also compared the difference in sound between the larger frog guiro and the smaller one.

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The last aspect of the lesson was to explore how strong frog legs are and how they help them to jump very far distances. Maya said that some frogs can jump up to seven feet! To illustrate this she measured out the distance with a tape measure.

The inclusion of math skills into the lesson was something that happened naturally. I really wanted to provide a visual to see just how far of a distance it was, and a tape measure was the perfect object. It just so happened to be a great way to incorporate math skills!

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Then it was the children’s turn to jump like a frog and measure how far they could go. Maya randomly pulled each child’s photo from a bag to indicate it was their turn to jump.

The children seemed to really take to the activity portion and liked comparing their distances to see if they could jump as far as their friends. I think the activity was engaging enough that even when it wasn’t their turn to jump, they were still excited to get to participate in some fashion, for example cheering on their friend who was jumping.

There’s always a little bit of unknown when taking your students to a new space. Sometimes doing gross motor activities in confined spaces can be a little tricky. I wanted to make sure the kids were able to get the most out of the lesson, while also respecting other people using the space, so we discussed.

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As each child jumped, the rest of the class cheered for them and how far they went. Maya integrated math skills by measuring how far each child went and writing down the numbers next to their photo. To conclude this part of the lesson Maya let them know that they were all great jumpers, but frogs could still jump a lot further and they would learn more about them later in the week.

I absolutely loved how the group waited so patiently to take their turn to jump and were cheering each other on. It can be difficult to wait patiently for eleven other people to go before it’s finally your turn. Unity and camaraderie are concepts we encourage throughout the year, and seeing them be so supportive unprompted was very heartwarming.

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To end the visit, the class got a chance to explore the Q?rius jr. space. Some children explored the many specimens both displayed and available to touch. Some played more with the frog instruments or engaged in a variety of puzzles (including a frog puzzle!).

I think what’s great about this lesson is the fact that it can be done in just about any setting with objects. My recommendation for other educators without easily accessible museum spaces, but wishing to do a similar lesson would be to go sit outside or go to a local nature center or pond to connect with the concepts.

We made sure to say a quick goodbye to our frog skeletons before leaving Q?rius. Upon reflection, this would have been an excellent time to have the students take another look at the skeletons and have a brief discussion about what new information they had learned during the lesson. That would give them the opportunity to make connections and help to bring the visit full circle.

Later in the week, we continued the conversation by visiting the Moongate Garden to talk about the life cycle of frogs. Following our week on amphibians, we began to explore other animal classifications.


After exploring frogs the class learned about reptiles. For more animal ideas, visit our Amphibian, Birds, Reptile, and Ocean Pinterest boards.

SEEC Faculty’s DC Summer Favorites

Summer in DC offers lots of great opportunities to get out of the house and experience nature, art, sports, and more. Our faculty shared some of their favorite DC summer activities and events. Maybe something will catch your eye and you can start a new tradition with your family this summer!

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens

Our art educator, Carolyn, recommends Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens. Located in Anacostia Park, the Gardens is hosting their annual Lotus and Water Lily Festival on July 13th. Not only will the lotus be in full bloom, but there will also be live music, crafts, and a live animal exhibit. 

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Yards Park

Infant and Twos Director, Melody, loves taking a visit to Yards Park to cool off. She says, “It’s free and it’s a big area with shallow water to splash around. We haven’t been in awhile and hope to go back this summer with the new baby!”

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National Building Museum 

Pre-K 4 teacher, Sara, looks forward to the National Building Museum’s summer exhibits. “Last year was the first year I went. I loved the immersive experience. It was a celebration of avant-garde architecture and also pure fun. I felt like a child, jumping in ball pits and running through streamers. I had a blast.” Check out information about this year’s exhibit, Lawn, which opens July 4th.

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Nationals Park

Toddler educator, Kat, loves to go to Nationals Park to catch a game in the summer. She elaborates, “Plus, every year they have Opera in the Outfield in partnership with the Washington National Opera; you can bring a blanket and sit on the field while enjoying a show! It is one of my favorite places to be in DC. Go Nats!”

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Great Falls National Park

Brittany, twos educator, enjoys hiking and climbing at Great Falls National Park. Brittany says, “Growing up in the area visiting Great Falls was a weekend tradition. It is a great space to explore and learn the local history of DC. You are able to see great beautiful views of the Potomac River gushing over rocks, plus the awesome wildlife. For the climbers, Great Falls is one of the first Climbing areas in the Mid-Atlantic area. It is a great spot to work on top skills. Plus climbing by the water is always fun!”


What’s your favorite DC summer activity? Be sure to let us know in the comments!

Playing WITH Children

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Young children are capable learners and at SEEC, we have strong beliefs about young children and how they learn best. One belief is that adults should play with children, be silly, sing, have fun, and get dirty. While we recognize and value the benefits of child play without adult involvement, we see many benefits for both adults and children when grown-ups join in the fun.

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Adults need to play too! While society tends to view play as a pastime exclusive to childhood, research has shown that adults need to play  in order to maintain a joyful and healthy life. Play, whether it be participating in a kickball league, painting, or engaging in improv theater, maintains cognitive skills, strengthens relationships, and reduces stress. Stuart Brown, physician and founder of the National Institute for Play, feels that play is essential and recommends building playtime into our everyday lives to avoid feeling stuck and stressed. Innovative companies are even bringing play into their work spaces. For example, Tim Brown, CEO of design firm, IDEO, incorporates a preschool-like play setting that allows employees to innovate new, creative solutions through play. At SEEC, we feel similarly, which is why we use play to teach concepts at our educator workshops. Not only is it engaging, and fun, but it builds community among educators, and provides practical applications that can be used in the classroom.

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Playing with children not only provides benefits to adults, but children as well. When an adult chooses to participate in a child’s play, they are sending a powerful message that what the child is doing is valuable, and their learning is important. Plus, playing with children builds strong relationships, whether that be a teacher-child or caregiver-child relationship. Not sure where to start? Try simply asking, “Can I play with you?” Generally, children will be more than willing to invite you in and tell you how you can be involved!

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When adults play with children, they become models of social emotional skills. They are able to model being a graceful winner or loser in competitive games, demonstrate teamwork, and  show children how to navigate social interactions. For example, “I see that Adam is a pirate too, can we make room for him on the ship?” or “Roberta, it looks like you’d like to play! We’re building an ice cream parlor, what would you like to do?”

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Adults also have the ability to open other avenues of thinking and inquiry through play that children might not think of on their own. For example, if the children are pretending to sail on a boat, asking, “Where are you going?” or “What will you do when you get there?” helps children expand their thinking and possibilities for their play. Vivian Gussin Paley, noted play theorist, believes in the power of an adult to help make connections for children that they might have otherwise missed. She likens the adult’s role to a Greek Chorus, commenting on or repeating what players have said. For example, “I heard Sally say that the baby is crying. How do you think we can make the baby feel better?”

Have we convinced you of the benefits of play as an adult? Would you like to come and PLAY with our SEEC team at the Smithsonian while thinking more about play in the community with young children? Join us for our Play in the Community seminar on May 6 & 7. Learn more and register.

The Intersection of Art and STEM Skills

A few years ago SEEC was approached to write a journal article about what STEM learning looks like at our school. Several educators and administrators collaborated to write about STEM learning examples from our classrooms, such as learning about the planets, and the Earth’s relationship with the sun and moon. The publication responded by questioning whether SEEC’s approach to STEM was developmentally appropriate. They felt that children were not capable of understanding these complex concepts. This experience prompted us to reflect on how we approach STEM learning in our classrooms. Ultimately, after careful consideration, we stood by our approach and belief in children capabilities.

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While many people think about colors, seasons, letters, and numbers as typical  preschool topics, SEEC explores concepts beyond that. We believe that children are capable of understanding complex topics, if taught in a developmentally appropriate and engaging ways, and if topics are scaffolded or addressed one layer at a time. Children often inquire about concepts that are complex and do not have easy answers. By delving into these topics, the children are much more invested in the learning as they are intrinsically motivated.

One way we address complex STEM topics with young children is through the use of art as a starting point. Moreover, visual literacy and observational skills related to STEM are very much interconnected.i-QcnkS7k-XL

For example, to begin a lesson exploring wind, this pre-k 4 class observed The Girl I Left Behind Me by Eastman Johnson at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  The children noticed a girl, possibly a teenager (there was a debate about her age), her hair blowing in the wind, a storm brewing, and bumpy ground. This careful looking prompted questions from the children such as, “Is she going to get caught in a storm?” and “I wonder what is that brown thing she’s holding?” The act of looking at the artwork built the children’s skills in observation, curiosity, focus, critical thinking, prediction based on evidence, listening to other perspectives, and communication; all skills used in STEM learning. After our observation session the children were eager to share their personal experiences with wind and curious to learn more about wind. We read a book to find out why wind occurs. Then we used tools, such as an anemometer and the Beaufort scale, and experimentation to understand varying wind strengths.

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Research also supports that careful looking at artwork helps to develop STEM skills. For example, one study found that medical students became more effective in diagnosing their patients after they had practiced observation and communicating about artwork at a museum. They began to notice details that they were missing before and were more open to hearing other perspectives from fellow medical professionals and the patients themselves.

While we hope children will understand the content we share, our main goal is for the children to leave our school with the foundational skills to engage in STEM experiences in years to come. We feel that by connecting art and STEM, they have more opportunities to engage in STEM content and practice STEM skills.


Want to learn more about how to create engaging STEM lessons via art? Join us next Thursday, April 18th from 5 PM to 7 PM at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. For more information, click here.

In Depth: Preschool Class Explores Activism

Recently we outlined one of our preschool classroom’s week exploring activism. We wanted to give some context about how the week came about, how the teachers planned the lessons, ideas for implementation in your classroom, and resources used. The following is from the Koala teachers, Katie Heimsath and Morgan Powell:

Context & Planning

We divided a week of lessons into four sections: community service, public art, using words, and marching together. While there are many different forms of activism and advocacy work, these four made the most sense for our group – they were age-appropriate both in scope and content, and simple enough for us to really delve into over a week. We started with our trash clean-up, which is a more concrete activity that produces tangible results, and then took a more scaffolded approach as the week went on.  Our school was fortunate enough to partner with many people and teams, like Teaching for Change, Julie Olsen Edwards who is the co-author of Anti-Bias Education for Young Children and Ourselves, and the early childhood team at NMAAHC during multiple professional development days to learn more about anti-bias education. While planning this week, and all of our curriculum, we take into consideration the four core goals of anti-bias education:

Goal 1: Each child will demonstrate self-awareness, confidence, family pride, and positive social identities.

Goal 2: Each child will express comfort and joy with human diversity; accurate language for human differences; and deep, caring human connections.

Goal 3: Each child will increasingly recognize unfairness, have language to describe unfairness, and understand that unfairness hurts.

Goal 4: Each child will demonstrate empowerment and the skills to act, with others or alone, against prejudice and/or discriminatory actions.”

-As cited on NAEYC’s website

By using the research and expertise of these incredible leaders, we planned this week with many kinds of diverse examples of helpers, including children, etc. When looking to fill our bookshelf, we made sure that there was a large representation of many kinds of lifestyles, cultures, and people. As we mentioned before, the concepts we built on during this week are woven into the fabric of our days and the framework of our classroom, and is therefore easy for us to continue practicing.

Ideas for your Classroom

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Mural blocks – Print pictures of murals or public art from your community sized for wooden blocks, and use clear packing tape to secure the pictures to the blocks for students to play with inside the classroom. Alternative block images: recognizable buildings from your school’s neighborhood or landmarks from your community.

11Movable Mural – Place a large white sheet on top of a tarp, fill spray bottles with liquid watercolors, and invite students to take turns adding colors to the class mural. After completely drying (if possible outdoors), ask students where they would want to hang up this movable mural in the classroom or somewhere in the school.

Book Connection: Maybe Something Beautiful by F. Isabel Campoy (Author), Theresa Howell (Author), Rafael López(Illustrator)

10Student Blocks & National Mall – Print full-body pictures of students sized for wooden blocks, and use clear packing tape to secure the pictures to the blocks for students to play with inside the classroom. To create the National Mall we used a green yoga mat and map of the Mall; a green blanket or green construction paper could also create a miniature National Mall inside the classroom which the student blocks can “march” on.

Book Connection: We March by Shane W. Evans

9Click, Clack, Moo Students Who Type – Set up a station with old keyboards, notepads, pens, and the book Click, Clack, Moo Cows That Type by Doreen Cronin. Students can pretend to be the cows in the book, typing away at the keyboards and “writing” letters to Farmer Brown.  

Online Resources

Teaching for Change is a non-profit whose goal is to provide teachers and caregivers with the tools to create schools where students learn to read, write, and change the world. 

Social Justice Books is a project of Teaching for Change that selects lists of books for children on a variety of themes, reviews books to bring attention to any potential bias, and promotes books by diverse authors and illustrators.

National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC)on Anti-Bias Education.

SEEC’s Diversity and Anti-Bias Journey

This post was written by Meredith McMahon, SEEC’s Executive Director.

Just over two years ago SEEC started on a very purposeful journey to bring an anti-bias approach to our work with young children and increased diversity and equity to the SEEC community as a whole.   Our journey is one that’s still at its beginning stages, and we’re excited for where we’re headed!  As part of our journey we want to document our process and actions, both as a way of sharing with others, and reflection for ourselves.  Periodically we hope to highlight different aspects of our work and share different voices from across SEEC, and to start, I want to share what got us here and where we see ourselves headed.

I think SEEC has long been thoughtful about respecting children and giving voice and validation to their feelings, but we had not thought in terms of anti-bias education (ABE).  Before we started our journey I’d guess that most of us here would have agreed about its importance, but we hadn’t thought explicitly about how we could – or should – integrate this approach into our own work. Our thinking changed in very real ways when our faculty had several incredible opportunities to spend professional development days at the National Museum of African American History & Culture in 2017 and 2018.  Our early education colleagues there, especially Anna Hindley and Julie Olson Edwards, shared their experiences and understanding about the importance of anti-bias education with young children in ways that were eye-opening, inspiring, and challenging.  I think as a faculty we walked away each time with both a stronger sense of the importance of anti-bias work and actual strategies to use in our classrooms.  I think many of us also walked away with the sense that we couldn’t just look at how we develop curriculum – though it’s a place where we could make immediate changes – we need to look across all of SEEC for more places where we must learn and grow.

So where did we start?  Well in the classrooms we’re embracing those questions that adults often see as taboo and shy away from – we want to turn them into moments when we can explore differences in ways that are positive, open, and accepting.  We believe children are capable learners who can grasp complex ideas much better than they’re often given credit for.  We’ve never shied away from introducing children to big ideas, we just look for developmentally appropriate ways to do it. This long-standing belief has allowed us to embrace the goals of anti-bias education as something we’re capable of incorporating into our curriculum development, even with our littlest ones.  Across the school our classes have purposefully looked for ways to explore identity and differences with the children, and you can see and hear that reflected in their interactions.

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Representation matters. Our infant rooms put up images representing diversity in locations that accessible to our crawlers.

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Similarly, in our older classrooms, the environment reflects the beauty in the differences of our world through bulletin boards, books, artworks, and more.

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In all of our classrooms, but particularly in the infant rooms where the children are preverbal, but need to be picked up often, faculty practice language of consent. Before picking a child up to play or take them to the changing table, educators tell the child what they’re going to do, “I’m going to pick you up and bring you to the changing table.” While an infant cannot respond verbally, the educator will wait until the child looks at them to acknowledge they have heard.

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Our toddlers work on anti-bias goals through empathy building and perspective taking. They begin to notice when their peers are upset and take action to make them feel better, often through a hug or pat.

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“We’re all the same, we’re all different” has become a common phrase at SEEC to help celebrate our similarities and appreciate our differences. Examining our individual skin tones is one way we build a child’s positive sense of self and joy in the diversity that makes us all unique. Our faculty has used Synecdoche by Byron Kim at National Gallery of Art and books like, The Color of Us by Karen Katz to explore skin tones further.

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Recently, one of our preschool classes explored how they could be community helpers through their words and actions. They thought about how they could help people by raising their voices when they noticed things were unfair. To read more about their week, visit the blog post here.

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Recently, one of our preschool classes has been exploring the human body, starting with the brain. They learned that the cerebrum helps control the words we say. They connected this to Malala Yousafzai and Martin Luther King Jr, and their words that have helped to change the world. The children each took a turn using their cerebrum and voices to choose words that might change the world, including, “Keep the world safe” and “schools for everyone.”

What else are we doing? We’re looking at the shared language we use across SEEC, those phrases and strategies we draw upon when guiding children’s behavior – we want to include concrete ways to talk to children about differences, identity, and equity, a resource that could aid both our faculty and families.  We’re planning out how to completely review SEEC’s library – we want to look for unintended messages in both the illustrations and text, and the conversations we might need to include, should we continue to use some books. We want to know what our library is lacking so we can purposefully add more titles that promote equity and diversity.  Since children’s literature is a mainstay in every early childhood classroom, we expect this to be a very impactful way we can make change right now.

Beyond the classrooms we know we know there’s more to think about and lots of room to do better. From a big picture perspective, SEEC’s Board of Directors is working to revise SEEC’s mission statement to include our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion. We’ll also include both our short and long term goals in our strategic plan.  Increased diversity within our faculty is an important, immediate goal, and we’ve identified some ways we can improve our recruitment and hiring practices right now. We also continue to think about next steps for professional development – we’ve had sessions on mitigating our own biases, as well as classroom strategies, but we know we’ll always have more to learn!

Perhaps most important in all of what we’re doing, we’ve realized, is transparency & communication!  We know that our efforts must include the whole SEEC community, and that means we need to make clear what we’re doing, especially for our families.  As we continue this journey we’ll need continued buy-in from our faculty and support from our families – we’re not going to get the review of our library done without some assistance from parents! We also want faculty, families, and our Board to all have opportunities to share their perspectives about what’s important for us to consider and prioritize as we continue this journey.  We’ve had one big meeting for our community already this school year, and we anticipate more to come in the next few months.  We want to keep this as an open dialogue that informs our next steps, with the idea that the growth and changes we make now will be lasting, embedded in the fabric of SEEC.  We know we’re not alone in focusing on diversity and equity with young children – many of our early childhood colleagues are similarly working on this, and what we can learn from others is of great importance to us.  We hope that our approach and process might be enlightening for others, so we want to share it.  We’re just at the start of our journey, but we hope you’ll follow along, share insights that would benefit us, and maybe even join us to see how far we can go!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.”

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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!”

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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:

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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.”

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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.”

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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:

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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.”

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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!).”

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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:

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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.”

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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!