At SEEC we believe that young children are capable of understanding complex STEM concepts when taught in engaging and developmentally appropriate ways. A recent study from The Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop and New America, found that while teachers are also excited and capable of teaching STEM skills, they need more knowledge, support, and training to be effective. A policy report from The Early Childhood STEM Working Group states that many educators have STEM anxiety, which can lead to avoidance of STEM teaching, with negative STEM mindsets being unintentionally transferred to students.
Why do early childhood educators have this feeling of inability and uneasiness surrounding STEM? Research illuminates one possible reason: many adults in the United States do not feel that they are knowledgeable enough in STEM subjects. Reflecting from our own experiences lesson planning, we also recognize feeling uncomfortable when the children are curious about a STEM concept we know nothing, or little about. However, at SEEC, we do not believe you have to be an expert in STEM to explore it with the children. After all, early childhood educators are experts in so many areas already: child development, social emotional skills, collaborating with caregivers about behavior challenges, first aid, documenting learning…and the list goes on.
At SEEC we believe in lifelong learning, so when we’re confronted with children’s enthusiasm surrounding a topic we’re unfamiliar with, we see it as an exciting opportunity to seek out new knowledge and model learning for children. To prepare for a new STEM subject we have several tools and strategies:
Community: We talk to colleagues, families, and community members who have an knowledge in the area. This can be a great and authentic way to make home-school connections, or relationships with community members.
Online research: While we research on our own, we also involve the children in this process to build technology competence, as well as inquiry and critical thinking skills. With the younger ages, we might use our class iPads to look up the topic and narrate what we’re seeing with the infants and toddlers while showing them what we’ve found.
Libraries: Often times our teachers will take their class to the library to pick out books related to their topic. If they can’t get to the library with their class, they will look at the library online catalog and choose books together.
Museums: We’re fortunate to be located on the Smithsonian campus, so we utilize the museums to seek out answers to our burning questions. If you’re not located near a museum, we suggest using Smithsonian’s Learning Lab to visit the museum digitally.
Apart from our preparation techniques, we also utilize art and inquiry as a strategy for incorporating STEM into everyday lessons without much prior prep time. We often use artwork related to the STEM topic to practice inquiry and critical thinking. The educator does not necessarily have to know much about the subject matter, but can participate in the question asking and careful looking. This will provide questions that the class would like to research further and can focus your exploration. It’s helpful for the educator leading the group to know where to start with a topic, especially if the topic feels overwhelming.
To support educators outside our school, we share STEAM lessons we have created through our blogs, such as lessons on blood, wrecking balls, butterfly wings, seed dispersal, and more. We also offer Educator Workshops to share our practices, and how to use artwork as a powerful vehicle to develop STEM skills.
Want to learn more? Join us for our educator workshop Full STEAM Ahead on Thursday, February 20th from 4 PM to 7 PM at the National Museum of Natural History.
We take a look back at a blog that we published three years ago around Thanksgiving, hoping it will help educators think about ways they might consider talking about other cultures all year around.
As we discussed in our previous blog, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center have teamed up to provide teachers with a framework for exploring culturally diverse topics in their classrooms. We believe that early childhood educators are in a unique position to craft experiences for young children that will help them appreciate the diverse world around them. We also feel that it is important for children to see themselves reflected in their classroom in order to develop a positive sense of self.
Though we published the first blog just before the Thanksgiving holiday, we specifically wanted to post the follow-up afterwards as a reminder that teachers can explore American Indian culture throughout the school year.
Before we look at the lesson, it is important to note that I had only a week to implement it and I struggled with how to use the limited time frame best with the students. Ultimately, I decided that it was important to begin the lesson with what was familiar to the students and build on that. Had I had the opportunity to continue the lesson, I would have most certainly spent more time exploring Wampanoag culture and ensuring that the children were introduced to the Wampanoags in a contemporary context.
observe natural materials and weather in our own environment and how these elements vary in other environments
demonstrate that not all homes look the same, but all homes do have the job of protecting us.
introducing three different types of American Indian homes and explore the natural materials out of which they are made.
investigate the materials used to construct wetus and how those materials serve as protection against their environment
We began our morning with a visit to the National Mall where we used our senses to explore what was part of our environment. I wrote down the children’s responses and then we headed to the National Gallery of Art where we sat in front of Albert Bierstadt’s Mount Corcoran. Together, we recreated the landscape with representative objects and worked as a group to create a “soundscape.” To create the soundscape, we identified a sound for each element of the landscape. Once complete, we assigned a sound to small groups and then produced our soundscape all-together.
When we were on the Mall, I observed the children were noticing elements of their environment that were man-made, so I thought it was important to use day two’s lesson to distinguish between the natural environment and human-made environment. This discussion transitioned nicely into a conversation about weather, which was another natural component of our environment. We identified different types of weather by making a list and then creating our own weather movements. We watched a weather report and read Sky Tree by Thomas Locker. While we read the book, we paused to use our weather movements when they were mentioned.
Before heading out for the morning, we reviewed the different types of weather and discussed the weather that day. We walked to the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden to visit Roy Lichtenstein’s House I. We spent a few minutes walking around the house and then I asked the students to share what they noticed. Following their observations, I asked them if they thought that the house was a good one. There was a consensus that it would not be a good house to live in because it wasn’t real – it was open on the backside. I agreed that I didn’t think the house was doing what a house or home needed to do. I asked them what homes were for, to which I heard responses like: “to play in, eat in, sleep in.” I agreed and pulled out a blanket – I said the blanket was a lot like a home – it could keep me warm when it was cold, it would keep me dry if it rained. I concluded that both the blanket and the home could protect me from things in my environment.
I asked the group whether they thought that everyone lived in the same type of home. We had a short discussion about what our homes were like, the other educators with us shared that they lived in an apartment. We then began to make a home collage. Students shared photos of their homes and we placed them on large sized paper. I also brought photos of homes from around the world and as we placed them on our collage. When we finished, we discussed the similarities and differences.
I began this class by asking the students about the Thanksgiving holiday that was coming up. Each child excitedly shared what they were planning to do for the holiday. I shared was formed around the idea that two groups of people came together to have a meal. One group had come to America from a place called Europe and another had lived on the land we call America for a very long time. I explained that these people who had been living here for a long time were often referred to as American Indians and that in fact, there are many groups of American Indians. I shared a map and said that each group has their own language, clothing, traditions, and of, course, homes. I also pulled out our sensory bins that were representative of a Eastern coastal environment, a desert environment, and an Arctic environment. We looked at the bins and discussed their physical features and imagined what the weather would feel like. We wondered together whether the homes in these environments would be the same or different.
We then walked to the ImagiNATIONS Activity Center at NMAI and invited them to play in the Native homes area. When we sat down, I asked them what they noticed about the different homes. After sharing their own observations, we talked about how each of these homes came from a different type of environment – a lot like our sensory bins. I brought objects that demonstrated the connection between these homes and their environment. For the iglu, I had a simple bottle of water; for the tipi, I had a photo of a buffalo, and for the adobe house, I had some mud and straw. I shared my objects with each student in the circle and left them with the reminder that Native peoples live in many places throughout the country and their homes tell us a lot about their environment.
On our last day together, I reminded them about that Thanksgiving meal. I said that many people assume that the American Indians who ate with the Europeans during that meal lived in tipis. We paused to recall the tipi we had seen the day before and then I shared with them that the Native peoples who were at the meal so long ago actually lived in wetus and they are called Wampanoags. Using 1621: A New Look at Thanksgivingby Catherine O’Neill Grace, we explored some of the photos of what life for the Wampanoags looked a long time ago. I was careful to note that the photographs were of people pretending to be from a long time. They were helping teach people today about what life was like in the past.
We proceeded to watch parts of this video. We looked at the materials of the winter and summer wetu. We decided that all of the materials were from nature and we took a closer look at cattail reed mat provided by NMAI that would have covered the roof of the summer wetu. We talked about how the rain water would slide off the reeds and keep the house dry. We also blew through the mat so we could feel the way the breeze could come through and help keep the space cool.
We ended our morning by taking a nature walk and collecting materials. We broke out into smaller groups and built houses out of our materials.
In addition to the lessons, the teachers planned the following learning centers for the children to interact with during free-time.
Dramatic Play – Kitchen, office, or playing house
Fine motor – blocks or other loose parts for building (include photos of different types of houses from all over the world)
Environment – This sensory station recreates three different types of environment
North Eastern – Wampanoag – inland/coastal environment with forest, ponds, grass, sand, and water
Choose two others.
Dramatic Play – weatherman
Puzzles and Maps – United States
By no means is the lesson an all-encompassing study of Native Peoples or the Wampanoags, but it is a realistic snapshot of how with a little planning we, as educators, can begin to develop lessons that share more accurate information that help our students see that the world from multiple perspectives. Let us know what you are doing in your classroom to help combat stereotypes and create an inclusive environment.
We’ve all been there. You’re out with your child at the _____(grocery store, restaurant, library, etc.) and your child melts into a ______(screaming, yelling, crying, etc.) puddle on the floor. Over time, SEEC faculty has developed tips and tricks for dealing with the tantrum.
Stop and Drop
Unless the child is in the middle of the street or in immediate danger, we don’t try and push forward with the activity. Stop what you are doing and drop to their level so that you are face to face. This helps the conversation feel more personal and meets children on their level.
It’s easy to get flustered and frustrated when a child is upset and acting out. However, it’s often more effective to remain calm and level headed. Not only is it better for you, but you are modeling the behavior you want to see from the child. We speak slowly in a soft voice, using vocabulary that is age-appropriate and clear. What we say to a toddler might be different than a preschooler. During a tantrum, children’s brains are on over drive, so it’s important to make it easier for them to understand our words. Also, we suggest to children that they take a minute to calm themselves, so that we can better understand their words. Self-soothing is an important skill to learn and we want to give them time and space to figure that out if possible. Since children are unpredictable, it often helps to add extra time to your routine – you will both have a better day if you have time to calm down.
Acknowledge their Feelings
Adults don’t much care for it when they are upset and someone responds to them, “You’re ok!” or “Stop being upset!”? The same is true for children. It’s important to verbally acknowledge when a child is upset. Saying things like “I can see that made you very angry.” or “I know you are upset about…” will help children feel like they are being heard. It may seem little from an adult perspective, but its not for them, When we stop and listen, we are demonstrating behavior that will help them develop into adults who can deal in healthy ways with their emotions.
Pre-Verbal or Limited Language
Young children especially may throw a tantrum because they don’t have the verbal skills yet to communicate effectively. If we saw what they were doing before the meltdown, we start by narrating the preceding events. For example, “I saw you were playing with the toy and a friend took it from you. Is that what is upsetting you?” or “I watched you crawl over there and reach for a book, would you like help getting it.”
Negotiable V. Non-Negotiable
Once you’ve identified and acknowledged a child’s feelings, you still have to grapple with the tantrum trigger. In some situations, it may not be what they want but the way they went about getting your attention that was the problem. In such situations, after the child has calmed down, ask them to re-frame the request. “Can you ask me in a calm way if we can stay and play a little longer.”
Natural consequences can also be easier and more effective than having a power struggle over the tantrum. A child may not want to wear a coat on a chilly day or may insist on wearing a heavy coat in the middle of summer. Children will learn that both scenarios will result in their own discomfort. A smart parenting move is to take the weather appropriate clothing with you, so that another tantrum doesn’t result from that discomfort.
Other times, you may want to offer a child a reasonable choice: “you can’t wear sandals when its snowing, but you can choose between two shoes that you, the adult, deems appropriate for a snowstorm. Again, caregivers should encourage children to use calm and respectful language when making requests.
There will also be times when you simply are not going to give a child their way. Think about crossing the street. A child may refuse to hold your hand and begin to have a tantrum. We’ve all been there, you have 30 seconds to cross and are already running late for work. Your response can be non-negotiable – crossing streets is a safety issue and you need to stick to a schedule. Its ok to let a child be upset. You can give them the choice of holding hands or being picked up, but let them know that safety is first. Its awful to hear a child screaming, but using a calm voice and acknowledging their feelings is sometimes all that you can do. Remember, children also need to learn to cope with disappointment and frustration and a situation like this, is part of their learning journey.
At the end of the day these tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development. Although challenging, try not to feel like other’s are judging you. Chances are they have been through a similar experience with a child at some point. You are an expert on your child and ultimately know their personality better than a stranger does.
Keep an eye out for another upcoming blog on calming strategies or take a look back at 10 Tips and Tricks to help you both make it through the challenging moments.
Have something that works well for you and your family? If so, PLEASE share below. We are always grateful to be able to learn from each other!
“Teacher Feature: Infant Class Explores Farm to Table” was originally published on January 4, 2018. We are posting it again to help people embrace teaching farm to table units.
This week’s teacher feature highlights one of our infant classes. The teachers in the class, Mallory Messersmith, Morgan Powell, and Rosalie Reyes, were inspired by National Farm to School Month to lead their class on a month-long exploration of food and community. For this outing, the class went to the United States Department of Agriculture Farmers Market to learn about locally sourced fruits and vegetables. Below you will find images from the lesson and reflections from Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie.
Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie were then inspired to create a unit around the idea of farm to school because of the many diverse areas of exploration that the study of fruits and vegetables offered their class, including colors, shapes, and textures. Additionally, they noticed that many of their students were starting to eat new solid foods. They sought to align their lessons in the classroom with the developmental milestones the children were experiencing regarding eating new foods.
To begin preparing for their unit, Morgan, Mallory, and Rosalie chose a collection of art prints and created their own works of art to post throughout their classroom. They paid special consideration to their students’ cubbies where they posted images of fruits and vegetables. Mallory even crocheted fruits and vegetables to add to the classroom. Since many children in their class were actively learning to crawl, the teachers taped images to ground for their class to explore while on the move. They also researched and chose children’s books to add to their classroom collection and brainstormed which produce to highlight with the class.
The class explored most of the produce using sight, touch, smell, and sound. The children were able to use their sense of taste when interacting with the avocados and strawberries for a more immersive experience. For both strawberries and avocados, the children looked at and touched images of the produce. They then compared the images to the real produce before and after it was cut up. Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie believed that it was important for the children to be able to make connections between the whole product, which the children do not always see, and the cut up portions that the children regularly eat at snack time. To finish the experience, the class had the opportunity to sample! The strawberries were a big hit, but many students were a little more cautious about the avocado. This immersive, multisensory experience left the children with a greater understanding of the food that they eat.
The teachers also combined this multisensory teaching approach with thinking routines including See, Think, Wonder to encourage curiosity and new understandings. Since many of their infants were preverbal, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie would verbalize out loud the different things that they saw, thought, and wondered while the children in their class were exploring the various fruits and vegetables. The teachers were careful to keep in mind that this might be the first time that their class had been exposed to many of the images and objects and allowed time for the infants to experience and make discoveries. One particularly fun lesson that built upon the multisensory and thinking routine approaches, was when the infants were exploring the red cabbage. As the children were bending, breaking, smelling, and feeling the texture of the cabbage, Morgan began to read Eating the Alphabet by Lois Ehlert. As she read, she asked questions about the colors, textures, and sounds that the class heard when they were peeling the leaves of the cabbage.
Mallory, Morgan and Rosalie chose to visit the USDA’s farmers market in part because of its accessibility, since it is just off the National Mall and not far from their classroom. They also wanted to embrace the community aspects of the visit, as the farmers market is a great place for people to gather. This community space has picnic blankets and open space for people (including this class) to sit, gather, and reflect on the experience of being at the farmers market. It was a perfect fit for this lesson because it encouraged the children to make connections between the familiar foods that the class eats every day and the less familiar, whole, unprocessed, muddy foods that they saw at the market. Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie brought objects with them to enhance this community visit, including soft and hard toy fruits and vegetables and a board book to read to the group.
At SEEC, teachers regularly take their classes on museum visits where they connect ideas that they are learning about in the classroom with museum objects. They often extend their lessons beyond the museum doors while still using the same techniques that they used on the community visits.
When asked to explain why it is important to take infants on community and museum visits, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie cited this quotation:
“Our connections to the people, animals, and plants around us make us who we are. Humans are not a solitary species; we need one another to survive. In the same way that children need opportunities to get to know the natural world so that they can develop a strong relationship with it, they need that same opportunity to connect with the human and human-made community that they are a part of. When children develop a strong relationship with their community at an early age, they grow up knowing and feeling a strong sense of belonging.”
While strolling through the People’s Garden, the class paused for a moment and reached to grab handfuls of soil. This part of the lesson was actually completely spontaneous! The teachers noticed students pointing towards the ground and saw it as an opportunity to follow their curiosity and facilitate hands-on learning. Through these early experiences with soil, children learn that soil is a living system full of healthy and fascinating relationships. The educators were also able to connect back to soil later during the visit by pointing out dirt on some of the produce the children were examining at the Farmers Market.
While exploring the butternut squash, the children not only touched the smooth sides, but also noticed how the textures of the squash changed as Rosalie rotated it. When she turned the squash on its side, the children immediately reached out to touch the small, dry area of the squash. Even though the children could not talk yet, the teachers, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie, were able to follow each child’s nonverbal cues. The teachers paid special attention to the things the children were pointing to, the changes in their facial expressions, and their use of sign language. In fact, throughout the lesson the children regularly signed “more” as they moved from one booth to another, signaling that they wanted to explore different types of produce. When the children signed “more”, it helped Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie know that the children were enjoying their visit and wanted to continue.
Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie were so excited to take their class to the farmers market because this was their first trip outside as a group! The teachers had spent the month hoping that they could visit the farmers market for this unit and on the last Friday of the month they were able to make it work! Even the journey to the Market was exciting for the students; they experienced the sights and sounds of a beautiful autumn day outside in Washington, DC. The class noticed squirrels, fall foliage, and insects on the trip across the National Mall. Once the class arrived at the market, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie were happy to see their students so engaged with a variety of produce. They also embraced the unplanned moments, including feeling the dirt and meeting a big, fluffy dog which made their outing extra special.
After the visit to the vendors at the market, the class gathered on the grass near the market. As part of the Friday Farmers market, the grassy area has lawn games set up as well as communal picnic blankets, which the class used for their outdoor story time. The teachers made sure that each child was engaged by offering them toys from the classroom and produce that they had recently purchased from the market.
Once everyone was settled in, the class looked at some pages in a book and sang a variety of songs. They sang a variety of autumnal songs that the music teacher, Ms. Allison, had introduced to the class during October. One song was about a pumpkin, big and round; another song was about autumn leaves falling down. They sang the pumpkin song as the children touched the pumpkin. As children began venturing off their blanket and started to explore the leaves they found on the ground, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie sang the autumn leaves song. It was clear that the children enjoyed the songs as they rocked their bodies to the beat and even clapped along.
Since their class is composed of young children, much of the beginning of the year is focused on learning and supporting each individual child’s feeding and resting schedule. This complicates finding time to go on outings. However, when the opportunity arises to go on a trip, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie, jump on it, as they know the benefits of getting their class out of the classroom for experiential learning.
When thinking about what the class could have done differently, Mallory, Morgan, and Rosalie thought it would have been nice to bring food for their class to eat while on the picnic blankets. They explained that bringing food to taste would have enhanced their class’ experience beyond seeing and feeling by adding the sense of taste.
After the visit, the class continued to build upon what they had experienced that day. The children decorated canvas bags which would be perfect to take to the Farmers Market for shopping. To decorate, the children mixed and splattered paint with their hands, feet, and brushes. At the end of October, the bags were sent home with a small gourd inside. It was a great way to finish off the month!
Today we’re featuring kindergarten teachers Cathryn Prudencio and Sharon Jensen. The class has been exploring dinosaurs, and I joined them for a lesson at the National Museum of Natural History that answered the question, “How do dinosaurs get to the museum?” Below you will find images from the lesson, as well as reflections from Cathryn and Sharon.
When the kindergarten class needs to pick a new topic to study, the children always start out by answering the question “What would you like to learn about?” in their journals. Then the students draw what they are interested in. We also explore different ideas for topics throughout the year, and when it’s time for a new topic we brainstorm ideas as a group. We vote to narrow the choices down to the top three or four, and then vote again for our final topic. This way we make sure that the students are truly involved in choosing what they will be learning about, and they are satisfied that it was a decision made fairly. This is how we ended up doing a unit on dinosaurs as our last unit before the kindergartners graduated.
The objective of this lesson was to deepen the understanding of what a paleontologist does on a dig, and what tools and procedures are used. We used the pictures hanging up in the exhibit to support what we were talking about, and to help the children think about what was needed for the dig. We also used the objects on display to talk about the materials needed and how they were used, supporting this with objects passed around for the children to see and hold. Doing this, we not only reinforced information from a previous lesson, but we also prepared the children for their own miniature dig in the museum.
Something that surprised us during the lesson was how the children really took turns and then worked together on the “dig site” in the museum space. Sometimes they get so excited about an activity that it can be hard for them to be patient and wait their turn.
The most ineffective part of our lesson was most likely the read aloud. Even though it explained the process of getting the dinosaur bones from the discovery part to the display in the museum, and all the people involved in the process, it was rather long and made our lesson longer. By the time we finished the story, the children had been sitting for some time. However, this was okay because we already talked about the process so much and the people involved, that it was a way to reinforce what we were teaching. Even though the read aloud was very long, we were still surprised at how well they stayed engaged and listening.
In the beginning, when putting the puzzle together, the children were super excited, but that soon faded when they were trying to figure out which piece went where. Again this was okay, because they did try and got pretty far with it. Eventually they just lost interest.
Later in the classroom, we left the section of the museum for the children to play with. On their own they created several additional sections of the museum using Legos, dinosaurs and some blocks. It took up the entire table and throughout the week there were more additions. Written labels the children made to identify objects, for example, and more “tourists” made from Legos were added to see the “exhibit.” It was awesome!
After exploring dinosaurs it was time for our kindergartners to graduate! For more dinosaur ideas, visit our dinosaur Pinterest board.
If you visit our toddler and twos classes you are bound to hear joyful voices singing songs as they begin their morning routine. The classes sing hello to each student, use songs during their morning circles, and to help ease transitions throughout their day. While a chorus of young voices is undeniably sweet and fun, their singing is helping to set a strong academic foundation by strengthening the children’s pre-literacy skills.
Songs & Vocabulary
When children hear a song, they are exposed to new words. The words that young children hear, whether spoken or sung, are the words that form their vocabulary. The repetitive nature of many song lyrics, combined with the fact that children are likely to hear the same song many times, gives them the opportunity to fully learn new words. Later in their academic lives, this understanding of a variety of words will help with their ability to read and their overall reading comprehension.
Songs, Sounds, Rhymes
For very young children, listening to songs exposes them to the many different sounds that make up our words. As you sing a song, you emphasize certain sounds and by doing so, you highlight the building blocks of our language. Singing gives the youngest children the opportunity to mimic and communicate with these sounds in a way that is ideal for toddlers. When singing, they are given the freedom to be loud, let their voices ring, and play with sounds. Additionally, a child whose words often slur together or who regularly skips words while speaking is often able to sing a tune in such a way that an adult will know what they are singing. This can hold true even in cases where the adult is not able to understand many of the individual words being sung. Children rely on the sounds they learned while singing when they start sounding out words and when they are developing the ability to read.
As young children develop pre-literacy skills, they begin to have the ability to rhyme. Singing songs such as Willoughby Wallaby Woo, Down by the Bay, and Silly Nilly Name Song allow children to explore rhyming sounds while singing. Pausing before you say the rhyming word can give the children the chance to fill it in, which helps children progress from hearing rhymes to creating their own rhymes. These singing games can provide hours of entertainment while challenging young children to explore sounds and rhymes.
Songs, Symbols, & Letter Recognition
A crucial component of learning to read is recognizing that the letter “m” means the sound “mmm”. In order to learn this, children must first understand the use of symbols, because the letter “m” is a symbol for the sound “mmm”. Children begin recognizing symbols well before they are ready to read and symbol recognition is considered an important pre-literacy skill. While using songs to help children understand letters may seem unlikely, song cards offer the ideal opportunity to pair singing with symbol recognition.
Songs cards are images that are used to represent or be a symbol for a particular songs. For example, an image of a sun might be used to represent Mr. Sun and a star might be used to represent Twinkle, Twinkle. When using song cards, make sure that image is large, engaging and/or colorful. Also be sure that the images are double sided and laminated for durability. Then dramatically spread the song cards out in the middle of the circle and encourage the class to explore the cards. As they pick up the images, sing the corresponding song. Over time, children will learn that specific images represent their favorite songs and will go out of their way to find these images. Young children love using these song cards because it helps them to communicate what songs they want to sing without having to come up with the name of the song or even the tune. In essence, song cards help young children to learn about symbols in a way that is appealing to them by helping to fulfill their need to communicate their wants and desires.
“How Books Help Young Children Develop From Head to Toe” was originally published on November 19, 2017. We are posting it in celebration of our up coming professional development workshop Emergent Literacy using Objects on November 21, 2019.
This week’s blog is written by Melinda Bernsdorf. Melinda has been working in the classroom with toddlers and twos for a decade and strongly believes in the magic of a good book. She studied Developmental Psychology and Learning at St. Joseph’s University and was an educator at SEEC from 2014 – 2018. When traveling, she always brings home a children’s book (or two!) to add to her library. For this blog, she drew on her experiences as a toddler teacher to write about books and how they can help children develop physical skills.
Children’s literature is so fantastic with funny stories, catchy rhyme schemes, and interesting information presented in novel ways. Educators and researchers often praise children’s books, citing their importance in supporting vocabulary development, but children’s books can also meet developmental needs of infants and toddlers beyond language acquisition. These other developmental domains, such as motor skills, are often overlooked when talking about the importance of providing literature to young children. Although it may seem counterintuitive, when young children engage with books, they are also engaging their bodies in ways that help them grow physically.
When our toddlers begin the school year, they devote a lot of their resources to the development of their emerging physical skills. It takes a lot of energy and hard work to figure out the complex series of muscle movements needed to walk, climb the stairs, hold a peer’s hand, or interact physically with another toddler. In one of our toddler classes, we used Eric Carle’s From Head to Toe as a platform for our students to work on these physical skills in meaningful and enjoyable ways while also integrating vocabulary and early literacy skills in our lessons. Our class was so inspired by this book, that we decided to create a unit that focused on body movement and used the book as jumping off point.
Toddlers are intrinsically drawn to the repetition of a familiar and beloved book. Their interest in multiple exposures provides opportunities to increase their knowledge and contextual understanding of the new vocabulary. Additionally, these multiple exposures allow children to mirror and repeatedly practice movements depicted in the images of the book. Often these movements link directly to physical skills that toddlers are working on mastering. The book, From Head To Toe, was a great fit for developing physical skills because of its simple, repetitive narrative that drew in our students, and for its playful directives that allowed each child to practice moving their individual body parts like each animal. We decided to create a unit using From Head To Toe that focused on one body part each week. Using the book as a starting off point, we were able to explore how we can use our arms and hands, legs and feet, and head and neck.
First, we set up the room to give our students many opportunities to freely play and explore the book and concepts we were covering. We had copies of the board book on the bookshelf and a bulletin board showing each animal. We moved the climber directly below the bulletin board to both give them access to the board, enticing them to practice physically going up and down the stairs, and to encourage them to extend their hands to touch the pictures.
During circle time, our toddlers held photographs of animals’ feet, legs, knees, and toes, as they were encouraged to bend their own knees, wiggle their own toes, and kick their own feet. They gained mastery over their actions in a controlled manner, while also increasing their ability to sit in one place for an extended period. This helped them to expand their capability to focus on one thing, which is very different kind of physical work for toddlers.
In our classroom, we invited our students to continue using their arms and hands in meaningful ways with art activities and sensory choices that connected to From Head to Toe. They loved waving their arms like a monkey while throwing the paper packing material in the air!
We did not just focus on gross motor movements, but spent time finding, identifying, and moving our facial features. We also practiced the small muscle movements that are involved in communication by smiling, frowning, and using our mouths to form different sounds.
We also brought the book into the museum, stomping our feet alongside an elephant, clapping our hands next to a seal, and bending our necks with a giraffe.
Across these lessons and experiences, the constant was Eric Carle’s book. We referred back to the work, over and over again, not only because our students loved it and asked for it (which they did!), but because we could offer them the chance to work on the difficult physical tasks of developing new motor skills, without asking them to shift their attention and devote resources to a new topic of exploration. By choosing an age-appropriate, well loved book, we were able to extend our students’ focus, offering them meaningful learning opportunities in multiple disciplines while they were engaged and having fun. We allowed them to do the hard, physical work of being a toddler in a way that was exciting, enticing, and very enjoyable.
As is often the case I was scrolling through SEEC’s Twitter feed one morning on the metro and I came across an article from Scientific American entitled, How to Prime Preschoolers for Success. The article focuses on a few key points:
Preschools should focus less on memorization of letters and numbers.
Conversations build language skills and that aids in future academic achievement.
Programs that support executive functioning skills like multi-tasking, impulse control, and focus also support children academically and socially.
I am always looking for articles that reflect our practice, but truth be told it can often be difficult because of our unique setting. In fact, even after working at SEEC for seven years I often find it difficult to articulate to those who aren’t in early childhood what SEEC does and why it’s so valuable to young children. This article really spoke to me and got me excited about how well aligned our approach is to the research.
The article highlights Tools of the Mind a curriculum that, in preschool, centers around play.
In a Tools PreK classroom, a play theme unifies the room. The year begins with adaptable play themes close to children’s lives, and over the course of the year, as children’s levels of make-believe play, self-regulation and executive functions develop, the play themes develop as well.
Researchers who have studied Tools suggest that children performed better on executive function tasks than those in schools who did not use it. The research suggests that these results were likely tied to the fact that children are able to play and therefore, have to plan (in fact, with Tools they actually formally plan their play), collaborate, and problem-solve. And in addition to practicing these important skills, the play itself is innately interesting to a child and therefore, they are more engaged.
At SEEC, we think similarly about play and engagement. Our faculty finds creative ways to incorporate play in museum settings. For toddlers, we may bring toy airplanes to accompany us on a trip to the National Air and Space Museum. For preschoolers, we may pretend to build a campfire in front of a painting that looks like a good campsite.
The article talks about the importance of choice noting a 2018 study from the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology that suggests a correlation between autonomy and executive function skills. While SEEC does not utilize the Montessori-style activities as referenced in the article, we do think choice is extremely important. In fact, we follow an emergent curriculum and observe the children in play and conversation, using these interactions as to inspire classroom themes and activities. It is also part of our daily routines, faculty empower students to make personal choices and gain independence in their self-care. And though we often work on a tight schedule because of our museum model, we emphasize choice as much as possible in other areas, like art-making, play, and in the formation of classroom rules and routines.
Perhaps the part of the article that was most exciting was its insight into the importance of conversations:
“…a higher quality and quantity of children’s turn-taking conversations helps them build their oral language skills, laying a foundation for reading and writing.”
Conversation is one of the cornerstones of our practice. Even with our infants, you will observe faculty engaging in conversation. They do not simply speak at them, they watch for clues and respond to infants and toddlers in a respectful way that builds their understanding of vocabulary and concepts. By preschool, we see children having turn-taking conversations in the classroom and the museum. Many of our faculty members employ modified thinking routines from Project Zero or looking strategies commonly used in museum education. It is during these conversations that we observe children not only using language skills, but also practicing focus and self-regulation. Because they are also actively involved in the conversations (i.e. truly be listened to and shaping the conversation itself) they are naturally more engaged and likely to learn.
This type of rich conversation doesn’t have to take place in museums only. Educators can do this through dialogic reading, the use of objects in the classroom, the natural environment or by using museum resources. In fact, this combination of book, object, and visual can be highly effective. But as the article mentions, educators need to be trained to be effective. Its not always easy allowing for autonomy while also supporting a calm environment in which children can be heard.
As our understanding of teaching and learning grows, I hope that preschools will move away from models focused strictly on rote memorization. At SEEC, we hope to help educators see how they can support rich learning environments in and out of the classroom while allowing for choice and play. Reciting your ABC’s and counting to 10 are important skills for preschoolers, but with the properly trained educators we can help plant the seeds for children who will be successful leaders, collaborators, and problem-solvers.
New addition to the family and desperate to get out? Why not grab your infant carrier and take your baby to a museum? Museums are quiet, climate controlled, and full of visual stimuli for you and baby to explore. And now, more and more museums are specifically catering to this audience. Our neighbors on the National Mall are becoming more and more family friendly. A great way to find out about family friendly events is to visit the Smithsonian’s event calendar and select the Kids and Family category.
You don’t need a special event to visit with your baby though. Below, you’ll find reasons why we think exploring a museum with your baby is awesome and our suggestions on how to have a successful visit with your youngest family member.
Museums are quiet. Sometimes quieter than your home which will translate to a calm soothing environment for you and baby.
This is a great place for you both to learn. For adults, you are able to read exhibit labels and increase your visual literacy. For babies, a museum provides an opportunity to receive great visual stimulation from the objects while also learning to adapt to new environments. In addition, they are also building vocabulary as you describe what they are seeing (more details below).
Lots of Places to Sit
There are usually lots of places for you and baby to sit and take a break. If a museum doesn’t have many benches, they will often provide gallery stools (just ask at reception). Take baby out of the carrier or stroller and find a spot to sit and spend some time looking at the art.
If you live in or near D.C., museums are free. This means you can spend as much or as little time in the museum as you want. There is no need to feel guilty if you only last 20 minutes. Talk about budget friendly!
The temperature in a museum is always just right. Summers and winters are brutal and often limit a new parent’s ability to organize an outing with their child. Museums offer large temperature-controlled environments for you and baby to shed layers on cold days or to cool down during hot summer weather.
Food and Coffee
Museums are one stop shops. There is usually a café attached so you don’t have to transition or travel to a new space for a beverage or a meal.
Museums offer lots of space for movement. Babies like to be on the go and museum galleries are great places for a stroll while you both are also actively learning and looking. You could also park the stroller and lay out a blanket to allow baby to get in some tummy time near an exciting object in the gallery. If you are not feeling comfortable doing this in the gallery, try starting in a common space like a courtyard or in the lobby. The National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum have a wonderful space for this type of activity in their sunny covered central lobby.
Pick the Right Museum
When possible, start by visiting a museum with which you are familiar and comfortable. Being able to navigate the space easily will reduce the stress of taking your baby out on this type of adventure for the first time. Knowing the width of hallways and where the elevators are located will enable you to relax and enjoy exploring this new environment. In addition, it is important to choose a collection that is engaging for both you and your child. A museum of miniatures might be great for a solo adult visit, but would probably be too small for your baby’s field of vision. We recommend galleries with large graphic objects for babies.
Make it Social
Grab another caregiver to join you on your visit. This will allow your babies to have new social interactions and provide you time to hit a short pause on the baby talk and also enjoy some adult conversations.
Set Up a Timeline
Plan to visit the museum during a time you think you and your child might enjoy it the most. Even if your child ends up sleeping through the whole event, they are still absorbing the environment and learning from that experience.
Let Go (Babies make sounds, it’s ok!)
While museums prefer that sound is kept to a level that allows all patrons enjoy the objects, this does not mean that visitors need to be silent. Patrons and museum staff understand that babies make sounds, and may get upset and cry. It’s ok! Try not to spend the whole time worrying about it. Instead, understand their coos and chirps as part of your ongoing dialogue as you explore the galleries.
Narrate to Baby
This is a great habit to incorporate throughout your daily routine, but especially in the museum. Babies may not be able to respond with words, but your new baby is listening and picking up language and verbal skills from your dialogue. Since babies’ eyes may not yet be able to see all the sharp details of the objects, it is important to describe the works so you can help them better “visualize” the museum’s collection.
Bring Hands on Materials
To enable children to develop deeper connections with what they are seeing, bring something along that relates to the object, with which they can interact. For example, if you are going to a natural history museum bring along some faux fur or snake skin so that they can touch these materials while observing the creatures in the animal hall. This allows the object to come “out from behind the glass” and interact with the child.
Attend a Baby Museum Class
Not ready to head out on your own? Try joining a baby in museum program at a local museum. If you’re in D.C., check out SEEC’s Bring Your Own Baby infant program: here . During this guided visit you’ll join other families with new babies and explore the galleries with an engaging and supportive educator. By the end you’ll feel excited and empowered to take independent museum explorations with your baby!
This week’s teacher feature shows how one of SEEC’s toddlers classes explored caterpillars and butterflies by reading books, looking at sculptures in the Smithsonian Pollinator Garden, and pretending to be butterflies by wearing wings and flapping arms. Below you will find images from the lesson as well as reflections from the educators, Nuriya Gavin, Stephanie Lopez, and Julia Smith.
We were transitioning from a unit on construction and building to a unit on animals. A couple of weeks before this lesson, we had explored the idea that animals build different types of homes for themselves. For our lesson, we explored butterflies and talked about the process of a caterpillar building a chrysalis and becoming a butterfly.
In addition to connecting to the idea of animals as builders, we were drawn to learning about bugs and insects because the weather had been getting warmer and we were seeing more bugs out. We started eating snack outside and would see ants and other bugs as we ate. The children were also fascinated by the worms and grubs they dug up in the dirt box on the playground.
For objectives, we were hoping to show the children that some animals and bugs build homes by focusing on the caterpillar building a chrysalis. We wanted to introduce children to the life stages of the butterfly and help them to gain an understanding that even though the caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly all look different, they are the same organism. Lastly, we wanted for our class to experience an outdoor butterfly habitat and have the opportunity to hunt for bugs while outside.
As a toddler class, we keep our circle times short but engaging. We typically start by asking the children what they already know about the topic we are going to explore. Then we will give them some new information usually using a book or video. In this instance, we talked about the bugs we were already familiar with and liked hunting for before turning our attention to butterflies. We discussed butterflies as we read The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. We picked this book because of its big format and interactive design. We had butterfly puppets which we used to demonstrate how a butterfly moves. Knowing that some of our children get nervous around flying bugs, we wanted to give our children the opportunity to explore the toy butterflies before experiencing the real thing. To finish the circle time, we gave the children a chance to move their bodies and flap their arms like wings.
For our museum outing, we chose to visit the wooden sculptures that are part of the new HABITAT installation. These caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly sculptures happen to be in the Pollinator Garden which is an area that we frequent. We often walk through the garden on our way to other visits and take the opportunity to check out the flowers and watch them grow, as well as look for bugs such as bumblebees. We noticed the new installation popping up around the Smithsonian museums and the National Mall. We were excited to make use of the new sculptures and very happy that we could tie it right in with our lessons!
In general, when we approach objects, we let the children look at them and explore them individually at first before explaining the purpose of our visit. This allows the children to form their own ideas and experience a deeper understanding. In this case, when we let the children look at the wooden sculptures of the butterfly, caterpillar, and chrysalis, it triggered their imagination. They began flapping their arms like wings which reinforced the simple but important concepts that butterflies have wings, that they can fly, and that the movement of the wings is called flapping.
We encouraged the children to flap their arms like wings because from a practical point of view the children in our class can only sit or stand quietly for so long before they really need to move their bodies. So, we found a nice contained space within the garden where the children could continue pretending to be butterflies. Children this age need very concrete reminders of their physical boundaries. The stone bench that encircled this area was perfect for defining boundaries and freed us to engage even more actively in the play because we didn’t have to worry about the children running off.
We found it useful to both observe and actively join in on play. Sometimes watching gives us a better idea of what children are thinking as they play. For example, Julia watched the children starting to crawl along the benches pretending to be caterpillars. As she watched, she thought that they might be interested in exploring how a caterpillar becomes a butterfly so she pretended to curl up into a chrysalis and burst out like a butterfly. This was the perfect way to teach the children about one of our more complicated subjects – the idea that the caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly are all the same organism. Pretending to be the caterpillar, then forming the chrysalis, and finally emerging as a butterfly helped the children to realize that it was the same animal going through different stages. Since the children were partaking in free play, Julia opted to jump right into the play by physically pretending to be a caterpillar going through a metamorphosis. She provided the example and the children were able to decide if they wanted to join in going through the stages or if they wanted to continue with their free play.
To follow up this lesson, we continued to learn about different bugs. When we learned about worms, we talked about how caterpillars and worms are different because worms don’t have legs. While playing with model magic, some of the children decided that they wanted to make caterpillars, so we talked about how caterpillars move. Since they had many questions and seemed curious, we watched a few videos showing caterpillars moving, eating and transforming into a chrysalis and butterfly.
For other teachers trying out this lesson, we recommend really thinking about physical outdoor spaces that you could use for free play. We don’t think our lesson would have gone as well if we hadn’t had a safe space to allow the kids to play for a long time. In a more open environment, we would likely have cut the play much shorter as the kids got more excited and wanted to run and spread out. Play always works best when everyone, children and teachers, are comfortable.
If we had the opportunity to do this lesson over again, we would have incorporated the milkweed that we saw in the pollinator garden and tied it into the lesson plan more thoughtfully. We could have spent some time talking about monarch butterflies and exploring their unique relationship with the milkweed plant. It also would have been nice if we had seen more actual butterflies or caterpillars, but that is harder to plan.