For many families engaging in virtual learning the delineation between home and school has all but disappeared. Our preschool teachers thought it be helpful to share a few things about how we set up and implement different strategies in our SEEC classrooms. The tools we use at school may also be helpful for establishing routines and daily schedules at home and most strategies are easy to adapt! Today we’ll share some specific techniques about how we set up our school environment to help young children gain independence and success.
Cozy Corner/Safe Space:
Cozy corners provide a safe space for children to go and are needed now more than ever. They help children to regulate their emotions by taking space and time to process. At SEEC, different classrooms set up their cozy corners differently, but they all serve the same purpose. Here is a list of items that might be in a cozy corner:
Calming pictures, like photos family or a favorite place
Labels have a several benefits. First, they help make clean up quicker! When shelves, containers, and or cabinets are labeled, children can figure out where things go on their own. Labels also help children develop their pre-literacy skills; they reinforce the idea that words have meaning. They can be handwritten or printed, as long as your child knows what they are. If you can use images of the actual object, that can be helpful. In the classroom, we label as much as we can including the following:
Containers for toys and the shelves they go on
Sink, soap dispenser
We try to use photo instructions whenever possible. While children can’t read written instructions, they can follow photo instructions. Photo instructions are step by step instructions using images to cue the children.
Using photo instructions: Go over them with your child first. Say the steps as you point to the images. Over time, remind your child to follow the pictures when they need help. Eventually, they will feel confident using the image all on their own. Photo instructions are helpful in the bathroom, for getting dressed, for getting ready to go outside, and more!
Making your own: For these, we try to use real images of the children doing the actions in the instructions, but you can use clip art images, hand drawn images, or whatever you have on hand. Just make sure that you go over them with your child before implementing them.
Tools for Children at Their Level
Young children are learning to establish their independence and providing them with opportunities to exercise that independence is important. In order to facilitate those opportunities, we place the tools they need in spots where children can access them. By providing them with that space and those tools you are showing them that this is a job meant for them!
For example, later in the year we will have friends help set up for lunch. This means putting out the placemats, utensils, plates, cups and napkins. We make sure these are in a low place so they can access so they can have the independence to take on the job themselves. Children also start to help clean up after themselves by stacking chairs and cleaning spills.
Take Your Time
This is a very trying time for families with young children. While we offer these ideas to help with structure in your home, finding time to implement them can be hard. Try doing one strategy a month, or whatever timeframe works for you. Caregivers are doing the impossible right now – you’re doing great!
Similarly to most schools in the world, SEEC was thrown a huge curveball in March when we closed the doors to our centers and embarked on a virtual journey with the youngest of children. Faculty and families alike worked to find best practices for our children to maintain relationships and engagement while connecting through a screen. Much of our philosophy focuses on experiencing the world in person with strong social interactions, so we wrestled with how this would translate to a whole new platform. Like many others dealing with this new normal, we have been actively trying out new strategies and assessing their success as we go. We wanted to share our successes, failures, and reflections from the past five months through a blog series. Below are some of the themes we will expand on in the coming weeks.
Create a Routine
Children thrive when they have a routine. Knowing what is coming next gives children a sense of control and comfort especially in the midst of a sudden, major, lifestyle change. So it’s not surprising that our faculty found it helpful to outline the plan of the day at the start of each lesson. In addition, our teachers often began each session in the same way, for example, singing a hello song, or doing some deep breathing, and ended in the same way. These subtle cues helped children adjust to adapt to the new “classroom”
While we may all be physically apart from each other, we still need to connect with our community through authentic interactions. We’ve had other school community members join video calls to share their expertise in a topic that the class is learning about. For example, one of our preschool classes was learning about gardening and produce. One of our toddler educators is a gardener and was able to join them from her home and share some of her plants and tools with them. Other ways to connect to the community include sharing related videos and images of community members and safe, nearby, locations that families could visit.
Make it Silly
Life is challenging right now, for parents, teachers, kids, everyone. Our faculty wanted to lighten the mood, so they kept the silliness and fun flowing even while virtual. Some silly strategies they employ are creating characters who appear on the video calls, playing music and having a virtual dance party, and having a week of theme days such as crazy hair day or dress like your favorite book character day.
In addition to needing to keep the silliness, our faculty also quickly recognized the children’s need for plain, simple, social interaction. Some of our preschool classes began having virtual snack time where children signed on and ate their snack and chatted together like they would at school. This has become very popular among the children and it often lasts far longer than the teachers anticipate!
Strong relationships are essential to meaningful learning experiences in early childhood. While more difficult to foster through screens, it is possible! Besides one-on-one video calls between teachers and students, our faculty incorporates photos of the children in their lesson presentation. The children love to see themselves in the presented topic, and are able to reflect on past learning. Each of our classes also has a shared photo album where families can upload photos from the week. This allows children to see each others’ learning and feel a connection with their peers.
A cornerstone of our practice is the use of objects to teach children. We often venture into the museums to observe and learn about artifacts or artworks related to our curriculum, but we also frequently use everyday objects and find that they’re also a powerful tool. While we’re away from the museum, teachers have asked children to bring their own easily accessible objects to the class, which has served several purposes. First, children became more invested in the session because they had something to share to the experience. Having an object also allows for tactile learning that is so important in early childhood when a teacher cannot physically facilitate that from a screen. Sharing objects also allows children to see the variation and nuances of a theme or concept, expanding their view of the world.
We’re taking everything we’ve learned and incorporating it into Virtual Family Workshops this fall. To learn more and register, check our Family Workshops page. Also, be sure to check back for more blogs expanding on the above themes.
This post was written by Maureen Leary, Director of Toddler and Kindergarten Programs
Value of Virtual
When the Smithsonian closure due to Coronavirus health concerns was announced in mid-March, none of us had a clear sense of how long it would last. Once it became obvious that it was going to be more than a few weeks, SEEC faculty immediately transitioned to conducting distance learning through online platforms. Teaching young children this way is neither ideal nor intuitive, but we knew we needed to quickly develop these skills to better support our families. At SEEC we believe it’s important for us to offer virtual interactions for a number of reasons. It provides personal connections during a time when we can’t experience them directly; it offers an anchor point for themes and topics that families can explore in their own way and on their own time; it inserts some amount of structure into the days and weeks that have been completely upended; it allows children to retain a level of comfort and familiarity with peers and educators during what has turned into an extended closure with no definitive end.
The Challenges of Virtual
Many families are craving the connections and routines that suddenly disappeared from our lives, and appreciate the opportunity to see each other virtually. That said, we also know that consistently participating in these interactions can sometimes be a challenge. Maybe your child is tired, hungry, grumpy, or just uninterested. It could be that you have a work conflict and you can’t prioritize your child’s meeting over your own. Perhaps you’re feeling overstretched and just don’t want to add one more thing to your day. Skipping your child’s scheduled activity might cause feelings of guilt and worry, and cause you to wonder if it’s ok to be missing these online interactions. At SEEC our answer is always an emphatic yes. We encourage families to follow their children’s leads on what helps the day go smoothly for them. It might be that they’d rather go outside during a virtual circle time, or that they just have no interest in it at all. Maybe they refuse to talk or get frustrated with how the conversation goes. All of this is developmentally appropriate and totally ok. Enrichment can be found in so many ways, in moments small and large, and doesn’t always have to be carefully orchestrated. What’s really important right now is that all of us, children and adults, feel cared for and supported.
Tips for Virtual
If you do choose to participate in an online “circle” here are some helpful hints compiled from conversations we have been having with our SEEC community.
Some children are camera-shy. Don’t insist that they talk or even appear on the screen. Giving them repeated exposure to the format and letting them develop comfort with it at their own pace is likely to increase their participation. And if it doesn’t, that’s ok, too!
If your child is reluctant to talk but does want to be included, suggest they give a virtual high-five or a thumbs up as a way to connect with others.
Check with your child’s teachers about scheduling some one-on-one screen time. Even just 10 minutes of individual attention this way can pay big dividends.
Some families have found it’s easiest to pair distance learning with snack time, so the child is staying in one place and not becoming distracted by other surroundings.
Alternatively, if the weather’s nice and it’s hard to be inside, try bringing your screen outside and participating that way. We’ve seen toddlers actively engage in circle time while also riding a tricycle down the street!
One final, related note: a recurring concern with the current environment is that young children are getting more screen time than is recommended. This is an issue we are always thinking about, and while we agree it’s best to limit screen time for young children, we do believe that distance learning offers important benefits, especially as we practice social distancing. At SEEC, we generally advocate for the limited use of screens when they are a single element of a larger, interactive experience. Of course, there may be families who opt out entirely of distance learning for the screen time concern alone, and that is also a decision we respect. We always want families to do what feels right for their own well-being, and it certainly won’t be the same for everyone. We encourage you to trust your instincts, be responsive to the needs of your child, and reach out to your child’s educators if you have any questions or concerns.
This post was written by Melody Passemante-Powell, Director of Infant and Toddler Programs.
Schedules are a big part of most of our lives, and most people recognize the importance of these routines, especially for young children. Quarantine has turned everything upside down for many families, and some are wondering, how much of a routine should we try to maintain? To help you think through this we have posed some questions to consider first, and then outlined some tips and ideas based on structure level and age group.
What are my family’s needs? All families are different and it is important to recognize that one size does not fit all. Some thrive off of rigid schedules, while others need a lot of flexibility, and most of us fall somewhere along the middle of this spectrum. Think through what works well for your child(ren) and what works well for the adults in your home. These don’t always align so finding some sense of balance is the overall goal.
What is my family’s capacity? Unfortunately during quarantine many of us are both acting as full time caregivers and working to meet job requirements at the same time. Consider how much the adults in your family realistically have the capacity to implement in terms of routines and schedules while also giving the attention needed to other responsibilities. Also keep in mind how quarantine is impacting your child(ren) and what they have emotional/mental capacity to do on any given day.
How Your Days Might Look
High Structure: You plan your days to closely mirror each other, or if your child in enrolled in school, you can schedule your days to match what a typical day would look like at school. For example, try having meals, outdoor time (if possible), circle time, etc. around the same time of day as they would occur at school.
Medium Structure: You can plan to have some components of the day happen in the same way and at the same time, while still leaving a bit of flexibility in the schedule. One way to navigate this is to look at each day as having a loose agenda, and you can talk through what will happen during the day, but the exact details of when and how each part will happen aren’t planned out in full.
Minimal Structure: You can keep it loose and just see where the day leads you. You can let your needs/wants and your child(ren)s needs/wants guide what happens for the majority of the day.
Tips and Ideas Based on Age
Infants/Toddlers: This age group understands time in short intervals, so it’s best to find ways to break the day into smaller sections vs. talking through what will happen throughout the entire day in one sitting. It can be helpful to use the “first, then” method with this age group, using phrases like, “First we will eat snack, then we will go on a walk.” Visual cues to use as reference when talking about what will happen are also very useful for this age group. These can be in the form of timers, or photos/pictures of what will happen next.
Preschoolers: In general preschoolers can handle a little more complexity in terms of thinking through multiple components of the day. A visual schedule is great for this age (a series of photos of what will happen along with the word label, posted in sequence, or attached to a keyring so the child can carry it around to access what will happen and in what order). Timers are another useful tool, and there are so many to choose from (sand timer, Echo/Alexa, stopwatch, or these sensory timers) so you can use what works best for you. ()
School Age: Most school age children can get a sense of a full daily schedule if you choose to use one. Visuals of some sort never hurt, and if your child(ren) can tell time you/they can create a chart (nothing fancy, you can use paper and a ruler to make the lines!) of what each day or each week looks like based on the day and time. Seeing what their day and week look like mapped out might be helpful for time management and daily planning.
Do what works best for your family on any given day. There is no right or wrong way to do this.
Set yourself up for success. If what you are doing just isn’t working for your child(ren), or for you, change it up. The point of a schedule is to HELP everyone, if that isn’t happening most of the time, it is time to reassess!
Resist the temptation to compare. It can be hard to see or hear about what other families are doing, especially if it seems like everything is working beautifully for them. Remember the grass has a tendency to seem greener, but what you and your family are doing on any given day, even if it involves meltdowns and a to do list with zero check marks, is just fine.
One of the reasons we enroll our children in preschool is so they learn how to interact and engage with their peers, so it makes sense that many caretakers are currently concerned about their child’s socialization. It is helpful to remember that not too long ago, many children didn’t attend formal school until they were five. While we recognize that there is value in preschools and play dates, the quarantine isn’t going to erase what gains your child has made in this area. It will no doubt be a difficult transition when we return to our routines, but it will be temporary and you shouldn’t worry that your child will fall behind.
In the meantime, you can do some simple things at home that will help support your child’s development:
Identify Feelings – “I can see you are feeling sad because you are crying.” or “I think the dog doesn’t like that because they barked at you.” You can also use books to have deeper conversations about how characters are feeling.
How Can You Help? – When you identify an emotion, think out loud with your child about what you can do to be helpful. Maybe a sibling could use a hug or maybe there is a household chore that would help the whole family feel less stressed.
Play – Your child doesn’t need to play with their peers to learn skills like sharing or taking turns. As an adult, it is okay to say “I had the toy in my hand and it upset me when you took it away from me.” It might feel a little silly, but it communicates the cause and effect of their behavior.
Regardless of age, you should share the facts about COVID-19. Children naturally begin to fill in the blanks if you don’t share information with them and they often begin to build a narrative that can be scarier than reality.
What Does Age Appropriate Mean?
As an educator or caregiver, you have a sense of what your children can handle. Think ahead about what you want to say to them if you can and remain positive (see below). Don’t dodge their questions, but also don’t add a lot of detail on top of what they are asking. Be clear about what questions children have, they don’t always know how to articulate their concerns, so it’s helpful to restate their questions to ensure you are on the same page.
Children, even tweens and teens, need to feel safe. For younger children, it is helpful to point out that there are a lot of community helpers who are involved in keeping us safe and healthy right now. The very fact that we are all staying home is something that will help lessen the spread of the virus. For older children, you can share additional facts or try to focus on how communities are coming together to support each other.
Feeling in control is important even for very young children. Explain to them that we all have a part in this and that their role is good hygiene. Establish new handwashing routines in your home/school, children love visual schedules or reminders. Posting photos of when and how to handwash can be very effective. We’ve all been told to sing the “Happy Birthday” song, but why not mix it up and find different songs. Come up with new ways of showing love that might not involve hugging or kissing, like a funny dance. Make them feel in charge and coming up with creative approaches can go a long way for young children.
For older children, you may want to speak more about their responsibility to older generations and how social distancing is one way that we are keeping people safe. If you have the resources, think about other ways you can support your community. Maybe it’s making a meal to bring to a neighbor or sharing on social media about where families can get meals while schools are closed.
Limiting and monitoring what your children are exposed to regarding Covid-19 is important. You may not think they are listening to the news program you have on or that conversation you are having with a spouse, but they are. Be mindful of time, access and the messages you are sending.
Children of all ages need extra care right now. Depending on your child’s personality and age, take time to check-in with them and show a little extra affection. Understand, too, that a child’s behavior might change during this time because of stress. As caregivers, we want to show some additional patience and latitude.
Dealing with Stress
As adults, our instinct is to protect our children. Realistically, though we are not going to be able to shield children entirely from the anxiety of the Covid-19 situation. As adults, our role it to model healthy behavior. Think about how your family, your classroom and your community can combat stress. Physical exercise (outdoors if possible), creative outlets like journaling, cooking or drawing and mindful habits like meditating or quiet reading can help feed the soul.
Museum educators have been practicing object-based learning (OBL) for years. It has been written about and discussed extensively. This blog isn’t so much meant to expand on that literature as it is meant to explore how OBL is used within the SEEC model.
First, let’s define SEEC’s learning environment. We are so much more than a daycare. We consider ourselves a school whose approach is defined by high quality early childhood practice. Our curriculum is emergent, and we use the community – not just museums – as part of the learning experience. Moreover, our Office of Engagement focuses on family learning via both long-term and stand-alone programs.
How does SEEC define OBL? At the center of our definition is, of course, the objects on display at the Smithsonian. All of our classes, even the infants, visit the museums regularly. While the experience will look different for each age group, all children benefit from being in front of an object. There could be an entire blog on this topic, but we recognize the importance of seeing the real thing – the awe and wonder it inspires. For children under two, who can not necessarily grasp the significance of these objects, the value often resides in their exposure to new spaces, things, and environments.
Because our children are young, we add an additional layer to the OBL experience – the tactile component. Children are concrete learners who explore using their senses and therefore, employing objects that can be handled or physically experienced adds to their learning. This can be a toy, like the boat pictured here, or it could be an element that somehow better describes an object. For example, manipulating a ballet shoe while looking at one of Degas’ dancers.
At SEEC, we expand upon this idea to curate a sensorial experience by adding components like feeling the wind while looking at this painting at the National Gallery of Art by Winslow Homer. The moving air, though not a physical object, certainly takes on that role with the learner. What’s important for the young learner is that they get to observe the wind portrayed in an actual object, like a painting, and feel the air moving on their faces. These experiences enhance their understanding.
Likewise, the “object” can also be defined as an experiment. Imagine that a class visits the transportation hall at the American History Museum or observes vehicles moving on a street. The group could experiment with wheel shapes. A teacher constructs a car out of cardboard and uses a simple ramp to demonstrate how the car moves with wheels that are square, circular and triangular. Students quickly see the benefits of having a circular wheel and begin to recognize differences in shapes and how they connect to things in their everyday life.
For educators working in or using informal learning environments, object-based learning should be considered through a wider lens – one that helps young children to experience and explore via multiple modes. Finally, OBL also corresponds to nature-based learning. Just this week I observed how a lesson on nests with toddlers incorporated both museum objects and nature. The lesson started out by looking at nests sculptures displayed outside the Natural History Museum and concluded with the children making their own nests by collecting twigs, grass, and leaves. To add an additional layer and to help the children better interact with the animals, the children helped throw birdseed and watched as the birds came to eat.
Valentine’s Day is almost upon us, and we’ve put together a list of our Top 5 books that can be read in conjunction with the holiday. While none are specifically about Valentine’s Day, they each explore a relevant theme. We’ve also included ideas on how to extend the book reading into an activity at home or a visit in the community. Happy reading!
My Heart is Like a Zoo by Michael Hall – With its bright colors and whimsical artwork, this book is sure to appeal to young animal lovers. Plus, all the animals are made from heart shapes. Can you count the hearts you see? Extend it: Explore the shape of a heart! Cut hearts out of felt and allow your child to play with them on a fleece blanket. See what kind of patterns or combinations you can make together. Can you make any of the hearts into an animal shape?
Dear Juno by Soyung Pak – Valentine’s Day is all about expressing affection to those you love, but what if a loved one lives far away? This is a story of a boy who sends letters back and forth to his grandmother who lives in faraway Korea. With the ubiquitous nature of email, many young children are not as familiar with physical mail. Dear Juno illustrates how a physical letter or drawing can capture a feeling of love and closeness that will be sure to leave your child wanting to send some snail mail.Extend it: Visit the National Postal Museum or the local post office to learn more about the mail system. Then create a valentine for a family member or friend and mail it to them. Let your child help stick on the stamp and deliver the mail to the closest mail box!
Loving by Ann Morris – This book may be almost 30 years old, but it still resonates today. The photographs and text illustrate the ways in which people express their love for each other, from giving a child a bath to giving a hug. The photographs depict a variety of people and environments around the world, which sends a message that we might have differences, but there are similarities that all people have in common, one being love. Extend it: Discuss with your young one something that you do that shows them you love them. Tell them what they do that makes you feel loved. Ask a grandparent or older family friend to tell you about what their parents did to make them feel loved and see if it’s similar to what you do.
The Kissing Hand by Audrey Penn – Sometimes things scare us, but with support and encouragement from loved ones, we can face our fears. This story illustrates this notion, as Chester the raccoon, who is apprehensive about starting school, feels love from his mother all day long through the kiss she plants on his hand. With all the changes that young children experience, this is a great story to illustrate that the love of their family is with them, wherever they go and whatever they do.Extend it: Visit to the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden to see “Untitled” (for Jeff) by Felix Gomez-Torres. Read the book in front of the large scale artwork. Compare Chester’s raccoon hand to your own hands and the hand in the artwork. What is similar? What’s different? Then think about what loving message you want to leave on each others’ hand. Bring a couple sheets of paper and pencils. Trace each others’ hands and then take some time writing or drawing loving messages on each others’ hand outlines.
See a Heart Share a Heart by Eric Telchin – Eric Telchin, author and photographer of this book, finds hearts in some unexpected places! From the beach to a piece of wood to an onion – he’s captured all the hearts he’s seen over the years. You can even go to his website to see more hearts he’s spotted.Extend it: You tend to see lots of hearts around Valentine’s Day, but what if you searched for them in unusual places? Take a walk outside and hunt for heart shapes. Can you create heart shapes from leaves or sticks you find on the ground?
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!