Inquiry Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

Teacher Feature: Two Year Old Class Explores Butterfly Wings

This weeks’ teacher feature shows how one of SEEC’s two-year-old classes were inspired by Oscar de la Renta’s Ikats in the To Dye For: Ikats from Central Asia exhibition at the Freer|Sackler Galleries. Educators Brittany Leavitt, Brittany Brown, and Melinda Bernsdorf used these iconic ikats to facilitate a learning experience that focused on the colors, patterns, and symmetry that can be seen in both butterfly wings and these dyed fabrics. Below you will find images from the lesson as well as reflections from the educators.  

Cover Photo

Preparation:

Eggs, Chicks, InsectsAt SEEC, our faculty uses an emergent curriculum, which means they follow the interests of the children to create units and lesson plans. They were able to connect the class’s interest in various topics including eggs, frogs, and bugs by exploring the life cycle of the butterfly.

We were inspired to teach this lesson because of our class’s interest in the metamorphosis of frogs and other things that grow from eggs. Additionally, our class was really into finding insects including worms and potato bugs on the playground. We decided to explore their interest more by getting a butterfly kit for the classroom.

Butterfly Review

Brittany Leavitt began the day by gathering the group and led the class in a discussion about the butterfly. She began by reviewing previous topics on butterflies, including the number of wings butterflies have, and by reading Waiting for Wings by Lois Elhert.

After our metamorphosis unit, I decided to spend a week on exploring butterflies. Butterflies can be such a big topic so I wanted to narrow in on just one focus: the wings of a butterfly. We started by breaking down and labeling the parts of the butterfly. Then we started focusing on the butterfly wings. In particular, I wanted my class to understand butterfly wings are a multifaceted tool which are used for both protection and transportation. I also wanted to introduce the idea of symmetry with the wings.

Lesson Implementation:

Ikats ButterfliesThe class’s museum visit began on their walk to the Freer|Sackler Galleries. They were able to weave this walk into their lesson as the class tried to spy butterflies.

As we walked over to the Freer|Sackler Galleries, I had my class turn on their “spy eyes” to look for butterflies in the gardens. We had the chance to observe a butterfly on a flower. While looking at it, we revisited the topic of butterfly wings and talked about the butterfly’s bright colors and camouflage.

Anytime they spotted a butterfly on a flower or in the air, I would ask, “What do you think the butterfly is doing?” or “Where do you think it’s traveling?” These are great, simple questions that help to start a conversation. I was sure to ask questions that prompted critical thinking and creativity without being overwhelming for the two and three-year-olds in my class. In general, this walk was a great way to refresh the key words and topics we were going over throughout the week.

Copy of Ikats ButterfliesThe class gathered around the Oscar de la Renta designs. The class looked closely at the textiles and discussed the colors and patterns that they saw.

I chose to visit the Ikats from Central Asia because of its parallels to the symmetry, color, and patterns of the butterfly wing. When we entered the gallery, we took a few minutes for each child to look closely at the ikats. Then we began describing the ikats with words. As the class described the ikats, I noted that the pattern on some ikats was symmetrical. The class worked together to define symmetrical and then related it to butterfly wings. We concluded our time in the gallery by singing the fingerplay song “Butterflies”.

Butterfly wings, songs

After visiting the galleries, the class went outside to the Haupt Garden and continued to explore butterfly wings. Brittany handed out paper butterflies that the class had previously created so they could continue to observe the symmetry of the butterfly wings.

I brought butterflies that the class made earlier in the week and continued our discussion on symmetry. We did a three step process to help us further understand symmetry.  First we looked at our butterfly creations as a whole. Then we folded the butterfly wings like we were closing a book. We followed this up by observing how both sides of the wings look the same.

Reflection:

Butterfly artThe class loved being outside and singing about butterfly wings. They were able to play with and further explore butterflies that they previously created.

To extend this in the classroom, we played a simple symmetry puzzle that I created by printing off large pictures of butterflies and cutting them in half. We also used paint to create our own butterfly patterns.

reflection butterflyOn the walk back, the class went through the Pollinator Garden. As they walked the teachers engaged the class in casual conversations about which plants the butterflies might prefer.

For teachers who want to try out this lesson, I recommend creating a small pollinator garden if you have space in your outdoor area. You can buy butterfly kits online. They are a great way to watch the stages in the classroom. You can later on do a special butterfly release.

Teaching this lesson was a great way as teacher to challenge myself to dig deeper into a new topic. I love watching my class become interested in a topic. When presented in a developmentally appropriate way, young children are able to explore and understand incredibly complex topics. For example, my class was able to understand the concepts of symmetry and metamorphosis. They particularly loved the word metamorphosis and would say it frequently with the correct meaning. When I heard them say metamorphosis, it let me know that this topic of butterflies really stuck with them and impacted their view of the world.

 

 

 

Songs & Emergent Literacy

Drum and LiteracyIf 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

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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.

Join Us & Learn More

Singing is one of many ways that can help young children develop pre-literacy skills in a way that is developmentally appropriate and intrinsically rewarding. At SEEC, we use books, art, and objects engage young children in literacy. If you are interested in learning more, come to our Emergent Literacy workshop on Thursday, November 29 at 3:30 pm.

 

10 Ways to Make Dinner Time Less Challenging

Picky eater? Feel like you’ve tried it all? We get it! Here a few things that have helped us at SEEC make meal times go a little smoother.

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  1. Dress up

Try a themed meal. Everyone comes dressed in a costume, a fancy (washable) outfit, or even pajamas. This will make dinner feel like a fun family event instead of the ultimate stand-off. Your child will look forward to showing off their special duds at the table and shift their focus away from the normal ultimate stand-off they are prepared for and maybe even try the meal.

  1. Sing a song to set the mood

Getting your child to the table can often be half the battle. At SEEC, we all eat together as a group. Once everyone is seated we sing a song to signify it is time to eat. It has become a favorite event for the children at SEEC and there are often tears if a child doesn’t get to participate in this part of the day.

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  1. Try-it-bite

At this point, almost everyone has used the “try-it-bite” with their child. However, it shouldn’t only be required of the kids, adults at the table should model the same behavior by putting a “try-it-bite” of something on their own plate. Then organize a unified “try-it” moment during the dinner. We all have our preferences so if a child has tried something before and claimed they don’t like it, it is possible that it’s true. Taste buds change over time but forcing them to try an item again shortly after they have declared their preference can feel like you are not listening and respecting their words.

  1. Serve Themselves

An important milestone is when a child can pour without spilling and feed themselves with utensils. Why not give them a chance to practice at dinner? Instead of plating their food, allow your child to dish up their own meal. This way they can decide how much to put on their plate. When a child declares they are done, but there is food still left on their plate, remind them that they chose to put that amount on their plate and should try to finish what they have taken.

  1. Clear Transitions

No one, not even adults, like to be ripped away from their current activity or to go straight to a seated meal before having a little time to transition. Be sure there is time for your child to decompress between preschool, daycare, or whatever previous activity they were a part of. Provide them with warnings so that they can begin to prepare for the transition to dinner. At SEEC we give children a five-minute warning and ask them to repeat it back to us. They might not tell time or understand exactly how long five minutes is, but they understand that soon they will stop with one activity and move to the next. If your child needs a more concrete way to understand the passing of time try a sand timer. You can get them in a variety of time lengths and it’s a great visual representation of the passing of time.

  1. Reflection and Sticker Chart

Having especially difficult meal times or having trouble getting your child to eat anything at all? Try a sticker chart. Sit down with your child and ask them to reflect on how they thought the meal went. Provide a smiley or similar sticker and if you both agree the meal went well (you can decide what this means since it will be different for every family) they get to add the sticker to the chart. You can even provide a small reward for a week full of successful meals (this could be something as easy as an extra book bed at bedtime!).

  1. Food Presentation

The way a child responds to food could not only be based on taste but on texture and shape. If you are getting the “it looks weird” face try mashing or pureeing the item so that it takes on a form similar to something they do like. Even as adults we respond to how something looks or feels as we eat.

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  1. Keep it Fun

When someone says you have to do something, most of our initial reactions are to dig in or push back. Children are the same. If you take the pressure off the meal and keep things light, the meal will be much more enjoyable for everyone. Children have a wonderful ability to read a mood and then reflect it back. Just remember, if you are frustrated they will be too.

  1. Take Bites like an Animal

Make eating into a game. Does your child have a favorite animal? Are they really into trucks? Why not ask them to take small mouse bites to try a new food or pretend they are a backhoe shoveling up a big bite!

  1. New Eating Tools

Try mixing up the eating implement as it will make eating more fun. Try chopsticks or even a spork. The novel aspect of the eating tool will make it exciting for your child to use it to eat. It also has the added benefit of providing your child with additional fine motor practice!

 

Have other tricks that work for your family? Please share!

 

Caregivers and Play: A Sneak Peak at Our Upcoming Seminar

Play at SEEC

Though our school is not strictly play-based, it recognizes the importance of play and incorporates it into our unique brand of object-based learning. Much like other early childhood schools, you will observe our children engaging in play during classroom choices and playground time. You can also find our children playing in the museums, but not just in the play-based spaces. We think creatively about how to safely incorporate play into our museum or community visits.

Caregiver Perspectives on Play

Over the years, we have heard from educators that often caregivers don’t appreciate or understand the value of play. I won’t lie, I too, was at one point one of those parents. Before beginning my career in early childhood education, I enrolled my daughter in a play-based cooperative preschool and one of my biggest concerns was if they would incorporate letter/number recognition into the curriculum. That was more than ten years ago and my outlook has drastically changed.

I have also observed sentiments similar in parents today. I recall a specific conversation with a parent whose child had recently transitioned from a play group to a SEEC program. The parent was happy about the transition because she felt like all the kids did “was play.” Through discussions with other educators, in and outside of SEEC, I have found that other parents share a similar concern about the role of play in the classroom.

I don’t mean to suggest that all caregivers feel that play is not important or even that they don’t see ANY value in the act of playing. In fact, there was recently a heated discussion at the school one of my children attends regarding recess. Some of the students had been missing recess due to make up work or for disciplinary reasons and that did not sit well with our parent community. I think it is important to note that there is a range of parent perspectives on play.

Starting the Conversation

At the same time that we have been reflecting on how parents feel about play, our team has also been focusing in how we can support our parent community and the community at large. It occurred to us that our upcoming workshop, Play: Engaging Learners in Object Rich Environments would be an ideal venue to explore parent attitudes towards play and strategize ways we can engage parents in a dialogue about the value of it.

In order to have this dialogue, we feel it’s important to better understand caregivers’ beliefs surrounding play. Therefore, we have begun to collect data that will inform that understanding and thus far, we have hit on some themes:

  • It’s a waste of money to pay for someone to watch their kids just play.
  • Play doesn’t look like traditional learning.
  • Play doesn’t look like hard work, so it’s not important.
  • Playing won’t teach them how to hold a pencil, read, or write.
  • Playing won’t give them the skills to be successful in life.
  • Play looks like chaos.

Over the next few weeks, we will be collecting more feedback from parents and look forward to sharing their perspectives at our upcoming seminar in July. We are excited to think together about this as a group and look forward to sharing more broadly in future postings.

Building the Next Generation of Democratic Thinkers

SEECstories.com (4)In a recent article Smithsonian Secretary Skorton posited that museums can help people regain trust in “traditional democratic institutions”. His argument centered around a study indicating that many Americans have lost faith in the institutions that are the foundation of our democratic system. He spoke to the fact that not just Americans, but citizens across the globe seem to be losing trust in their own societies and pondered how a democracy can function without the trust of its citizens. Secretary Skorton sees museums and libraries, not only as institutions that provide reliable and objective information, but also as places where questions can be posed, dialogues can be had, and a variety of perspectives can be explored. As leader of the Smithsonian, moreover, he sees museums as places where communities can come together to better understand themselves and the world around them.

As an organization, SEEC, also sees museums, libraries, and the larger community as sources for information, discussion, and reflection. We were particularly excited when in the same article, Skorton noted the role of educators:

I have seen how our museums and centres engage visitors and transform the way they see the world—especially our youngest visitors, who light up with the joy of new discovery. Through our education programs, we reach millions of national and international students, often using objects from our collections to demonstrate experiences and viewpoints that differ from what they might have encountered. By revealing history through the lens of diverse perspectives, museums humanize other cultures and contextualize present-day events and people.

SEECstories.com (5)The Secretary’s comments made me think more about the role museums can play in supporting a young child’s civic education. When I look specifically at SEEC, I see our school and programs as supporting a child’s understanding of democracy via museums in three ways.  One of those ways, is asking them to understand the importance of objects from other cultures or historical periods. Many don’t see young children as capable of this type of perspective-taking, but with the right approach, young children can develop this type of understanding and empathy. One of the ways SEEC educators manage this is by taking what is familiar to children and applying it to the unfamiliar. Consider the collection of footwear on display at the Smithsonian Castle from the National Museum of the American Indian. The shoes, at first glance, may feel strange to a young child living in contemporary American society, but an educator can encourage a child to think beyond their own experiences by beginning with what they do know. A faculty member might inquire: “Why do we wear shoes? When do we wear certain types of shoes?,  How do shoes help us?.” By applying these answers to the American Indian collection, children begin to see the many things we, humans, have in common. At the same time, a child are also able to acknowledge and celebrate the differences they observe. This type of lesson, especially if repeated, makes a lasting impression. We might be different, but those differences can be celebrated. It also underlines how we are part of one human family who shares many commonalities.

SEECstories.com (1)Secondly, young children who consistently spend time in museums can begin to understand and appreciate the role museums can play in learning, exploring, and questioning. During a recent conversation with a SEEC educator, he shared with me that in his Pre-K classroom children are routinely encouraged to ask questions and look for answers. He tell his class, that he, himself, doesn’t always have the answers and encourages them to seek answers via trusted resources. The children in this classroom have created a shortlist of “go to” places where they can get trusted answers. Of course, at the the top of this list is the museum.  For our SEEC students who have spent much of their young lives in these institutions, they understand how museums provide not simply information, but concrete manifestations of this knowledge. Consider the toddler who is learning about colors and visits the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. His knowledge is expanded by exploring the artworks and seeing the many different hues of blue. Similarly, consider the kindergartner who is learning about Rosa Parks and after viewing her portrait by Marshall D. Rumbaugh at the National Portrait Gallery. Through age-appropriate conversation, she can gain deeper insight into Parks’ role in the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Both children are learning that the museum is a place where they can turn to for both factual information and for viewpoints other than their own.

SEECstories.com (3)Finally, the very nature of how we teach at SEEC (and I think you could say this is true for many museum and classroom educators) reaffirms trust in democratic discourse. SEEC lessons often begin with a question and are composed around a conversation. For example, we might pose a scientific question like, “Why do cars have wheels?” or something more abstract like, “How do you think the woman in the painting feels?.” By simply engaging young children in conversation we are helping them to develop socially and emotionally. By framing these conversations within a museum, we can also encourage children to see the institution as a place in which dialogue is part of the experience. Within that dialogue, educators can facilitate conversations that encourage children to listen to and respect the ideas of others – something which will hopefully cultivate a generation of leaders who can engage in conversations resulting in positive democratic change.

SEECstories.com (2)As early childhood educators, whether in the classroom or the museum, we have a unique opportunity to frame the museum as a place where children can acquire knowledge throughout their life. Museum education is so much more than learning a new fact. It is a place where people of all ages can apply new information in a way that helps them value different perspectives and understand the ideas of others. While SEEC is uniquely situated to achieve this as a school on the Smithsonian campus, all schools and museums can support these democratic values. Classroom faculty can engage in conversations at their schools utilizing museum objects as a focal point via online resources. Museum educators can cultivate educational experiences that are friendly to all families and and frame developmentally appropriate experiences that support young children as capable learners. If we can support learning in this open-ended way, museums can and will remains stalwarts of democracy.


References

Skorton, David J. “How Do We Restore Trust in Our Democracies?” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 12 Mar. 2018, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-do-we-restore-trust-our-democracies-museums-can-be-starting-point-180968448/#FsSTi0ZDsl6qSVV0.99.

Guiding the Development of Positive Body Images in Young Children

This blog is authored by museum Museum and Early Learning Specialist, Brooke Shoemaker. Brooke has been at SEEC since 2011, and holds a BA in Theatre Performance from the University of Maryland with a minor in Human Development, and a M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education form Towson University.  Brooke loves bringing traditional gallery spaces to life with young children through playful theatrical techniques.


Did you know that 30 million people in the United States suffer from an eating disorder during their lifetime? I am just one of these 30 million people, and over the last five years I’ve been on a personal journey to a feeling of self-worth that is not dependent on my appearance. About six years ago I developed anorexia at a time in my life when I felt like I couldn’t control many things, but I could control whether I went to the gym and “ate healthy”. I began to tie my success and worthiness to numbers: the number of miles I ran, the number of calories consumed in a day, and the number on the scale. I realized fairly quickly that my exercise and eating habits had veered away from healthy and had become obsessive and restrictive, and sought help from professionals, family, and friends. While I never thought that I would be dealing with this in my late twenties, the road to recovery from my eating disorder has led me to reflect deeply on body image, relationships with food, self-worth, and where it all begins.

Do you remember when you first had a sense of your body and what it could do? How old were you? Did you have positive or negative feelings toward your body? Children begin to develop their identities at a very young age, and this includes body image. A 2010 study found that almost a third of children age five to six would prefer a body that is thinner than their current size. Five and six. Think about that. What have children been exposed to, or influenced by, that leads them to these feelings of body dissatisfaction? My personal experience has led me to reflect on strategies adults can utilize to help foster a positive body image and healthy relationship with food in young children so that we can hopefully guide the next generation to feel positive about their bodies. Please note that body image and disordered eating are very complex issues, and there’s no set of circumstances to prevent or ensure they occur, however these tips are a step in the right direction.

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Reflect on how you Talk about your Body and Relationship with Food

Expressing dissatisfaction with your own body or food habits can affect children’s body image and relationship with food. This was illustrated to me clearly when I overheard a four-year-old say, “When your stomach sticks out you need to exercise, that’s what my mom does.” I’m sure that the child’s mother would never say anything negative about her daughter’s body, but children absorb these messages from adults, and what happens if this child observes her own stomach sticking out? Will she conclude that she must work out until she reaches a certain standard of acceptability? Children learn from what others do and say, and negative comments about our own bodies are no exception. By contrast, modeling body comfort encourages children to have acceptance and appreciation for their bodies. For example, “Exercising made my body feel really good and now I have more energy”, or after coming back from a long walk: “Wow, thank you feet! You helped me walk such a long way today.” If negative body talk is ingrained in your everyday language, Dove has some great tips in recognizing and curbing it.

Recognizing Biases

We all have biases, but recognizing our negative biases regarding body image and food is the first step in countering those biases and ensuring that we don’t pass them on to children. During my own recovery, I’ve recognized how many “should” and “should not” beliefs I held about my body and food. Try to catch yourself when you think or say something about your body or food and question why you think that. If you’re not sure where to begin, try taking the Weight Implicit Association Test from Harvard’s Project Implicit. The results might surprise you and spur your reflection.

Commenting on Children’s Appearance

While I don’t remember any of my early childhood teachers commenting on my appearance, I do remember multiple teachers in middle and high school making comments about my lanky frame. One high school teacher made a comment that I must not eat very much because I was so skinny. Other teachers made comments about how thin I was. I’m sure these teachers believed their comments were innocuous. Upon reflection, however, I see how these comments began to ingrain themselves into my identity. Being skinny was part of who I was, and what I was recognized for, so what happens if I lose that identity?

When I started this journey, I became more aware of the way I talked to children about their appearance. As an early childhood educator, I knew that I often commented on children’s bodies in terms of their function. For example, “Your feet help you run on the playground” or “Your stomach breaks down your food, which gives you energy.” However, I started to notice that I also often remarked on children’s clothes, partly because I really did enjoyed the pattern, colors, or designs of their clothes, and partly because it’s an easy and quick way to engage with a child. But what did the children learn when I remarked on their clothing, often as soon as they arrived at school? Probably that their clothing and appearance is important and garners approval. Children’s identities should be built on their inner qualities, not their outer appearance, which changes by the day. I now immediately recognize when I say something about a child’s clothing, and instead follow up with a comment about them as a person, not their appearance.

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Celebrating the Body

Our bodies are amazing! They hold intricate systems that help us do things like running, jumping, dancing, climbing, hugging, and more. At SEEC we follow an emergent curriculum, but embarking on a Human Body unit is a common occurrence in our classrooms. Young children’s bodies develop so many new skills in such a short amount of time, from growing teeth and chewing, to crawling, to running, to controlling bowel movements. There are many exciting milestones. Children are often curious about this and want to learn more, which has led to lessons about blood, hair, and more. Learning about the body creates an appreciation, respect, and love for all it can do.

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Identity Work That Goes Beyond the Physical Characteristics

A common topic explored in our classrooms is “All About Me” which encourages children to think about their identity. While we focus in part on outward appearances, we also delve deeper into what makes each of us, “us.” We value those traits and preferences that make us each unique, and those that make us similar. Some of this work happens at the start of a new school year when teachers and children are getting to know each other. We share favorite things and talk about our home and family lives. However, this topic of building our identities does not end in September. Our classes explore this topic through all of their units. For example, during a unit on sports, our preschoolers considered the character traits athletes must have including perseverance, teamwork, and integrity. The class discussed how each child also had these traits and how they help us as people. Another way to value children’s characteristics throughout the year is making note of their actions that exhibit these traits and celebrating them. For example, one of our three-year-old classes has a paper tree in which they add notes to the tree limbs to recognize moments that exhibit character traits. Children are able to celebrate the fact that they are kind, helpful, persistent, brave, etc., which builds their sense of identity.

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Discussing Media Influences

Even if all the adults in a child’s life speak positively about their and other people’s bodies, we unfortunately cannot escape the media. Children receive messages from books, TV, games, advertisements, and even politicians. Although we cannot control the media, we can have conversations with children that combat stereotypes and negative body talk.

In addition to conversations, adults can provide positive media, such as images and books, that represent the world around them with bodies of all shapes and sizes. At SEEC, we are lucky to be surrounded by the amazing collections of the Smithsonian, including artwork and objects that showcase variety in bodies. However, even if you’re not located near the Smithsonian or other such resources, you can access them online via Smithsonian’s Learning Lab. I’ve created a collection of artwork and objects from the Smithsonian and beyond that reflect a variety of bodies that can be used with young children in the home or school.


As educators, parents, caregivers, grandparents, older siblings, etc., we have the big and important job to guide young children as they are beginning their own journey with developing their self-worth and body image. With this foundation, when children get older and encounter negative body stereotypes and talk, they will have the tools to think critically and reject it.