Teacher Truths: Working with Toddlers

Welcome to Teacher Truths presented by the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, SEEC. Each episode of Teacher Truths take place between two SEEC faculty members and explores a topic related to education. Have a topic you’d like to hear about? Email SEECSocialMedia@si.edu.

This week features a conservation between Kat Schoonover and Shannon Conley who are both toddler teachers. They spoke about working with toddlers and focused on toddlers growing independence and need for communication. Please listen and enjoy!

Highlights from the conversation between Kat and Shannon:







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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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


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.



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



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.

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.


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.

Top 8 Books for Kindergarten Read-Alouds

This week’s blog is written by Silvana Oderisi. This is Silvana’s seventh year teaching kindergarten and her third year with the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center where she is the reading teacher. Prior to joining SEEC, she spent two years as a Corps Member of Teach for America in Tulsa, Oklahoma as well as teaching in the District of Columbia. She is passionate about reading, learning languages, and being active.

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As I mentioned in my last blog, Top 5- Elements of a Great Read-Aloud, I thoroughly enjoy getting the chance to read to my group of kindergarten students during our daily read-aloud lessons! As a class, we love engaging with exciting and fun stories that push us to think critically about what we see and hear therein.

Here are some of the books we love the most and how we’ve used them in our classroom.


  1. Nanette’s Baguette by Mo Willems

This is one of my students’ all time favorite authors. So, suffice it to say that any book of his is bound to be a crowd pleaser for a read-aloud in a kindergarten classroom and beyond! This particular book of his combines silly rhyming words with a very relatable problem. On a trip to the bakery for her mom, Nanette eats all of the warm, delicious baguette before she even gets home! With a twist ending that shows adults can be as silly as kids, the book will have your children roaring with laughter!

  1. The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt

Get ready for another fun book to read with your children. This popular book is one that will have kids re-evaluating the way they treat the crayons in their own crayon boxes. The poignant, hilarious letters from the crayons in Duncan’s crayon box, give kids a glimpse into the point of view of what they had formerly thought of as inanimate objects. In our classroom, we like to use this book to help us practice identifying problems in a story. We define a problem as something the character wants to change, fix, or figure out. And boy, do those crayons come to Duncan with some problems! From arguing over which color is the true color of the sun, to being overused and overworked, or not used enough, each letter provides my class with practice identifying problems and then using critical thinking skills to wonder how we would solve the problem if we were Duncan!


  1. Lady Pancake and Sir French Toast by Josh Funk

If you couldn’t tell by now, I am a big fan of comedic children’s books. I love to make my students laugh and see them smile as we think about the stories we read together. I want nothing more than for my students to absolutely LOVE reading, so I try to incorporate as many of these happy moments as I can into my read-alouds. This book, in particular, combines silly characters and a relatable competition to get the last drop of maple syrup making for one hilarious story. In our classroom, we used this story to help us be able to identify a character as the person, animal, or thing (we really had to include that last one in this story) that does the ACTIONS! This helped us look more closely at a character’s actions, which comes in very handy when analyzing character traits, discussing problems and solutions, and more critical thinking questions.

  1. Ada Twist, Scientist by Andrea Beaty

While I do appreciate the imaginative and abstract characters in a lot of the books on this list, I strongly believe that it is also important for my students to see and read books that are a positive reflection of their own identities. I try to incorporate books, such as this one, so that the young girls in my class (and especially the girls of color) see their own potential in the STEM field. Reading books like this helps open the doors for young girls to explore their own curiosities about the world and ask questions about how the world works, without feeling like they’re stepping into a “boy’s world.”


  1. Mufaro’s Beautiful Daughters by John Steptoe

Not only do I believe that my students should see their own identities reflected in the stories they read, but I also like to make sure that my students are able to make positive personal connections to other cultures through our read-alouds. This book is based on an African tale, and tells the story of a king looking for the “most worthy and beautiful” woman to be his queen. Mufaro believes that his two daughters, Manyara and Nyasha, are worthy and beautiful enough for the king and they decide to journey to the palace. Although both characters are outwardly very beautiful, their choices and actions throughout the story demonstrate two entirely different concepts of beauty, giving your readers plenty of opportunities to analyze personality traits along the way. This story truly begs the question of whether or not beauty can be found on the inside or the outside and can lead to very powerful discussions with your children about the concept of beauty.

  1. The Napping House by Audrey Wood

A classic Kindergarten favorite, this book is helpful to readers practicing sequencing events of a story, an important kindergarten comprehension skill. My students love the hilarious events that happen in the Napping House and re-tell the events with ease thanks to the silly rhymes and repetition throughout the book. The repetitive phrases help not only with remembering the sequence of events from beginning to end, but also help this age group develop fluency skills as they read, re-read, and read again the same words throughout the text.


  1. Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed by Mo Willems

I just could not go through this Top 8 list without adding another book by Mo Willems. As one of my personal favorite children’s authors, I really enjoy using any of his books in my classroom for a multitude of learning objectives. In particular, this book is helpful for making inferences about a character’s physical and personality traits. This is a great opportunity to practice identifying personality traits by analyzing the character’s actions, words, thoughts, and feelings. Wilbur is a naked mole rat who likes to wear clothes – fancy outfits, fun costumes, you name it! However, Wilbur is the only naked mole rat in his colony who does so, leaving his peers to be outraged by his scandalous behavior. Nonetheless, Wilbur shows determination and bravery to stay true to himself and even dresses up for a royal proclamation wearing…socks!

  1. Tap the Magic Tree by Christie Matheson

This book is one of my favorites because no matter the age group, every class I’ve read this book with has been on the edge of their seats to see what happens to the Magic Tree. This book incorporates movements like rubbing, tapping, counting, patting, and blowing that encourage children to participate in the changing of the seasons. The beauty of this book is that the realistic looking illustrations and bodily kinesthetic movement make it fun for many different age groups to read. If you’re interested in learning more about how to make your favorite picture books age appropriate for both toddlers and kindergartners, make sure to check back in for the blog I will be co-writing with toddler expert, Meredith Osborne!

BYOB: Bring Your Own Baby

SEEC recently began the new program Bring Your Own Baby, which we fondly call “BYOB”. This program expands on the rest of our programming in several exciting ways. More than our other programs, such as our Family Workshops or the Smithsonian Early Explorers, BYOB is geared towards the adults who are bringing the children. The program is broken into two parts – coffee and play and then, a museum visit.

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In the development of this program, we considered the needs of both the adults and the babies. The class begins with coffee and the opportunity to meet and chat. We decided to begin this way for two reasons. The first was that we wanted to build in time for a flexible start since we know that it can be difficult getting yourself and your baby out of the house on a schedule (and kudos to all those who try!). We were also hoping to provide parents with the opportunity to create a community through conversation. The topics discussed have been seemingly endless, ranging from how much sleep everyone got the night before to their favorite Impressionist artist.

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As we head out into the museum, we are mindful that babies can sometimes be fickle. We are comfortable with crying, babbling, nursing, and even cutting the adventure short because somebody (caregiver or baby) needs to go home early to take a nap. Our flexibility on these tours makes the sometimes stodgy world of museums more approachable for caregivers and babies alike.


For these museum tours, we are hoping foster flexible thinking and spark the imagination of grown-ups rather than going quickly between objects and paintings and unloading a barrage of facts. To make these tours informative and interactive for adults, we have found ourselves modifying many of the tools that we use with young children. This makes our programming more playful and interactive than many programs geared towards adults. We believe approach to learning will make it more likely for you to learn something and leave the experience with something new to ponder.

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While the programs are written for adults, we could never forget the babies that are tucked away in their carriers. As the tours progress, we discuss theories in early childhood education and offer ways to incorporate this research into your interactions with your child. We show off some tips and tricks about how to make museum visits beneficial and enjoyable for young children. Our goal for this program is to help parents and their babies have an enjoyable time in the museums.

If you are interested, please sign up for one our our upcoming BYOB classes.

Looking for ways to engage your infant? Check out our Pinterest board on Infant Activities for ideas. 

Teacher Feature: Infant Class Explores Animals

This week’s teacher feature highlights an infant class’s adventure to the Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals at the National Museum of Natural History. The teachers, Erica Collins, Katherine Schoonover, and Noel Ulmer, paired the museum excursion with the book “Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What do you Hear?” by Bill Martin Jr. and Eric Carle. While this experience was carefully planned and curated by the teachers, the infants’ interests ultimately determined which animals the class focused on. By intentionally responding to their class’s cues, the teachers allowed the infants to lead the lesson based on individual interests. Below you will find images from the day as well as a reflection from the teachers.

 Cover Photo


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To start their adventure, the teachers passed out safari hats. Each child was given the opportunity to touch and explore the hats. Many tried putting the hats on, taking the hats off, and even experimented with covering their eyes with the hats. In addition to something new to hold, the hats also served as a transitional object to ease the move from the classroom and to the mammal hall.


While in the mammal hall, the children were able to hold animal figurines that matched the animals that they saw in the mammal hall and in the book Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What do you hear? These animals helped the teachers personalize the lesson as they could take note of which animal each child was most interested in based on the animal that the children chose to hold.

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For these young children, the book itself was an object. They were excited to be able to touch, hold, explore, and even push buttons to make noise. The book, which the class had been reading regularly, helped bridge the gap from the familiar to the unfamiliar large animals.

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Most of the children in this class are preverbal, but this does not mean that they are unable to communicate. In fact, the infants use their physical activity to communicate by pointing and making gestures. The teachers were careful to narrate everything they saw and also communicated with gestures while paying careful attention to the children.

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Another way the teachers were responsive to the class was by rotating who held the book Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What do you Hear? If a child expressed interest in looking closer at the book, the teachers would bring the book over to that child. If that child wanted to hold the book and explore it on his or her own, the teachers responded to the wants and needs of the individual by giving the child the opportunity to hold the book on his or her own while the rest of the class observed some of the mammals.

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The book, Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What do you Hear?, focuses on the sounds that the different animals make and young children love experimenting with the different sounds they can make. This makes for a perfect pair. While in the mammal hall, the children attempted to mimic the sounds that different animals make.

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The last stop on their adventure was to see the polar bear, which is on display up high. The children were captivated by the polar bear and craned their necks upward to get a better view.

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Back in the classroom, the teachers were able to continue assessing which animals the children wanted to explore further. The children gravitated towards certain animals. In the picture above, you can see one child actively exploring the teeth of the hippopotamus, which she had seen earlier in the mammal hall, and comparing them to her own teeth.


A reflection from Erica, Katherine, and Noel:


We began learning about animals by exploring the different ways they look, sound, and move. This topic started to emerge within our classroom when the students began to recognize animals and mimicked the sounds animals make to let us know that they had noticed a specific animal. We wanted to show our class these animals up close and personal and to relate them to the books we see them in, the songs we sing about them, and the images of different mammals we encounter every day. Choosing to go to the mammal hall made the most sense since the animals there are so lifelike, other than they don’t make noise, but luckily the students helped us with that. We took safari hats with us to wear as we searched for our favorite animals and the animals mentioned in the book Polar Bear Polar Bear What Do You Hear? We wanted the students to come away from the lesson having made the connections between what they saw and heard in one of their favorite books to the size and shape of the animals in the mammal hall. In preparation for this lesson, we did many different kinds of movement in the classroom to mimic animal movements and often demonstrated the sounds these animals make.


The most effective part of our lesson was showing the students the connection between the animals on the page and the animals in the mammal hall. Creating space for the students to get a sense of how big the animals are helped to expand this topic. Viewing the images of animals on a page, then seeing them in person, and then still being able to connect to the of sound of animals is pretty significant. Our time spent preparing in the classroom and going over the different animals made the lesson smoother. Rather than overwhelming the children with all the massive animals, we gave them time to adjust to each animal. Some students even had favorites, which we had planned to focus on. We were surprised to see which students were really engaged as we went through the mammal hall. Some students, who we had expected to be very vocal because they growl and make lion noises all day, were relatively quiet. We think they saw how lifelike and big a real lion was when we got up close and they were so entranced that they stopped growling and making noise which none of us expected to happen.


Avoiding crowds is always something that is hard to manage, especially in the mammal hall, because it attracts so many people. The book we brought with us also had buttons for each animal to make noise, but it was so crowded that it was hard to hear at times. Luckily, our class had been pushing these buttons for weeks, so they were still able to make the connection even without us using the sounds in the book. After completing our safari hunt through the mammal hall, we continued to look at different animal books, wear our safari hats, and make observations about different animals.

If we were to do this lesson again, we would spend more time discussing all types of animals rather than just mammals. We would also focus on what makes different animals distinct from each other. We believe that looking at more types of animals (reptiles, birds, etc.) would not have hindered the students’ exploration of the mammals, but rather it would have opened up the topic to more discussion and learning.



Teacher Feature: Toddler Class Explores Sailors

It’s teacher feature Thursday and this week we are featuring a lesson from one of our toddler rooms. The class visited the United States Navy Memorial to learn about sailors, which was part of their unit exploring heroes. The class began with a circle in the classroom where the teachers, Maya Alston, Erica Collins, and Elizabeth Kubba, introduced vocabulary and ideas about sailors. The class then walked to the United States Navy Memorial where they further explored these ideas while looking at The Lone Sailor statue, 26 high-relief panels that show elements of Navy life, and the signals flags. Below you will find images from the lesson as well as a reflection from Maya, Erica, and Elizabeth.

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Here are some images from the lesson:


The lesson began with a classroom circle where Elizabeth read US Navy Alphabet Book by Jerry Pallotta (Author), Sammie Garnett (Author), and Rob Bolster (Illustrator). This toddler class’ interaction with the book was unique in that the children were encouraged to touch the pages. After Elizabeth read a page, she would pause and go around the circle giving each child the opportunity to reach out and touch images in the book. Sometimes she would guide them by asking “Can you find the boat?” and at other times she would narrate what they were drawn to, “Oh, you found the sailor’s hat!” This technique helped the class connect to the book, stay engaged, and ultimately built pre-literacy skills.

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In addition to the book, the class had the opportunity to explore objects during the classroom circle, such as a Navy uniform. The class not only looked at, but also touched the uniform. This helped them build a deeper understanding of the uniform so they could relate it back to the book they had just read and later to The Lone Sailor statue at the United States Navy Memorial.

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Each child was given a white child-sized Navy hat, which they could play with during the lesson. Elizabeth passed out the hats when she got to the page on Navy uniforms and then allowed the children to interact with the hats for the rest of the lesson. Passing out the hats in the middle of the story helped to re-engage the class with the circle and refocused their attention.

After circle, the class was given the opportunity to play more freely with the hats. They explored flipping them upside down and pulling the brims over their eyes. As the class was getting ready to leave, Maya, Erica, and Elizabeth gave each child a choice, they could either wear their normal sunhat outside or they could wear the Navy hat. Some children chose their normal hats and some chose the Navy hats. Giving toddlers a choice between two things can help ease anxiety around a transition, can help build their own autonomy, and can also help develop their communication skills.

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Once the class arrived at the United States Navy Memorial, they gathered around The Lone Sailor Statue. In order to orient the class, Elizabeth showed images from the US Navy Alphabet Book. This helped to build connections between activities they had done in the classroom and being at the Navy Memorial. The teachers then asked the class a series of both open-ended and guiding questions including “What do you see?”, “What could his job be?”, “What can you find?”, “Can you find his hat?”

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While class was talking about the things that they saw, one child pointed out the flags. The teachers commented that the flags on the mast looked similar to the some of the flags in the book. Since there was clearly an interest in the flags, Maya, Elizabeth, and Erica made a point of bringing the class closer so they could get a better look.

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While looking at The Lone Sailor, Maya, Erica, and Elizabeth pointed out the uniform and explained that it is one way to identify him as a sailor.  They noted the hat and compared the sailor hat to the ones on the children’s heads. They then encouraged the class to take a closer look. Some of the children chose to interact with The Lone Sailor statue. One even gave him a hug around the leg.

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The class then walked around the rest of the memorial, which included 26 bronze sculptures. Each sculpture offered many opportunities for discussion. The teachers followed the children’s lead. If a child pointed to something, the teacher would make a remark. Sometimes the teachers simply narrated what the child was doing. Other times the teachers asked questions like “How would you feel on a boat?” or “What do you think she is doing?”

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While the whole class explored the bronze sculptures at the same time, each child was allowed to move and explore at his or her own pace. It was clear that some children found certain elements of the bronze statues more captivating than others. When a child found something that drew her or his attention (like the chain above), that child was permitted to take the time he or she needed to explore before moving on to the next statue. Splitting the children into three groups, one group for each teacher, helped to make this possible.

A reflection from Maya, Erica, and Elizabeth:

Our toddlers seem to love superheroes. They often have Batman, Superman, Spiderman, Captain America, and Wonder Woman logos on the hats atop their heads, the shirts covering their bellies, and the shoes on their feet. In addition to these fantasy superheroes, our toddlers also spend a lot of time playing with firetrucks, marveling at sirens of ambulances and police cars, and giving a cheerful high five to the security officers who work in our museums.  We noticed these interests and decided to build a unit around the real-life superheroes in our community. Our goal was to help our class to grasp the idea of what being a superhero really is (someone who helps and protects others), to be able to recognize key characteristics of these community superheroes (uniforms, modes of transportation, etc.) and some of the ways these superheroes help and protect us (what do they actually do). During this unit we studied firefighters, military service members, doctors, nurses, park rangers, and the United States Park Police. Here, we will dive more deeply into one specific lesson, our lesson on sailors in the United States Navy.

For this lesson, we chose to visit the United States Navy Memorial. At the memorial, there is a large bronze statue called The Lone Sailor and multiple smaller scene sculptures depicting the history of the Navy. We knew these would be great for our toddlers to visit because the sculptures are easy to see and, even better, can be touched! We wanted the children to be able to recognize key features of a sailor’s uniform, the sailor’s hat, and their modes of transportation including ships, boats, submarines, and airplanes. We did a little research prior to the lesson by exploring the Navy Memorial website, reading the US Navy Alphabet Book, and speaking with a fellow teacher whose husband was in the Navy. Based on this research, we decided what characteristics of Navy sailors we wanted to focus on with the children during our classroom circle time and our community visit.

During the classroom circle time, we first read through parts of the US Navy Alphabet Book that we felt were developmentally appropriate for our age group, and highlighted the features we knew the children would see on the visit. We also allowed them to touch the images in the book. We often allow the children to touch objects in the books we read as it helps to focus their toddler wiggles. It also gives us the chance to assess if we are making the literacy connections between the word the toddlers hear and the object itself. We then showed the children two genuine Navy uniforms. We asked them to tell us what colors and other features they noticed. Answers we heard included “blue”, “white”, and “bird”.  After that, we brought out a sailor hat that they could take turns passing around the circle, which allowed them to gain a more concrete connection to the object and give them the opportunity to work on developing the social-emotional skill of taking turns. After taking turns passing the sailor’s hat, the children were ecstatic to find out that they were all getting their own sailor hats to wear on our visit!

While walking to the memorial, we modeled our thinking and wondered out loud about where we might find a sailor, how a sailor might look, and how to know if we found one. Once there, the toddlers quickly pointed out that the sailor hat on The Lone Sailor statue matched the hats their heads. We sat down in front of the statue and pulled out the US Navy Alphabet Book once more. We pointed to the objects we were seeing at the memorial that were also in the book. We asked open-ended questions including “What do you see?”, “What do you think his job is?”, and “What can you find?” Asking these questions prompted the children to look carefully at all the features of the large memorial space. One child proudly proclaimed that he had found flags that matched the flags in our book. When we could tell our toddlers were ready to move their bodies and explore more of the space, we walked them around to the smaller sculptures that were right at their eye level. This was one of the best parts of the lesson because it combined movement, careful looking, and touching. Because of this, the children spent quite a bit of time at each sculpture. They would point to features they recognized and often would name them as well. An added bonus was that it had rained earlier that day, so the boats and other features of the sculptures were wet. This really helped to make the connection that sailors are often on or near water. The children were able to put their fingers in small puddles of water that had collected on the statues and see droplets falling from the sailors’ bodies. If we redid this lesson on a sunny day, I would plan to bring water with us and use a spray bottle to talk about how water can sprays onto the boat as the sailors travel.

Overall, this lesson seemed to be a great success. We put the sailor hats out as choices in the classroom and noted that the children kept revisiting them over the next couple of weeks. We also put out My First Counting Book: Navy by Cindy Entin, which was a board book that the children could explore independently. These two things showed us that the children enjoyed learning about the sailors and helped to reinforce the connections over a long period of time. When doing this lesson in the future, we would like to add a water table with boats and submarines as an extension. We believe this extension would be especially effective because it would help the class connect the idea of water and sailors and connect well to the visit to the Navy Memorial.

Teacher Feature: Toddlers Explore Karaoke

Today’s Teacher Feature highlights the Dragonflies, a toddler class. The teachers, Lauren Bundy, Katherine Custer, and Emily Romig choose to explore karaoke. The class visited David Hockney’s Snail Space at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and later that afternoon had a karaoke party in their classroom. See below for pictures highlighting the lesson and for a reflection from the teachers.

Cover Photo

The teachers knew that they wanted to teach their class about karaoke but were initially unable to think of an object that would help support their lesson. They thought about seeing a microphone as an object but decided that simply seeing a microphone might not provide the type of experience that they were hoping for their class. After brainstorming, the teachers decided to bring their toddler class to see David Hockney’s Snail Space at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. The teachers believed that they could use the light, colors, intimacy of space, and stage like atmosphere to draw connections to karaoke.

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The teachers did not ignore the importance of a microphone for karaoke. Lauren Bundy choose to bring a microphone as an object to explore while the class was experiencing Snail Space. Lauren gave each child in her class the opportunity to speak into the microphone and hear how their voice changed.

SEECstories.com (2)Light was another topic that the teachers were hoping to explore with their class since karaoke performances often involve a light show. As part of the instillation of Snail Space color changing lights are projected onto the two canvas’ and floor space design. In addition to experiencing the light that is part of the performance of Snail Space, the teachers brought battery powered tea lights to allow the children to explore and manipulate their own light.

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While experiencing Snail Space, the toddler teachers sang some of their class’s favorite songs and used the stage like atmosphere of the installation to discuss the experience of performing karaoke.

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Back in their classroom, the toddlers were able to put on their own karaoke show. The teachers transformed their classroom by setting up an overhead projector as a spotlight and used a color changing light. They used speakers to play their class’s favorite tunes and gave the children a chance to perform with a microphone.

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While experiencing karaoke, the toddlers also participated in social-emotional learning. There was only one microphone which meant that the toddlers had to practice taking turns. In order to help facilitate taking turns, the Dragonfly teachers gave the children verbal and nonverbal warnings to help the children be more fully aware of when their turn was over.SEECstories.com (6)

The Dragonflies karaoke party was tons of fun! Each child was able to experience the joy of choosing their favorite song and performing it in front of their friends.

Reflections from Lauren:

How did this topic emerge?

After a week of lessons that involved visiting Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors at the Hirshhorn Museum and picnicking under the blossoming cherry trees by the Tidal Basin, a theme started to emerge that would become our next unit of study: Japan! We were excited about the topic because learning about another country can offer our toddlers a great variety of experiences to explore. So far, we have ventured into topics such as sushi, tea, koinobori (carp streamers), ink wash art, and now karaoke! We had a hunch that the Dragonflies would be interested in karaoke because they dance and sing all the time in the class – with or without music.

What topics were explored?

Our learning objectives were to talk about how karaoke originated from Japan and how it can not only be an exciting activity but a way to unwind as well. The week before, we had taught the Dragonflies about rock gardens, raking sand, and plants. We talked about how these activities could be “relaxing” and that idea really stuck with the Dragonflies. They would start to talk about how they “relaxed” at home by looking at a “book” or sitting in a “rocking chair.” Since this idea of finding a way to emotionally wind down had already permeated the class, we were able to connect it to the topic of karaoke.

To connect this topic to Japanese karaoke, we talked about how there are people in Japan who work very hard at their jobs and after a long week, they might perform karaoke with their close friends. We talked about how karaoke is one way to relax after working really hard. When we had our karaoke party with the Dragonflies, we did it at the end of our school day. Since then we have returned to it again and again in the afternoons. The Dragonflies loved karaoke!

How is this a developmentally appropriate practice?

Singing and dancing play an important role in toddler development. It helps the Dragonflies to learn social emotional skills like turn taking and listening to each other. They are learning cognitive skills by noticing the patterns and sequences of songs. They are developing their language skills as they sing new words. And they are also developing their physical skills as they dance to the new music.

What was our museum visit and object?

As for the visit, we decided to see David Hockney’s Snail Space at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. We choose this work of art because it gives a sense of space that is meant for a performance. We could have gone the route of visiting an exhibit that featured a microphone, but we decided that the object of a microphone on view might be too small of a feature to warrant enough attention from the toddlers. So why not visit a more immersive space, which is set up almost like a stage, and bring our own microphone?

In addition, David Hockney’s Snail Space is an intimate and secluded area compared to the large galleries that we often find ourselves in. We were able to connect the physical space of Snail Space to the tradition of Japanese karaoke. In Japan, it is customary to preform karaoke in a small private room often called a karaoke box in front of your close friends. The intimacy of the actual space in Snail Space draws parallels to what one might experience if they go to a karaoke box in Japan. Since our class were the only people in the space, the Dragonflies had the added bonus of experiencing it with some of their closest friends.

How did the lesson reach the objectives and expand the topic?

We actually had two separate lessons on karaoke that day. One being the museum visit in the morning, the other being the actual karaoke party in the afternoon. At the museum visit we talked about how the art space was like a stage and we asked the Dragonflies about the different colors they saw in the lights. We then gave each Dragonfly a tea light that they could turn on and off and watch it change colors just like in the art piece. We also brought the microphone so the Dragonflies could hear their voices amplified in the space.

There were a few hiccups in the museum visit. The first was that a fire alarm went off in the museum and so we had to exit. (Just to clarify, we were there before the museum actually opened, so the alarm was most likely a test.) Another oops was when one of the Dragonflies dropped their tea light and it rolled onto the art on the other side of the barrier.

At the karaoke party in the afternoon, the Dragonflies had a blast. We turned off the lights, used an overhead projector as a spot light, and then turned on the disco lights. We had compiled a list of the Dragonflies favorite songs with the help of parents. The Dragonflies then took turns singing their favorite song, while the others got to dance to the music.

Object of the Month: Railway Service Car

2 (2)On a recent trip to the Postal Museum, I was reacquainted with how perfect the National Postal Museum is for young children. Throughout the experience, there were two things that stuck out to me – hands-on objects and imaginative experiences.

It is too difficult to highlight the whole Museum, so I will focus on the Railway Service Car located in the Atrium. You step into the train car and immediately you are in another world. It is a child friendly space (although at times, you will need to pick your child up to see everything) that allows children to move their bodies and engage in tactile experiences. The car recreates what it would have been like to sort mail on a moving train in America following the Civil War.

2Within this small space there are a lot of opportunities for your child. The letter sorting is a fun way to spy a letter – V is for Virginia or D for DC.  Caretakers can lift up children to allow little hands to practice placing the mail into the slots. It is also a great way for a few young children to build their team working skills. You might want to play a game of passing, sorting, and delivering envelopes from the train. You can even watch this video beforehand for inspiration and it is great for adults who are interested in learning more.

1Though the bags in the exhibit are secured, a clever caretaker might bring a few small bags and give the children a chance to carry the bags or even compare weight — all of the sudden your visit into a STEM lesson!  Those letter bags are also a great place to stop and do a simple sorting activity. You can sort blocks by colors or shapes to explain how the bags were used to sort mail by location. This a simple way to introduce some math too!

1 (2)Consider using the train as an anchor object to compare with other forms of transportation in the hall. With some Velcro and photos, you can create a visual timeline showing the progression of a carriage, train, plane, and truck. You can actually get inside the truck and steer – they will love it. Of course, you can also introduce your young child to the concept of mail and how it moves from one place to another. Its a great opportunity to have them help you compose a postcard to a loved one and then send it off.

End your visit with a stop to say hello to Owney the dog and read more about his post office travels.