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.

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.

Changes: Talking with Young Children about Death

This blog is authored by our Director of Infant and Toddler Programs, Melody Passemante Powell. Melody graduated from James Madison University with a BS in Early Childhood Education and earned her MEd in Education Management from Strayer University. She has been working with and for young children for nearly two decades in a variety of roles. In her down time, she enjoys having fun with her two-year-old daughter, wife, and dog Jack.

TRIGGER WARNING: This blog explores the ways in which young children process death and how adults can support them through such a difficult time. The author reflects on her own experience with the death of her mother at a young age and may be triggering to some.


As the philosopher Heraclitus so aptly stated, change is the only constant. Some changes are simple and easy to adapt to, while others might be more complex and can evoke mixed emotions. As our previous blog explored, moving to a new house, welcoming a new sibling, or starting at a new school are changes that would likely cause feelings of nervousness mixed with excitement. Then there are other changes that are incredibly hard and complicated to adapt to, like death. Unlike many other changes in life, death is one change that is often very hard to talk about because it is such a big and complex concept that even many adults have a hard time processing. It can be even more daunting to be tasked with talking to children about death, especially when we ourselves may be dealing with the situation, and potentially grieving at the same time.

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I have always felt drawn to this topic because I have a unique perspective as I lost someone very close to me when I was a young child. I went back and forth about sharing my personal experience, not because I have trouble sharing, but because I worried about making others uncomfortable. As I processed these feelings, I realized they were connected to a norm in my culture: to avoid making others feel sad and uncomfortable. I decided that sharing my experience felt relevant and important. Although like most stories associated with death, it may be hard to read.

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When I was three, my mother died. The situation was even more complicated by the fact that my mother committed suicide. On the day that it happened I had been to play therapy in the morning, where my therapist had told me my mother might try to kill herself again. Unfortunately my mother had tried before and I was aware since I was in the house. On the day my mother died, my Grandma had been tasked with telling me what had happened. After school my Grandma held me on her lap and asked if I had remembered my therapist telling me my mother might try to kill herself again. She let me know that sadly she did today and she died. My Grandma told me that my mother loved me very much, but that she was very sick. She stressed that she had needed grownup help but sadly even that wasn’t enough. My Grandma answered all my questions succinctly without elaboration and took her lead from me.

Later at home in a room of adults I said something to the effect of, “I am sad that mommy killed herself.” My family replied that they were all sad too. I was given space to process and while I do recall being sad, I also remember having a pretty solid understanding that this was permanent and I would not be seeing my mother anymore, likely because this is what I was told. I wasn’t confused because even though it was a very complex concept to grasp, I was given honest, age-appropriate answers about what was going on. My questions were welcomed and I was given a safe space to talk through anything I was feeling or wondering about.

I recognize that my experience is not the same as any other child going through the difficult change of losing someone close to them. Death and grief are deeply personal topics, often connected to our cultures and belief systems. Even within cultures, no two people experience death and grief in the exact same ways. So how do you talk to children about death? Of course it will depend on your personal beliefs, but here are some tips based on my experience, what we know about child development and how young children understand the world around them.

Be honest

Although it can be incredibly hard, being honest with children helps to avoid any confusion. Often what children think about in their own heads may be worse than the actual situation. It is hard to know exactly what to say because every child and situation is different, but here are a few examples of wording you could use in various situations:

Death of an older person or pet: “Sometimes very old living things, people and animals, die because they are very old and their bodies have worn out.”

Sudden death due to illness: “Sometimes people who seem healthy get sick very suddenly. It doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen sometimes.”

Sudden death due to accident: “Our bodies are very strong but there are some things that can hurt our bodies so badly that we die.”

These phrases would be used within a larger, ongoing conversation, but might be helpful as a starting point for honest, age appropriate communication. Young children are better able to understand complex topics when they are able to make personal connections to things in their life. It can be helpful to reference something they are already familiar with to make a comparison such as a plant that was old and died, a pet that died, or a character in a book or movie.

Welcome questions and follow the child’s lead

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Children are curious by nature, working to understand the world around them. Young children think in concrete terms, so it is best to use clear language and avoid euphemisms that may cause confusion. Phrases like “her body stopped working” or for a child a little older, “her heart stopped pumping blood through her body to keep her alive” are concrete and honest. Phrases like “he is sleeping forever” and “he is up in the clouds now” can cause confusion for children because they will take these literally. Children might worry they may never wake up if they go to sleep. It is normal that children might become nervous or fearful in general when learning about and processing a complex topic like death. When answering questions, be honest, but avoid elaborating unnecessarily. We might think that children need lots of information or we are being dishonest by withholding, but in this case sometime less is more.

Talk about how you are feeling

Everyone grieves in different ways, and talking about your feelings when you are grieving may not be the way you process your emotions, but talking with young children about our feelings is critical for young children. A good rule of thumb is to find times to simply narrate out loud about your feelings. For example, “I am feeling sad about our dog Francis dying. Sometimes when I feel sad, I cry with someone. Other times I just want to be alone.” Mentioning that people grieve in different ways, and even the same person can work through grief in a variety of ways helps children feel safe to feel whatever it is they might be feeling, and safe to talk about those feelings if they wish to. Although it can be difficult at times, not saying anything sends a powerful message to young children that these topics are taboo, and not to be discussed.  over time children begin to make their own assumptions about death and grieving, which may or may not be true. Children as young as infants use social referencing, looking to those they trust in uncertain situations to decide how to act and feel. Showing children that having feelings is a normal, human process, is incredibly important. Some cultures are often taught to suppress emotions, and many children think that crying or feeling sad is not okay, when actually these feelings and expressions are completely normal and healthy ways of coping.

Validate the child’s feelings

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Validation goes hand in hand with talking about our own feelings. When a child has been sent the message from the important adults in his or her life that grieving, and expressing feelings is okay, they will likely feel safe to express their own feelings. There are no right or wrong feelings and there are no right or wrong ways to process complex situations like death. Remind yourself and your child that grief is a non-linear process. Some days we might feel okay, even happy, and other days we might find it unmanageable to get out of bed.

None of this is easy, especially if you have to talk with a young child when you yourself might be grieving. My personal silver lining from my experience with my mother’s death, is that I am able to remember how I felt when I was younger, and to be able to say that when given honest information, and a safe supportive space to work through their feelings, young children can be quite capable of processing big changes like death. Of course as an adult dealing with these topics when we ourselves are stricken with grief is easier said than done. Remember that you are not alone in dealing with this and there are lots of resources out there to use as support.

Resources:

Related Articles & Book Reviews:

Dealing with Death from the Fred Rogers Company

How to Talk to Kids about Death from the Child Development Institute

Saying Goodbye: Talking to Kids about Death by Christina Frank 

5 Books to Help Kids Understand Death by Heather Feldstein

Top 10 children’s books on death and bereavement by Holly Webb

64 Children’s Book to Talk about Death and Grief from What’s Your Grief?

Books to Help You Explain Death to Children from Aha! Parenting

Books:

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In a Nutshell by Joseph Anthony – This book is about the life of a tree, and the ways it changes, grows and impacts the nature and earth around it, even after it grows old and dies. This book is more abstract and does not deal with the death of a person or a pet. It is a good conversation starter, and a good reference point to look back to when the time comes that you do need to talk about the death of someone or something close to you and your child. The images are beautiful and very eye catching.

A Mama for Owen by Marion Dane Bauer – Luckily, I have not had to talk with my two year old about the loss of someone we know yet, but I know the time will eventually come. We have a lovely book called “A Mama for Owen” and in the story a baby hippo, Owen, is separated from his mother during a tsunami and he is understandably sad. Eventually he is rescued by humans who take him to a zoo, and he bonds with a very old turtle named Mzee, who basically takes Owen in as his own. My daughter talks frequently about this book. “Owen no Mama” she says in a sad tone, “Owen sad”. I will ask her what happens next, and she enthusiastically says, “Finds turtle Mama! Owen happy!”

No Matter What by Debi Mori – My daughter loves this book as well. This is great book to reinforce that our love for our children persists, no matter what. Dealing with death and loss is hard, and it is important that children are sent the message that they are safe and loved even when things are sad, scary, and confusing.

Book Club: Free to Learn

For our most recent book club we read and discussed Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray. We were initially drawn to this book because of how it embraced play and we were excited to read, learn, and discuss teaching methods that are not often embraced by the public schools. Our book club meeting was lively and you can find a recap of our discussion below.

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Trustful Parenting vs. Trustful Teaching

Gray describes trustful parenting as the belief that “children’s instincts can be trusted, that children who are allowed to follow their own wills will learn what they need to learn and will naturally begin to contribute … when they have the skills and maturity to do so” (26). He explains that this style of parenting has deep roots in human history and was used by our hunter-gather ancestors whose children were “allowed to spend most of their time playing and exploring freely” (28). Gray traces the decline of trustful parenting to the decline of neighborhood playgroups and the rise of fears about safety and future job employment opportunities for their children as well as the role of schools (213 – 218). Gray advocated for a resurgence of trustful parenting and argued that considering alternative schools might be a necessary step to becoming a trustful parent (226-227).

Since trustful parenting and the education system are seemingly at odds with one another. We decided to look critically at the parenting philosophy and see how if it could be adapted to a teaching philosophy that we could embrace at SEEC. In some ways, it was easy for our SEEC educators to say that they were on board with a trustful teaching philosophy. We fully embrace the importance of learning through play and exploration and believe in child-directed learning. We hesitantly agreed to the children’s use (or at least being exposed to) of adult tools, even the dangerous ones, because we believe that children learn through objects. At school, we are comfortable with children taking risks, while as educators we simultaneously try to minimize hazards. This balance between risk and hazards was what Gray was describing when he explained that children are trusted “to have enough sense to not hurt themselves” with “some limits”, such as the “poison-tipped darts or arrows (that) are kept well out of small children’s reach” (29).

There were reasons that we had difficulties embracing the philosophy of trustful parenting and therefore were unable to adequately adapt it. In many ways, being a teacher and trying to impart knowledge on a child goes against the philosophy of trustful parenting. As educators, we all felt that a crucial part of our jobs is to impart knowledge. This means that while being receptive and responsive to the children, we make lesson plans with the goal of opening their eyes to new things. We actively monitor our children to make sure that they are meeting developmental milestones and try to seek out ways to encourage growth in areas that children are not mastering by themselves. While we trust children to learn, we also hope that our children will trust us as teachers to help guide them.

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Rethinking Shame and Discipline

While Gray mostly focused on shame used as a tool against older children, we found that this argument could be applicable to the field of early childhood education. Gray explains that using shame as a tool to entice children to perform better actually causes an increase in cheating (73). While young children are unable to cheat, they are able to lie and we know that children are much more likely to lie about a situation if they are worried that they will disappoint us. For this reason, we decided that it is crucial to look at how we are treating children when we are disciplining or redirecting their behavior.

At SEEC, we never purposefully shame children into changing their behavior. But, we wondered if there were times when we might have been shaming unknowingly. While having this discussion, we came to another question, “What is the difference between correcting and shaming?” We decided that at least one key component of trying to change a problem behavior without shaming was to describe why that behavior cannot be allowed to continue. Rather than saying “Don’t do that!”, we should say “When you hit, it hurts my body” or ask an older child to explain why that behavior cannot continue by asking them “Is that hurting someone?”. These are pillars of SEEC’s behavior management philosophy and we feel comfortable using them. After reading Free to Learn and thinking deeply about the role of shame in discipline, we left the discussion unable to draw a distinct line between correcting and shaming. In the end, we decided that we all needed to go back to our practices and be mindful of this topic.

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Alternative Schools

Much of Free to Learn is a description and study of the Sudbury Valley School. Gray explains that to “visualize the Sudbury Valley School, you have to set aside all of your notions of what traditional schools look like, including your notions of what progressive versions of traditional schools look like” (88). We found this statement to be true. Sudbury valley is indeed “something entirely different” (88). The Sudbury Valley School is founded on the belief that the students, as a democracy, run the school and are in charge of their education. Staff members, which there are very few of, are not called teachers “because they recognize that students learn more from one another” (90 – 91) and must be reelected by the students yearly to keep their positions (90). Children are able to explore the entire campus whenever they want, do not have grades or tests, and do not have to join a single class. The principle tenet of the Sudbury Valley School is that “each person is responsible for his or her own education” (91).

In some ways, the Sudbury Valley School was almost impossible to compare to other schools. As a group we found this both frustrating and enlightening. It was frustrating because so many of the practices highlighted seemed impossible to adapt to other schools, particularly public schools. We discussed how some public schools want to be progressive, but testing and pressure make it impossible. The pressure on schools, teachers, and students is so overwhelming that no one is willing to experiment or try new educational methods. This problem also extends past discouraging teachers from experimenting with new educational methods. It was recently discovered that D.C. public schools graduated more than 900 students who had not earned their graduation last year. With this need to push children through the school system, rather than considering their needs, how can schools be expected to take a gamble and embrace such extreme teaching alternatives?

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Ways to Incorporate Ideas at SEEC

 At SEEC, we are lucky to be able to discuss concepts, adapt them, and implement them in our own ways. Even though our student population is under the age of six, we value their voices. Students as young as two years old regularly hold votes about what the class should learn about next. At the beginning of the school year, our four-year-old classes create a class contract, which explains the rules of the room, and the teachers and students sign it. We are able to embrace democracy within limits and still give each child a voice.

We believe that children are constantly learning from each other. Rather than try to solve disputes, we give children the words to create their own solutions. For example, if two children are fighting over a shovel, we could say, “It is Sally’s turn for five minutes and then it is Jose’s turn for five minutes”. Rather than forcing a teacher directed solution in that manner, we say “I see there is problem here. What should we do to fix it?” The children may very well choose a five minute on, five minute off solution, or they may decide that Jose should play with it because he is wearing blue shoes and the shovel is also blue. So long as both children agree, a SEEC teacher will happily accept this solution. We believe that when children are given the freedom to learn from each other, they learn critical thinking and real life skills. Our goal is to help children discover these skills and grow to love learning.

While we were unable to incorporate all the things that Gray advocated for in Free to Learn, we were able to have a vibrant discussion on the book. In the end, we valued Gray’s embrace of learning through play but advocated that thoughtful educators can have a meaningful place in a young child’s learning.

SEEC Shares: Tiny Sculptures

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At SEEC, one of our core teaching philosophies is using the museums to enhance our lessons and foster curiosity. Upon hearing about a school inside the Smithsonian, many people are excited and want to know more about our practices. Other people react differently, thinking “that’s great, but I will never be able to recreate that in my classroom or at home”. We actively disagree with this assumption and argue that teachers, caregivers, and parents can bring their children out into the community to engage in object based learning. we understand that for some these community visits are not always easy to implement. For this reason, we decided that we should offer ways for parents, caregivers, and teachers to create SEEC-like spaces and activities that do not involve leaving your classroom or house. Our new blog series “SEEC Shares” aims to be a place that anyone working with young children can visit and be inspired to take ideas to mold them to fit their own needs.

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This week’s “SEEC Shares” highlights a class that taught toddlers about sculptures. This particular class was one of our recent Toddler Trailblazers Family Workshops. On the weekends we open our doors to families who come into our classrooms for play-based exploration before heading out on a museum visit with the class. For this Tiny Sculptures lesson, we transformed the classroom to allow for a wide variety of sculpture-based play and then visited Untitled (1976) by Alexander Calder and then Circle I, Circle II, and Circle III by David Smith at the National Gallery of Art. Below you will see some of the many ways that we created experiences to allow the toddler class to explore and create their own sculptures. Hopefully you will find these ideas inspiring.

Classroom & Activities Setup

Straw Sculptures on a Light Table

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For this activity, we put a colander upside down on a light table. The light table helped highlight the holes through which the children could stick the pipe cleaners and straws. As an added feature to the sculpture, we found felt flowers that we had previously made using a die cutting machine and felt.

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Since this was a standing activity, children could freely enter and leave the activity without having to seat themselves in a chair. The freedom of standing can help children tap into their creative side. Additionally, putting the pipe cleaners and straws through the colander holes was challenging and provided children with the opportunity to work on their fine motor skills.

Playdough Creations

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For our playdough station, we used assorted colors of homemade playdough. Often when we first introduce playdough to young children, we do not give them any tools to use. This encourages the children to practice pinching and molding the clay with their fingers, which is crucial to development. For this project, we chose to give the children tools that sculptors would use when working with clay.

Wooden Blocks, Magna-Tiles, and Tegu

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We created a block station that was tucked away in a corner. Children were able to create their own block sculptures without fear of someone knocking it over. Mixing the different types of blocks, including wooden and magna-tiles, allowed the children to create in new and unexpected ways.

 Loose Parts

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At the center of the room was a large station that was composed of loose parts. Before the lesson we gathered blocks of different shapes and sizes. Since blocks that link with one and another are not technically loose parts, we were careful to make sure that none of the blocks in the loose part area connected with one another either through magnets or through linking mechanisms like legos. We also cut up pool noodles, found cardboard tubes of various sizes, and added scarves to our loose part collection.

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To make our loose part area interesting and to hopefully spark creativity, we added materials that we thought the children would never have had a chance to experience before. We filled nylon socks with rice to make a unique form of bean bags and put out a large, white, stretchy tube to manipulate and explore. We also tried to display the loose parts in a way that showed that we valued these pieces without defining what they were or how they should be used.

Found Object Art

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To finish up the classroom part of the class, the toddlers were encouraged to create their own art using colored popsicle sticks, rocks and pebbles, and feathers. This activity allowed the toddlers and parents to reflect on what art is and what defines a sculpture. For this project, no directions were given. Children were able to be inspired purely by the materials and create truly process-based art.

We hope that you found this “SEEC Shares” inspirational and are equipped to create your own tiny sculptures activity. For more ideas check out our Pinterest Boards on Toddler and Twos Classroom, Activities from SEEC, Environments, and Learning as a Family.

 

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.

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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.