Top 5 – Back to School Edition

Fresh pens, paper and backpacks at all the stores. Heavier traffic in the mornings and afternoons.  Cooler weather.  All tell-tale signs of another school year beginning.  We’ve compiled a Top 5 list of Back to School ideas, which will hopefully inspire you and get your school year off to a great start!

1. Nose wiping station.  The start of fall brings refreshing breezes, but also germs.  We love this idea for a Nose Wiping Station that we found on Montessori Mama and How We Montessori.  Pick a corner of the classroom and set up a shelf with tissues that the children will be able to reach.  Hang a mirror above the shelf so children can see themselves as they wipe their nose to make sure they clean it sufficiently.  Not only will this station keep germs from spreading, it will also encourage self-help and health skills. (Image from How We Montessori).


2. Class collage. This SEEC 3-year-old class made a class collage at the beginning of the year to honor individuality while also creating a classroom culture. Using collages are a great way to talk about multiple, unique parts that make up a whole. The class visited and observed “Dam” by Robert Rauschenberg at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and made their own class collage, complete with photos of their faces.

3. Documentation.  Documenting can seem daunting when you’ve got so many other things going on at the beginning of the year, but these ideas could make it easier, while making learning more visible in the classroom. The image on the left is from the TransformationEd blog and features their Rabbit Road, which depicts their learning process during their inquiry on Rabbits. Displaying the journey on a linear road is a concrete way that children can see their work over time as they explore a topic.  The image on the right is from the Science Notebook, Teaching, and Technology blog, which depicts another documentation idea – choose a space in the classroom (that children can see) to display blank sheets representing each month of your school year.  At the conclusion of each month (or throughout) add images or work that share what the class has been doing.  Keep them up all year long, even as you switch out other displays and documentation, to help children see their work and progress over the whole school year.

4. Organizational hacks.  In our opinion, there are few greater feelings than starting a new year with an organized classroom.  This yahoo list has 15 organizational hacks from around the web that will help you feel fresh and ready. (Image on left from Motherhood On a Dime, image on right from Organized Cassroom)

5. Exploring Questions.  Fostering a sense of wonder and curiousity is something we take very seriously here at SEEC.  One of our four-year-old classes spent a considerable amount of time exploring questions last September and October to set them up for an inquisitive year.  To read more about their unit, click here.

For more Back to School ideas, visit our Pinterest board here.  Happy Back to School everyone!

We the People DC Takeover Recap

We the PeopleOn July 17th, SEEC was featured on the We the People DC Instagram handle, a community photo project that aims to share the lives and perspectives of people living and working in the district.

Through our posts we advocated for the early childhood field, which can still be undervalued in our society through posts about our teachers, and their thoughtful and intentional lesson planning. We also highlighted that  children, even infants, are never too young to benefit from learning in museums and other community spaces. At SEEC we witness the amazing capabilities of young children everyday, and were excited to share our student’s enthusiasm, bravery, perseverance, and motivation for learning throughout their school day.

During the takeover we were happy to engage with DC as well as, current and past SEEC families. Some of the comment highlights included:

“I was one of those kids a really, really long time ago! SEEC definitely shaped my life and how I look at and appreciate the world around me.”

“SEEC is such an incredible program for young children!”

“Used to work at SEEC – it was my favorite job ever.”

“My daughters went to SEEC and are now teenagers and I’m an alum SEEC board member. What a special place.”

Below are our posts from the day (to see all the photos be sure to hover over the photo and click the arrow button). And be sure to follow SEEC on Instagram  to see more from our daily life.

Did you know that there are many early learning programs across the @Smithsonian? For example, at @NMAAHC, the educational programming is grounded around the Frederick Douglass quote that “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” Here Shannon and Emily prep instruments for Harambee! with Baba Ras D – a program that encourages young children to express themselves through movement and songs. There’s another performance coming up on August 18th – get your free passes online in early August. There are lots of early learning opportunities across the @smithsonian including story times at. @airandspacemuseum, @hirshhorn, @smithsoniananacostia and @nationalpostalmuseum, shows at @smithsoniandiscoverytheater, and spaces at @smithsoniannmai, @smithsoniannpg, @smithsoniannmnh and @amhistorymuseum. Do you have a favorite place to visit with young ones?

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Why is Play on the Decline?

A few weeks ago, we had our annual Play workshop and for the first time, we added a component about how caregivers feel about play. Earlier in the summer, we shared some of our initial thoughts on the topic and wanted to follow up on our conversation and results from our survey. *


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The evidence from our survey and other sources suggest that caregivers do indeed value play.** I have to admit that I was surprised by the evidence because my impression was that caregivers don’t always see the full benefits of play. It made me think that we, the educators, need to dig deeper in order to understand how our caregivers really feel about play.

Play Workshop 2018_African ArtSo, if we all recognize the importance of play then why is play on the decline? Together our group of educators hypothesized what factors may be contributing to this decline.

  • There has been a shift in how we parent. The old adage, “It takes a village.” is no longer the case. Today, many caregivers don’t have family and/or neighbors to rely on and according to Allison Gopnik, many of us think of parenting as a job and want to do all the right things so they can mold their child into a successful adult.
  • Many caregivers feel compelled to fill their child’s time with structured activities. The variety of choice and intensity in which children participate in adult-led activities leaves little free-time.
  • Caregivers are more fearful of sending their children outdoors. Our attitudes about playing outside without adult supervision have changed drastically in recent decades. This reticence limits playtime and opportunities for children to interact on their own.
  • There is competition with screen time.
  • Success in many of schools today is largely defined as being able to sit still, listen, and test well. Admittedly that is a generalization, but I think it is fair to say that caregivers worry how their children will perform in traditional classrooms where much of the instruction is didactic.
  • We also wondered how caregivers defined success and whether they connected play as an element that could help their children grow up to be successful.


IMG_1841.HEICAt the end of our discussion, we felt we had a better understanding of caregivers and their perspectives. It was clear though that more thinking needed to be done. We wondered how we could help shift not just caregiver perspectives, but the attitudes of policy makers and stakeholders. How can we help these parties recognize the benefits of play?

We shared with the group SEEC’s parent education communication strategy. SEEC tries hard to embed information about play and other topics about early childhood education in our programs. We often use signs and ask our educators to share informally with caregivers during our classes. We also think strategically about the content of family newsletters and social media outlets. We had hoped to delve further into these strategies, but as often happens, we ran out of time. For the future, our team would like to consider other strategies and evaluate how well our current methods are working.


As usual, we would like to hear your thoughts. Do the caregivers with whom you work value play? How can we reach out to caregivers and build partnerships that will support play? How can we get stakeholders to understand that play is learning?


*The survey polled 93 families. Families were invited via SEEC’s family newsletter, school e-mail, and social media outlets.

**Fisher, Kelly R. Hirsh-Pasek, Kathy. Michnick Golinkoff, Roberta. Glick Gryfe, Shelly.(2008). Conceptual split? Parents’ and experts’ perceptions of play in the 21st century. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29, 305-316.

O’Gorman, Lyndal. Ailwood, Jo. (November 4, 2012). They Get Fed Up with Playing’: parents’views on play-base learning in the Preparatory Year. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, Volume 13, 266 – 273. Retrieved from:

Whitebread, David. Basilio, Marisol. Play, culture and creativity. Retrieved from:

Time to Play: A Study on Children’s Free Time: How It is Spent, Prioritized and Valued. (2017). Gallup Poll and Melissa and Doug, August 2017. Gallup USA, Inc. Retrieved from:

Parents’ Play Perspectives. (2015). The Genius of Play and PlayScience, October 2015. The Genius of Play. Retrieved from:





Teacher Feature: Four Year Old Classroom Explores Seed Dispersal

Today we’re featuring the four-year-old Cinnamon Bear class, led by Krystiana Kaminski and John Fuller. The class is currently learning about plants and food through a Seed to Table unit. On this particular day the groups explored seed dispersal with a visit to the Mary Livingston Ripley Garden located between the Arts and Industries building and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. Below you will find images from the lesson, as well as reflections from the teachers. 

Cover Photo

We chose to embark on this unit for several reasons. Throughout the year we have observed how fascinated the children are with the natural world. They love to dig in the soil on the playground and often ask to play in the grass on The Mall after one of our museum visits. It’s amazing how much they enjoy playing amongst the trees for long periods of time without any other equipment! This topic came up last year as our previous class had similar interests, and we thought there were ways we could improve upon it the lessons and tailor it to this class ‘particular interests.

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Krystiana began the lesson by reminding the children of a book they had read earlier in the morning about seeds.  The children were already familiar with the concept that seeds are what new plants are born from. Krystiana asked the children what would happen if seeds just fell to the ground and stayed where the original plant was. To explore this question further, several children pretended to be apple seeds that dropped from the same apple tree. They grew up into big tall trees and noticed how close they were together. They realized that their close proximity might make it hard for them to all get sunlight and nutrients.

The week before this lesson we did an introduction to the unit and talked a little about how most plants grow from seeds. We also read a few books about seeds as a sneak peek to get them ready for our week-long exploration of seeds.

I like to introduce our topics through multiple methods and then, when possible, integrate them into all parts of the day. For example, I like to have a few books that I’ll read to them throughout the week. Sometimes when teaching a topic that is more complex, I’ll use lots of different books. Often times I’ll prefer the way one book explains one thing but how another is clearer or has better pictures and I’ll mix and match. I also like to include video clips, songs, and actions into a lesson, as I believe it’s beneficial for young children to receive information in multiple ways.

teacher feature seed disposal elephant

Now that the children understood the importance of seeds’ need to travel, they talked about how this might happen. The first way Krystiana shared was through animals. To illustrate this, two children pretended to be elephants eating fruit. They wandered away and Krystiana told them that the elephants needed to poop. They had great fun making the elephants poop, and Krystiana told the group that while it might seem silly, the elephant poop had the seeds from the fruit they ate, so the seeds had successfully traveled!

This particular class LOVES to tell stories and act things out. We did a whole unit called Myths and Legends after observing how much they loved telling stories to each other at lunch. They were also given the opportunity to act out a story they wrote during our Performing Arts unit. We wanted to be thoughtful about how we could make this unit accessible and one idea was to integrate acting into the lessons, hence the props. This was a fun challenge for us teachers, as it made us think outside the box in regards to our planning. For this lesson, I did some research and was inspired by the forest elephants found in the Congo Basin. As the largest frugivores on Earth, they play a huge role in seed dispersal and are an important part of the eco-system. I then got some toy elephants, a green table cloth, and some real pieces of fruit to use as props. Whenever possible I like to use actual materials for props, as it helps make the lesson more concrete. Pictures can also work well but actually having something the children can hold in their hands helps bring a lesson to life. In this case, we were able to cut open the apple to look at the seeds inside. We then had the elephants “poop” out the seeds as they were travelling across the Congo Basin (green table cloth).

I knew the children would get really silly when I mentioned elephant poop, so I did a quick reminder beforehand. I told them that we are thinking like scientists and instead of getting really silly we can say, “How interesting”. Of course, they still got pretty silly for a bit. I then said I was going to count down from five to let them get their sillies out but then it was all done. After the countdown I did a sing-song, “It’s all done. It’s all done.” They joined in that chant and then we were able to continue the lesson.

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Seeds are usually quite small so I wanted to have some blown up images that clearly demonstrate the outer part of the seeds that use spikes to catch on to fur or clothing. I matched them to the pictures of the flowers they came from in the hope that we would find some on our garden walk. I think it’s important to use real-life pictures of things, especially things in nature, as children this age can have trouble with transference, so they benefit from seeing real-life pictures.

Ensuring that each child gets a turn with the images, while still listening to myself and others can be challenging, as oftentimes the children will get so hung up on who is passing to who that they stop listening to the lesson. Because I wanted them to look closely at the pictures and observe the interesting shape of these seeds I had them pass it around. Later on in the garden, I did not have them pass, as they were seated in a configuration that would have made it unsuccessful. Instead, I showed the pictures as I walked past them.

teacher feature seed dispersal hunt 4

Krystiana explained that there are four other ways that seeds disperse, and that they would learn about them in a garden. The class was very excited to get into the garden and were eagerly pointing out flowers that looked similar to the ones they had seen in the classroom. 

I love this garden and the layout of it is ideal for individual exploration, as it is relatively enclosed. A wide variety of flowers grow there and I was hoping that some of the flowers I chose for the lesson would be in the garden. We are lucky to have access to these amazing places and I try to utilize them as much as possible. However, if I did not have this access, I would still have tried to teach parts of this lesson outside. They were so excited to search for seeds and the conversations they were having amongst themselves would not have taken place if we remained in the classroom.

Children at this age learn through sensory experiences, not just abstract information. They need to be able to categorize it in their head and much of their previous knowledge has been sensory. By giving them real things we are also making them active participants’ of their environment, which is crucial for concept development.

teacher feature seed disposal wind

The group sat down on a couple of benches, and Krystiana shared another way that seeds travel: wind. She showed images of flowers that utilize wind for seed dispersal and they noticed the physical characteristics that help seeds travel in the wind, such as small, light seeds and cup shaped flowers that dump out the seeds when they blow in the wind.  The children pretended to hold a flower and blow like the wind, imagining the seeds traveling on the gusts.

A colleague of mine introduced to me to the Total Physical Response (TPR) method of teaching language or vocabulary concepts. One of the main concepts is attaching movements to actions. I’ve found it to be very effective with young children. In my experience, they remember concepts better when attached to a movement especially if it’s a fun way to move their body. A few weeks after this lesson, when we were reviewing what we learned, one of the children talked about how the poppy seeds are stored in a cup that needs to be tipped over by the wind in order to disperse. As she was explaining this she was using the same motions we did as a class.

teacher feature seed disposal force

Next, Krystiana shared images of flowers that use force for seed dispersal. She described how some flowers’ seeds dry out in the sun and then bursts or launches out of the flower. The children enjoyed pretending that their hands were seeds and launching them.

teacher feature seed dispersal hunt 2

Then it was time to search for seeds and make observations.

This group of children are very respectful when given non-visual boundaries in the environment so we are able to let them explore either independently or in a small group quite often. We are big on personal responsibility in our room and one way we practice this is by giving them opportunities to show us they can handle responsibilities.

teacher feature seed dispersal hunt 1

Each child received a magnifying glass, as seeds can be very small. 

The magnifying glasses were a last minute touch as I brainstormed the lesson on my way to work. I think they were helpful in that they were something they could hold which made them less likely to touch the actual flowers.

teacher feature seed dispersal hunt 3

The group spent a long time examining the flowers in the garden and predicting how the seeds spread from each flower. 

There were lots of seeds on the ground and the children were really excited about those. The flower seeds were pretty difficult to spot due to their size. The children asked some questions I did not know the answer to and I reminded them that we can always do more research when we get back to school.

I think allowing the children independent exploration time gave them an opportunity to talk amongst themselves about the things they were looking for and many of them were using the language I had used in the lesson. On the other hand, some children were frustrated when they couldn’t find a lot of seeds and I had to remind them that they are very small and they may not be able to find them.

Teacher Feature Seed Dispersal water

To end their time in the garden, Krystiana shared that water is the last way that seeds disperse. She showed images of mangrove seeds and noticed that they were large and boat shaped – a great shape to float on the water and travel!

I broke up the different seed dispersal methods, as there were quite a few and I didn’t want them sitting for too long. I was considering taking them to an area that had a small body of water to discuss the role of water in seed dispersal but realized the lesson would get too long. I was actually planning on doing that part later in the day but the children were still engaged and focused so I added it to the end. I try to be flexible in my lessons as there have been times when nothing seems to be working and I’ll realize that we are better off cutting a lesson short. Or, the children may get really interested in one part of a lesson and then I will extend that part. Luckily, we are an emergent curriculum school and are given the flexibility to base our lessons on their interests. (16)

Before heading back to school, the class went across the street to the National Mall in search of dandelions. Everyone found at least one to blow on and watched as the seeds floated away. The class determined that dandelions use the wind method for seed dispersal.

We had not talked about dandelions prior to this lesson, but they are such a familiar, easy to find flower so I really wanted to add them to the lesson. Also, they are the perfect example of the wind dispersal method!

If I were to do this lesson again, I would have liked to have had some actual seeds the children could hold as it would show them how they are often very small. It also would have been great to have different sized seeds that they could observe and do observational drawing of later in the classroom.

After learning more about seeds, the class continued with their Seed to Table unit, exploring pollination, fruits, vegetables, and grains. For more ideas, visit our food Pinterest board!

Play: Getting Dirty

Pollinators Event_PlantingOver the weekend SEEC hosted a program about pollinators for the National Museum of Natural History. Included in our offerings was a planting station. I wanted children to think beyond the pretty butterflies they see outside and connect how pollination impacts our everyday lives. I was excited when I was given the green light to include real dirt as part of our activities but I’ll admit to being concerned about how caregivers would respond to their children getting dirty.

As a mom, I didn’t think twice about my girls getting dirty. But awhile after I started working at SEEC, a colleague gently reminded me that I should not assume that all caregivers felt the same as me. Since then, I always put out smocks and kept wipes nearby. I also try to provide a variety of options for play so that caregivers and children have a choice in the type of activities in which they engaged.mud, gardening, touching dirt,

While we want to be respectful of caregivers and their feelings, SEEC also feels it is important to share the benefits of play and especially playing in dirt. If we can share information with caregivers in a thoughtful manner, we hope to educate them about our methodology without making them feel like their perspective doesn’t matter.

So what are the benefits of getting dirty? For one, getting your hands into the dirt can be great sensory input. Many children delight in the feeling as dirt falls through their hands. This input allows them to relax and engage in their environment naturally. Playing in the dirt also offers children infinite imaginative possibilities. I know many of us have memories of making mud pies outside – dirt and nature can supply so many opportunities for play.  Getting dirty also allows a child to connect with nature and these early experiences provides a foundation for a future appreciation and connection to the environment. Not only does playing in the dirt help child develop a conservationist attitude, it also encourages their sense of exploration and wonder. (Read more about the benefits of nature play.) There is also evidence that dirt can be good for us and actually strengthen your child’s immune system.

mud box, dirt, playIn the end, I was pleased that so many caregivers embraced our planting activity. Even though we were inside, many families embraced the experience. My personal highlights were an older child who reveled in the feeling of placing the dirt on her lap and a toddler who focused for close to 20 minutes on moving the dirt out of the container and onto the tarp.  I so enjoyed watching how they both engaged with this playful work.

As we come up on our seminar about Play: Engaging Young Learners in Object Rich Environments, we wanted to take the opportunity to look at how our classes are playing with dirt.  As always, we would love to hear your dirt stories too.

mud, messy, sensory,

Look what I found!!

mud, sensory, exploration

Testing it out, is this something I want to play with?

mud, construction, stem

Add a toy and the possibilities multiply!

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Exploring the dirt after a rain adds a new element to the play!

Summer Museum Highlights for Families

Summer is here and it’s the perfect time to head downtown and explore the museums with your family! There are many exhibits and events throughout the summer that will engage your family while learning something new. (21)

No Spectators: Art of Burning Man at the Renwick Gallery

Renwick Gallery’s current exhibition, No Spectators: Art of Burning Man shares many whimsical artworks from the annual Burning Man art festival. From moving mushrooms to scintillating shadows, there is sure to be something that your family will find fascinating. There’s also a fairly unique aspect of this show compared to most museum exhibitions – visitors are allowed to touch most of the artworks.

Extend It: Play with color, light and shadows! With a flashlight, create shadows with various objects. What objects make the most interesting shadows? If your child is older, cut paper into various shapes and see what shadows they create.

Alexander Hamilton: Soldier, Secretary, Icon at the National Postal Museum

If you have any Hamilton fans at home, then this exhibit is for you. The exhibit, on view until March 3, 2019, features original letters written by Alexander Hamilton. While you’re at the National Postal Museum, check out their permanent exhibit, Moving the Mail which highlights different vehicles that have carried the mail over the years.

Extend It: Practice writing letters of your own and mailing them! Choose a family member or friend (near or far) and write a letter to them. If your child is pre-literate, encourage them to draw a picture or dictate a letter. Choose a stamp, and deliver it to a local post office or mailbox together.


Blind Whino Southwest Arts Club

The Blind Whino Southwest Arts Club is an arts and cultural nonprofit located in South West DC. Originally a church, their building is completely painted by artist, Hense, whose colorful murals are perfect to spot colors, lines and shapes. Blind Whino also has an art annex with rotating exhibitions that are open to the public on Wednesdays from 4 PM to 8 PM and on Saturdays from 12 PM to 6 PM. Be sure to stop by before July first to see Le Bon Voyage: Across teh Omo Valley and take in the portraits, homes, and culture of the Surma people.

Extend It: Take a photo of your house or another familiar building. Print it out and trace the outline on a piece of construction paper. Encourage your child to paint your house’s outline in anyway they wish.

Smithsonian Folklife Festival 

Head to the Mall between June 27 and July 8 (closed July 2 and 3) for the annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival. This year, the cultures of Armenia and Catalonia will be celebrated through performances, talks, workshops, and more! Check the schedule for specific times of various activities such as weaving carpets, making clay jewelry, and creating mosaic street art.

Bound to Amaze at the National Museum of Women in the Arts

You and your family will see books in a whole new light after visiting this exhibit, which opens July 20. The show features books that are more sculptural in design than average books.

Extend It: Create your own uniquely designed book. Use one of the techniques showcased in the exhibit, such as curling or pleating, to make your book one of a kind.

Endangered: From Glaciers to Reefs at the National Academy of Sciences

The Cultural Programs of the National Academy of Sciences exhibit explores the relationship between art and science. Opening on August 15, Endangered: From Glaciers to Reefs will feature paintings and photographs by Diane Burko that document climate change.

Extend It: Gain an appreciation and respect for the glacier and coral reef environments by reading stories about animals that live in each (for example, North: The Amazing Story of Arctic Migration by Nick Dowson or On Kiki’s Reef by Carol L. Malnor), or researching more information about them. Look online to see what steps you can take to help these environments and make a family plan to implement one thing that will help the Earth.


Celebrating Play

In anticipation of this year’s Play: Engaging Children in Object Rich Environments  seminar, we spent this past week exploring the all-important concept of play. We delved into why play is important for children, and adults too. We thought about the many different types of play, and how play can be incorporated into structured experiences to make learning more meaningful and engaging.

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Importance of Play

While some caregivers, school administrators, and policy makers are skeptical that a play-based curriculum can achieve academic learning, the educators who utilize play to teach developmental skills and content (listen to SEEC educators Melinda Bernsdorf and Erica Collins reflect on their use of play during an episode of Teacher Truths) can attest to the power of play in a child’s learning.

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Adult Play

Play isn’t just important for children! With the advent and popularity of escape rooms, city scavenger hunts, sip and paints, social sports leagues, trivia nights, adult coloring books, and more, it seems that adults are embracing their need for play. Peter Gray, researcher at Boston College, likens a person’s need for play to their need for sleep; our minds and bodies will notice if we aren’t getting enough play.  Taking time out of the day to engage in playful activities, in which we lose track of time, is essential to our well-being. With this in mind, our SEEC faculty participated in a survey to see how we play when not at work. (20).png

Types of Play

As evidenced by the survey above, everyone has different preferences for the type of play they enjoy. Some children (and adults) gravitate towards solo play, while others prefer to play with a group. Being outside and playing in nature is favored by some, and others prefer construction play indoors. Some love to get messy and really dive into sensory play, while some choose to participate in dramatic play, and still others will always engage in physical play. No matter what type of play children choose to engage in, we know that it’s all important to a child’s development.  At SEEC, we recognize that every child learns in their own unique way, and thus, we offer many play opportunities for every type of learner, so that all children will find an activity that speaks to them. For example, during a family workshop on sculptures, the educators provided varied play opportunities to provide context for the concept, while allowing something for every child, no matter their preferred way of learning.

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Playful Teaching

Unstructured, child-directed play is very important to a child’s development, and should be part of every child’s day. However, adult-facilitated, playful learning experiences make learning more meaningful and engaging for young children. Abstract concepts can become concrete through play, while children also build important developmental skills such as social competence. At SEEC, we incorporate play into lessons, encouraging children to be an active participant in their own learning. Whether they are learning about the anatomy of a sea star by becoming one, pretending to eat like a duck to learn about a duck’s life, becoming the parts of a wrecking ball,  or pretending to row a crew boat after learning about all its parts, our children and educators engage in play in the museums and community every day to bring concepts to life.

Want to learn more through playing with colleagues at the Smithsonian? Join us for our Play seminar on July 9 and 10!