Inquiry Tools

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


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

SEEC Speak Part 2: Social Emotional Language

Every community, whether it be a neighborhood, family, school, etc., has a unique culture with its own language. Schools typically have common phrases, as it is helpful for children to hear consistent messages from the adults around them. Here at SEEC we call the phrases that are unique to our school “SEEC Speak”, and in a previous post we detailed some of our most common phrases. We’re back with another installment, this time focusing on social emotional language. Developing social emotional skills is a huge undertaking and can often leave children feeling frustrated as they don’t have the language to express their big emotions during a conflict with a peer or adult. At SEEC, we use simple phrases from infancy that build upon one another to give children the skills to problem solve on their own.

Infants – “Space”

For preverbal children, adults narrate and explain the situation to all children. The adults talk about what each child each is doing and how those actions impact the other children. One-year-olds, who are starting to become mobile, often find themselves too close to other children, so we begin teaching them the concept of “space”. While we may use a variety of words to narrate and explain the situation, we will highlight short, simple phrases, such as “space” and often pair them with a physical sign like holding your hand up like a stop sign. One-year-olds soon begin to understand the power of these short, simple phrases and will begin to say and react to “space”, particularly when prompted by an adult.

Toddlers – “Me next”; “In hands”; “Check on body”

As toddlers’ ability to speak increases, new social-emotional phrases are introduced. Adults can empower toddlers to verbally state their own wants and needs. The phrase “me next” helps the child explain to another child that they would like a turn next. Some adults are bothered by the fact that “me next” is not grammatically correct, but these short phrases are the clearest to the children and are often all the toddler is capable of saying. A longer phrase may be too complicated and force the toddlers to resort to acting physically rather than using their newly acquired language.

Toddlers need a way to differentiate what objects are being used by others and what objects are free to be played with. For these young children, we keep things simple by teaching them “in hands”. If an object or toy is in a child’s hands that means that they are using it and another child cannot take it. This clear phrasing helps empower young children and decreases confusion.

One way that we build empathy in young children is by highlighting how a child is feeling and then working with other children to come up with ways that might make that child feel better. For example, if a child is hurt, another child might “check on their body” by gently patting the hurt child. “Checking on bodies” is a simple and effective way to help another child feel better.

Twos – “My hands”; “I don’t like that”; “Stop that”

Two-year-olds love saying and practicing our “SEEC Speak” phrases. They understand the power and usefulness of these phrases but struggle to say them in the moment when emotions are heightened. It is helpful for them to practice “SEEC Speak” phrases when pretending. Acting out scenarios helps them to learn and say our phrases. While practicing phrases like “in my hands”, “I don’t like that”, and “stop that”, two-year-olds will often add in nonverbal cues to help their peers understand them. They may shake their head to imply “no” or they may speak in a strong, authoritative voice, all of which helps to make their message clearer to their peers. While two-year-olds will often struggle to say these phrases without adult help in the heat of the moment, practicing these phrases helps them to develop their social-emotional skills.

Threes – “No, thank you”; “Stop”; “That hurts my body”

Sometimes adults underestimate a child’s ability to communicate when they are preverbal, and then overestimate a child’s ability to use words once they can talk, especially when experiencing big emotions such as frustration or anger.  While three-year-olds have many words, it is still useful to give them a specific prompt when they are upset, other than “use your words” as they might not know what words to use. Our threes often use “no, thank you” or “stop” when peers do something they do not like, or “that hurts my body” when play turns too rough.

Fours – “I don’t like it when…”, “That hurts my feelings”

In preschool, children are better able to articulate their feelings to peers and adults. When very upset, a child may only manage to say, “I don’t like that” or “stop”, however many will follow up that statement by explaining what it is they do not like. This is helpful for the other child, as sometimes children can be confused as to what behavior is bothering someone else.

Kindergarten – “What can I do to make you feel better?”

By the time children reach kindergarten, they’re able to effectively reflect on their actions that may have hurt a peer’s body or feelings, and help make the situation better. Our kindergartners often use the phrase, “How can I make you feel better?” when they apologize to a peer. This is more concrete than a simple, “I’m sorry” and allows both children to have a conversation about the situation resulting in action. I recently overheard the following conversation:

Child 1 was running on the playground and accidentally ran into child 2 who hit his head on the fence.

Child 2: Why did you do that?

Child 1: I’m sorry, it was an accident. What can I do to make you feel better?

Child 2: Don’t run so fast next time when we’re coming onto the playground.

Child 1: Okay.

They ended their exchange with a hug, and while child 2’s head still hurt, he clearly felt that he had been heard and an effort had been made to make him feel better.


What phrases do you use with young children to support their social emotional growth?

Weapon Play in Early Childhood: How to be Developmentally Appropriate and Responsive to Current Events

“Bang, bang. Got you!” Have you ever heard these words on the playground? Even though many adults are uncomfortable with children engaging in weapon play, it happens regardless. Recently, our school has been discussing whether weapon play should be allowed, and if so, with what parameters. As our executive director, Meredith McMahon, put it, we need to consider three key perspectives when making this decision: what is developmentally appropriate for the children, what the expectations are in their future schools, and what is currently happening within our larger society.  Balancing these three considerations and the multiple perspectives of faculty and families has made this a difficult topic to navigate.

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Developmental Appropriateness

While it can be jarring for an adult (especially those who have been affected by gun violence, as some of our SEEC community has) to see a child pretend to shoot a peer, children do not have as much life experience as adults and therefore do not fully understand the complexities of weapon play. For example, while school administrators in North Carolina saw a five-year-old turn a stick into a gun and threaten to shoot and kill her classmates, the five-year-old in question saw herself playing an imaginary game in which she pretended to be a castle guard and defended her friends, the king and queen. Children often see their favorite super heroes or movie characters using weapons, both real and imaginary. For a child whose entire lived experience is fodder for their play, it can be hard for them to understand why guns, lightsabers and swords are off limits.

In our experience, simply saying no to all weapon play, especially without an explanation to why it is being disallowed, will do little to stop the play. Instead, children might become more effective at hiding this kind of play. As one faculty member said, “They’re still going to do it, they’re just going to do it behind your back. It takes away from your relationship and ability to guide them through it and lead them to best practices in playing it.”

Research has also shown that there is no correlation between weapon play as a child and later weapon use, but instead is linked to higher social competencies. Weapon play is just one facet of a child’s play and through it children can learn communication and problem-solving skills as well as develop their imaginations. For example, one of our preschool educators shared a recent experience with her class on the playground in which the children were pretending to shoot things. She asked what they were doing and they told her that they were using bubble blasters to trap bugs, specifically mosquitoes. They began going around the playground together looking for bugs and pretending to trap them or blast them away so they wouldn’t get bitten.

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Future School Expectations

While we at SEEC can discuss and commit to a stance on weapon play, we recognize that our students will eventually leave SEEC and attend a school whose rules around weapon play will most likely be different. In recent years, many news stories have emerged detailing how young children have been suspended for engaging in weapon play, or simply drawing a weapon to accompany their drawings. We want to ensure we are preparing our students for the next step in their academic career, which means preparing them for expectations in their elementary schools.

As our older children get ready to make this transition, our faculty discusses what they can expect going to a new school; that some rules that they have at SEEC may stay the same, and some may be different. We’ve been including weapon play in this discussion, however one PreK-4 educator expressed concern that a child could leave before these conversations take place (due to a family move, etc.) and that we will not have prepared them fully.

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Current Societal Climate

The current climate in the country and world is not something to be taken lightly. As one faculty member pointed out, children hear and see images related to weapon violence through the media, whether it be in passing on the news, the radio or on the cover of newspapers, books, and websites. Mass shootings and police shootings of unarmed citizens are an all too common reality in our country. People of color are disproportionately affected by these killings, making these occurrences not only disturbing, but a social justice issue. At school, we also have active shooter drills, in which the children hear the language “there has been an active shooter reported in the building,” while we practice hiding. To think our children are not absorbing weapon related images is naïve and to ignore how the current state of the country affects them and their future is irresponsible.  At our most recent meeting, several of our team thought broadly saying, “What kind of voice do we want our school to be? Weapon play is important, but we’re impacting these children’s lives every day and I would love our world to be less violent.” Another said, “This is a hard topic without one clear answer, but what are we doing, proactively, to promote peace and foster a culture that values that?”

No matter what our final decision may be, our team is committed to creating language around this topic to use with the children (similar to our current “SEEC Speak”). Communicating our reasoning and intentions with families is also imperative to ensure continued open lines of communication as questions and concerns arise. Our book club is also planning to read Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence by Gerard Jones for our next meeting to further our understanding on this complex topic.

What are your thoughts? Please share in the comments below!

Natural Moments with Literacy

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It sometimes feels like we are at a cross-roads in education. On one hand, many schools are focused on academic assessments and goals – even in the early years. On the other hand, there is a growing movement to slow down and let kids be kids. Does learning how to read earlier really make a difference? My personal experience suggests that earlier is not necessarily better. My eldest daughter, whom I, admittedly, pushed in preschool to learn the alphabet, is an excellent reader. But my youngest daughter, whom I never pushed, is also an avid reader and has been reading “above grade level” for a couple of years now. As caregivers, it is hard to know what is the right approach. We want the best for our children, but we too feel pressure. We also feel compelled to prepare our children for their next steps. So while many of us, educators and caregivers alike, might not subscribe to the idea the reading earlier is better, we still might feel obligated to help prepare our children for the demands that society and our educational institutes place on them.

At a recent professional development day workshop, we were asked the question of how we address issues of literacy, especially within our emergent curriculum. This question made our team stop and think — not because we don’t consider literacy, but because, we realized, it is embedded naturally into the work we do with children. When we think about literacy, we think about how it supplements the children’s natural curiosity, how it enriches the environment and play, and how it connects to our learning within museums and the community. At SEEC, we are not necessarily teaching children how to read but offering them literacy rich experiences that connect to topics in which they are interested and make sense within their daily routine. As part of our reflection on literacy, we compiled a photo journal of what it looks like in our classrooms.  We look forward to continuing our discussion at our upcoming workshop Emergent Literacy Using Objects.

Environment 

Words and letters can be seen on almost every element of  our classrooms. We are careful to put signs at children’s eye level even if the children are too young to be able to read them. Children see adults gaining important information from looking at these signs and will often go up to them and try to decode information as well. To make this more developmentally appropriate, we pair the written words with images. These images make the signs and letters more meaningful to the children and helps them to pair words with ideas.

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Transitions

Having a group of young children move from one activity to another always proves to be a challenging time in a classroom. We regularly use games and songs that focus on letters, reading, and literacy to help ease the stress that comes with transitions. As children grow we make these transitional games more challenging to meet their developmental needs. For example, in our two year old classroom each child may try to find the first letter of their name before they leave circle to wash their hands before snack. This game is adapted in the four year old room to trying to find all or most of the letters in their name. This activity helps to keep the group engaged and focused as they prepare to begin a new activity.

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Play

Children learn through play and play has been show to be vital to children’s overall well being. Yet many parents and educators grow concerned that children will not have the opportunity to learn basic academic skills if they spend all their time playing. At SEEC, we integrate play and academic learning by providing opportunities for both to occur simultaneously. For example, if children are pretending that they are at a restaurant, we will put out pads of paper and pencils so the pretend server can write down the order.

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Sensory play also encourages young children to try to pick up and explore new materials. While interacting with these materials, children are strengthening the same muscles and coordination that they will use when holding a pencil and writing.

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Community/Objects

Our use of community, museums, and objects is a key component to literacy at SEEC. In some cases, it is as clear-cut as narration for our youngest students. Children who have the opportunity to learn outside the walls of their classroom, also have the chance to expand their own world. As they see things, our educators are there to respond to them and help them build their vocabulary. For our older children, our faculty often finds naturally occurring instances to recognize letters and symbols. For example, reading street signs. We also feel that using the community can help children connect words with real objects and thus, facilitate their understanding. Children learn that the color blue can be a deep, dark blue in a painting at the Hirshhorn and also the light blue they see in the sky. Our community also allows us to explore language and literacy via different perspectives like the one pictured below. In this case, children learned about the artwork of Xu Bing and thought creatively about how to apply language to their own artwork.

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Halloween Costumes

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Halloween is coming, and I bet if you have young children, you’ve heard about what they want to be for the holiday. Back in September, I had already been told by multiple students what they were planning to dress up as. As a fellow lover of Halloween, I appreciate the chance to discuss costume ideas with fellow enthusiasts. However, being an adult and early childhood educator, I recognize that there can be pressure that parents feel about their child’s costume, such as getting that perfect Halloween photo while also respecting your child’s comfort. It can also be tricky to get their outfit ready for October 31st due to limited time, budget considerations and possibly a child’s indecision on what they want. I’ve compiled a few considerations to think about when preparing for All Hallows’ Eve to hopefully make it a bit easier.

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Comfort

Comfort is important, especially for very young children who are still working on how to control and move their own bodies. A cumbersome costume can be physically exhausting and add to a day that is already often overwhelming.  Consider choosing a costume that is as similar to your child’s normal clothing. Wear a costume that feels just like a regular outfit, like the Charlie Brown costume pictured above or add a loose fitting accessory to their outfit that can easily be removed. The soft, light weight gnome hat and beard above is a perfect example!

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Logistics

Let’s face it, some costumes are difficult to put on and take off, making bathroom breaks complicated. Think about making or buying a costume that is made up of a top and bottom, and possibly a couple of items that can be easily taken off. Plus, if the costume is made out of leggings or sweats they can be reused throughout the year!

Cultural Sensitivities 

Young children are natural classifiers, sorters and organizers. They are constantly absorbing information from adults, peers, media and more about people and their role in their world. Keep in mind that even though Halloween is a lighthearted holiday, it’s important to be careful when choosing costumes that reflect other cultures and ethnicities. Though well-intentioned, we sometimes don’t recognize the meaning behind some age-old costumes. For example, wearing a Native American headdress as a costume is often regarded as disrespectful because of their ceremonial nature. If your child asks to dress up in a costume that you find culturally insensitive, use it as an opportunity to discuss why they wish to dress like that. Spend time to learn about the culture together, which will foster appreciation and respect.

Gender Considerations 

Several years ago I heard a four-year-old boy say, “Girls can’t be Superman!” Again, young children innately categorize as they learn new information, including concepts about gender. While it’s natural for children to think “only boys do X and girls do Y”, it’s important to counter these notions so that children don’t grow up thinking there are limitations to what they or others can do based on gender. When I heard the comment about Superman, I asked the child why he felt this way. He replied that Superman is a boy, so only boys could be him. We talked about how even boys who dress up as Superman for Halloween are only pretending to be him, so girls can pretend to be him as well. We can all pretend to be anything we can imagine. We also talked about the reasons Superman is a hero and agreed that both girls and boys can perform heroic acts.

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Sticking to One Costume

Halloween only comes once a year, so it can be difficult for a child to choose a costume and stick to it. This can be frustrating for parents to buy or make a costume for fear their child will change their mind again. One way to combat this is to pick a date by when your child will need to decide by. After that, if they come up with other ideas, add it to a Halloween Costume Ideas list. They can add as many ideas as they’d like and can look back at it next year. Full disclosure, I have one of these on my phone for myself! Another option is to combine two ideas into one. For example, the child above wanted to be both a skeleton and a witch – so her parents combined both into one costume!


Want more ideas of how to celebrate Halloween in a meaningful way with young children? See our Halloween Pinterest board!

Teacher Feature: Three-Year-Old Class Explores Rivers

Today we’re featuring Connie Giles, one of the teachers of the three-year-old Wallaby class. The class had been busy exploring a water unit, and I joined them for a lesson about rivers at the National Gallery of Art. Below you will find images from the lesson, as well as reflections from Connie. 

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On the way to the museum the class stopped by one of the large fountains outside of the National Gallery of Art. Connie reminded the children about the other fountains they had seen during their water unit and the class took a few minutes to observe the fountain and listen to the water falling.

The museum or community destination of the day is not the only place where we can learn. We often stop to look at other things and have many interesting experiences along the way. On this particular day, we had some extra time and were able to travel slowly and enjoy the journey more than usual. I had wanted to take the students to this fountain at some point and had not been able to yet, so this was the perfect opportunity for them to see it, hear it, and experience something new. It was also a chance to review the tranquility concept we had learned during an earlier lesson and would be reviewing again at the end of this river lesson.

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Upon finding the artwork, River Landscape with Ferry by Salomon van Ruysdael, Connie asked the class to sit in front of it like an audience so that everyone had a clear view of the painting. Next, she led the class in taking a few deep breaths to center themselves and calm their bodies. After that, she asked the children to silently observe the painting for a moment.

To choose this piece, I looked at several paintings with a few criteria in mind. I wanted a piece we had not seen before. I also wanted it to be large with many details so there would be lots to observe. I would have preferred a painting that depicts both sides of a river to point out the difference between a river and other bodies of water, but I finally settled on River Landscape with Ferry because it had lots of details to help with our “careful looking” activity. Before discussing an object, we often take time to look carefully at it as careful looking strengthens the early cognitive skills of examination, observation, and concentration.

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After the children observed the artwork, Connie asked the children to move as something they noticed in the piece. One child was a boat sliding on the water, several were moving like horses they spotted on the shore of the river, while someone else moved like the whooshing of wind.

Children need to move after being still, but also, movement is a way to experience and learn something in a different way than through hearing, speaking or seeing. It is important for the brain to be stimulated in as many different ways as possible to create deep understandings of concepts. Movement is another way for the students to make a connection to the art and put their own personal touch on the describing and interpretation of it.

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Finally, the group discussed what other observations they had, including how the painting made them feel. Common themes among the observations were the shape of clouds and what it reminded them of (a forklift, a lobster, a moose chef), and the castle in the distance. Many children focused on small details and took turns to get up and show their classmates what they had observed. For example, “If you look very closely you can see a white flag hiding behind that boat.”

At the beginning of the year the group always had plenty to say, but their observations were almost solely of things they could see. Gradually, I helped them expand into how it made them feel, what it reminded them of, and what they could imagine was there. I did this through modeling this myself and also giving them prompts to help them get started like, “It makes me feel….” or “It reminds me of….” Gradually the children grew their observations into deeper and more expansive descriptions and explanations of their thought process. Now, I often hear them describe something that is not seen, but imagined or say that something reminds them of something else. Sometimes, on their own, they begin with a phrase like, “It makes me feel…” It has been a great process to watch grow.

One moment from this section of the lesson I have reflected on a lot is how I respond to the children’s responses. I stopped one student a little prematurely because I felt she was repeating what the previous student said instead of sharing an observation of her own. I wanted to give this student more time to think of her own special thought, but she did not want to. I wish I had seen how important it was to her to share her almost identical thought. I have to remember that a thought that seems identical to another child’s isn’t copied, it is simply that the students had the same idea and both want to share it in their own way. Fortunately, when we came back to her, she shared her thought, and while some elements were similar to another student’s thought, there were many parts that were different.

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Next, the group rearranged themselves into a circle so they could focus on some objects and activities that Connie had prepared. She told the class that rivers are very special because they are always moving! She showed a video of leaves floating down a river and a video of a toy boat sailing downriver to illustrate this concept.

Technology is another way for children to absorb information, it allows them to see actual photos or a video of what they are learning about which takes the teacher’s verbal description one step further. In my experience, technology also seems to enhance concentration, as students seem to become very interested and focused when the iPad, cell phone or laptop comes out.

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Connie explained that the direction a river moves is called “downriver”. She brought out a whiteboard and sounded out the word as she wrote. The children enthusiastically called out the letters as Connie made each sound.

Literacy is everywhere and should be a natural and constant part of every child’s day. I try to incorporate literacy into almost every lesson in the form of reading books, sounding out words, talking about letter sounds and letter recognition. I also like to incorporate a specific new vocabulary word about once a week by emphasizing the word, spelling it out, and reviewing it many times. The kids love to learn new words as it makes them feel powerful. The children’s interest in letter sounds has peaked in the second half of the year, so we have increased our spelling and sounding out of words even more and added additional letter related activities for classroom playtime as well.

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Next, Connie put down a paper river with arrows to show the direction the river flows. The class walked their fingers downriver and back upriver.

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The class took turns rolling a marble downriver pretending that the marble was being carried by the moving water.

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Connie asked, “What do you think it feels like if you try to walk upriver?” To explore this idea, the children acted it out with one child being the river water, and another child walking downriver or upriver. They found that in the shallow river water, they could easily walk downriver, but it was harder to walk upriver because they were being pushed in the opposite direction.

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But what if the river water is not so shallow? They tackled this question next. One of the children pretended to be deep river water while another child tried to walk upriver. She found that she could not move very far at all. The group decided that it would be very hard to move upriver!

I wanted the students to learn one main thing about rivers: that river water is always moving and that it is always moving in one direction. I approached this concept from four different angles to help the children gain a deep understanding of the concept: the videos, the finger walk, the marble roll, and the acting out. It is important for kids to learn by doing, to truly experience the feeling of something rather than just hearing it described or looking at pictures. It is always important to teach a concept in several different ways in order to reach several different learning styles as not all children learn best in the same way.

When doing activities in a museum space, I consider how to situate ourselves to ensure a successful experience, while also keeping the gallery safe. In a museum, we sit in a tight circle and keep all activities inside of it. Throughout the year we have also discussed, practiced and reviewed our museum manners such as, quiet voices, walking feet, and calm bodies. With these systems in place, the marble rolling and body pushing activities were no problem at all and disturbed no one. In fact, some people stopped to watch with smiles and one even complimented us on the way out. You can use museum spaces in many ways, you just have to plan carefully and set expectations with the kids.

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To end their lesson, Connie passed out river rocks. The class noticed how the rocks were very smooth from the water running over them. They compared these to a bumpy, rough rock and decided that the rough rock must not have come from a river. As the children held their rocks and Connie read/sang the book River by Bill Staines, they took deep breaths and practiced being tranquil, something they had discussed when learning about fountains.

Knowing how to self-regulate and how to calm your body when excited are skills that young children continue to develop well beyond preschool. All year long we have worked on understanding that different places, activities, and times of day influence expectations for how we control our bodies. I found that studying fountains earlier in our water unit was a wonderful opportunity to introduce the idea of water as having a calming effect. During these lessons we learned the word “tranquil” and talked about other words like “peaceful”, “calm”, “mellow” and “relaxed”. We talked about how fountains are often peaceful places. I found that revisiting this concept at the end of the river lesson allowed the children to reconnect with the idea of water as a calming influence as we finished our lesson and prepared for our walk back to school.

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Back in the classroom that afternoon the children enjoyed taking turns rolling the marbles down their river and learned about two animals that live in rivers – crocodiles and alligators.

I set out a “theme choice” every afternoon, which is an activity that is related to the lesson topic of that day. I do this to solidify what was learned and to allow the kids to explore their new knowledge on their own through play. Oftentimes not all students get a turn with an activity during a lesson, but placing the same materials out for free exploration allows them all to get a turn later in the day.



After exploring rivers the class learned about several other bodies of water such as ponds. For more water ideas, visit our boats, ocean, waterfall, and water Pinterest boards.

Agents of Change

SEECstories.com (17)A few months ago, I wrote a blog about museums and democracy and I have, of late, been reminded that I am not the only one thinking about young children, civics, and advocacy. I was taking time to go through my predecessor’s files and was reminded that SEEC collaborated with Project Zero on a project entitled Children Are Citizens, a collaboration of children and teachers participating in a professional development and curriculum project that sees young children as not just future citizens, but current citizens. The goal of the project is to connect children to their DC community in an active and meaningful way. There is even an upcoming conference on this very topic next weekend at the Washington International School. SEEC’s participation in 2014 -2015 highlighted the students’ perspectives on the museums on the National Mall – offering insight into the collections and commenting on the importance of museums and what other children should see when they visit.

My team and I also recently spent two days at the Capitol conducting a training for their visitor services staff and I was lucky enough to engage in a conversation with their educators about civics and young children. Like us, they felt that civics has a definitive place in early childhood education.

With all these elements converging, I wanted to take time to reflect back on SEEC’s students and their role as young citizens. In my previous blog, I made the case for how SEEC’s approach to learning naturally promotes civic and community engagement. With this blog, I wanted to examine how specific lessons help young children become active members of their community.

One of my favorite SEEC stories comes from the Kindergarten class a few years ago when they learned about biblioburro or the donkey library, a mobile library in Columbia. After learning about this library and taking some time to formulate questions for it’s founder, Luis Soriano, the kindergartners wanted to do something to support it. They ultimately decided on hosting a bake sale, which they successfully planned and implemented as a group. They earned $500, which they excitedly counted and then tracked as their teacher transferred the money.  The biblioburro also inspired them to make an alphabet book of ocean animals in Spanish. The book was not only donated to the biblioburro, but was also sold as a fundraiser for SEEC.

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Photo used with permission from Luis Soriano.

Young children are naturally egocentric and empathy is a skill that they are still developing. So when one of our classes was having difficulty with conflict resolution, the educators thought it was time to focus on developing these skills.  The class embarked on a longer study of heroes and heroism, a part of which included going to Martha’s Table where they not only donated food, but actually gave part of their own lunches to make sandwiches. Here is a small portion from that blog:

The following week we told the kids that there was a special place in DC called Martha’s Table where you could take food for people who can’t afford to buy their own. “We have lots of food in our kitchen at my house,” one girl said. “I’ll bring some to school and we can send it to the Martha’s Table.” It was a sweet offer, but it didn’t require any heroic action on the part of our students and it didn’t teach them anything other than how to ask their parents for food- which was always available to them. So we told them to go ahead and bring some food from home to flesh out our donation and then we put our grand plan to a class vote. We told them that what we really wanted to do was to make sandwiches to take to Martha’s Table and that we wanted to use the sliced bread that was going to be delivered as a side dish for the children’s lunch the next day. The vote was unanimous. We used all of the bread that was delivered the next morning, made 30 sandwiches, loaded them in a wagon along with 50 additional pounds of food and took them on the metro to hand-deliver them to Martha’s Table. The kids were so proud of their work and I was so proud of their choice to take food that was meant for them and give it to someone who needed it more.

These are just a small sampling of experiences in which children at SEEC have participated as agents of change. There have been other experiences, especially among  our pre-K and K students, but its important to remember our younger students too.

Children zero to three are still trying to understand their place in the world, the concept of sharing, and being helpful. This developmental stage is a powerful time to introduce students to the concept of community and empathy.  One of our toddler classes did just this via a lesson about setting the table. This lesson was part of a larger unit in which they explored family, love, and community all around the winter holiday season. What I found most powerful about this lesson was the educators observations about how the children continued to help with setting the table well after the lesson.  The children truly began to see how they were not only part of a bigger group, but able to give and receive help in a way that benefited the greater good.

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In another toddler class, they participated in a unit on superheroes. Children easily identify with the image of the superhero and our faculty saw the opportunity to extend that interest into a study about real life heroes. They explored community helpers like firefighters, military personnel, police officers and even talked about the Red Cross. The students began to see how some members of the community can make a real difference in helping and protecting people. Not only did this unit of exploration give them time to think about those roles, but it also gave them the opportunity to make real connections with the people and places that are dedicated to community service.

Over and over, I am reminded of how fundamental the early years are to learning these life skills. The academic portion will come, but we have a real opportunity to shape active, engaged, and empathetic citizens.