Why Should We Care About the Arts? (or Let’s Create “Both/And” Schools)

I have been thinking about education–both in early childhood and beyond, both in school and out of school–for most of my career. Most recently I have been doing a lot of thinking about what we are, and are not, teaching in early childhood school settings and beyond.

It seems that we live in what I call an “either/or” world of education. Phonics or whole language? STEM or STEAM? Project-based or scripted curriculum? We sway back and forth from year to year on what we are focused on and what we believe is important. At the moment the arts (and sometimes the humanities) often seem to be getting lost in the shuffle. They aren’t part of the common core of what we have decided children need to learn in school. They are often viewed as things that children should pursue out of school, in private lessons, or on their own time. But what if we stopped the “either /or” conversations and started to talk more about how we can create “both/and” schools for children of all ages and all socioeconomic levels?

I spent the morning at the White House today talking about the importance of the arts and listening to youth tell their stories–stories of how writing gave them someone to talk to when nobody seemed to care, how poetry kept them from a life of incarcerations, how dance awakened a passion that they didn’t know they had. Don’t get me wrong, I love STEM—I used to be the COO of a large science museum– and I absolutely believe in the importance of providing a strong STEM curriculum to all children, in all schools. But I don’t think it should come at the expense of the arts. While it is important to have children memorize the times tables, it may be just as important to give them the opportunity to memorize lines for a play. While it is important to learn the composition of the solar system, it is just as important to learn the composition of a great piece of art. While it is vital to learn to decode the letters and words on a piece of paper, it may be just as important to learn to look carefully at a piece of art, a sculpture, or an artifact from history and decode its’ story.

Education should create a passion for learning that lasts a lifetime. For some, STEM evokes that passion. But for others there is a human passion awakened only though the arts, a passion that we often forget about in education. And many of us love, and need, both in our lives. I write to work through things that I am struggling with, but I also love the beauty and concreteness of doing math. I am fascinated by the stories of science, but I want to be exposed to the stories of the great artists as well. Good writing touches me in a way that is different from the way solving a tough math problem does. I cried when I saw Michelangelo’s statue of David for the first time because the absolute beauty of it moved me in a way that is different from the way the beauty of the solar system moves me. Other people have the exact opposite reactions to these very same things and that is exactly my point—we need education systems that support and nurture both/and. These kinds of schools will have a much higher possibility of engaging all children, not just some.

Perhaps the arts are often ignored because they are not seen to be something that teaches “content” that will make you successful in life. But the arts teach you communication when you try to write your thoughts so someone else can connect to them. They teach you perspective taking when you create a painting to look like reality or when you imagine what the artist was thinking. They teach you to take on a challenge as you write and rewrite, create and recreate, or practice a dance until you get it right. They teach you focus and self-control as you work to complete something you started and care deeply about finishing. Perhaps most importantly, they can be the thing that best encourages self-directed and engaged learning for those children who are not engaged by the more traditional “school subjects”. Better yet, what if the arts can be used to engage children in these more traditional subjects?

At SEEC last year our four-year-olds learned about light, invisibility and the electromagnetic spectrum while exploring the adventures of The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells. Another class explored concepts of gravity and its effects on your muscles at the Hirshhorn museum using a piece by artist Ernesto Neto titled, The Dangerous Logic of Wooing and old panty hose full of rice.


A class of our three-year-olds talked about inventing while studying the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the artists they were named after. When they studied the turtle “Leo”, they studied the artist Leonardo da Vinci and visited the National Air and Space Museum to see da Vinci’s Flying Man, followed by the students coming up with their own inventions using blocks, magnet tiles and other materials from their classroom. A class of two-year-olds began and ended a six week study of bugs by visiting Louise Bourgeois’  Maman spider sculpture at the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, as well as by examining real collections of various bugs from the National Museum of Natural History’s collection.

photo 2

Our weekend workshops for preschool children and their families studied the movement of the sun by looking at the sun and the sky on their walk to the National Gallery where they then looked carefully at Monet’s Rouen Cathedral, West Faҫade and Rouen Cathedral, West Faҫade, Sunlight to see the difference in the sun and the light on the landscape.

We clearly take a “both/and” approach here at SEEC and we believe our children are better for it. I hope that our conversations around education in this country can move in this direction so we can engage more children, more often and in more ways. After all, isn’t that the point?

Life Lessons from Two-Year-Olds

I spend a lot of time listening to two year olds since my office at SEEC is across the hall from the two year old classrooms. Two year olds are incredibly cool human beings. They are honest, yet loving; assertive, yet shy; funny, yet serious. I have always said that the year between two and three is one of my favorite years of child development because you have a rare and fleeting view into the mind of your child– they can tell you what they are thinking but they have not yet started to censor what they are saying. I think that there are a lot of life lessons we adults can learn from two year olds. Here are some of those lessons…

  • Use all your energy to engage in things that you are interested in doing. Two year olds go and go and go, seemingly nonstop, but it’s all about doing what they are interested in. We all say that we wish we had the kind of energy two year olds have…maybe we would all have this kind of energy if we spent more time doing things we like.
  • When you are done, be done. While two year olds go and go, when they are done they are done. When they are done with the Playdoh there is no convincing them otherwise. When they are done playing cars they move on. Have you ever watched a tired two year old fall asleep? One minute they are wide awake and the next…sound asleep. No tossing and turning and worrying there. Be done with it and move on.
  • Eat a little bit all day long. Nutritionists tell us that this idea of grazing is the right way to eat but do we do it? No! We sit and eat three (often huge) meals every day. Two year olds, when left alone, prefer to graze on small meals all day long. It is so much healthier.
  • Hold someone’s hand and get their attention when you want to tell or show them something really important. I love how two year olds come take my hand or put their tiny hands on my face to be sure I am looking right at them when they have something important to tell or show me. Too often we talk at people rather than with them.  Get people’s attention when you want to talk to them and give them your attention when they talk to you.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of a great facial expression. Two year olds are experts at funny faces. They break the tension, communicate their feelings and make people laugh. If only more of us did that the world would be a better place.
  • Make sure people clap for you when you do something cool. I love how two year olds do something and then look to you to clap for them as soon as they stop. Everyone needs to be acknowledged for doing something cool. We should do it for each other more often.
  • Ask “What’s this?” and “Why?” a lot. It makes things more clear and helps everyone know what is really going on. You should also ask “Why not?” a lot as you get older. It opens new doors and new ways of thinking.
  • Feel proud of yourself in pictures. As adults we often resist getting our pictures taken and worry about how we look when they are taken. Two year olds delight in getting their pictures taken and insist on seeing them over and over regardless of how they look. They just love to see themselves. No image problems here.
  • Move around often rather than sitting still for hours. It makes you healthier and keeps you slim. Two year olds have it right. It also makes you tired so you sleep better. Not a bad deal.
  • Let people know when you are not happy. It is so much healthier than keeping your feelings all bottled up inside. Two year olds are masters at letting you know when they are not happy, but they don’t hold a grudge either. We could learn from both of these behaviors.
  • Try something new often. Two year olds often don’t think twice about trying something new, especially if you don’t make a big deal about it being new. Two year olds know how to “live juicy”…not a bad way to live your life.
  • Give hugs and kisses. Lots of them. Every day. To lots of people. Say “I love you” often.

If you have not spent any time with a two year old lately I strongly suggest you find one (the adorable one below is my granddaughter!). It will put your life in perspective and make you appreciate the small things that truly make up a life. It is definitely making my life better.


Looking Back: Family Workshop Review


In early November, we wrapped up our first round of family workshops for the year and the last few weeks have been spent reflecting and sorting through evaluations. We received positive feedback about the types of activities we provided in the classroom, the rapport teachers had with the children and the overall quality of the program. Our families were very thoughtful in the type of feedback they provided – really allowing us as educators to dig deep and see a different perspective.


Last week we met to discuss the evaluations and while we had a lot to talk about, the focus of the conversation was on the museum experience.  Many of our parents indicated they wanted more time in the museum. The art historian in me was excited to hear that parents were craving more of the museum! The early childhood educator, on the other hand, was challenged: How do we develop a longer museum visit without jeopardizing a positive experience.


When we develop our museum visits we think a lot about what is best for the child and what is developmentally appropriate. For example, with each age group we know about how much time they are comfortable and engaged during museum visits and try to plan visits that match the developmental stage of the students. We provide multiple exposures to a single concept in order to help them fully engage in the learning process.

This museum framework is also based largely on our experiences at the lab school. We work in an environment where our students visit the Smithsonian museums almost daily. When we plan our museum visits this ease of access is paramount. Our teachers are great at responding to the needs of the children from one moment to the next and can easily shorten a museum visit or cancel it altogether because they can always return. If there is a protest on the Mall or the weather is bad, there is always tomorrow. Not so with the family programs.

On the weekends, tables are turned; the museum visit has to work that day. We don’t have the option to return. We have to make it work!


Unlike the lab school experience, the parents are present and therefore, are also a key part to the workshop experience. They want to learn and explore the museums. For many this is chance for to visit museums they may not normally get to. They also see the workshops as a time of connection with their children where they can encourage, teach and engage. What they don’t want is a child who is starting to get antsy and is feeling frustrated. We have to carefully consider what works best for both the child and the parent.


In the past, we’ve experimented with a hybrid model that includes a group learning component with a guided exploratory activity.photo (5)

For example, my colleague used a flip book for a toddler lesson on fire trucks. First families were asked to find the parts of the wagon and then came back to the group to share. Matching the photos encouraged families to look closely and the group portion gave everyone the opportunity to connect and share what they had learned.  This is a great example of how we can make the museum visit more focused and detailed, but it doesn’t work in every situation. Another colleague did a lesson with no group component for our infants at the US Botanical Gardens in which she planned four caretaker-directed activities. There was no group component and the class remained entirely at the Gardens – omitting the classroom portion because the walk was too long.  My co-manager is also excited to try out another model: adding a second object. By and large we only visit one object per a museum visit, but having had experience with toddlers using 2-3 objects, she is eager to see if this model might also prove effective.


I believe that all of these models have real value. As early childhood educators we often have to take the temperature of a group and make adjustments on the fly.  What works once, doesn’t always work again. Part of our challenge is being able to read those signs and being prepared with additional content (early childhood educators do a lot of content research just for this purpose) and being ready to present that content in a variety of ways. Sometimes all the planning in the world can be for naught the day of a lesson because no matter how good we have gotten at anticipating a child’s needs, they are still unpredictable.

I really look forward to experimenting and growing these family Javasa at Hirshhornworkshops. If you are an educator, post your ideas and thoughts. If you are a parent, come and check us out. Our next set of classes begins January 31st when we are offering infant, toddler and pre-K classes. Don’t be deterred by the weather families – what we lack in warmth we make up for in ample parking during this time of year!

Fountain Fun

DSCN3881Pools, beaches, lakes, sprinklers…it’s that time again! Children all over the US are enjoying summer-time to its fullest and likewise, parents are looking for water-inspired activities. Here in DC, we are lucky enough to have a number of public fountains that are both beautiful and refreshing. Fountains capture the imagination of children, so why not take this opportunity to create a learning experience?

Duckling FountainInfants
Infants often have mixed feelings about water, it can be both scary and exhilarating. Why not introduce them to water through their senses, especially sight, sound and touch. Simply draw their attention to different aspects of the fountain.

  • Do they hear that sound? Mimic the roar of the fountain.
  • Describe the color of the water.
  • Connect the fountain to the actual feeling of water by getting their hands wet.
  • At home, identify other places where you might find water and remind them of their visit to the fountain.


Toddlers are excited by new things and fountains are no exception. Take the time to explore the fountain and ask simple questions about its design:

  • What direction is the water moving?
  • Is there water that is still, where?
  • From where do you think the water is coming?
  • What else do you see besides water?
  • Do you see any pictures or decorations?
  • Try making your own fountain at home with a hose and baby pool.

Preschool and UpFirefly Fountains

By now your child has seen a few fountains and you can begin to investigate the concept further. Here are some fun multidisciplinary ideas:
  • Rainbows, light and water. This blog has some nice experiments you can easily duplicate.
  • Experiment with force and getting water to move in a certain direction. You can even perform this experiment at home if you are feeling adventurous.
  • Discuss why fountains are used: are they pretty, do they help us remember something, are they for cooling off, do people seem to like them?
  • Ask them to choose a location in your community and design their own fountain.

Favorite DC Fountains

Fountain at the Hirshhorn

Fountain at the Hirshhorn

  • Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
  • National Museum of American History (Constitution Ave. Entrance)
  • US Navy Memorial Plaza
  • National Gallery of Art
  • National Museum of the American Indian
  • Senate Fountain
  • WWII Memorial Rainbow Pool
  • Bartholdi Fountain
  • What is your favorite community fountain? Leave us a message!

    Summer Fun: Building Collections with Your Child

    If you have a child in elementary school, they have probably come home with some sort of summer packet. I’ve seen the “packet” take various forms: from a list of innovative ways to encourage reading to a dull packet of worksheets. Either way, parents and educators alike want to encourage learning outside of school and during a time that has been characterized as the “summer slide.”  I hope some of the ideas on how to build a collection will inspire your family to engage in playful learning this summer. Adjust as you see fit for age and your schedule.
    household objects
    Flower Parts
    Looking at flowers
    1. Choose a topic in which your child is interested and then find a space in your home where you can place a table and don’t mind hanging things on the wall.
    2. Begin building your collection by visiting your local library and selecting several books.
    3. Find other toys and household items that you don’t mind donating to the cause.
    4. Use these items in a way that they can explore them with their senses, i.e. what does the flower smell like or what sound do seeds make in a bottle. Also allow them to manipulate the toys or objects so they are using they are able to discover how things work and practice their fine motor skills.
    5. Build a model, draw pictures and display.
    6. Add vocabulary words.
    7. Take it outside of the home and “experience” the topic, i.e. pick flowers or keep a journal of flowers you see during your day.
    8. Take to the community and visit a museum, local store, etc. Take pictures and post in the collection area.

    Helpful Hints

    • Collect, create and display together!
    • Keep the collection at their height.
    • When they are ready, change it up or expand on the topic, i.e. flowers – gardening – water cycle.
    • Let them come and go on their own and edit along the way.
    • Have fun!




    Moments of Joy

    When I looked out the window of my apartment this morning and saw that there was a torrential downpour occurring just as I was about to walk to the Metro I decided there were two ways I could approach the situation. Approach 1–I could leave feeling annoyed that I would have to walk in the rain and wishing that I could just stay home curled up on my couch.  Approach 2–I could leave with the excitement of a child in a rain storm. I chose approach 2 and decided to spend the walk being excited about the fact that I was getting to carry a “brella” (as the toddlers at my school call them) and to walk right through every big puddle in my rain boots rather than carefully walking around them. While this might sound crazy to you it actually made my walk much more fun. I found myself looking for puddles and I noticed the drips coming off the edge of the umbrella. I felt that same thrill of discovery that I remembered from being a kid when I turned the corner to walk down the small hill and saw a mini rushing river running along the curb and then I splashed my way right through it. I listened to the sound of the rain pounding on the top of the umbrella and noticed that the birds were all still singing right through the rain. Walking to the Metro became an adventure rather than a chore. Walking to the Metro became an experience rather than something to simply get over with.


    The rain today has reminded me that as adults we too often get bogged down in the negativity of real life. This being an adult thing that looked so good to us as kids can, in reality, be draining and overwhelming. It is so easy to just slog through life and to see things like pouring rain as negatives rather than as experiences. It reminded me that the reason children delight in things like walking in the rain is that they see them as an experience and have no preconceived notions of what that experience will be like–it is just another of life’s adventures. It reminded me that attitude is everything–the experience becomes what you think it will be in so many cases.

    Here at SEEC I get to watch teachers curate experiences that create life adventures for children every day. I see the joy at the little things all day long. I hear the exclamations of “It’s a parade!” from the twos class when they look at the window and see what in reality is just a huge group of middle school students coming to the museum. I have conversations like the one with three-year-old Charlie when he tells me “I REALLY love school.” I see the joy in watching the classroom caterpillars suddenly become butterflies and in seeing stalagmites at the gem hall and watching them grow on a video on the tablet. I see the kindness as four-year-olds identify and take photos of how their friends are really superheroes because of their kind acts toward others. I see the excitement as a classroom heads to a museum, yelling “GOODBYE!!” at the top of their lungs to me as they walk by my office. I live in moments of joy every day but that joy can be too easily forgotten in my own life.

    At our school this year we are making a conscious effort to appreciate these little moments of joy. Every classroom and every admin office has a jar labeled “Moments of Joy” where we collect stories of those moments that make up a day for a child. I believe it helps keep us focused on the wonder. And I discover that when I am feeling stressed actively watching for a story to add to my jar gives my day a whole new focus. Life can be hard and overwhelming some days and it isn’t possible to always see the joy—some days just really stink. But if we all truly tried harder to say nice things to each other, to approach as many experiences as possible with a positive outlook, and to look for the joy and wonder in our days the world just might be less hard and overwhelming for all of us. Go walk in the rain and look for that mini river flowing along the curb to splash in.

    Using Art to Teach Science

    While it is not at all unusual to see a classroom of late 2- and early 3-year-olds excited about bugs, the way one of our classrooms recently explored bugs over a period of weeks was a great example of using ideas from museum education to compliment best practices in early childhood education. The teachers in that classroom–Elaine, Ashlee and Carolyn–combined art, sculpture, exhibitions, literature, real bugs, and mounted specimens to talk first about spiders and then to move to a study of insects and other crawling and flying creatures…all of which culminated in the children creating an exhibition that was “opened” to a full audience of parents and others! How these teachers combined art and science together with play and exploration to curate a learning experience for the children was nothing short of masterful. Here are some of the things they did throughout this study: – They started their discussion of spiders by visiting the large bronze spider sculpture in the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden. Here they did careful looking to see what they could notice about spiders and sculpture. While there they pulled out spider toys to compare to the sculpture and to the other spider toys using careful looking and  questions.

    photo 2

    Studying the spider sculpture at the NGA Sculpture Garden

    -As they moved on to talking about spider webs they headed to the American Art Museum to look at a piece of art made with string wound in an elaborate pattern around a piece of clear plastic and mounted in a frame. They compared this to the photos of spider webs they had seen and sat in front of the piece to read Eric Carle’s Very Busy Spider. Finally, they used yarn to build a life size web of their own with each child holding a piece of the yarn to create a pattern and then balance a toy spider! -Back in the classroom, they gathered tree branches and used yarn to “spin” webs for spiders. Their careful looking made them realize they needed to look for branches that had “L” or “Y” shapes because they made the best spots for spider homes. – The classroom visited the Insect Zoo at the National Museum of Natural History to watch the tarantula feeding on crickets! Here they were also able to see all types of real insects and carefully study things that they had seen in books and photos. – Across the course of the several weeks they also conducted scientific studies of bugs–comparing them, examining their habitats, asking questions and searching for the answers, and studying how they would help the garden we have on our playground. They looked at detailed drawings of crickets and grasshoppers to notice similarities and differences and then brought crickets into their classroom to live. They also used careful looking at photos and specimens to study the difference between moths and butterflies and brought caterpillars into the classroom to live and eventually will watch turn into butterflies. As the weeks passed they also studied worms and ants and watched the ants in their own classroom ant farm. – We feel strongly at SEEC that play is a vital part of the lives of children and we provide open play experiences that are rich and carefully curated too. Props were available for dramatic play and children spent time playing with pretend worms in dirt in the classroom sensory box and used pretend worms for painting, as well as having many other play experiences.


    Playing with worms


    Searching for bugs

    -Real mounted specimens were brought in for them to look at and study. The children were thoughtful about their observations…something you can see reflected in their final exhibition. As Adele narrated to us for her exhibition label for her caterpillar sculpture “….He has a head, thorax and abdomen.”

    Image 92

    Studying the specimens

    -To culminate their study they returned to the giant spider sculpture, this time focusing on the idea of sculpture. When they returned to the classroom they created their own insect sculptures for a final exhibition complete with an exhibition case and labels. As a result of this combination of art and science our late two and early three-year-old children know a great deal about insects, spiders, worms, butterflies and moths. They are comfortable telling you all sorts of information about these creatures and have deep knowledge about many “facts” of science without having been drilled on these facts. By providing the children with multiple exposures to an idea in a wide variety of ways we are able to build richer understanding and find that the children are deeply engaged in the topics. Linking art and science makes the science more real and the art more accessible–something that is good for all children!


    The exhibitors



    The Exhibition Opens!

    image (3)

    The Exhibition Opens!