Honoring My Child’s Interests

This post was written by Maureen Leary, Director of Toddler and Kindergarten Programs

Value of Virtual

When the Smithsonian closure due to Coronavirus health concerns was announced in mid-March, none of us had a clear sense of how long it would last. Once it became obvious that it was going to be more than a few weeks, SEEC faculty immediately transitioned to conducting distance learning through online platforms. Teaching young children this way is neither ideal nor intuitive, but we knew we needed to quickly develop these skills to better support our families. At SEEC we believe it’s important for us to offer virtual interactions for a number of reasons. It provides personal connections during a time when we can’t experience them directly; it offers an anchor point for themes and topics that families can explore in their own way and on their own time; it inserts some amount of structure into the days and weeks that have been completely upended; it allows children to retain a level of comfort and familiarity with peers and educators during what has turned into an extended closure with no definitive end.

The Challenges of Virtual

Many families are craving the connections and routines that suddenly disappeared from our lives, and appreciate the opportunity to see each other virtually. That said, we also know that consistently participating in these interactions can sometimes be a challenge. Maybe your child is tired, hungry, grumpy, or just uninterested. It could be that you have a work conflict and you can’t prioritize your child’s meeting over your own. Perhaps you’re feeling overstretched and just don’t want to add one more thing to your day. Skipping your child’s scheduled activity might cause feelings of guilt and worry, and cause you to wonder if it’s ok to be missing these online interactions.  At SEEC our answer is always an emphatic yes. We encourage families to follow their children’s leads on what helps the day go smoothly for them. It might be that they’d rather go outside during a virtual circle time, or that they just have no interest in it at all. Maybe they refuse to talk or get frustrated with how the conversation goes. All of this is developmentally appropriate and totally ok. Enrichment can be found in so many ways, in moments small and large, and doesn’t always have to be carefully orchestrated. What’s really important right now is that all of us, children and adults, feel cared for and supported.

Tips for Virtual

If you do choose to participate in an online “circle” here are some helpful hints compiled from conversations we have been having with our SEEC community. 

  • Some children are camera-shy. Don’t insist that they talk or even appear on the screen. Giving them repeated exposure to the format and letting them develop comfort with it at their own pace is likely to increase their participation. And if it doesn’t, that’s ok, too!
  • If your child is reluctant to talk but does want to be included, suggest they give a virtual high-five or a thumbs up as a way to connect with others.
  • Check with your child’s teachers about scheduling some one-on-one screen time. Even just 10 minutes of individual attention this way can pay big dividends. 
  • Some families have found it’s easiest to pair distance learning with snack time, so the child is staying in one place and not becoming distracted by other surroundings.
  • Alternatively, if the weather’s nice and it’s hard to be inside, try bringing your screen outside and participating that way. We’ve seen toddlers actively engage in circle time while also riding a tricycle down the street!

Screen Time

One final, related note: a recurring concern with the current environment is that young children are getting more screen time than is recommended. This is an issue we are always thinking about, and while we agree it’s best to limit screen time for young children, we do believe that distance learning offers important benefits, especially as we practice social distancing. At SEEC, we generally advocate for the limited use of screens when they are a single element of a larger, interactive experience. Of course, there may be families who opt out entirely of distance learning for the screen time concern alone, and that is also a decision we respect. We always want families to do what feels right for their own well-being, and it certainly won’t be the same for everyone. We encourage you to trust your instincts, be responsive to the needs of your child, and reach out to your child’s educators if you have any questions or concerns. 

Routines During Quarantine

This post was written by Melody Passemante-Powell, Director of Infant and Toddler Programs.

Routines

Schedules are a big part of most of our lives, and most people recognize the importance of these routines, especially for young children. Quarantine has turned everything upside down for many families, and some are wondering, how much of a routine should we try to maintain? To help you think through this we have posed  some questions to consider first, and then outlined some tips and ideas based on structure level and age group.

Questions

What are my family’s needs? All families are different and it is important to recognize that one size does not fit all. Some thrive off of rigid schedules, while others need a lot of flexibility, and most of us fall somewhere along the middle of this spectrum. Think through what works well for your child(ren) and what works well for the adults in your home. These don’t always align so finding some sense of balance is the overall goal.

What is my family’s capacity? Unfortunately during quarantine many of us are both acting as full time caregivers and working to meet job requirements at the same time. Consider how much the adults in your family realistically have the capacity to implement in terms of routines and schedules while also giving the attention needed to other responsibilities. Also keep in mind how quarantine is impacting your child(ren) and what they have emotional/mental capacity to do on any given day.

How Your Days Might Look

High Structure: You plan your days to closely mirror each other, or if your child in enrolled in school, you can schedule your days to match what a typical day would look like at school. For example, try having meals, outdoor time (if possible), circle time, etc. around the same time of day as they would occur at school.

Medium Structure: You can plan to have some components of the day happen in the same way and at the same time, while still leaving a bit of flexibility in the schedule. One way to navigate this is to look at each day as having a loose agenda, and you can talk through what will happen during the day, but the exact details of when and how each part will happen aren’t planned out in full.

Minimal Structure: You can keep it loose and just see where the day leads you. You can let your needs/wants and your child(ren)s needs/wants guide what happens for the majority of the day.

Tips and Ideas Based on Age

Infants/Toddlers: This age group understands time in short intervals, so it’s best to find ways to break the day into smaller sections vs. talking through what will happen throughout the entire day in one sitting. It can be helpful to use the “first, then” method with this age group, using phrases like, “First we will eat snack, then we will go on a walk.” Visual cues to use as reference when talking about what will happen are also very useful for this age group. These can be in the form of timers, or photos/pictures of what will happen next.

Preschoolers: In general preschoolers can handle a little more complexity in terms of thinking through multiple components of the day. A visual schedule is great for this age (a series of photos of what will happen along with the word label, posted in sequence, or attached to a keyring so the child can carry it around to access what will happen and in what order). Timers are another useful tool, and there are so many to choose from (sand timer, Echo/Alexa, stopwatch, or these sensory timers) so you can use what works best for you. ()

School Age: Most school age children can get a sense of a full daily schedule if you choose to use one. Visuals of some sort never hurt, and if your child(ren) can tell time you/they can create a chart (nothing fancy, you can use paper and a ruler to make the lines!) of what each day or each week looks like based on the day and time. Seeing what their day and week look like mapped out might be helpful for time management and daily planning.

Remember

Do what works best for your family on any given day. There is no right or wrong  way to do this.

Set yourself up for success. If what you are doing just isn’t working for your child(ren), or for you, change it up. The point of a schedule is to HELP everyone, if that isn’t happening most of the time, it is time to reassess!

Resist the temptation to compare. It can be hard to see or hear about what other families are doing, especially if it seems like everything is working beautifully for them. Remember the grass has a tendency to seem greener, but what you and your family are doing on any given day, even if it involves meltdowns and a to do list with zero check marks, is just fine.

Parenting Expectations

Families across the world are hoping to resume their normal lives as soon as possible, but the truth is that our new normal is likely to look very different. Though children may be able to return to school at some point, it is likely that schools could have different schedules and/or additional closures. Parenting right now is hard, harder than normal. So, how much is enough? And as an adult, how do you juggle your own worries and workload with that of your child’s? There is no magic answer, but it is important to remember a few things:

Not all families are alike, don’t compare yourself to others.

Your children need to feel safe and loved – that is probably the most important thing you can do.

There will be days when schedules won’t be followed or there was more electronic use than you would have liked – it is okay.

This is a traumatic situation, it is as important that you take care of yourself as it is for you to take care of your child. You will be a better caregiver for it.

When you let your emotions get the best of you, simply say you are sorry to your child. Caregivers are human and make mistakes – allowing a child to observe that can be an important life lesson.

Don’t feel like you have to take advantage of every lesson and resource you see online. If you decide to take advantage of resources, choose what speaks to you and fits within your wheelhouse.

Cheers to all the caregivers out there – our team knows how hard you are working.

Object-Based Learning: More than You Think

Object-based Learning

Museum educators have been practicing object-based learning (OBL) for years. It has been written about and discussed extensively. This blog isn’t so much meant to expand on that literature as it is meant to explore how OBL is used within the SEEC model.

First, let’s define SEEC’s learning environment. We are so much more than a daycare. We consider ourselves a school whose approach is defined by high quality early childhood practice. Our curriculum is emergent, and we use the community – not just museums – as part of the learning experience. Moreover, our Office of Engagement focuses on family learning via both long-term and stand-alone programs.

Definition

How does SEEC define OBL? At the center of our definition is, of course, the objects on display at the Smithsonian. All of our classes, even the infants, visit the museums regularly. While the experience will look different for each age group, all children benefit from being in front of an object. There could be an entire blog on this topic, but we recognize the importance of seeing the real thing – the awe and wonder it inspires. For children under two, who can not necessarily grasp the significance of these objects, the value often resides in their exposure to new spaces, things, and environments.

Tactile

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Because our children are young, we add an additional layer to the OBL experience – the tactile component. Children are concrete learners who explore using their senses and therefore, employing objects that can be handled or physically experienced adds to their learning. This can be a toy, like the boat pictured here, or it could be an element that somehow better describes an object. For example, manipulating a ballet shoe while looking at one of Degas’ dancers.

Sensorial

i-7TcWGD7-X2At SEEC, we expand upon this idea to curate a sensorial experience by adding components like feeling the wind while looking at this painting at the National Gallery of Art by Winslow Homer. The moving air, though not a physical object, certainly takes on that role with the learner. What’s important for the young learner is that they get to observe the wind portrayed in an actual object, like a painting, and feel the air moving on their faces. These experiences enhance their understanding.

Experiment

i-dRHXWcf-X2Likewise, the “object” can also be defined as an experiment. Imagine that a class visits the transportation hall at the American History Museum or observes vehicles moving on a street. The group could experiment with wheel shapes. A teacher constructs a car out of cardboard and uses a simple ramp to demonstrate how the car moves with wheels that are square, circular and triangular. Students quickly see the benefits of having a circular wheel and begin to recognize differences in shapes and how they connect to things in their everyday life.

Nature

i-VpKNHf2-X2For educators working in or using informal learning environments, object-based learning should be considered through a wider lens – one that helps young children to experience and explore via multiple modes. Finally, OBL also corresponds to nature-based learning. Just this week I observed how a lesson on nests with toddlers incorporated both museum objects and nature. The lesson started out by looking at nests sculptures displayed outside the Natural History Museum and concluded with the children making their own nests by collecting twigs, grass, and leaves. To add an additional layer and to help the children better interact with the animals, the children helped throw birdseed and watched as the birds came to eat.


To learn more join us for our Learning Through Objects seminar on March 13th and 14th.

Teacher Feature: Three-Year-Old Class Explores Amphibians

Today we’re featuring Maya Alston and Amy Schoolcraft, the teachers of the three-year-old Wallaby class. The class has been busy exploring the Animal Kingdom, and I joined them for a lesson about amphibians and frogs at the National Museum of Natural History. Below you will find images from the lesson, as well as reflections from Maya.

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For the past two years, a mallard duck has made SEEC’s playground her nesting ground to lay her eggs. Every year we section off a part of the playground for mama duck to lay her eggs safely and use this as an opportunity to engage the children about the importance of respecting her space while she cares for her babies. This was the Wallabies’ first time experiencing the process, and while they have always shown interest in animals through play, we noticed that this experience really seemed to stick with them and pique their interest. Amy and I decided this was the perfect time to begin a unit on the animal kingdom.

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For their lesson, the class headed to Q?rius, an interactive learning space at the National Museum of Natural History, for their lesson.

Q?rius is a space dedicated to encouraging young children to be curious and investigate through hands on exploration. I wanted my students to be active participants and be able to have tangible objects to help them make these connections. I took some time to explore Q?rius on my own first, imagining how my children could engage with objects that were relevant to our lesson. From there, I began to piece together what I wanted the lesson to look like based off what the space offered.

Since it was also my first time going to Q?rius, I wanted to make sure the space was appropriate for my students. I took time to explore on my own as well as speaking with Q?rius employees about what objects they had related to amphibians.

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Q?rius has many objects and specimens to examine closely. Maya led the class to a case and took out a specimen box without showing the class. She gave the group some clues as to what might be in the box including making a frog noise with a frog musical instrument, and showing them an image of a frog. Between both clues many children exclaimed, “a froggie!”

For this unit, we wanted our students to understand the concept that animals belong to different groups. While animal kingdoms are generally taught in later years, I wanted to build a foundation of the concept of categorizing animals based on physical traits, habitat, and other characteristics unique to that animal group. In this lesson, we began exploring amphibians.

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Maya shared two frog skeletons and allowed each child a turn to look closely. They noticed the difference in sizes between the skeletons.

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Next, the class went upstairs to the Q?rius jr. space, a dedicated area of Q?rius for young children. They sat down and Maya told the class what they were going to learn about today: amphibians. They practiced saying the word and Maya explained that amphibian means two lives; one life in the water, and one on land. She asked what animals they know of that live in the water. The children listed animals such as sharks, fish, and dolphins. Next, she asked what animals live on land. They identified many animals including butterflies, cheetahs, birds, bunnies, and elephants.

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Maya reiterated that amphibians are special because they live in both the water and on land, such as frogs. She showed them images of more amphibians including newts, salamanders, toads and caecilians. The group remembered some previously learned knowledge about how many legs insects have (six) and arachnids have (eight). Maya let the class know that many amphibians have four. The class counted the legs of the amphibians together. The group explored another physical aspect of amphibians – how they feel. The class felt their own skin and described it as smooth and soft. Maya let them know that amphibians are smooth and soft as well, but they’re also moist, meaning they’re always a little bit wet.

I knew very general information about amphibians and frogs, but to prepare for this lesson I took some time to research as well. Sometimes the children have questions that I might not have been expecting, so it’s always helpful to come with some additional information prepared.

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One of the children brought up how bunnies feel, and Maya took this opportunity to transition to her next point. She asked the group what bunnies like to do. They excitedly said, “hopping!” Maya told the group that frogs also like to hop. The class began jumping and hopping like frogs all over the circle. Maya let them have some time and then said, “3, 2, 1, and done.” The children took the cue and sat back down in their circle.

While I had not planned for the group to jump like frogs at this point, it was the children’s way of staying engaged and actively participating with the lesson. I really want them to connect with our lesson in a way that speaks to them, and most often, it is through movement. It makes our lessons feel a lot more organic and can even help to push the conversation along. I’ve found my lessons to be much more fun and exciting when I allow the kids to steer the direction we go in just a little during our discussions. It’s an excellent way to gauge their interest and see what they know already.

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Next, they explored frogs more deeply by looking at plastic frogs, and playing wood frog guiro musical instruments. They enjoyed stroking the wooden frog’s back with the mallet and listening to the ribbit-like sound. They also compared the difference in sound between the larger frog guiro and the smaller one.

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The last aspect of the lesson was to explore how strong frog legs are and how they help them to jump very far distances. Maya said that some frogs can jump up to seven feet! To illustrate this she measured out the distance with a tape measure.

The inclusion of math skills into the lesson was something that happened naturally. I really wanted to provide a visual to see just how far of a distance it was, and a tape measure was the perfect object. It just so happened to be a great way to incorporate math skills!

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Then it was the children’s turn to jump like a frog and measure how far they could go. Maya randomly pulled each child’s photo from a bag to indicate it was their turn to jump.

The children seemed to really take to the activity portion and liked comparing their distances to see if they could jump as far as their friends. I think the activity was engaging enough that even when it wasn’t their turn to jump, they were still excited to get to participate in some fashion, for example cheering on their friend who was jumping.

There’s always a little bit of unknown when taking your students to a new space. Sometimes doing gross motor activities in confined spaces can be a little tricky. I wanted to make sure the kids were able to get the most out of the lesson, while also respecting other people using the space, so we discussed.

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As each child jumped, the rest of the class cheered for them and how far they went. Maya integrated math skills by measuring how far each child went and writing down the numbers next to their photo. To conclude this part of the lesson Maya let them know that they were all great jumpers, but frogs could still jump a lot further and they would learn more about them later in the week.

I absolutely loved how the group waited so patiently to take their turn to jump and were cheering each other on. It can be difficult to wait patiently for eleven other people to go before it’s finally your turn. Unity and camaraderie are concepts we encourage throughout the year, and seeing them be so supportive unprompted was very heartwarming.

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To end the visit, the class got a chance to explore the Q?rius jr. space. Some children explored the many specimens both displayed and available to touch. Some played more with the frog instruments or engaged in a variety of puzzles (including a frog puzzle!).

I think what’s great about this lesson is the fact that it can be done in just about any setting with objects. My recommendation for other educators without easily accessible museum spaces, but wishing to do a similar lesson would be to go sit outside or go to a local nature center or pond to connect with the concepts.

We made sure to say a quick goodbye to our frog skeletons before leaving Q?rius. Upon reflection, this would have been an excellent time to have the students take another look at the skeletons and have a brief discussion about what new information they had learned during the lesson. That would give them the opportunity to make connections and help to bring the visit full circle.

Later in the week, we continued the conversation by visiting the Moongate Garden to talk about the life cycle of frogs. Following our week on amphibians, we began to explore other animal classifications.


After exploring frogs the class learned about reptiles. For more animal ideas, visit our Amphibian, Birds, Reptile, and Ocean Pinterest boards.

SEEC’s Oscars

2-2In keeping with the awards season time of year, SEEC held its annual Staff Appreciation dinner recently in order to recognize the hard work and dedication of our entire team. It was also a great opportunity to kick back, relax, and enjoy some time together.

During the course of the evening, we honored six individuals who have really stood out.

Without further ado, the winners are….

Diane Homiak Award

The Diane Homiak Award is a lasting tribute to the memory of SEEC supporter, parent, and employee Diane Homiak. A fund has been established that annually recognizes the commitment, creativity, and contributions made by a teacher to SEEC.sign-me-up

Melinda Bernsdorf, teacher in one of our two-year-old classes, was the 2017 recipient. With numerous nominations from parents, teammates, and colleagues, Melinda was singled out for fostering a creative and inspiring learning environment, her ability to build independence and inquisitiveness in her children, her willingness to share ideas, and the remarkable warmth she brings to everything she does.  Melinda has been at SEEC since 2014 and holds a Bachelors in Psychology. She has a long history of working with children and says she loves how each child has their own individual way of exploring their world.

Rookie of the Year1

First year toddler teacher Elizabeth Kubba was celebrated as this year’s Rookie of the Year!  She, too, was recognized for her creativity in the classroom, her dedication to her children, and her level of communication. As an undergrad, she realized that educating and developing young people was her true passion so she went on to earn her M.Ed. in School Counseling from Liberty University. She has been working in special education at the elementary level for the past three years.

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Brooke Shoemaker was celebrated with the Spirit of SEEC Award.  This award isn’t given out every year – it’s only awarded when an educator who reaches across the entire school really stands out, and Brooke truly fits that bill!  She was recognized for her work supporting teachers in all three of SEEC’s sites, her ability to connect with everyone (big and little), and her outstanding work within the Center for Innovation in Early Learning. Brooke serves as the Education Specialist for Pre-K and Elementary programs. She holds an M.Ed. in Early Childhood Education and you will often find her combining her knowledge of young learners with her love for theater.

Team Player Awards

The Team Player is awarded to staff who is recognized by their peers. Infant Educator, Logan Crowley, and Assistant Educators,  Ace Walton and Phoebe Cos were selected as this year’s award winners – each goes above and beyond to support his/her colleagues, with warmth, willingness to jump in, and a positive outlook! We’re incredibly lucky to have such supportive and dedicated educators across SEEC!

While these 6 individuals were specifically recognized, we also took the time at our dinner to recognize each and every member of SEEC’s team.  We’re so incredibly fortunate to have a community of educators as strong and dedicated as those working here each day – it’s what makes SEEC the special place that it is – and we know you recognize that, too! An incredible 27 individuals were nominated this year, and we received more than 50 nominations for these talented educators!

Color, Color, Everywhere

DSCN6760One of the first things we do with our young children is teach them the colors. As I sit and write this blog, I can hear families arriving for school and parents talking to their children about what they see in their environment and describing how they look – and most often I hear parents describing colors. Color helps us identify, sort, and can even elicit an emotional response. All too often though we, parents and educators, think of color in terms of art. No longer! The Smithsonian Libraries’ exhibit Color in a New Light will open up a whole new world and make you think about color in ways you haven’t before.

To put it in perspective, Sara Cardello, Education Specialist, at the Smithsonian Libraries has provided us with four fun STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) facts about color that will get you excited to learn more about color with your little one.

Fun Color Facts

Science

Did you know that in 1666, Sir Isaac Newton, an English physicist and mathematician made an important observation? He noticed, when looking through a prism, clear light was not clear after all. In fact, it was made from seven different colors, which we now know as the rainbow. These colors cannot be seen by our eyes all the time, but science has proven that in the right settings we can see that our light is very colorful!

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Newton Sir Isaac Newton experimenting with a prism. Engraving after a picture by J.A. Houston, ca. 1870. Courtesy of The Granger Collection, New York

Technology
Did you know that before the 1880s all colors were made from natural dyes? It was not until an accident in 1856 that we got our first synthetic way to make color. William Henry Perkins, an English chemist, was searching for a cure for malaria. While experimenting with coal-tar, he noticed an oily residue left a vibrant purple stain on some silk. While the cure for malaria was not found, a new process to create synthetic dye was discovered and changed the technology of color forever.

Engineering

Henry Ford is credited with creating the affordable and mass produced automobile in America. The Model T was originally sold in red, gray, green, and black. But as demand rose for the car, production was not able to keep up. From 1914 to 1926 Ford only offered the Model T in black, because it dried the quickest. It wasn’t until a more efficient assembly line was engineered by Ford that they could begin producing the car in various colors and keep up with the booming automobile industry.

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Robert Ridgeway was the first curator of birds for the Smithsonian in 1880. One of the things he noticed were all of the different colors used to describe the animals, which made it confusing for scientists. In 1886 he created A Nomenclature of Colors for Naturalists which helped count, sort, and order all the different colors and name them, like Warbler Green. His work helped take the mathematical guess-work out of bird watching!

SEEC and the Smithsonian Libraries will host an open Color Studio on Saturday, July 16. Don’t let the name fool you though, our color activities will be STEM inspired. We plan to mix and create our own colors, make our own paint, make rainbows and make a color-inspired mural. Following your studio experience, families will be given a guide to the Color in a New Light exhibit.

Join us for our upcoming Artful Afternoon featuring Color.

Object of the Month: Calder Gallery at the National Gallery of Art

As was the case in September, this month’s Object of the Month is actually an entire gallery. This gallery is dedicated to the artist, Alexander Calder, and is located in the newly re-opened East Wing of the National Gallery of Art. The latest iteration of this gallery is bright, airy, colorful, and full of shadows. It is in many ways the perfect art space for a young child can while away their time looking and getting lost in their imaginations.
The objects within the gallery can be used in conjunction to several age-appropriate themes.

  • Shadows – The sundial just outside the Smithsonian Castle in the Haupt Garden  + Moonbear’s Shadow by Frank Asch would round out the experience.
  • Color – Calder’s bold color palette is a great way to introduce your child to colors.
  • Shape – Circles, triangles, even a quadrilateral (the elephant’s ears)!
  • Ocean – Finny Fish offers an imaginative take on our ocean friends- combine it with a trip to the Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall.
  • Balance – His mobiles are a great way to introduce children to the concept of balance.
  • Movement/Wind – Take notice, Calder’s mobiles move and come alive!
  • Space – Many of his pieces reminiscent of the solar system, especially Vertical Constellation with Bomb.

 

Infants, Toddlers, and Twos

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Visit the NGA’s website to learn more about each of these objects.

The animals in the center of the gallery are a perfect height for your infant and toddler, especially those who are in the stroller and struggling to see what is around them. I like the idea of pairing these objects with Sandra Boyton’s Are You a Cow or Doreen Cronin’s Click Clack Moo. I am also very fond of the Crinkly Worm and pairing it with one of my all-time favs- Inch by Inch by Leo Lionni. Whichever literary direction you go, you can also choose to bring photos, stuffed animals, or even watch a short video featuring one of the animals. Head out to the nearby terrace and see if you can imagine moving like a bull or a worm.  If worms, cows, and bulls aren’t your thing, then focus on the elephant. This sculpture is a playful interpretation of the animal and is certain to capture your child’s attention. Enjoy an elephant hunt though the 3Smithsonian and stop by the Sackler Gallery to see the Seated Ganesha, the rotunda of the Natural History Museum to see Henry the Elephant and of course, the Zoo. Take a photo of each visit and display it somewhere at home where your child can see it (you could make a mobile if you want to stay true to the Calder theme). By documenting their experience, it will help them connect events and see their own learning.

Threes and Four

I was recently in this gallery with a group of adults as part of a workshop and I was asked to work with a partner to create something Calder–inspired with paper and some scotch tape. We don’t often think about it, but museums, with the right materials, can also be art studios.  I love these types of activities not just because they support creativity, but because they encourage young children to look carefully. Here are a few gallery-safe ideas:

  • Sketch the shadows on the walls2
  • Use pipe cleaners to make shapes and forms.
  • Add pieces to a mobile that you have started
  • Have them tear a piece of paper into one of the shapes they see  (just remember a trash bag).

Enjoy, have fun, and don’t forget to share your ideas with us too!

Word Expeditions

PrintIn the fall of 2015, the Friends of the National Zoo, National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of American History, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Associates’ Discovery Theater, and the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center, together with the DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative (DCPNI) were awarded a two-year grant through Grow Up Great, PNC’s initiative focused on early childhood education, to launch Word Expeditions. The grant’s objective is to build vocabulary in preschool students from the Kenilworth-Parkside neighborhood in Northeast DC. DCPNI works exclusively with this neighborhood supporting all members of the Kenilworth-Parkside and describes its mission as “improving the quality of their own lives and inspiring positive change in their neighborhood.”  The group has a strong foothold with families of young children and so it seemed natural to integrate Word Expeditions into their already existing Take and Play structure. Once a month, Smithsonian representatives visit Neval Thomas Elementary School during which time, families participate in activities that teach about the Institution’s collections, build vocabulary, and support a child’s development. The evening concludes with a meal and families take home a kit from DCPNI outlining fun and simple ways to incorporate learning and vocabulary skills at home.

DSCF1330A few weeks later, families are invited to come to the museum that co-hosted the
Take and Play. During their visit, families engage in similarly fun activities that reiterate the vocabulary and theme from the Take and Play. In addition to the literacy component, the Smithsonian wants to create a welcoming experience that will make families feel at-home and inspire them to visit again. We also hope that through these programs, they will begin to see how museums can be used as a place to learn and explore together as a family.

As part of the grant, SEEC was tasked with creating a unique map featuring the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. The map displays the museums on and off the Mall and includes the Smithsonian Gardens and Discovery Theater. Each one is represented by an object, which isWord_Expeditions_Map Word_Expeditions_Map2accompanied by what I like to call, conversation starters. These conversation starters include key vocabulary terms that help families define some big ideas they can use to discuss the object. They also pose open-ended questions and suggest easy ways to engage with the object and use the vocabulary in ways that will help children understand and recall the word’s meaning.  For example, The Smithsonian Gardens description asks families to look closely at an elm tree and find its parts. The children will walk away with a concrete understanding of terms like roots, trunk and bark.  The National Portrait Gallery’s entry asks families to imagine what they would see, hear and taste if they jumped into the portrait of George Washington Carver and suggest that parents use the term five senses and, of course, portrait.

These conversation starters also motivate families to stop and take a look – conveying the importance of observation and careful looking. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden encourages families to walk around Juan Muñoz’ Last Conversation Piece and try to pose like the figures. The description features the words pose and conversation and also asks families to imagine what their conversation is about. Using a concrete analogy to the vocabulary is so important for young learners.

To keep families returning, we offer them four free tickets to Discovery Theater after visiting five museums, and a free book after visiting ten. Perhaps more important to the map’s success is the presence of Ariel Gory, Education Specialist for Early Learning, from the National Museum of American History. She speaks directly to families about the map. Her presence has been important in communicating the purpose of the map, encouraging families to use it, and creating a sense of community. She shares her experiences:

DCPNI NASM Photo1 (002)I find that dinner time at the Take and Play program provides the perfect opportunity for me to get to know families on a deeper level as I talk with them about the maps and their museum visits. Recently, I engaged in a conversation with two families who have become “regulars” at the workshops and museum visits.  When I asked what museums the families had visited lately, the mothers immediately began to list all of the museum trips they had been on since the program’s inception in the fall and what’s more, they described their visits in detail – recalling the vocabulary that was introduced and the activities in which they participated. It was exciting to see their enthusiasm for the program and it was clear that the map had helped foster and grow their interest in museums.

 Getting to see the map in action is one of the most uplifting aspects of this program. During a spring visit to the National Museum of American History, I noticed one mother rustling through her backpack before pulling out a well-worn map. “I can’t forget to get this signed!” she said. As I took a closer look at the map, I noticed that she had a signature for the National Air and Space Museum. I asked her when she had visited and she responded that they had gone the day before because her children had the day off from school. She noted that even though they weren’t in school that day, she still wanted them to “learn something.” Seeing that this mom had used the map to independently seek out a museum to expand her children’s learning shows the importance of programs like this.

So often we realize that local families are unfamiliar with the Smithsonian or feel that it is a place that they don’t belong. We hope that the map and the Word Expeditions program not only help to build young children’s vocabulary, but also encourage families to explore the opportunities for wonder and learning located in their backyards.

Supported by:
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In cooperation with:

Friends of the National Zoo
Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center
National Air and Space Museum
National Museum of American History
National Museum of Natural History
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Smithsonian Associates/Discovery Theater
DC Promise Neighborhood Initiative

#notdaycare

The last few years have seen increased national conversation about how to reform education in our country. Charter schools are popping up everywhere, new forms of high school are being created, and new ways of “doing school” are being funded and debated. But throughout all this conversation very little attention has been paid to early childhood education—our work is still considered “day care” by many and not valued for the very important role it plays in the overall landscape of a child’s education. We want to change that conversation.

I think that this “day care” conversation has been fueled in part by two subtle and underlying ideas we have in this country– first, that what happens in early childhood settings is really comparable to what happens at home during the early years, and second, that what happens with children before they are “school age” is a personal responsibility rather than a collective responsibility. Perhaps because many children used to (and still do) spend their first five years at home with a parent or family member, we seem to have the idea that what happens in early childhood settings is the same thing as what happens at home during the day and that these teachers are “substitute parents”  who don’t really need any special skills, rather than educators requiring degrees (after all, you don’t need a degree to be a parent….). In addition, we see educating children starting in Kindergarten as something we need to be doing (even though it’s debatable that we really do see this as a collective responsibility since our education system is certainly not yet equitable) but educating a child before five years of age is something an individual parent is responsible for finding and financing.

The work that happens in our classrooms, and in many other early childhood classrooms across the country, certainly includes care and love, but it includes so much more than that. Teachers in these settings carefully design developmentally appropriate experiences for children that help them develop skills and dispositions that will carry them through a lifetime of learning. Teachers in these settings expertly manage multiple children all day long…teaching them vital life skills, social interaction skills, and rich content—all while caring for them in ways that build strong personal relationships with them that can last a lifetime. We do not care for days…we care for children. But we do so much more than just care for them. We are living and learning spaces that grow human beings…the next generation of people who will run this country. Parents who have chosen to stay home with their young child and nannies working in homes often face the same lack of respect from society. They are not “just taking care of” their child, they, too, are growing human beings. There is no more important job than growing a human being.

While the phrase “day care” certainly doesn’t adequately describe our work, the word “school” is laden with context that makes it not quite the right word for our work either. School often conjures up thoughts of testing and sitting at desks and that is not at all what we do. But we do educate children and the technical definition of “school” is “an institution for educating children”–a description that certainly applies to our work. At SEEC we describe ourselves as a demonstration school for young children because developing new methods of educating young children is the heart of our work, using the research on child development and learning is our base, and sharing our learning with others in the field is part of our mission. We are not a “day care” center and neither are most of our colleagues doing this work across the country. We are school at its’ richest and best.

I am certainly not denying that there are some places where young children spend their days which are simply places where they are taken care of at the most basic level—these places definitely exist. But I am saying that as a country we should no longer be content to let places like this exist. We should demand that the system change to support and allow every child who is in a group setting to have the chance to experience a rich living and learning environment that we absolutely know is key to learning later in life and to being successful in life overall. This change will require conversations like the ones that have happened around the rest of the education system—what are the new models, how will we fund these models, and who can (and can’t) teach. Perhaps most importantly, this change will require the conversation about what we want for the children of this country collectively, not just what we want for our own child.

Let’s help start this conversation. Let’s all–teachers, parents, nannies, anyone working with young children– start a campaign that brings to light the important work that people who are growing human beings are doing. Let’s post our photos of the rich work we do with young children with the hashtag #notdaycare. Let’s add our voices to the conversation in an effort to change the narrative about the early years and education. Let’s help the public understand that the best way to change the education system might be to change the early childhood system so we are sending children to school at 5 as children who are curious, who love learning, and who know how to ask good questions and search for answers. Our work is #notdaycare, it is education that sets the stage for our future. Let’s have the conversation.