When All the Choices are Good

It’s that time of year when we start asking families to tell us about their plans for enrolling again in the fall. Which means it’s also the time of year for families to be thinking about what school situation is best for their children. In a school like ours, with mixed-age classrooms and a variety of enrollment schedules, it can feel like there are a lot of decisions to make, and like it’s hard to make the right choice. Fortunately, one of the reasons we set up our program with so many options is that all of the options have their benefits.

IMG_9134It’s good to be one of the oldest kids in the class. You’re probably ahead of a lot of your classmates developmentally, so you develop the confidence that comes when you find that things are pretty easy for you. A lot of the other kids look up to you, so you get to develop leadership skills, and you have the opportunity to learn things the best way: by teaching them to others. Younger children are influenced by your big ideas, so your interests drive a lot of what happens in class. Being the big fish in a small pond is great.

IMG_8922It’s good to be one of the youngest kids in the class. You’re surrounded by kids who know more than you do—and children learn very effectively from each other—so you learn a lot very quickly. You get a lot of attention from adults, and from older kids who like to feel like the big siblings. Bigger kids might “boss you around” sometimes, but what that really means is that they help you know how to participate in things you wouldn’t know how to do on your own. Being surrounded by people older than you is great.

It’s good to be in the same class for more than a year. You know all the routines, all the expectations, and all the tricks, so you start the year off feeling successful all the time. You walk in the door the first day with strong relationships, which are the driver of quality education, already in place. When the class revisits old topics you understand them on a deeper level than the first time around; when you explore new topics you’re flush with confidence and experience. Familiarity is powerful.

IMG_9120It’s good to move to a new class for a new year. Your new teachers and new environment ask you to level up your thinking and behavior. You can’t get away with whatever it was you got away with last year, and old compromises are swept away in a new environment. You meet everything with fresh eyes and new energy, and the learning comes fast and thick. It’s great to come in fresh for a new year.

It’s good to come to school five days a week. You can develop ideas from one day to the next, and your class takes on ambitious projects that sustain your attention over time. You delve deeply into ideas that would lose momentum if your schedule were broken up. You form deep relationships with people and comfortable connections with routines more quickly than you would with a shorter week. School feels comfortable and familiar; you feel like you own the place. Things just work great when you’re around every day.

IMG_8759It’s good to come to school just a few days a week. You get the benefits of school at a pace that makes sense for young children. You have great experiences with fun and learning at school without sacrificing time at home with your family. School feels like a special occasion every time, something to look forward to. It’s easy to keep the energy up when you’ve got a short week.

It’s good to come to school just in the mornings. You build strong connections with the people in your classroom who you see at school every day. You work hard in the mornings and then go home to relax in the afternoons. School feels like a special activity, one of many ways you spend your day, many interests in your life. Half a day is a great pace for young children.

IMG_9072It’s good to stay at school for aftercare. In the afternoon things slow down, the group gets smaller, and everything and everyone can relax. You’re with fewer kids, in a wider range of ages, so your teachers can be more flexible in changing plans to meet your needs as they arise and in taking advantage of learning opportunities that pop up unexpectedly. The focus on caregiving gives you a feeling that the school is more like a home, so when you stay for the afternoons you feel at home at school.

So… which choice is “best” for your child? It depends on what you’re hoping they get out of school. But it’s good to know that your child will get a lot of unique opportunities out of every option.

 

Before the First Day

Yesterday marked the final day of “Orientation”—the three weeks at CCS every year before kids show up when staff prepares for the year by setting up the classrooms, visiting families at home, planning for the year, and learning about new practices together. Every year at every school the days before children arrive are hectic and a little crazed, but this year at CCS was another level. In addition to all the normal start-of-year tasks, we added the fact that we’re setting up a new school site. And not only a new site, but a new site we didn’t expect to be in, and that we’ll only be in for a month or two, before moving to our new permenant home. Add to that the fact that fully half of our staff is new to CCS this year and every teaching team has only one returning staff member, and we’ve got ourselves a real rodeo of learning, adjusting, and non-stop decision-making.

Despite all that, the teachers have not only managed to overcome a thousand and one obstacles—they’ve also worked as individuals and teams to innovate, making exciting new plans for their practices this year.

The Redbud teachers—Natasha, Laura G, and Natali—were inspired by the number of families interested in spending time in the classroom. As they create CCS’ first-ever toddler classroom, they’re planning to make space for each child to have a special day to bring a family member into the classroom to meet their peers and share aspects of their home traditions. What a great way to build community and strengthen the connections between classroom and families!

The Oak team—Lisa, Karen, and Naomi—were excited about the “story workshop” practice we learned about two weeks ago. The practice, as we learned from the Opal School in Portland, involves setting aside regular time in the classroom specifically for children to tell and write stories, using particular prompts and language to inspire and encourage children’s creativity. Though this practice is new to our school, the Oak teachers are jumping right in, scheduling time for story workshop every day right off the bat. Look forward to a wealth of storytelling coming out of the Oak classroom this fall!

Jordan and Laura O, the Magnolia teachers, were struck by a thought about a part of our practice that could be easy to overlook. Every day each classroom sends out an email to its families with photos and notes about what happened at school that day. Jordan and Laura thought, “Why not have the kids help with that?” Among many other classroom jobs this year the Magnolia children will take on this fall, two children every day will be the “documentarians,” carrying cameras with them to document what THEY see as the important parts of the day, and helping send their observations out to the families. Talk about empowerment!

Zahra is bringing new focus this year to the aftercare program. She’s been interested in the mindfulness and reflection practices she’s learned about during orientation, and will be creating a practice every afternoon for children to reflect on their experiences earlier in the day. Zahra is creating strategies so that children at all ages, from 18 months to 5 years, will be able to meaningfully share their thoughts and memories with each other.

In addition to these innovations from each teaching team, each individual teacher is making plans to develop aspects of their own personal practices. Some want to push themselves to write more, planning to write posts for the school blog or articles for publication. Some want to expand their strategies for introducing more cultures to the children. Some are building classroom management skills. Some want to push themselves to be more rigorous in their curriculum planning. All are choosing ways to push themselves to learn and grow throughout the year.

To say that I am proud of this staff of teachers is an understatement. These teachers are working in a start-of-year context that would be easy and reasonable to be overwhelmed by—but they are walking into school every morning saying, “Yes! I am willing and eager to try new things, to take risks, to push myself, in the name of being the best teacher I can be.” This is one dedicated group of educators, and they’re going to rock this year. I can’t wait.

—Jarrod

Connecting with Families, Connecting with Children

Some months ago Merryl was at a workshop through the Delaware Valley Association for the Education of Young Children (DVAEYC) when someone mentioned, “It’s so sad that no one lets children be around fire any more.” Merryl approached them afterwards to say, “Actually, CCS has a community campfire twice a year, and children cook food on sticks over the fire! It’s a great way to connect with families!” “Super! Can you write about it for our newsletter?”

So we did! The article, by Merryl and Jarrod, grew to encompass a variety of ways CCS connects families to children’s learning. Click on the photo to view a nicely formatted PDF, or scroll down to read it here.

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Fire and Ice

by Merryl Gladstone and Jarrod Green

Published in DVAEYC Connection, Spring 2015

Community, Mindfulness, and Inquiry are the three pillars that guide our program at the Children’s Community School, a democratic preschool in West Philadelphia. Through children’s play, we seek to deepen connections, broaden awareness of self, and facilitate critical thinking and exploration.

We recognize the power and importance of engaging not just children but also their families in educational experiences. Each child, while a unique individual, is intricately threaded into the life of their family. Our impact on each child’s learning and development is exponentially increased when we engage families in interactive experiences with their children. Here are a few recent opportunities we’ve created for children and families to learn together.

THE CAMPFIRE

On a Saturday night in October we held our semiannual sing-along campfire. Families and teachers gathered around a fire-pit in Clark Park. The children roasted bannock dough over the fire (bannock bread is a bread cooked on sticks over an open fire!); several people brought guitars and led songs; the adults chatted as children chased and laughed in the cool evening air. A campfire is an opportunity to connect to each other, to our surroundings, and to ourselves—in other words, to build community. Everyone loves sharing food and music and warmth while surrounded by trees and friends. Our campfire is also a way for families to connect to our educational program, even though we’re not at school. In October, families heard some great songs that their children love, and we had a chance to mention how rhythm and rhyme support early literacy. Children told their parents about how they made the dough and searched for roasting sticks the previous day, and their parents saw how projects and thinking can be extended over time. As teachers crouched over the fire alongside children and families, we modeled how we communicate trust and allow children opportunities for independence and self-regulation, even around a campfire!

ICE-MAKING

One morning in December the children went out to the yard and discovered that the previous day’s rain had collected in buckets and containers and then frozen solid overnight! Of course, this led to a day of fascinated investigation (touching the ice, trying to break it, standing on it, bringing it inside and watching it melt, etc.) and curiosity (where did the ice come from? how could we make more? what will happen to it?).

We wanted to extend this learning experience, so at the end of the day we suggested to families that they leave a bowl of water outside overnight and let their children investigate what happened. We offered them examples of open-ended questions they might ask their children, such as “What do you think will happen next?” One of the families did us one better: they came to school the next day with the ice they made overnight at home! The whole class’ interest was rekindled, and the children explored the ice with new vigor and asked questions of the child who brought it.

By giving families an easy way to participate in this spontaneous project, we weren’t just telling them about how children investigate ideas over time, we were showing them and inviting them to join us in the inquiry.

ALL-AGES WORKSHOPS

We consistently hear from our families that they learn more about parenting and good educational practices when they have hands-on support in learning and playing with their kids. This spring we’ve created several workshops for families and children together. Teacher Martha is the founder of StoryUp, an organization that creates interactive storytelling workshops for all ages of children and their parents. On a Saturday morning in January she invited children and their families to come to school and work together on storytelling projects. Martha led everyone through the process of creating and sharing stories around children’s ideas, guiding parents and children in active play and story-building. While the children played, she also shared tips with families on ways to create similar experiences at home, and described how this kind of play supports not only literacy but also critical thinking, cooperation, and self-regulation.

In March Teacher Jarrod will offer a similar whole family workshop on rough-housing. All-ages workshops create pathways for families to connect in new ways with both the school and their children, as they participate actively in their children’s learning experiences and receive support in trying out new approaches.

The campfire, the ice-making, and the workshops are just a few ways that we invite families to interactively connect with their children, the classroom curriculum, and our school. Families aren’t just seeing what their children learn at school, they’re participating in it; they’re not just getting tips from us, they’re seeing us practice what we preach. We know that it’s not just kids who learn best by playing and doing—grownups do too!

Dice Matching

Back in October, I wrote a piece about the Oak Classroom’s “Practice Spot”—the area in the classroom with one-child activities intended to build specific skills—and about a particular activity where children could push milk caps into a coffee can.

This week I made a new activity:

dicegame

There row of colored dice is glued down in numerical order; the bowl of matching dice is glued on as well. I drew an empty square for each matching die below, and the numeral above.

As an adult, you probably look at this immediately and think, “Obviously, I would line up each die in its little box, matching both the color and the number.” And indeed, that’s what some of the older children in class have naturally done:

diceinaction

It’s always gratifying when this kind of activity is clear enough that children know just what to do without any instructions. (This is, of course, is a contrast to the vital use of open-ended materials, which have no “right” way to be used. For great thoughts on open-ended materials and play, read about sticks and boxes and hay bales and milk crates and paper and glue and colored doohickies.)

But how would a younger child interact with this activity, I wondered? I didn’t have long to wait before a 2½ year old took up the challenge:

Notice how she immediately starts matching by color, but then stops to investigate the stuck-ness of the dice. Notice how she pauses considering the black vs navy blue dice. Notice how she immediately gets the idea of matching, but takes awhile to figure out where to put each matched one. Notice how the black vs navy blue question comes up a second time, and how thoughtfully she solves it. Notice how she’s working hard on the fine-motor aspects of the activity, both carefully stacking the dice and accidentally knocking them down. Notice how there’s a point where she’s clearly decided, “Stacking these is the way to go,” and doesn’t deviate from that plan again. You’ll have to take my word for it that when she spilled them all (an honest mistake; how was she to know the bowl was glued down?) she smiled, and did indeed do the activity again.

The little boxes I drew, the numerals, the number of pips showing on each die—none of these were salient details for this child yet. And there’s no reason they should be—she’s only 2½! But those aspects of the activity are there to be discovered. As she plays with this activity, or with dice in another context, or with similar games and materials, sooner or later she’ll naturally have an “Aha!” moment: “Hey, there are numbers here!” This activity sets her up for that realization, but doesn’t require us to push her on it.

The only challenge left for me is to figure out how to re-make this so the children don’t curiously try to pull off the glued dice, which they’ve already done successfully a few times. Perhaps cardboard was the wrong medium for this one…

Deepening Children’s Ideas

Emergent curriculum (part of the approach we use at CCS) creates lesson plans based on children’s ideas, interests, and needs. When emergent curriculum goes well, it not only gets children more invested in school activities, but also helps them build an identity as powerful, capable learners. When I visited the Magnolia classroom one day last week there were several moments where teachers noticed children’s ideas and successfully channeled attention to deepen their thinking.

watchDuring choice time at the start of the day the Magnolia children often play “hospital,” taking turns acting as doctors and patients. The play is thoughtful and cooperative, but today Teacher Jordan wanted to take things a little deeper. The day before Jordan had used the iPad to take a short video of the children’s game; then she asked if anyone would like to watch yesterday’s game. Of course the children were fascinated to see themselves and gathered close. After watching, Jordan asked some careful questions to get the children to extend their play. Specifically, she asked, “If your game were a story, what would happen next?”

doctor“We would have to go out in the snow to get the diphtheria medicine!” someone suggested. This child was connecting the game to another class interest: the true story of Balto the sled dog, who carried medicine to sick children in Alaska in the 1920s. When the game restarted, the doctors ran off into the gym to search for medicine, barking as they went. By joining the two play ideas together, the children deepened their understanding of a favorite story.
bookLater at the art table several children were talking about the story of Balto and making drawings based on favorite scenes from the story. This led Jordan to create some related activities for centers time. At one table children could choose to work together on creating their own Balto book; Jordan and I scaffolded them to not only choose favorite scenes from the story to draw, but to listen to each other’s ideas to make sure drawings weren’t being duplicated, and to pay attention to what was already drawn so that gaps could be filled in. At another table children could choose to work on a giant map of the Balto story; inspired by a page of the book with a map of Alaska, several children draw various locations from the story and the connections between them. Each activity helped children deepen their understanding of both this particular story, as they re-created it, and of literacy in general.

At lunch time several children mentioned that they knew Balto was a real story — it really happened in real life. This led to a conversation about what stories they knew were true and what stories they knew were pretend, and how you could tell the difference. I offered to tell them a story, and let them try to figure out if it was true or pretend. They were excited about the idea, so I told a story about how when my little brother was born, my parents accidentally went to the zoo instead of the hospital and ended up bringing home a series of animal babies instead of a “person baby.”

When the story was over I asked what they thought, and most of the kids said it was a true story. Then I asked about individual parts of the story, and whether those things happen in real life (“Do people have babies in real life?” Yes! “Do people mix up babies with animals in real life?” No!). When we re-polled, most of the kids now thought the story was pretend.

mapWe brainstormed some ways that we could find out for sure whether the story was true, and someone said maybe we could talk to my parents — so we called my dad on the phone! He answered (luckily), and told the kids that no, there were no animals around when my brother was born. (Well, at first he thought that I wanted him to play along, and said, “Yes, it’s true!” But when I asked for a really true answer, he gave in and told the truth.)

The whole conversation was a way to take an idea the children were exploring — that some stories and true and others aren’t — and ask them to think more carefully.

At CCS we have many ways to plan activities that deepen children’s thinking. But sometimes the most powerful learning experiences are the ones that arise spontaneously. When we pay attention we find wonderful opportunities to ask children to think again, to think deeply, to think critically.

Gun/Weapon Play in Early Childhood

We have heard from a few parents that they would like some support around gun/weapon play. This is an issue that we have all grappled with at CCS. In fact we are all not still in agreement and plan to continue discussing and exploring this issue over the course of the coming year. It is a complex issue, particularly in light of recent events in our nation. We know that gun/weapon play will have different implications in different communities, and we hope to make sense of what it means at CCS with a sensitivity and an awareness of what is happening in our larger world.

In the meantime, I thought it would be helpful if I shared one perspective and invited you to share your views as well.

Gun play has always been problematic for me. I don’t enjoy being pretend shot, nor am I really comfortable with something as serious as guns and weapons being a part of a child’s play. In my training and in my years of teaching since, I have always implemented the school rule: no gun play at school. In my first teaching job at the Bank Street School for Children, when it would come up, we would simply explain, “Guns are too scary. We don’t play with them at school.” It wasn’t a very effective rule as gun play would continue to come up throughout the year. Guns are a part of our world and present in our media. Children seem to have an insatiable curiosity about them and their power.

Telling children not to pretend play with guns, in my experience, never felt very effective. It often just drove the play underground.  Hiding a desire or curiosity is never a goal in the education world.

In November, I attended Elizabeth Criswell’s NAEYC talk in which she explored zero-tolerance gun play policies and shared how and why she tried to create space in her early childhood classroom for gun/weapon play. It was eye-opening and a relief to hear her ideas and experiences.

Elizabeth shared that she decided to change the zero-tolerance policy in her classroom because she felt first and foremost, it wasn’t working. It was fostering a culture of dishonesty in her classroom. In having a zero-tolerance policy, Elizabeth wondered what message she was sending to children about their imagination and what message she was sending about the difference between real and pretend.

She turned to research and learned that gun or weapon play is a universal truth in early childhood. Studies where gun play is permitted show a short spike in aggressive behavior, but then this behavior notably recedes as the games are allow to progress. Lastly, her research affirmed that “aggressive”, rough and tumble play, play fighting have been consistently linked to increased social competencies.

To change her practice in her classroom, she first had a conversation with her teaching team and school administrators. She then had a conversation with parents. Then she had an honest conversation with her class. Also, of note, she never provided any kid with a pretend weapon. All weapons were made by kids from sticks, legos, etc…

Here are some of the rules she used in her classroom as well as ideas I have implemented in my interactions with kids:

  • Create a Culture of Consent! You have to ask a person before you play a gun/weapon game with them. “Do you want to play guns with me?” or “I’m playing XX, do you want to be shot?” (This means you can not go up and pretend to shoot someone who is NOT in your game. ).
  • Make clear to all kids: It is okay to pretend play with guns in our classroom. Because guns are so scary for people, it is not okay to play with pretend guns outside of our classroom. Always check with an adult first.
  • Make clear to all kids: When we are playing with pretend guns, they are not real.  Real guns are dangerous.  If you find one, you should never touch it.  You should tell an adult.

Of course general play rules apply as well:

  • No one has to be the bad guy- grown-ups too! When my kids want to pretend play with guns at home, I regularly tell them that I don’t want to be shot and I don’t want to be the bad guy. I suggest they build a bad guy out of blocks, used stuffed animals or make one out of paper.
  • Adults need to be on the look out for kids who seem scared or bothered. Players need to know that play can be stopped at anytime and should be on the look out that play has gotten too rough or scary for a friend.

Adults can also help to support more complex conversations around pretend gun play. Here are some prompts and questions Elizabeth suggests:

  • What will happen when you shoot the dragon? What will happen next?
  • What would you do if you found a real gun? What would it look like? Should you touch it?

Elizabeth suggested that certain phrases could reinforce that this pretend gun play is indeed pretend. Phrases like:

  • I’m glad you are just pretending because if that were real, it would really hurt.
  • I’m going going to pretend with you, but if that were real, it would really be dangerous.

In the end, Elizabeth found that as it was in the studies she read, when gun play is allowed and is treated like any other type of play, it eventually moves from high interest to the periphery.

Play is a tool that children use to explore and know their world. When children are given the chance to explore and play with weapon play, it eventually gets played out. They have explored it and they are not as driven to explore it. It seems to me a better outcome then if we are to deny them the the chance to explore an issue they are curious about and as a consequence they feel they have to hide their interest or curiosity.

Lastly, I invited CCS teachers to weigh in on this topic. Some teachers said for many reasons they are not ready to include weapon play in the classroom. Jarrod weighed in too.  Here are the top 2 things he wanted to share with families:

  • Violent play doesn’t AT ALL mean kids will be violent people. Especially if they have caring responsive adults to talk through what comes up. Play as a space to rehearse and understand issues, see what consequences are.
  • Weapon play has a different valence/weight for kids than for adults –like with other parts of learning, we can try to look at it thru kids’ eyes!

Please share your views! What does weapon play mean in your household? What are your thoughts on this weapon play and kids?

If you are looking for further reading on this issue:

We Don’t Play with Guns Here: War, Weapon and Superhero Play in the Early Years

Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence

Who’s Calling the Shots?: How to Respond Effectively to Children’s Fascination with War Play, War Toys and Violent TV

The end of this article shares an overview of what talking to kids about gun/violence might look like at different ages: http://www.ahaparenting.com/ask-the-doctor-1/talking-with-children-about-racism-police-brutality-and-protests

Milk Caps and Coffee Cans

In the Oak Classroom this year we have a little corner that we call the Practice Spot. It’s a tiny table, just big enough for two child-sized chair. In front of each chair there’s a rectangle taped out on the table, just the size of a certain kind of tray. And there’s a shelf next to the table, exactly the size to hold four trays, each with a single activity on it.

The rules in the Practice Spot are different than in the rest of the room. Other places in the room activities and materials are open-ended (meaning there’s no single “right way” to use them), but here they’re closed-ended (there’s only one way to use them). In the rest of the room you can take toys to new spots and combine them with other materials however your creativity dictates, but here you must keep the tray in the spot and put it back as soon as you’re done. In the rest of the room children are welcome, nay encouraged, to work together on activities, but here there’s a one-person-per-activity rule.

The intention is to have a particular spot in the room where children can be organized—where they can organize their thinking by organizing their behavior. This kind of activity is championed in Montessori schools; at CCS it’s one of a number of approaches we use to support children’s cognitive development.

To see the benefits of the Practice Spot and its activities, take a look at this game I made last week. (You can make it too! More or less for free!) It’s a coffee can with a slit cut through the lid (I taped the edges of the slit, to make it more visible) and a bowl full of those plastic caps that come on the tops of plastic milk containers. Take a look at the activity in action:

One of the things you’ll notice is that the activity has a “right way” to use it, but it doesn’t require any instructions. Most children as young as two years old look at it and immediately know what it’s for: obviously, you push the milk caps through the slit. These kinds of activities that “talk” to children help them be organized and calm in their play, because there’s no uncertainty in it. It’s so obvious, in fact, that when the caps spill on the tray this child doesn’t hesitate to carefully put them all back into the bowl, without anyone telling her to. It’s just clear that where they’re meant to go.

You’ll also notice how hard this child is working simply to get each cap into the can—she really has to push! She’s building fine motor skills—hand strength and coordination. Fine motor skills are an important part of development in and of themselves, but they’re also a crucial precursor to literacy: you can’t write letters if your hands aren’t prepared to hold a pencil and make an accurate mark. But in this activity we don’t have to encourage children to do hand exercises; it’s fun enough that this child immediately takes off the lid and does it again! In fact this video was taken the fifth time in a row the child did this activity, and she did it three more times after.

The fact that she keeps doing it again and again is called “intrinsic motivation.” In other words, she keeps doing it because it just feels really satisfying. That’s not an accident, of course. Your brain is set up to reward you for figuring thing out—it’s one of the things that makes our species so successful. You get that little thrill of pleasure every time you think, “Oh, so that’s how it works!” For an adult it might take a big experience to get that feeling—solving a complicated problem at work, for instance. For a two-year-old it can be as simple as figuring out where a puzzle piece goes, or how to take off the lid of a coffee can.

Also, it doesn’t hurt that this particular activity makes such a satisfying sound every time a cap drops in. Did you notice how this child says, “There! I heard it!” about 7 seconds into the video? In fact, this activity brings out a lot of language for this child. “Push! Push!” she says again and again. “I’ll try this one.” “Now, open!” “Spill, spill, spill…” Simple activities can be great ways to boost language development.

And what about problem-solving? Did you notice what happens when she can’t get the white cap in at first? She tries several different hand/finger/arm positions trying to get it in, before switching to another cap. Then she comes back to the white one at the end, and gets it in right away. That experience is a tiny life lesson: that persistence pays off, that regrouping and trying again leads to success. Lots of little experiences like this add up, and generalize to much more complex experiences, like learning to read, or learning to make friends.

Organization, fine motor skills, problem solving, language development, persistence… Not a bad list of skills for a game made from stuff foraged from the recycling bin!

We rotate new activities into the Practice Spot every few days. Some of them are specialized toys, but most are simple and home-made: little toy bears that can be put onto spots that match their colors; a matching game made from pictures from a catalogue; a shoe-lace and a card with holes punched in it. And we’re always on the look-out for more easy-and-cheap-to-make activities that are fun for kids and support development. What games have you made for kids? Share your ideas in the comments!

A Commercial-Free Childhood

At the Children’s Community School, we are interested in having the imaginations of our children fill our classroom space.  We want what the children dream to color and design our classroom.  To this end, we ask that parents help us to make our school a commercial-free space.  This means no commercial characters (super heroes, princesses, cartoons characters, etc…) on backpacks, lunch boxes, towels, shoes, clothes, etc…  This will help us as we work to encourage children’s sense of independence as well as their skills for nonviolent problem-solving and conflict resolution.  We are open to talking more about this and are happy to answer any questions you may have.  Thank you!

The above statement is from our Staff Handbook (and our soon-to-be released Family Handbook!). At the start of every year, new families have questions about the details of the policy. I (Jarrod) thought it’d be worthwhile to write down my take on the issue.

At CCS, we believe in the power and importance of children’s play. Play is how children learn about the world, how they investigate ideas, how they take abstract concepts and make them real, how they experiment with relationships and interactions and social strategies. And though there is a place for adults’ ideas in children’s play, the real learning happens when children are playing with THEIR ideas. Children have a natural ability to seek out the ideas and the challenges that their brains need. When you see a child finish a jigsaw puzzle and dump it right out again, you might be seeing the child’s brain saying, “I just learned a little about spatial relationships! Do it again so I can learn more!” When you see a child spend an hour chasing in circles around the gym with friends, the child’s brain is probably saying, “There are rules of social interactions here that I need to investigate!” When you see children playing dress up and cooking a dinner for a baby doll, their brains are saying, “We kind of know what it means to be a family, but we need to figure it out with some practice!” When children play with their own ideas, they are seeking out the learning that their brains need.

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So where does media come into this? Well, as you’ve certainly seen, children love to imitate things they’ve seen in movies and TV shows. “I’m Spider-Man! Here are my webs!” “I’m Dora, this is my backpack.” “I’m Belle and you’re Ariel and you’re Merida and you can be Mulan.” Sound familiar? There’s no problem with this per se — in fact, taking on characters and acting out scenarios is a crucial way that children understand stories, and a great tool for literacy. But what we’ve seen over and over again — and I should pause to say that, in this case, when I say “we” I mean me (Jarrod), and the staff of CCS, and, by and large, the field of early childhood education as a whole. What we’ve seen over and over again is that this kind of play often fails to ever develop beyond imitation. Children play out a script they’ve seen in a movie, and that’s it. Have you ever seen a child recite with astounding detail the plot of Star Wars, but then balk if you say, “How about this time Darth Vader changes his mind and helps Luke?” In my experience (I’m back to just speaking for me here, not for CCS or the field of early childhood ed), I’ve often seen “play” that doesn’t even rise to the level of imitation, but sticks to straight-up recitation. “I’m Iron Man!” “Great! What does Iron Man do?” “… I’m Iron Man!”

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Children in these situations aren’t playing with THEIR ideas — they’re imitating the ideas of (let’s just be blunt here) multi-national corporations. Not that those ideas are intrinsicly bad. (For instance, I personally find many Pixar movies to be about as good as cinema gets.) But if children aren’t making the stories their own, then the learning that’s going on is surface-level at best.”Okay, fine,” says the astute reader, bringing superior critical-thinking skills to bear on the issue, “Why not just encourage the children to make the ideas their own? You’re a staff of dedicated educators. Why not push the kids to take that energy they have for media and channel it to good use? Have all the Disney princesses in the room go on an adventure to solve math problems or something?”

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It’s a great idea, and last year the Oak class gave it a go. Throughout the early spring the children in the 3-day group showed a powerful interest in superheroes, in their talk and play and art. The play was a little simple — lots of shouting “I’m Batman!” and swinging their arms at each other, with no plot to speak of — but so much of the class was so interested in it. So, with a little trepidation, we decided to follow this interest and see where it would lead. We didn’t allow images of commerical superhero characters, but did a lot to bring our considerable curricular resources to bear on superheros, and a lot of it was, frankly, pretty cool. There was a costume-making and mask-making project that was very process-oriented but still resulted in some fantastic pieces of wearable art. There was a project where groups of kids would make up stories about superheros, then act out the stories, and then illustrate them and make books. We read Greek myths and folks tales that explored different ways to look at power and magic that the children were interested in. We investigated how kids can “save the day” even if they’re not superheros. And we had protracted class-wide conversations about how to keep other children safe when playing rough, how to listen to others’ ideas, how to cooperate in big group games. There was a LOT of great curriculum that happened, and the kids were pretty enthusiastic about it.But I remain ambivalent about the whole thing, because three months after we started, what did the kids do when we just let them play freely? They ran around shouting “I’m Batman!” and swinging their arms at each other, with no plot to speak of. We couldn’t see that their THINKING about superheroes had evolved at all, despite three months of intense investigation. They just wanted to act out the familiar scripts. The whole point of emergent curriculum is that the children’s interest will drive a project that will lead them to deepen their knowledge and thinking on a particular topic. The superhero project had a lot of great stuff in it, but it failed to deepen the children’s thinking about superheroes. (Or at least, as Merryl pointed out to me, their thinking about commercial superheroes, which isn’t the same thing…)

So, back to the “Commercial-Free Childhood” policy. For me, it’s fundamentally a question of creating our school as a space where children’s ideas are the primary thing. It seems like commercial narratives and characters get in the way of that, so as a school we choose not to allow images of commercial characters. It’s perhaps a simple response to a complex issue, but in our experience it makes a difference in how children learn and play.

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What do YOU think? How have you seen commercial narratives and characters influence children’s play, or children’s thinking? What school policies have you seen successfully support children’s learning and meet children’s needs around media and commercial culture? What are your memories of commercial characters and play from your own childhood? Add your thoughts to the comments section of this blog post.

Curriculum Corner: Superheroes!

We use an emergent curriculum model at CCS. That means that instead of planning curriculum around themes we pre-decide (for instance, “gratitude” in the last half of November, or “spring” in the first half of April), we build our curriculum around the emerging interests of the children. The idea is that you can work literacy and math and socio-emotional development and all the rest into literally any theme, but you’ll get more bang for your buck if the theme is one that the children are interested in.

Given that, we’re always on the lookout for what kids are interested in. For a while now the Oak Room teachers have noticed an interest in superheroes in the 3-day group. They pretend to be superheroes, they tell stories about superheroes at the lunch table, they draw superheroes at the art table.

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We had been wary of diving into this interest for a few reasons. First off, we are deeply skeptical of any topic that comes from such a commercial source (in fact, we have a “no commercial” policy at school—no Disney lunch boxes, no Dora backpacks, etc.). We find that play that comes from commercial sources is often quite rigid and is tied to pre-existing scripts, stifling creativity instead of creating it. Secondly, superhero play has a tendency to get rough quickly, and both feelings and bodies can get easily hurt.

However, the group’s interest stayed strong for weeks, and we finally decided to start exploring it in our curriculum. We resolved to help children create new characters and narratives of their own as much as possible. We planned to use any rough play as an explicit opportunity to teach socio-emotional skills. We started making plans.

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We made the curriculum web, above. (You can click it to see a larger version.) With “Superheroes” in the middle, we listed all the sub-themes we saw the children exploring in their play and talk. We came up with “Narratives and Characters,” “Costumes,” “Feeling Different,” “Powerful Movement,” “Power,” and “The Supernatural.” For each sub-theme, we came up with a handful of activities that would help the children explore the ideas more deeply. For instance, to explore “Powerful Movement” we thought about creating obstacle courses and practicing yoga; to explore “Narratives and Characters” we thought about reading Greek myths and fairy tales and acting out stories. Then, from that wide array of possible activities, we picked a handful to try out. If something caught the kids’ interest, we’d push into it more deeply. If something didn’t succeed, we’d have plenty of other plans ready to go.

Now that we’re a few weeks into this theme, we’ve done a number of the activities in one way or another, and each of the three teachers has found a kind of mini-project to work on with small groups over the course of a few weeks.

Alexis has been developing the children’s interest in superhero costumes. At Morning Meeting she talks with a small group about what superheroes look like, and helps them make plans for how they’d like to make their own costumes. Then during Centers Time she puts out a variety of materials and helps the children create the ideas they’ve come up with. As the children get more experience working on costumes, their ideas are gradually getting more elaborate; some are coming up with costumes that take more than a day of hard work to create, and they have to think ahead to finish a project. Some like to wear their costumes throughout the day. With the costume work, the children are developing their planning and attention skills; building their fine-motor and tool-use skills (important for learning to write!); and finding new ways to express their creativity.

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Rachel’s been exploring the children’s interests in narratives, characters, and the supernatural by reading Greek myths with them. She’s brought several different books of myths from the library, and the children’s interest has been intense. They start reading together at Morning Meeting, and often continue right through Centers Time. Kids who finish with other projects frequently come over and plop down with the myth group. Rachel leads the children in long open-ended discussions about the characters and events in the stories, and they come up with their own interpretations. Recently they’ve started exploring movement with this theme as well (“How would Zeus throw that lightning bolt?” “Show us what it looks like when Poseidon makes an earthquake?”). As the children explore these myths, they’re building a wide variety of early literacy skills, as well as more general skills like critical thinking and curiosity.

Jarrod’s been helping the children explore their interest in narratives and characters by helping them create their own superhero stories. At Morning Meeting he sits down with a small group and guides them through telling a story together. (For example: “Once upon a time there was a superhero with an unusual name. What was her name? … That’s right, her name was Whistle Fagoo. And one day Whistle Fagoo was walking along when she saw something. What did she see? … Yes, she saw a dragon stepping on cars and knocking down buildings!” etc…) They record the story, and then at Centers time they listen to the recording. After listening to it, they act it out several times, retelling the story and changing it as they go. After that they discuss the interesting parts of the story, and then draw the parts they like best. As they explore these stories, the children build their cooperation and listening skills, and work on many components of early literacy.

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Along with all these ongoing sub-projects and various superhero-related activities, the children have of course been playing lots of superhero games of their own. We’ve been pleased that, while commercial superhero characters have remained a part of their play, there’s been more creativity in terms of characters, powers, and storylines lately. For instance, Super Dust and Super Bubble are heroes that have gotten some play; and last week there was a huge group game where the superheroes were battling a magical horse. Also, somewhat surprisingly, as the teachers have embraced the superhero theme in our curriculum, it seems like rough play has actually DECREASED a little bit. Perhaps with the sanctioned outlet for their interests, they don’t feel the need for some of the more challenging parts of the games? In any event, there’ve been a number of productive conversations about the relationship between helping and hurting; about the different ways to be a “good guy”; about the things that might make “bad guys” feel less bad; and so on.

As the children’s interest in this topic continues to evolve, we’ll continue watching for how we can use the theme to support their developmental and learning needs. Ideally we’ll be able to help guide the superhero topic to some kind of unified, culminating project—but we’ll have to see where this goes. It’s part of what make emergent curriculum so continually engaging, challenging, and exciting!

—Jarrod

Learning Through Play: The Noise Machine

The best learning happens when children are actively engaged in investigating their own ideas, trying new things, experimenting, deepening their thinking, cooperating with each other, solving problems and conflicts, figuring it out. The problem is, young children aren’t very good at things like sticking with one idea over an extended period of time, communicating what they’re thinking about, listening to others’ communication—all skills that are pretty central to the learning that happens through play.

Our job, as teachers in a child-centered, play-based school, is to help scaffold children in those skills, so that they ideas they bring to play can grow and expand and be shared. The trick is to provide enough scaffolding that children are successful in their work and play, but not so much that we’re taking over and making the play about OUR ideas.

I was thinking about all this on Wednesday. We had put out a new kind of blocks as a provocation for children to investigate as they entered the school first thing in the morning. I sat casually arranging blocks, and a few children came over and sat with me. I wanted my building to be inviting without closing off any ideas the children would bring to the table, so when one asked me, “What are you building?” I replied, “I don’t know yet. What does it look like to you?”

“A machine!” he said.

“Cool, a machine!” I said. “What do you think this machine does?”

He paused for a long time, and I worried. Asking too many questions is a sure way to kill creativity. (Have you ever seen a child stop drawing the moment they’re asked What are you drawing? I see it all the time…) But it turned out he was just thinking, because after a minute he said, “It’s a noise machine.”

Another time I might say, “Show me how the machine works,” but I sensed I had pushed it far enough with my first two questions, so I decided to run with his idea and see what happened. “The machine makes noises? Cool!” I said. I started pressing “buttons” and making noises. BEEP! WHOOSH! A-OOGAH!

The child laughed at the last noise, and reached down and pressed the same spot with his finger and said A-OOGAH! We started taking turns using the noise machine to make different noises.

Other children were starting to come over. I knew the child I was working with would have a hard time getting other children involved, so as each new child came over, I said, “Hey, we’re building a noise machine! Look how it works! BONG! Come help us!” Soon there was a small group adding blocks and experimenting with noises.

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As the play went on, I could step back for a few minutes at a time and watch, letting things go on without me. Some children started making musical noises, or animal noises. Some started pointing out certain types of buttons. “This one is different, when you put your hand up high the noise goes louder!”

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After a little while the game drifted to new topics, as games will do. But I felt good that I could help one child take what could have been a throw-away idea—the noise machine—and turn it into something that kids could spend 10 minutes cooperating on.

Sometimes I use too heavy a hand, and find myself at the center of play that depends on me—the kids aren’t doing enough of the work. Other times I don’t step in enough, and a promising idea fizzles because a child couldn’t explain it to another, or because they couldn’t keep their attention on it. But this particular time it worked just right, and I saw some two- and three-year-olds level up their listening and teamwork skills, just a little bit, for the sake of staying involved in a cool game.

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