Suggested Reading for 8/16/13

suggestedreadingFrom a preschool in Maryland, a fabulous blog post about allowing children to take physical risks in their play. More specifically, allowing children the opportunity to assess risks for themselves. They’re doing it right.

For everyone planning to have a baby: here’s someone (in the Wall Street Journal) examining the published research on all the things pregnant women are told to do/not do: don’t drink coffee, don’t drink alcohol, make sure you gain the right ammount of weight, etc. The good news is, we can all probably calm way the heck down about most of these recommendations.

A review in the Atlantic of, basically, every animated children’s movie in the last decade, blasting most of them for their relentless and unrealistic messages of self-esteem. I think a lot of the analysis is spot-on—though I think there’s a middle ground that’s possibly the best answer…

A nifty little art project idea I can’t believe I’ve never seen before: making your own water colors out of flowers. Great for summer garden fun. You could do this activity outside, too…

Teacher Tom writes about the benefits of playing board games in preschool. I personally recommed “The Snail’s Pace Race” as the best starter board game, for 3-4 year olds: it’s straightforward, but the right amount of complex to keep someone who’s never played board games interested, and practice turn-taking and other rules.

Janet Lansbury once again writes a piece that cuts right to the heart of raising children. The section on trust is particularly incisive.

Have a great weekend!


Is It Okay to Start Daycare?

askateacherAfter failing to set up a nanny share I’m about to send my 6 month-old to daycare. She seems like a pretty cheerful / social person but I am still worried that she’s too young to go from near-100% of an adult’s attention to sharing 2 adults between 8 infants. Is there any research that can comfort me? Or cause me to redouble my efforts at finding a nanny or nanny share (and help legitimate the additional expense thereof)? —Anna

Anna, you’re not alone in worrying about the transition to school for the first time. In fact, at most ages the transition can be harder on parents than on children. (Just wait til you’re sending her off to college!) But you’re also far from alone in considering out-of-home care for your infant. More and more families have only one parent, or two parents who both work, and don’t have extended family nearby who can take care of children. And since the US has one of the worst paid family leave policies in the world, more and more children are going into preschool and daycare at younger and younger ages.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When I consult with families about finding the right school or daycare, I always make it a question of fit—what’s the best fit for the whole family? Part of that has to do with the care the child receives, of course: Are the caregivers warm and attentive? Is the environment safe and appropriate? But that’s only part of the picture. For a school to be a good fit, it has to meet all of the family’s needs. Does it fit into your budget? Do the hours jive with your schedule? Is it in a convenient location? Do they have the right amount of flexilibity for you?

Those questions are, in most cases, just as important as the quality-of-care questions. Not that you should sacrifice, say, a safe environment because it’s convenient to your commute. But rather that, no matter how good the caregivers are, your child’s quality of life will suffer if the school doesn’t fit well into the family’s life. Of course, you’ll never find the “perfect” fit—it doesn’t exist. But there’s nothing wrong with putting practical life concerns into your decision about care for your child, because your practical life is PART of your child’s life.

But I still haven’t really answered your question about will your baby be okay with two strange teachers and seven strange kids. And while I don’t have research to point you to, I can assure you from personal experience that the answer is yes. First, just from a mechanics point of view, two qualified teachers can absolutely care for eight infants. NAEYC, the group that sets the standards for quality early childhood education, recommends a ratio of one adult to three or four infants (though disallows group sizes of more than 8 infants). And in terms of the attention and stimulation a child receives, it’s true that a teacher may be caring for four children while a parent or nanny may only be caring for one or two—but a parent or nanny is often trying to get other things done (cooking, shopping, cleaning, working), while a teacher’s full attention is focused on the children.

Moreover, don’t forget the many benefits of group care for child development. At a daycare or preschool, children are socialized around a variety of people, presented with a variety of sensory inputs and environments, led through a variety of activities—all of which help children develop, think, and self-regulate. A parent or nanny can provide a child with all those things, of course, but they have to go out of their way to do it; at a preschool, they’re all built right into the environment. Furthermore, at quality institutions the caregivers are well trained and educated, and bring a wealth of resources to bear on your child’s learning and development.

Preschools have their drawbacks too, of course—they costs a lot of money, the other kids are full of germs, you don’t get to spend all day with your baby any more. But when you add the developmental and practical benefits up, most families find daycare or preschool to be the right choice sooner or later—and frequently these days it’s sooner.

As I mentioned, the transition to school is often harder on the parent than on the child. Ask any preschool teacher who cries most on the first day, and they’ll tell you it’s about 50/50. I’ll write a column in the next week or two about easing that transition. But you can rest a little easier knowing that, no matter what choice you end up making your child is going to be okay.

* * *

For more thoughts on choosing the right preschool, read what I wrote back in May.

And if you’d like to ask a question, get in touch!


FOUNDATIONS: Developmentally Appropriate Practice

foundationsI’m starting to gear up to teach my Early Childhood Curriculum course again this fall, and it’s gotten me thinking about Developmentally Appropriate Practice. It’s an idea that’s central to early childhood education, and it guides pretty much all parts of teaching practice. But I get the sense that it’s a term folks in the field don’t mention much around non-professionals, because it sounds a little stuffy and complicated, and that’s a shame because it’s a good and important concept. If I were shopping for a preschool, I’d be sure to ask the director, “How do you make sure all your classrooms are implementing developmentally appropriate practice?”

Developmentally Appropriate Practice (DAP) is, basically, an answer to the question, “What’s the best way to educate young children? What’s the best way to support their learning and development?” DAP says, well, we ought to teach in a way that’s grounded in research about what children are like and what kinds of education work best. It sounds like a simple and obvious idea—but there are a lot of reasons that, in this field in particular, it’s important to articulate it. Early Childhood is a field that is rapidly professionalizing, but still has a lot of people working in it who got into it because they like little kids and thought it’d be easy, or who got into it 30 years ago and haven’t changed their practice since. DAP says, “No, just because you’ve been doing it a certain way for a few decades doesn’t mean it’s okay. As research changes, so must our practice.” It’s also important, in a field that struggles to be seen with respect in our culture, to point out that the state of the art is research-based and professional.

All that is a little beside the point when it comes to classroom practice, though. Let’s get back to the point of how to support children’s learning and development. A way I like to talk about it with my students it to say that DAP is really just a fancy way of saying “Meeting Children’s Needs.” There’s a lot you could say about what’s the best way to do that—indeed, the book on DAP is a 370-page behemoth—but it helps me to put it all in concrete, accessible terms. How do we meet children’s needs?

We tend to break down the idea of developmental appropriateness into three pieces. The first piece is age appropriateness. This is the part that most people understand most easily, and that is the most central part of our national dialogue on education. 3-year-olds and 5-year-olds and 8-year-olds are all different from each other; they shouldn’t be learning the same things, and we shouldn’t be teaching them the same ways (to an extent). Figuring out what’s appropriate for a certain age is partly a question of research (how does the brain develop?), partly a question of public policy (what do we as a community think this age group ought to know?), and partly a question of personal experience (after you’ve been in a preschool for a few years, you just KNOW the differences). Teaching in a way that’s appropriate to the age group is clearly important.

But it’s just as important to remember that not all 5-year-olds are the same as each other—to the contrary, no two of them are the same, in terms of how they learn best, what their needs are, what they already know. That’s obvious to anyone who has kids or works with them, but is surprisingly easy to forget when planning curriculum (or writing public policy). So the second part of DAP is individual appropriateness. Because research backs up the idea that that kids need individualized adaptations in their education—not just children with disabilities, but ALL of them. Within the broad strokes of age appropriateness, educators must be able to adjust their efforts to the unique needs of individual children. We do this by carefully observing each child; by building personal relationships with each child; by watching how they react to our teaching and adjusting accordingly. Without individual appropriateness, age appropriateness is ineffective and, frankly, a bit silly.

For awhile, those two pieces were basically the story. But recently there’s much more attention on what turns out to be just as important as the first two pieces: cultural appropriateness. Not all children grow up with the same values, expectations, practices, customs. Children exist within a context; their social relationships are a part of who they are. To effectively teach them, we need to understand the contexts they are a part of. And before you dismiss the idea as liberal touchy-feely falderal (and it does strike that chord, even with me), remember that the children who perform worst in school—rather, the children worst-served by our schools—are very often the children whose home culture is most different from the upper-middle-class-white-American culture that is basically the default in our education system. There are lots of reasons that poor, non-white, immigrant children have a hard time in school, but an important one is that the expectations are so different from what they’ve been taught. From personal experience, outcomes for children are improved dramatically when teachers and parents communicate clearly about their goals and values and practices, and have a window into each other’s worlds. If schools better understand “the whole child,” they do a much better job of meeting that child’s needs.

So that’s the gist. The way to meet children’s needs and educate them is to understand their age, culture, and individual needs, and then absorb all the research on those topics. Easy! Okay, not easy. But important, and approachable. If you don’t want to read the 370-page book (I don’t either), there are good (and less lengthy) resources at NAEYC. Or—and I really do encourage this—walk up to your preschool teacher and ask, “How do you do developmentally appropriate practice here?” It should be a good conversation.

Suggested Reading for 8/9/13

Boy, it turns out that buying and moving into a house keeps you pretty disorganized and busy. Who knew? I have a feeling that 2 posts per week—one substantive, and one of suggested reading—is probably the new normal. But who knows? I might get feisty.

suggestedreadingTo kick off, this article discusses the importance of play in human life. It’s not at all specific to children, but certainly includes them. Teachers of young children know how crucial play is to learning, and to overall development. And not just for children—one of the reasons I love teaching is that it’s almost entirely play. I don’t mean goofing around; I mean the broader definition this article gestures toward: participating in voluntary, fun, engaging activities that require creativity and hard work and insight. The best days are when the kids and the teachers are both “in it”…

A fine blog post by Laura Markham about helping your young child build self-control skills.

Phyllis Grant writes the excellent food-and-children blog, Dash and Bella. This piece is elsewhere, and while you might not want to eat the sandwich she describes, I think her bit about cooking dinner and getting children to eat it is great—sane and reasonable and likely to be successful.

A wonderful piece by Teacher Tom about how teachers (and schools, and parents, and adults) should think about diagnoses for children. This certainly isn’t the only perspective on this complex and important issue—but for those of us who aren’t qualified to diagnose, this is a great way to think about it. And another one about a great real-life activity to do with young children: assembling Ikea furniture! Oh, okay, and one more: an amusing little piece about the joys of inventing new games.

Every time Tom Bedard writes about the sensory table, I think, “Boy, this guy understands how to make play set-ups that are as engaging as can be.” Here’s a piece about multi-level sensory table set-ups. Brilliant.

Here’s a short interview with the author of a book I haven’t heard of, but now very much want to read: It’s OK NOT to Share. I’m very intrigued…

A great little DIY toy idea from Mama OT: a fine-motor activity that you can make almost for free and I bet will grab the attention of any toddler.

Kate at Picklebums writes, “I am working on letting my kids just feel whatever they feel.” Yes!

From Creative with Kids, a piece about “Teaching Peace to an Unpeaceful Child.” Some good tips in here.

And for your viewing pleasure, this dude talks about how makers of media for children seem to be afraid to include any references to things children don’t already know about, and why that’s a dumb perspective. He makes some good points. Here’s to media that challenges children!

Have a great weekend!

Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones (by Ruth Heller, 1981)

picturebookpicksRuth Heller wrote a number of books examining certain… well, “categories” is the best word for it. A book about kites, another about jewels, another about lollipops, and so on. Her best books are the ones about nature: Animals Born Alive and Well about mammals; Plants that Never Ever Bloom about fungi (yes, I know fungi aren’t technically plants). The other day I introduced a friend’s 2-year-old to The Reason for a Flower and he ate it up—literally: he loved pretending to eat the fruits and vegetables depicted. All Heller’s books are illustrated with gorgeous and accurate detail, and are fun and informative to read.

But the very best one, to my mind, is Chickens Aren’t the Only Ones—a book about all the different creatures that lay eggs! It’s full of engrossing illustrations of so many different kinds of birds, as well as snakes and frogs and dinosaurs and fish and spiders, and on and on. And the illustrations of the eggs themselves are fascinating—so many different kinds! The crazy ones laid by sharks and rays were always my favorite when I was a kid.

And yes, okay, you already probably know I’m a bit of a geek, and will not be surprised to learn that as a child I loved books like this because they allowed me to work words like “oviparous” into conversation. (It means “egg-laying.”) But kids don’t have to be nerds like me to become completely absorbed in the information here—it naturally appeals to children’s interest in the world, interest in weird and different things, interest in new perspectives on familiar things.

The other thing I like about Heller’s books is the way she writes. There’s a lot of rhythm and rhyme, but it’s always a bit off-kilter, a bit inconsistent. For instance: “This mother seahorse lays her eggs / into the father’s pouch. / He keeps them there until they hatch, and then he’s through. / I think that’s nice of him, don’t you?” You think you know where the rhyme’s going to be, but you don’t. Or how about this example: “This one will hatch into a hungry caterpillar who… will grow and grow and grow and then climb up a stem and change into this—a chrysalis—and change again one summer morn. That’s how a butterfly is born.” Notice how it seems like a sentence, and all of a sudden the meter kicks in, and you’re in a little poem. Rhythm and rhyme are always good in kids’ books, but I find it especially powerful when it’s a little odd and unexpected. That’s the kind of use of language that makes kids prick up their ears, and really pay attention to the words. It’s the kind of attention that teaches language really well, that makes children enjoy words and reading.

Heller’s books aren’t super flashy, and seem to have fallen a bit out of favor. A lot of colleagues and friends of mine who know and love children’s books have never heard of them, and it’s too bad: they’re really treasures. Start with Chickens and go from there.

Burrito Making

Hello dear readers! My wife and I just moved to our new house, and there’s no internet there yet, which is why no post this week until now. But! New house! Of the many exciting things about it: it’s about an 8-minute walk to Children’s Community School, where I’ll be teaching starting in a few weeks. Not only is that awesome for my quality-of-life, but I’m excited to have the kiddos on a field trip to my house. Picnic on the front porch! Story time in my living room! Meeting my dog! It’s gonna be awesome.

activitiesAnyway. It’s rainy here in Philadelphia today, so I thought a good rainy-day activity might come in handy. When you’re inside for long stretches of time, you need some activities that are physical and sensory, but also don’t take up too much space. You need to make a burrito.

Not an actual food burrito—though cooking projects, which are ALWAYS good for kids, are ESPECIALLY excellent on rainy days—but a full-body burrito!

Get yourself a blanket—ideally one that’s about the same width as the children’s height. A big beach towell might work. The blanket’s your tortilla. Have one child lie down on the blanket, on their back or front, with their head just out the side (“Who wants to be my burrito?”). Ask the other kids to help you make a burrito. “What goes in a burrito?” Rice? Use your fingers to pitter-patter all over the child’s body. Beans? Maybe gentle pokes all over. Guacamole? Everyone smear their hands all over the child. You get the idea—use your imagination. When everyone decides there’s enough stuff in the burrito, it’s time to roll it up! Everyone can cooperate to roll the child up in the blanket, nice and tight. If it’s a long blanket, you can roll the child over a few times, which is fun. Everyone can help “pat it nice and tight!” Finally, everyone can gobble it up!

You can do this with just one adult and one child, of course, but it works really great as a group activity. There’s a lot of teamwork and cooperation and listening. Even better, kids really get a sense of caring for each other physically—what are okay and fun ways to touch each other, how to keep each other’s bodies safe, etc.

For the child in the middle, it’s usually fun to get tickled and poked and such, though of course you’ll want to help the other children adjust their touches based on what you know of each child’s preferences, and how each child reacts as you go. Some children REALLY love being wrapped up tight—it’s a very comforting sensation for some. Children who are especially physically active may find the sensation calming. If there’s a child you want to help calm down, you can get the other children to cooperate. “Keep patting it tight! This one really needs to be patted. Gentle, though! Okay, let’s eat this one quietly. Little nibbles! Keep eating!”

And of course, if you happen to follow this game with making actual Mexican food for lunch? Well, you could have a whole morning of curriculum right here.

Suggested Reading for 7/26/13

suggestedreadingTop pick for the week, this truly beautiful post from Hands Free Mama: “The Day I Stopped Saying ‘Hurry Up.'” It’s a story not only about slowing down in your life with your child (important), but also about learning from your, and allowing the ways they are different from you to be an opportunity for YOU to grow. Inspiring.

This is pretty cool. An engineer was bemoaning the fact that not many girls choose to pursue engineering as a career (only 11% of engineers are women!). So she decided to design an engineering-related toy for girls. And before you shout, “Legos are for girls too, you know!”, I agree, they are, but a lot of people don’t BUY Legos for the girls in their lives. Furthermore (this person says) girls in our society are socialized to play games that involve narratives, which aren’t intrinsicly present in toys like Legos. So anyway, she made this toy, and got it funded on Kickstarter. I wish I had heard about it earlier.

A sweet little anecdote about separation anxiety. Teacher Tom, you’re doing it right.

From How We Montessori, a post about letting her toddler use knives to help in the kitchen—calm and reasonable and excellent. Also, a great little post about “transfering” activities—pouring and spooning. A terrific example of how, often, the simplest activities are the best.

Alissa, at Creative with Kids, writes about what’s going on with discipline with her kids. It’s always great to see a professional in the field try to practice what they preach. This, in particular, is a great illustration of how you might approach discipline without resorting to any kind of punishment. Yes, it’s harder—but it’s also, you know, effective.

Here’s a little piece, from Regarding Baby, about letting babies solve problems, not rushing to help them immediately. Which is different from ignorning them. Rather, you want to be present, attentive, supportive—but not take away their agency and power. There’s a video in the post which is a lovely example—though my personal style in this kind of situation is to be less verbal about it. I might just say, “Yep, you’re stuck! … I see you … When you want to come out, just duck your head under,” and leave it at that. But this parent gets great results with her approach as well—notice the HUGE smile on the baby’s face at the end.

Have a great weekend!