Monday, January 24, 2011

A Right Way and a Wrong Way

I usually start my art projects by sitting at the table prepping the work.  Sitting down and engaging with materials is one of my tricky ways of getting kids interested.  It often works like a charm.  By the time the project is ready I've got a small group of kids nearby who have been patiently waiting to get their hands on it.

When this trick doesn't work, or if I happen to get the art project set up before any of the kids arrive, I create an interest by sitting down and doing the art project.  I know a lot of teachers who just gasped.  Yes, I said I sit down and create an example art project.  Because opinions of this practice differ, even here within Beansprouts, I then display my art project or put it on the drying shelf.  I don't ever say to the kids, "See, this how you do it."  I simply make an example and put it a place they can see it, if they need to get ideas.

Typically they do their own thing anyway and I sit near by in case an emergency intervention is needed.  I only intervene for safety or sanity.   When someone can get hurt or the teacher will have a melt down trying to clean up the aftermath (most of our projects turn into hand painting experiments for our youngers).

My example project is the small square in the middle.
This particular art project involved cardboard, glue, shredded paper and water colors.  I knew going in that an art project that mixes mediums could be a challenge, but I was excited to see what the kids came up with.

Many of the kids jumped right into mixing colors.  This is a fun art project and one we do sometimes, but cardboard and water colors don't work well for that.  I started jumping in a little and explaining to the kids that their colors wont stay unless they use glue and paper.  

When one of the children lifted up her art project to show me her "fish bowl" the colors ran everywhere and her creation was no more.  The expression on her face broke my heart and brought up a big question for me.  

When I plan an art project that is new to the kids, should I introduce it?  Should I explain to them how the mediums work and what could happen if they choose to use only some of the materials?

Sure the kids are learning through trial and error, but I could have saved that child from the heartbreak of a ruined masterpiece if I had just explained the project a little better.  

Q:  What's worse letting her experience the disappointment or risking limiting her creativity by introducing the art project?

A: Find a happy medium.  Introduce the work, explain how the materials work and then let the kids experiment.  This way, when a child's work gets ruined, a connection will be made.  Maybe the light bulb will turn on and the child will think, "Oh!  That's what she meant when she said I'll need glue and paper for the colors to stay put."  Then she can modify or try again.  
There's no right or wrong way for the kids to do art.  There IS a right way for teachers to introduce and facilitate an art project.  I must remember it's all about the process.

 Let me know what you think.  I'm sure there are many different answers out there.



Saturday, January 22, 2011

Sticks and Stones

For children, there is something very empowering about carrying something twice the length of his body, collecting two dozen twigs to make a bouquet, or using sticks as props in play to bring a sense of completion.  Carrying around stepping stones challenges the strength, just as carrying long or bulky pieces of tree challenges the coordination and spatial awareness.

I can imagine our Neolithic ancestors hunting and gathering, using the same skills that the children are practicing in their play with sticks and stones.  For the stone age people, hauling heavy carcasses and tree trunks and gathering seeds and vegetation for food was part of their survival.  Could our ancestry be rooted in the type of play that I see in the yard, creating with it an inherent sense of gratification?

I used to have a hard and fast rule about sticks, which I viewed as dangerous in their ability to impale or poke out eyes or be used as a whip.  “You can use sticks if you are sitting down,” I would declare, never realizing that what I was actually saying was, “I don’t trust that you can walk around with that safely.”  I mean, it’s not like I’m handing over a chainsaw (although one day a child found the perfect branch with an appendage that made a perfectly shaped handle—he couldn’t have been happier--it really did look like a real chainsaw!). 

One day after discussing the sitting down rule with the other teachers, we decided to change it.  For one thing, it was really hard to constantly remind the kids to sit down while using sticks.  It wasn’t fun that way.  So we decided that as long as the children’s feet were on the ground (e.g. not on a climber or slide or bike) then they could use sticks.

At first, I watched very carefully how children handled these long dangerous spears.  For the most part, they understood the inherent danger in the sticks and seemed to use them carefully.  But what was impressive was the length of time spent using the sticks.  They would literally have their sticks for the entire outside time, only taking breaks to eat.

With supervision, sticks and stones can offer tools for open-ended play and also challenge children on a physical level.  The birthday cake in the sandbox isn’t complete until there is a twig candle in it.  The workers in the yard cannot carry out there business without their saws and hammers and large planks.  The child trying to explore her own strength wants to carry heavy and dangerous objects to feel a real sense of power.  Sticks create an extension of the body that allow for spatial awareness and also bring a sense of being bigger.

We have these two saplings that grew from a mother tree.  The kids used the branches, leaves and all, like long palm fronds, and asked the teachers to pull them off until there were none left.  Now that the trees have no branches left, I feel kind of bad.  But they make for a great large motor area.  Kids go to these twin tree trunks often to show off their "cool tricks" and "exercise".

 Beyond the children using sticks is Ta using the tree trunks to get some exercise.

 Rocks make the perfect open-ended prop and bring with them an aesthetic property only found in nature.


Thursday, January 20, 2011

Shaving cream table paint...making way for new ideas

   Bl felt how I felt as a new teacher, watching the kids take the art project in a whole different direction than planned.  It took him just a couple of minutes to open up to the new direction that this art project was headed.  I wish I could say that I evolved that quickly as a teacher.
The longer I teach, the more I value what the children bring to the table.  Today, I had a plan, and luckily I knew that a group of twelve strong-minded kids laugh in the face of a plan.  So part of the plan was letting go of the plan.  You are a very frustrated teacher if you haven't learned this skill.

My initial inspiration was this marbled print post that, while geared toward much older children, had components that I wanted to try with the kids.  We would do a collective shaving cream mess, and then make a print of it.

Needless to say, the kids had a way better idea of how to make this project completely fun.  My favorite part, besides the sunny day which allowed for a washing station in the water table, was watching how the kids interacted with each other in a completely cooperative and respectful and silly manner.  I didn't have to intervene at all, even when resources became limited (the usual cause for arguments).  I have been really blown away by the level of cooperation and communication between the kids. (For those of you outside of our direct community, they are ages 3ish to 4ish).

There were too many photos to upload to Blogger so please join me in a journey through Picasa, where the rest of this post is narrated through the photo captions...

Click here

This activity is my best so far...this week : )


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Graham Crackers for Snack

Today the kids made their own graham crackers for snack!  It was fun for them to roll out the dough, poke the dough with a fork to make holes (so the crackers would stay flat and not puff up), and then use the pastry roller to cut out cracker shapes.  Pizza cutters might have worked better because the guard on the pastry roller kept getting caught in the dough.  Some kids cut their graham crackers into four, some into ten tiny little crackers, but all enjoyed the process.  Cookie cutters work, too! And they store surprisingly well.

If you are a teacher or parent looking for a fun (and forgiving) cooking project to do with your kids, this one is for you : )  Me and the first couple of kids to arrive made the dough, and everyone else did the rolling, poking, and cutting.

p.s. Leslie made Banana-Cashew Balls in the afternoon.  This no-bake, cookie-dough-esque treat was a big hit with the kids (and, ahem, me).

Cinnamon-y Graham Crackers
Adapted from this recipe
Yields equivalent to about 12-14 of the store-bought graham crackers

1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
1/4 cup sugar or 1/3 cup sucanat or dehydrated cane juice
1/2 teaspon baking soda
scant 1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup oil
2 tablespoons molasses, rice syrup, honey, or maple syrup (molasses works best)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup water or non-dairy milk (we used almond milk)

Preheat oven to 350 and line a baking sheet with parchment (or spray with nonstick spray).

Mix dry ingredients with a whisk.  Make a well in the center and add wet ingredients, giving it a quick whisk and then stirring it into the dry mixture with a wooden spoon.  Knead with your hands as needed to create a dough that holds.  Add a bit of water or milk if the dough is too dry (not too much!).

On a floured surface or between two sheets of wax paper, roll the dough out to about 1/8 inch thick.  Cut the crackers into the shapes you want (this can be perfect rectangles or, as the photos below suggest, very doesn't matter much.  Pierce the dough with a fork a few times so the crackers don't puff up when baked.

Trasnfer the crackers to the prepared baking sheet and bake for 11-12 minutes.  They should be darkish around the edges.  When it's time to take them out of the oven, you will smell the done-ness when you open the oven door.  They will harden as they cool.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Talking to kids about race

Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday is a great time for reflection on how to raise children with healthy racial attitudes. 

I always assume that because our school represents a range of ethnicities and skin colors that children would grow and learn to naturally embrace diversity and love everyone regardless of skin color. However, according to the book Nurthure Shock by Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, we have to speak very directly to children about race for them to form healthy racial attitudes.  Mere exposure is not enough.  In fact, says the book, according to Dr. James Moody from Duke University, the more diverse the schoool, the more that children self-segregate by race and ethnicity.  Because as it turns out, kids are looking at the most visible thing about each other--skin color--and categorizing accordingly.  

"The brain's need for categories to fit perfectly," Bronson states, causes children to "make distortions to defend those categories."  To effectively intercept the child's categorizing and drawing negative conclusions, researchers have found that "conversations about race have to be explicit, in unmistakeable terms that children understand."  This means that if the parent is not intervening with appropriate conversation, the children draw their own conclusions that support the differentiation and hierarchy (ie. "my group is better than the others") rather than the similarities and equalities.

What is an "appropriate" conversation?  The book asserts that it's not enough to say "we're all equal".  Specific attention should be made to details.  "[Children] are developmentally prone to in-group favoritism; they're going to form these preferences on their own.  Children categorize everything from food to toys to people at a young age..."

Children who grow up without conversations about race tend to form negative opinions about racial groups outside of their own.  According to some studies, they also assume their parents do the same.

My best friend growing up (also named Stefanie, isn't that something?) was African-American.  I grew up in a household that did not talk about race and did nothing to support healthy attitudes toward other ethnicities.  (Does it say something that my spell check doesn't like the word "ethnicities" or am I reading too much into it?  Or spelling it incorrectly?)  Anyway, about my friend Stefanie.  I remember making a comment once to her and her dad that I try not to see color because everyone is the same.  They told me that instead of ignoring the differences, that they celebrate the differences and love that we are all individuals.  They were proud of their heritage and did not want it to be ignored or taken for granted.  Suddenly I realized that I had been pacifying my discomfort by putting on a show of colorblindness, when in fact it was something to be embraced and even talked about! 

To an alarming degree, it is very uncomfortable for white parents to talk about race, a fact that was discussed in Nurture Shock.  White parents, who often don't really identify with an ethnicity themselves, just don't know what to say.  Pointing out racial differences feels like drawing attention to something and implying something wrong with racial differences.  However, children need exposure to this type of language.  I would venture to say that it is better to address the uncomfortable feelings around it out loud than to ignore it all together.  Parents help children by reasoning certain things out in front of them.  It's good role modeling.

We've had discussions, usually initiated by the children, about race at Beansprouts.  They have come up about skin color, hair color, hair texture, and spoken language.  We capitalize on these moments to and use them as learning opportunities.  "Yes, her skin is darker than yours.  And look, your skin is darker than mine! Isn't it great that we can all be friends and have different skin colors?"

The word "weird" entered the preschool one day.  It was used to describe something about another child that was different than himself.  At first I was a little hooked, thinking "oh, great, his older sibling must be teaching him interolerance and look, it's working."  After acknowledging my own initial adult-oriented reaction, I realized that this child is simply mimicking, which is only a seed of an attitude and not an opinion itself, and what a great moment to actually address the thing that was "weird" and maybe call it what it was.  Different.  I said, "yes, that is different than yours.  Sometimes we look a little different from our friends."  Later, I heard him use the word "different" and my heart brimmed with joy.  I felt compassion for this child, that he would grow up in a culture where often times differences are "weird" rather than just, well, different.  So I guess what I'm saying here is that healthy racial attitudes have a foundation not only in the language we use around it, but how we foster healthy attitudes about all things "weird".

I feel a sense of joy that during the process of writing this article, I have come to acknowledge and love my own ethnic background.  My ethnic identity has always been a bit confused to say the least, but I've done some reflecting on how I got to be where I am today.  A lot of people had to make some hard decisions, travel long distances away from their families, and under go extreme turmoil for me to even be alive today.  There have been times where being a woman and being Japanese could be a great disadvantage.  I have great freedoms and a great life today. 

I applaud Dr. King and other activists that propelled equal rights movements.  I don't want to take for granted the time, energy, and persistence with which he carried out his work.


Thursday, January 13, 2011

New Dimensions in Play

I remember hearing in an ECE course that a 2-3 year old classroom could look a lot like a 4-5 year old classroom.  If you offer the same materials to a two-year-old, s/he will interact with it differently than a 5-year-old.  But if they are preschool-appropriate open-ended materials, both ages will use them and be likely to benefit from the experience.  Open-ended materials allow children to construct their own uses of playthings and build on what they've learned from previous experiences.  They expand on the way they used to use toys, and bring their developmental progress into new dimensions in play.  The children at Beansprouts have been elaborating on the conventional uses for things and thinking out of the box. Their play is a reflection of the developmental changes that continue to emerge.  Watching the creative and analytical process that goes on during play, and overhearing the in depth conversations that ensue, can be inspiring and uplifting.

Not only did they discover the use of Magna Tiles on the magnetic board...

 They became 3D!

 And quite elaborate

Airplanes  and vehicles


Reading books...with the eyes shut! (A popular story, possibly guessing what she'll see on the next page?)

 Masking tape pirate beards (there were also "bandaids" and elaborate--graphic-- stories about why they needed them).

Tuesday, January 11, 2011


Sticker activities have the potential to be instant entertainment for kids.  Whenever I'm at Diddams or the craft store and I see a deal on stickers, I buy them up because I know on some rainy day, I'm going to need an instant activity that interests them enough so they all down quietly.

However, if you know me, and you know Beansprouts, you know that it doesn't stop there.  I can't just sit down with the kids to do a sticker activity without completely over-analyzing the situation.  Each activity, each moment, has information locked away that the quiet attentive teacher can access.

This sticker activity was that moment.  And this post isn't about what the kids learned from the activity.  This is about what I learned...

Each child got one page of stickers and one paper.  They received no instruction as to what to do, except that a couple minutes in I set the marker block on the table and said they could add to the bugs' surroundings with markers if they wanted.  What did I learn about the children?

 Te was more into the story around the stickers, and drew the "water" where the bugs lived.  And she was the mommy bug.  Did I know she was at a level of representational art where she could draw with purpose (as opposed to looking at it afterward and labelling it)?  No!  But I do now, thank you very much Lakeshore clearance stickers.
 Le (on the end there) saw the water bug artist drawing and wanted to draw, too.   But there was no explanation behind it, nor should there be.  It's the process of creative expression that matters, not my adult need to extract forced meaning out of kids' art.

 One of these kids even left her bed (her bed! She never wants to leave her bed!) to come and do that activity.  I learned that her interest in doing activities with friends exceeds her desire for cuddling on her bed with her stuffed animals.  (This surprised me).

 The linear fashion in which Ro took her stickers from the page was SO in the sequence of the direction that we read, that I couldn't help being startled at her pre-reading skills.  She wanted to show me how many she used (no those are not my tiny little fingers holding that sheet).

 This child had a long attention span in this activity.  After she distributed every last sticker very evenly on her paper, she filled the back of the paper with her name (sort of a collage with the letters of her name).  Do you think she felt complete when she was done?  Absolutely. 

 This child was challenged with the fine motor task of removing and re-applying stickers.  How to help?  Offer him more small motor activities and make them fun.  Later that day we had clementines for snack that had a starter peel at the top and the kids were to peel the rest themselves.  They did it beautifully (so did the guy who had trouble with stickers!).  It was a great way for them to practice fine motor skills and be successful (and get the delicious reward at the end!).

 We had another linear thinker in the group.  Their brains are telling me that they are preparing to read.  Children are exposed via written language in the environment to linear and left-to-right thinking. That is because as a culture that's how we read (in some other cultures this is not the case).

 This child had a not-so-long attention span during the activity.  What will help him?  Supplying activities of interest that will hold his attention so he can practice long periods of focused involvement.

A lot of time people assume that I'm a preschool teacher because I "love kids" or am "patient".  Um, not really.  Too cliche : )  Of course the kids and I love each other, but this is not the gratification that rewards what I do.  I do this because I'm so inspired by what children reveal to me throughout the day.   Attentiveness to each moment unlocks the door to profound knowledge about each child, and what's going on underneath the behaviors and actions.  This sticker activity gave me great insights about the participants today.


Sunday, January 9, 2011

Circle Paintings

Anyone who knows our preschool knows that we are not the "stay inside the lines" kind of school.  We like children to explore outside the box.  This is especially true when it comes to creative expression like in art, dance, music, dramatic play, or storytelling.  Our kids have a really healthy sense of how to explore the infinite range of possibilities and ideas within a given parameter.  (For instance, dance all you want inside, but when it becomes a run-around-the-room-fest, we bring it back to what's appropriate to do indoors).

So on Friday during the painting activity when I handed out white pieces of paper with black circles drawn on them, I held no expectation that children would color within the circle, or make an intricate mandala, or draw a face, or anything like that.  It was simply to see where the children would take it.  (I fully expected at least one child to figure out that if you turn it over, you have a "clean" side, but no one did).  Other ways we have changed the dimensionality of a simple painting project is to cut the paper into a shape, or cut a shape out of the paper to create negative space.  (Maybe we'll do that with hearts on Valentine's Day!)

Here's what they did (these are posted in time sequence so you can sort of see how they evolved):


Wrestling is good for children.

Originally published Sept 2010 Many of our parents seemed shocked when they came to pick up their children from Beansprouts and found the...