The Ultimate Test for Child-Directed Learning

This is not a drill. This is the ultimate test for honoring child-directed learning.

And it turns out I failed the first round.

How many times have I written about working from a place of love instead of fear? Yet I’m afraid that fear has been at the helm far too often over the last week. But I’m going to be kind to myself as I decide to try again each day through this crisis. Meanwhile, here are some of the lessons we’ve learned so far:

#1: Schedules & Routines are valuable, but remember to co-construct them with your children!

Here was my first attempt:

At first, I felt pleased because I had my daughter write and post it for our family. But it was still entirely conceived by me, with no input from my children. And it, um…didn’t go well.

The timetables didn’t work for all 3 kids at the same time, with some finishing fast, others experiencing boredom, and others feeling anxiety to do something that was arbitrarily placed later in the day. I struggled to get any of my own remote teaching done as I was constantly interrupted by “I’m done; what can I do next?”

As I fell asleep last night, I realized that in my fear of making sure my kids got all their physical, emotional, and intellectual needs taken care of, I was neglecting the key ingredient: autonomy. And with it, the peace and confidence that’s fostered by purpose & ownership.

I resolved to do better the next morning, and I fell asleep thinking about all the years and ways I have tried to help my children visualize and own their schedules & routines…

…and I decided to sit down with each of them to talk about what they hoped the day would bring.

#2: Take time to truly listen, early and often.

As a result of our discussions this morning, I learned from my 9 year-old that writing time slots with her schedule created tremendous unnecessary pressure for her. She preferred to write a sequence that could be flexible. I also learned that she preferred to finish all her difficult tasks (like cleaning her guinea pigs’ cage and homework) first thing in the morning.

And from my 5 year-old, I learned that he wanted me to draw pictures next to each item on his list, talking through each one so it made sense to him.

Setting the tone for listening first thing in our day has fostered more meaningful discussion, self-awareness, and self-regulation throughout the day. Words like, “When I do __, it helps me feel __.” And we all need this kind of mindfulness now more than ever.

#3: For the schoolwork coming home right now, try to make it as independently accessible for your children as possible.

For my 9 year-old, this looks like creating a Google Keep note with checkboxes, sharing it with her, and then adding any additional tasks I hear from her teacher to this one document as we go. That way, tasks don’t slip between the cracks, and I don’t overwhelm my daughter by telling her again and again, “Oh, and don’t forget this other assignment!”

For my 5 year-old, this looks like having a designated folder on the counter where he can access all the materials he needs each day. He doesn’t have to wait around for me in order to get started each day, which helps us both tremendously!

I still have work to do to improve this situation for all three of my children and myself, but our home feels more peaceful than it has in days. Now that I’m working toward child-directed learning again, the ship is righting once more, and we can look toward tomorrow with greater confidence and hope.

My very best wishes to families and teachers everywhere at this time! Remember to hold onto what you value and cherish most, and to be kind to yourselves through this stressful time!

Taking Down The Baby-Proofing: Some Thoughts On Self-Reg

Like many households with toddlers and babies, we have outlet covers placed in every reachable outlet throughout the house. For the first two years of my daughter’s life, they stayed put and did their job, keeping her safe from electrocution. 

But alas, at some point, her curiosity and fine motor skills moved beyond the simple plastic and left us with outlet covers being pulled out left and right. 

At first, we tried telling her no. 

Then we tried redirecting her every time.

When neither worked, we attempted to show her how to put them BACK in the socket in hopes that once pulled out, she would put it back in. However, instead of putting the cover back in the socket, she started sticking anything else that might fit. I’m sure a lot of parents are familiar with the objects- Pencils, forks, fingers, straws, anything long and skinny. 

Finally, I was at a loss, what was I going to do to keep my daughter from getting electrocuted? This was becoming too dangerous. 

One night it dawned on me. She was two and a half at this point and I thought to myself, it’s time to stop trying to block her from the danger and start teaching her how to properly use them as a tool, making the danger lessen drastically. 

We had a quick conversation about outlets and power, at a two-year-old level of course, and what we use outlets for. I pulled out her tablet and charger and showed her how to properly plug in one side of the cord to the outlet and the other into the tablet. She practiced over and over taking it in and out of the outlet and watching the screen turn on when it would start charging. We also talked about what can and cannot be placed in outlets. Tablet chargers- good! Forks- No way. She was overjoyed with this new skill she had just obtained. 

At some point, we had to take away the baby-proofing and hand-holding to let our kids just experience the world for what it is. This can be true for crossing the road or walking to the neighbor’s house. Maybe taking off training wheels or taking off floaties in the pool as Mary talked about in a past post. 

How do we help students learn self-regulation in our schools that can be full of figurative outlet covers? What would happen if we let elementary students choose their own tables in a lunchroom instead of assigning each grade and class a specific spot? At first- chaos. But over time, think of the self-regulation this could promote in students with the proper scaffolding. Just like how I had to sit down and show my daughter step by step how to plug in her tablet and effectively use an outlet, the same would be done with the students. 

The benefit became apparent for me almost right away after removing every last outlet cover from our home. When the vacuum cord wouldn’t quite reach the far corner of the living room, my daughter came running to unplug it from the current outlet and move it to a closer one. Less work for me! When her tablet dies, she is responsible for plugging it back in. She is excited at any chance she has to use the outlets, and I don’t have to worry about forks and straws in them anymore! 

How do we find the balance of a well run, efficient school while also putting responsibility into the hands of students to behave and act in a respectful, responsible manner? And how do we get to the point where the two can become one? A well-run school that promotes student decision making and taking off the “outlet covers”? Tell me your thoughts.

Featured Image: pexels.com

Using The Montessori Method In Everyday Life

The Montessori method is a common practice in schools today, mainly the places that focus on early childhood education. There are also entire schools based around this method Maria Montessori created in 1897. Maria has revolutionized the way we foster learning in children with her research and educational practices. 

The basic idea of the Montessori method is children take charge of their learning. The adult provides the material, the child makes the decision on where and when to spend their time. Everything is eye level with the child, making it easy access. Wood is the preferred material for toys, not plastic, being aesthetically pleasing, as well as durable and practical. It’s a method that can be adopted in homes, daycares, preschools, elementary schools, even up to high schools. 

“Montessori is a method of education that is based on self-directed activity, hands-on learning and collaborative play. In Montessori classrooms children make creative choices in their learning, while the classroom and the highly trained teacher offer age-appropriate activities to guide the process. Children work in groups and individually to discover and explore knowledge of the world and to develop their maximum potential.”

Montessori Northwest

I had the intention to use the Montessori method in our home when my daughter was born, putting toys on a shelf at her eye level and practicing other Montessori ways. However, soon I began to feel inadequate about my implementing based on research I was doing and others I was comparing to, especially with my limited funds. Here’s how I brought the Montessori ways into my house without breaking the bank. 

We found a kid-sized card table we bought second hand. 
Toys were organized on a cube shelf, all at my daughter’s level. 
I was more mindful of the toys we bought for her, trying to stick with materials that promote imaginative play and learning, not limited, one-time-use toys.
We incorporated more play into our day. 
I let her prepare and be more involved in her meals. 
She took the reigns on her own learning, I stopped pushing her to learn letters and numbers and instead accepted that she would pick it up by herself eventually. She did. 

The Montessori method doesn’t have to be complicated or perfect. Certain aspects did not fit into our daily lives, but others worked great. Placing her dishes at her level to claim responsibility worked wonders, but setting up a functioning child-sized kitchen set for dishwashing and food prep wasn’t practical for us. I stopped comparing my small acts to those who had more resources. My main takeaway, in the end, was that just because I couldn’t orchestrate a perfect Montessori household for my two-year-old doesn’t mean that my efforts went to waste. This can be the case in any classroom. 

Move art supplies to kid-level. 

Give students access to imaginative play materials. 

Allow younger kids to use messy things such as markers and paints. They won’t understand the responsibility of playing with messy items until you give them the opportunity to. 

Place learning and classroom functions in the hands of the students. 

Be an advocate for responsible, independent kids, who will turn into responsible, independent adults. 

How do you implement Montessori ways into your classroom? How can this elicit deeper learning in other areas?    


 

One Big List Of Sensory Bin Fillers

To all of the educators out there teaching in early childhood- the daycare workers, the preschool and kindergarten teachers, even up into first and second grade, this post is for you. First, to salute you for your noble work. Teaching littles can be difficult, emotions run high and logic doesn’t always seem to follow. But at the end of the day, we all know the work we are doing is worth it for those little brains to learn and grow. 

Here’s a tool for my fellow sensory bin lovers, something I’ve searched the internet, Pinterest, and Instagram for a few years now, and I am ready to share my findings with you. My best list of sensory bin fillers!

  • Good old fashioned rice- Fairly common, but always a hit. Dye the rice fun colors for an added twist. 
  • Shaving cream or
  • Whipped cream- make sure your students know which one is edible! 
  • Pom-poms 
  • Cardboard pieces cut up smaller 
  • Water with scoops and cups
  • Ice
  • Playdough 
  • Tissue paper
  • Water beads
  • Shredded paper 
  • Dried noodles 
  • Cooked noodles 
  • Foam packing peanuts 
  • Bubble wrap 
  • Cotton balls as pretend snow
  • A big bucket of snow! What’s more fun than snow indoors for littles? 
  • Dried corn for those fall months 
  • Straw or hay 
  • Fake grass (usually made for Easter baskets) 
  • REAL grass! 
  • Legos
  • Bubble Foam
  • Sand or moon sand 
  • Rocks 
  • Leaves 
  • Buttons 
  • If you’re feeling like you’re ready for a really messy day- Dirt!
  • Feathers 
  • Flower petals/ flowers- either real or fake 
  • Fabric pieces 
  • Beads 

The possibilities are endless! We have had so many successes and failures in our sensory bin activities. Some I find are not interesting right away, but left out can facilitate great play. This list is just a start to items you can find in a sensory table, but my hope is that it can get your gears turning for some fun, imaginative play for littles. 

What are some of your go-to sensory bin activities? What has worked for you in the past? Is there something new on this list that you are going to try in your classroom? 

A child’s play is not simply a reproduction of what he has experienced, but a creative reworking of the impressions he has aquired.

Vgotsky

Imaginative Play- A Product Of Boredom

Lately, my daughter has adopted a new favorite phrase: “Mom, I’m hungry.” Translated, she’s really saying, “Mom, I’m bored.” I think this is common among most kids. 

I used to jump on the opportunity to give her productive play or activities when she was bored, but one day I was busy. I didn’t have the capabilities to bend and meet her every need. I felt like a bad mom, not giving her the attention she needed, or more so, wanted. What followed made up for my guilt. 

A tiny glimpse into the block city- A product of boredom

I allowed boredom for a small time and her imagination ran wild. With a little prompting, soon our wooden blocks were spread throughout the house with castles and buildings everywhere. Then, the baby dolls were invited to crash down the whole city, only to turn around and rebuild it. All while I made dinner. 

I’m sure I could have stuck another sensory bin in front of her, or given her some crayons and paper. We are always stocked up with sticker books and paints, which would have sufficed and held her over until the food was ready. All of these truly are great, educational, enriching options for toddlers and kids, but there’s something to say about letting kids reach boredom. It’s incredible what can follow. 

Instead, I let her run free and allowed time for her little mind to create her own play, her own work. Instead of being limited to paper and paints or the stickers I have available, she used my house as her canvas to create her own world to escape in for a time with the plentiful toys we have lying around.

Had I facilitated another activity for her, her imagination would not have grown that day. It was a great reminder that we need to let kids be bored. 

What products have you witnessed as a result of boredom? How can we find time to allow kids to be bored in schools, as well at home?

Featured Image: Pexels.com

Teachers & Parents: Who Deals with the Pressure of Mandates?

“I just don’t know what to do. He has zero interest in the paper books that come home to practice sight words.”

Anxiety. Fear. Worries about falling behind. It was like I was looking in a mirror from several years back when I was stressing about my reluctant kindergartner.

Only this time, as the kindergarten teacher (and as a somewhat-less-neurotic parent than I once was), I was able to offer all the reassurance that I wished I had received for my kindergartner.

I told the parent, “If he is expressing disinterest in those practice books, please don’t push them. It means he just isn’t ready yet, and that is perfectly ok.”

That precise concern was what made me hesitate in sending home those books to begin with. They are part of a program that pushes reading faster and earlier than was ever expected of kindergarten even a few years ago (our state now has standardized testing even for kindergarten that expects them to be reading by the end of the year).

Schools here must comply with these standards in order to keep their doors open. And so, cushioned by as much developmentally-appropriate play as possible, we engage in guided reading, word study, shared/independent reading and writing, and sending home these paper books to practice sight word recognition, in order to coax literacy along.

But just because I’m feeling the pressure of the latest state standard, does that mean I should transfer that pressure to parents, or heaven forbid, to the children themselves?

There are those who believe that warning parents of the growing demands–that if they don’t push, the kids will fall behind–is a kindness; I can see why they would feel that way. They do not want parents to be blind-sided by the increasing pressures from grade level to grade level.

But we can equip parents with tools without alarming them, or putting them in a scarcity mindset with their young children that will only make children hate learning before they’ve even really started. It may be the teacher’s role to shoulder the pressures from educational mandates, but I don’t believe we need to push that on parents. Rather, we can focus on our shared roles as teachers and parents on nurturing a lifelong learner, on preserving and cultivating the innate curiosity we all inherit.

Which is why my weekly emails now include this reminder about those paper books:

“Thank you so much for doing your best to read these with your children at home. These are meant to help your child retain our sight words throughout the year, but of course the most important reading is the kind that makes your child love reading! Stories they choose, text you guys identify as you drive or look at restaurant menus, and other forms of reading are all so beneficial.” 

As I often try to point out, capital “S” struggles–such as developmental delays, disability, and profound lack of access to resources–these are all caveats that should never be dismissed when making decisions on the timing for and types of interventions that might be needed. But barring these extreme circumstances, most children will flourish at their own developmental pace if given the space and resources to do so.

It just so happened that that readiness was closer than either I or my student’s parent thought. Not 2 weeks later, this parent returned and told me, “I don’t know happened! I did what you said and stopped pushing those practice books. And now suddenly he is excited about trying to read everything! It’s hard to keep up!”

And I just smiled to see this beautiful & familiar pattern unfold yet again: when in doubt, go with the child.

Do You Teach Early Childhood Ages? This List Is For You

Around the time my daughter was 18 months old, I had an epiphany moment. I was a full-time stay at home mom. The majority of my focus was on raising and teaching her, so I needed to treat it more like it was at least my part-time job. I spent my day running my own errands, dragging her around with me, and when I needed to accomplish tasks around the house I would try to pawn her off to her room to play with her toys. 

Well, her toys eventually were boring to her and she spent more time clinging to me than ever before. That’s when I realized something needed to change. If my job was to raise and teach her, then that’s where I needed to shift my focus. 

I researched age-appropriate, educational activities for her, built up a good stash of supplies, and got to work. In the year I have been doing these with her, I have also come up with a decent list of tips that I believe can benefit everyone, whether you’re also a stay at home mom like me, a working mom, or a teacher of littles. 

Without further ado, here are the crucial tips I’ve learned. 

1. Everything can and will be cleaned up- Sensory bins are messy. Painting for the first ten times is messy. Even playing with stickers can be messy. This was so hard for me and I would have to just take a deep breath and remind myself that it will be cleaned up, but for now, she’s learning. 

2. Cleaning is fun for toddlers, take advantage of that- My daughter LOVED wiping up the table after a small sensory activity. She’s two years old now and still loves it. I’m taking full advantage of her help for as long as possible. It’s also teaching her some cleaning skills. Double win!  

3. Don’t overfill the sensory bin with too many tools- The first sensory bin I did with my daughter was a giant bust. I filled it full of fun tools she could use to play in the water. Right away she became overwhelmed with the number of things in front of her and refused to play with it. Too many options and information can overwhelm any child, even into kinder and first grade.

4. Just because they weren’t very good at a certain activity or bin the first time, doesn’t mean it’s a bust. They’ll get better and have more fun every time you pull it out.  

5. “Taste Safe” does not mean it’s an afternoon snack. It means you don’t need to try poison control when it’s put in their mouths- Especially small kids are notorious for eating EVERYTHING. So taste safe can be best, sometimes even into Kindergarten, because five-year-olds are just as guilty at placing anything in mouths, noses, and ears! This doesn’t mean they have free reign to eat cornmeal. It just means you don’t need to worry when it’s in their mouth, you just need to respond with, “yuck!” so it doesn’t continue happening.  

6. Don’t underestimate their abilities. 

7. Messes mean their learning. It’s hard, but it’s true.  

8. They don’t have to do an activity exactly how you envisioned for it still to be fun for them.

9. Some activities are a bust, and that’s okay. Try again later. 

11. Tape. Construction paper. Markers. You don’t need a lot of supplies, or even expensive supplies to make it fun and educational. In fact, the activity on repeat in our house is painting with water on construction paper. This takes construction paper, some sort of paintbrush, and a cup to hold water. So. Easy.

12. 1-2 drops of food coloring is all you need. 

13. Water play is the cleanest play. Nervous about sensory bins in your house or classroom because they are notorious for being messy? You’re not alone. If you have access to a non-carpeted area, water sensory bins are great because they can only do the floors a favor when all it needs is a good mopping when it’s over. 

14. They’ll never learn the responsibility of playing in a sensory bin or with messy activities if you never give them the opportunity to. 

15. You don’t have to understand what concepts they are learning, you just have to understand that it’s important that they really play. I used to be nervous about making hands-on activities for my daughter because I wasn’t exactly sure what she was learning or how to explain it to her. The good news is- you don’t need to either. In this photo, my daughter is experimenting with baking soda and vinegar. She doesn’t need to know that what’s happening are the hydrogen ions within the vinegar react with the bicarbonate in the baking soda, causing a reaction, creating new chemicals, which lead to a second reaction. All she needs to know is that when the vinegar hits the baking soda, it makes bubbles. Don’t feel daunted by the minute details. Just let them play.