Sunday, September 2, 2012

Using Fabric To Enhance The Preschool Classroom Environment

As an educator on a budget, I'm always looking for inexpensive ways to add a little "something extra" to the classroom. I've been experimenting with adding elements of whimsy. This sheer curtain was under $10 dollars at Walmart, and since then it has been used several different ways in my classroom:

We draped it over the dramatic play area...
I had been looking for ways to drape fabric over the the pretend center without violating the fire codes here (we cannot hang anything within 18 in from the ceiling). This curtain was thumb-tacked to the wall, and is hanging from a white, wood curtain rod. The curtain rod was secured with fishing line that is taped to the ceiling.
The curtain also served as a "tent" for a camp sight. 
I thumb-tacked to the wall, and used clear, packing tape to secure it to the shelf.
We used rope lights to enhance the tent.
Finally, we used it as a make-shift canopy over the cozy area/library.
I couldn't get a great shot of the rope lights, because the hall lights kept interfering with my camera, but it looks really cozy and wondrous when the lights are off. 

This time we used wood curtain rods, a little duct tape, and thumb tacks. Next time, I would use the clear, packing tape, but we didn't have any "on hand" at the moment.

I love the idea of using fabric to enhance the environment. The use of fabric can set an area apart, and make a child feel like this is a space especially for him/her.

If you are wondering how the  three-year old children handled it, I will tell you the truth. They handled it just fine. Of course, they did test it at first. Some experimented with tossing stuffed animals and small toys on top of the curtain. Others jumped and jumped and jumped to touch the smooth material. This is to be expected. I'm a firm believer that we should not restrict the environment out of fear of this initial testing phase. If you set clear expectations that the environment is to be respected, and demonstrate how to use the space, the set up can last for months and months!

Happy playing!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reggio-Emilia: How To Bring the Most Out of Your Early Learning Environment

My quest this year was to create a more organized, visually pleasing environment in our preschool classroom. My inspiration has come from various classes I've taken this year, inspirational teachers, cohort among local preschools, and of course, blogging! My research of other classrooms and personal aesthetic have led me to the Reggio Emilia approach to classroom environments. 

I do not claim to be a Reggio teacher. I have, however, learned to borrow bits and pieces from various pedagogical philosophies.

I do love how Reggio classrooms are designed to be a beautiful third teacher. If the environment is set up right, the children will be more likely to be actively engaged with the materials. Actively engaged children are learning through play. When children are engaged in activities, teachers have more time to positively interact with the children, observe the learning in action, write down language, and take pictures. Documentation is a HUGE part of the Reggio Emilia approach, but that is another blog post entirely!

In order to bring out the best of any classroom center, you must ask yourself. 
  • Are the materials easily accessible for young children? 
  • Are the materials clean and organized?
  • Are they labeled with a picture and words (preferably in two languages)? 
  • How does the center encourage mathematical concepts? Writing? Inquiry? Socio-emotional development? Easy clean-up?
  • Always ask yourself, "What else can this center offer? How can I make it better?" Remember: what works for one group of children may not work for another. I like to think that the classroom is never "done." There is always some project to add to your To-Do List to make your classroom the best learning environment possible. 

I met another teacher named Esther through my classes this semester who has challenged me to make the most out of my classroom environment. Esther allowed me to tour her center (which is a Reggio school), and even visited my classroom to give me tips. In return, I helped her with math. I completely got the better end of the deal! ;) She showed me how to look at the classroom from EVERY angle. 
  • Stand at the door way. Does your classroom look inviting? Does your classroom have an open layout? Are the centers clearly defined? Is it clear of clutter? Is there any furniture essentially blocking entrance to the classroom? 
  • Get down on your knees. This is the level that children stand at. Are materials easily within reach? Are the displays at eye level? Are the materials clean, organized and inviting?
  • Stand in every corner of the room. Are there any areas not visible? 
  • Stand by a window. Is there a way to take advantage of the natural light? Could you maybe move the art center so that the easel is near a window? What about the science center?
  • Look at the displays. Do you know the children, families, and teachers who share this space? Do you see pictures of the children? Are there unique pieces of art displayed in way that shows their work is valued? Is there anything to tell you what the children are studying this week besides the lesson plan? This brings us back to documentation. 
    • For more information on documentation in the Reggio Emilia approach, look here
    • This website has some wonderful insights on observation, assessment, and documentation. 
    • This writer gives tips on how they make learning visible

  • Look at the baskets. Are they bright, primary colors that detract from the brightly colored toys inside? Reggio environments typically take advantage of wicker baskets. You may also see containers that are  either neutral in color or clear. Examples include: pie tins, glass jars, clear plastic containers, white, black or brown baskets, and metal containers. The point isn't that wicker baskets are better than plastic ones! Neutral colors make the materials more eye-catching, and eye-pleasing. 

  • Have a seat. Is there a space for an adult to comfortably sit? Parents should feel welcome in the classroom. How can they get comfortable? 

  • How is the lighting? Are there alternatives to florescent lights? (Think floor lamps, shelf lamps, aquarium lights, or even white Christmas lights)! Is there a way to allow more natural light into the classroom?

I hope I've inspired someone to take another look at their early learning environment. This past year my classroom has changed quite a bit as I peek into what other people are doing around the world. What changes have you been inspired to make to your classroom? If you're interested in learning more about how to transform your preschool setting, consider reading Designs for Living and Learning: Transforming Early Childhood Environments by Deb Curtis and Margie Carter. It has gorgeous pictures of classrooms on every page!

Happy playing!

Thursday, May 31, 2012

What to do when a class pet dies

"Oh no. He died! Oh no, oh no! The caterpillar died!" 

On Friday, we found a horned caterpillar much like this one near the garden.

It was about an inch and half long and about the width of a thumb. The interesting thing about it was how reactive it was to stimuli. At the gentlest touch, it flipped onto its back and right side up in a flash. After a quick reminder of using gentle hands when handling living creatures, the kids had a BLAST exploring it up close with magnifying glasses. 

Can you guess what story we read at circle time that day? 

Well...after we were finished observing the caterpillar, I put him in the glass aquarium that we are currently using to grow corn. I tossed in a couple of leaves from the tree we found him in, a branch (just in case it wanted to build a cocoon over the weekend), watered the plants, and forgot about it until Tuesday morning. 
(We didn't have school on Monday in honor of Memorial Day). 


Needless to say...the poor thing didn't make it to Tuesday. Simon discovered the dead caterpillar buried half way into the soil (it must have dug a hole over the weekend). I pulled it out, and realized that it was dead. 
At first, they asked me. "How did he die?" I posed the question back to them. "What do you think? How do you think it died?"The comments from the children were...well...see for yourself!

Not a single child answered, "I don't know." They really took the time to think about it. They got out the magnifying glasses to see if it was injured. They turned it around and upside down, discussed it in length with each other, and I frantically scribbled their responses onto index cards. 

As they hypothesized, I posed more open-ended questions:

"Maybe he got died because he scratched himself." -Diego
"How do you think he scratched himself?" -Me

We spent the rest of our free time investigating, hypothesizing, observing, and discussing. Who knew that a dead caterpillar could be such an enriching experience? 

What do you do when a class pet dies? Investigate! Hypothesize. Discuss. Hypothesize some more. And please....don't forget to write down what the kids say!

Happy playing!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Our New Classroom Pet: Snails


I know it's been a while, but now that college classes are out for the summer, I am back to blogging! I'm so excited to be back! As soon as school was out, I was able to go on a much-needed 10 day family vacation to San Diego, CA. I have a huge family (3 brothers and 3 sisters), and we have gradually moved away from each other to different parts of the country. Its rare we spend time together, and it was refreshing to be around family again!

While I was in San Diego, I found a nest of snails on the outer wall and plants of my brother's apartment. I wouldn't have paid them much attention, except that my three year old son, D, would get excited EVERY single time we entered and exited my brother's apartment. He's never really been an animal lover. He's afraid of cats and dogs, and will usually only tolerate creatures if they are behind a glass cage.
 I figured if HE liked snails, so would my classroom. Before we left, he helped me pick a couple of hostages to take home with us. 

I didn't want to let my son down, and let the snails die within days of bringing them to Arizona. Obviously, dry, desert heat is not their natural environment. I looked up basic snail care to keep Scooter and Slow-Poke alive. 

Snail Care Rules: 
  1. Never, ever, EVER pick a snail up by it's shell. Slide your finger under the snail, and pick it up from the bottom. 
  2. Snails eat fresh  fruits, veggies and a steady supply of calcium. The calcium is very important, as it helps keep their shells nice and healthy. You can buy a cuttlefish bones from the pet store. I happened to grab a couple of dead snail shells from the nest in my brother's yard, and those will do just fine. If snails don't have a steady supply of calcium, they will eat their own shells.
  3. Snails need a clean, fresh, damp environment. Arizona is not very damp, so I make sure to spray their cage at least once or twice a day with water.  You can also keep a small, shallow dish of fresh water in the cage to keep it humid. I prefer to spray. 
  4. I put fresh, clean soil at the bottom of the snail cage, along with the vacant snail shells, and fresh veggies. So far, so good! I've managed to keep them alive for more than two weeks...thank you very much! :)

For more information, you can look at this website. I found it very helpful:

When I brought the snails into the classroom, they generated an enthusiastic response. D was excited to show off "his" snails. I kept having to remind him that I brought them for the class. He agreed to share them with his friends, as long as he can help take care of them. :)

This is the cage I picked for the snails. This is before I added the soil to the bottom. 

Now that I'm certain I can keep the snails alive, I've started a "Snail Buddy" system. Every weekend, parents can sign up to take the snails home. I send a journal with care instructions on first page. Parents care for the snails with their children, and can journal about it over the weekend. On Mondays, the children can share their experiences with the class at circle time. 

This weekend was the first time the snails and journal were sent home with a parent. I will update on how that goes, along with pictures of the journal. 

How do you incorporate living creatures into your curriculum? 
I would love to hear about it!

Happy playing!

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Timing is everything.

When it comes to photographing children, timing is EVERYTHING!

I'm no expert. I take photos of activities we do in the classroom, and I try to capture the happy moments as well.

Take this photo. Four children spontaneously decided to lie down and enjoy the beautiful weather together, and I managed to capture a few giggles. But look at the boy on the right. He is right about to...

...get up.

In the few seconds it took my camera to click and prepare for the next photo, the moment was gone. But wasn't it lovely?

Happy Playing!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

How Does A Play-Based Classroom Teach Social and Emotional Skills?

You can learn many things from children.  How much patience you have, for instance. ~Franklin P. Jones

Part 2:

     Welcome to the second in my series “How Does a Play-Based Classroom Teach…?” The first in the series was Making a Portfolio for a Play-based Classroom, which stated the reasons for making a portfolio and how to organize it. Now you are going to join me in my process of actually making a play-based portfolio! My objective is to create a portfolio that will demonstrate the standards we meet through play.

     There is a reason that Social/Emotional skills are the first in the series, and also first in the Arizona Early Learning Standards. Social and Emotional Skills are a means of recognizing and controlling our feelings and interacting with other others. Those skills include:
  1. Self Confidence
  2. Recognizing and expressing emotions
  3. Self-control (stress management)
  4. Cooperation (Turn-taking/sharing)
  5. Respect for others (asking before taking)
     Children who have mastered these skills generally do better in a traditional classroom (and any social situation). However, as anyone who has experience with a 3-5 year old knows, these skills are difficult for many children! Yet these are the skills that--more than any other--will follow a child into every social interaction of his/her life!

     How scary is it to think that as parents and educators, we are responsible for teaching this ever-important skill set to each and every child we are responsible for?! It's not easy. There is no over-night fix. It will take time--and yes, extreme amounts of patience.

We take care of ourselves, first. 

I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”  -Haim G. Ginott

     The first step a teacher can take is to take care of him/herself. That means we as role-models must effectively be able to handle OUR OWN stress. Easier said than done, right? Here are a few ways teachers can take care of themselves: 
  • Know your limits. If you're feeling the stress knot building in your chest, it's time to take a potty break! Go in the bathroom and breathe in and out for a few minutes. It really helps!
  • Carry around a stress ball.

  • Make sure to get enough sleep each night. 
  • Eat right.
  • Exercise daily. 
  • Take deep breaths. All day long. It's magical. 
Above all, remember this: We want the children to feel safe in their environment. A teacher who yells a lot, and becomes easily frustrated does not set a good example of self control, or maintain a positive, safe environment.

We discuss feelings and emotions every day.
There are many tried-and-true ways of discussing feelings words with preschooler. I talk about how I am feeling all day long. When I'm happy, I tell them I'm happy. When I'm frustrated, I say, "I'm frustrated," and put myself in a quiet spot to take three deep breaths. I do this to:

     a) let the children know that is OK to have upset feelings (even teachers!), and 
     b) model an appropriate way of managing those feelings.

Other ways include:
  • Discussing feelings "in the moment."
  • Point to characters in stories during story time. "Uh-oh. Her fists are balled up, and she's stomping her foot. How do you think she's feeling right now?"
  • Sing songs and recite poems about feelings. A very popular song is "If you're happy and you know it." There is a poem that I love that is very similar to Eric Carle and Bill Martin Jr.'s Brown Bear, Brown Bear What Do You See? book.

         "Happy face, Happy Face,
         What do you see?
         I see a sad face looking at me.
         Sad face, Sad Face,
         What do you see?
         I see a surprised face looking at me! (and so on and so on....insert any emotion. Use facial   pictures that match each emotion to go with the poem!)
  • Use charts. This webpage has several free templates for you to download and print. I use them all the time, but you can always make your own! There is a feelings wheel, a feelings chart, and feelings posters. Why not use them all?

We help children to manage their stress.
Little ones get stressed, too! They have to share an environment with up to 20 other little humans, sharing toys, space, and attention with only 2-3 teachers. You also don't know what their home life is. The fact is, we don't know WHAT happens from the time they leave our doors to the time they are signed back in again, and it is our job to give them coping skills to deal with the situations life throws at us.
  • We provide a cozy space indoors and out to "escape" to for awhile. 
  • We model stress-coping mechanisms like deep breathing or finding a quiet spot. 

  • We wait for them to calm down before approaching them about how to fix the situation. 
  • We use tag-team approach when we find ourselves in a power-struggle with a child. 
  • We give lots of hugs and kisses. 
  • We tell them we love them, and it's okay to make mistakes. 
  • We offer positive choices as alternatives to hurting others, screaming, or throwing a good old-fashioned tantrum. 

What do you do to help teach social and emotional skills in your home or classroom? 
As promised, here is a sample of what our portfolio would look like. This is the first strand in the Social Emotional Standard of the Arizona Early Learning Standards
Arizona Department of Education
Early Learning Standards
Ages 3-5 Years Old

Social Emotional Standard
Strand 1.        Knowledge of Self
         Self Awareness
              a)Demonstrates self-confidence
The children frequently measure, pour, and mix concoctions that are used in the classroom. We stretch paint with liquid starch, make flubber, play-dough, glarch, goop, oobleck, and also do cooking projects once a week.
     b)Makes personal preferences know to others
 (children participate in class surveys, in which they are able to mark with stick, name plate, or felt-tip markers.)
The children often participate in group surveys. We do simple surveys to see what colors the children are wearing, to find out how many boys and girls there are today, and also to vote for preferences. 

     c)Demonstrates knowledge of self-identity
Children are given time with mirrors to create self-portraits. Children also pick favorite art work to put in their portfolios. The child's name is used to label his/her cubby, nap mat, nap shelf, and art.
d)      Shows an awareness of similarities and differences between self and others

·         Recognition and Expression of Feelings

a)      Associates emotions with words and facial expressions
b)      Identifies and describes own feelings
Veronica made a self portrait, and dictated to me: "I made it with those eyeballs, and this hair, and with a smile because I like to small all the time. I feel joy. I feel peaceful." 
c)       Demonstrates refusal skills by saying "No" to/in harmful situations
d)      Expresses empathy for others 
Peyton helps her friend dress in one of the dress-up costumes. She helps him put his arm through the hole, and even assists him in zipping the outfit.

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