Children’s Interactions with Loose Parts

The January edition of the CCEI newsletter focuses on ways to introduce loose parts into your learning environment.  These open-ended materials provide countless developmental and learning opportunities – once the children get used to using them.  Have you ever known a child who needed to have the directions to create something out of Legos?  Have you ever heard a child ask you how they should draw a tree or ask you to make a person out of playdough for them?  Of course, all children are different, some are more creative than others.  However,  in some cases, children come to us with a need to expand their creativity and build confidence in their own skills.  Loose parts can help with this!

After introducing new loose parts, you may notice that children use the materials in very ordinary ways.  They may line up and stack the materials or sort them into piles (very important skills, by the way).  As an adult educator and conference goer, I have witnessed this first hand in sessions I have facilitated and attended as a participant with other adults.  In the first few minutes with a new material, even adults revert to these simple forms of play.  But given ample time, I have noticed adults testing out materials, seeing what they can do, how they can be used, how they work with other materials. I have watched the expressions on adult’s faces change from, “Is this what I am supposed to be doing?” to “I love what I just created!”  In other words, the expressions changed from worry to joy and contentment.

For this reason, it is encouraged to allow children ample, uninterrupted time to explore loose parts. Observe children carefully, watching for signs that they are excited about their work.  They may not be using the materials in the way that you had intended, but as long as they are being safe, let the exploration continue. Let the creativity flow. Let children know when they use materials in ways that you had not thought of.  Help children build the confidence to be creative and use materials in new and exciting ways.

What are Leadership Skills?

As we approach not only the end of the year, but also the end of this decade (wow!), it is a great time to reflect on the idea of leadership in education. It is important to think about both our own role as leaders, but also how we are instilling leadership skills in the children with whom we work.

Spend some time thinking about these questions:

  • How have I grown as a leader over the past year/10 years?
  • What can I do to improve my leadership skills over the next year/10 years?
  • Where do I see myself as a leader in the field of ECE in the next year/10 years?
  • How successful have I been in introducing leadership skills to children over the past year/10 years?
  • How can I enhance my teaching of leadership skills to children in the next year/10 years?

You could also pick a child that you currently teach and image that child 10 years from now. What leadership skills will the child need to be successful? What can you do today to facilitate that child’s success as a leader?

Keep in mind, leadership is not necessarily tied to your role or title. Three year olds can be leaders, classroom assistant can be leaders. It’s not about the job title, it’s about the skills you possess that help you collaborate successfully with your peers.  Here is a short list of a few of these important skills:

  • Communication skills –not only the ability to clearly express your thoughts and feedback, but also the ability to listen and comprehend the needs of others.
  • Collaboration – this includes the ability to work as a team, share responsibilities, and hold yourself and others accountable.
  • Adaptability – this refers to your ability to respond effectively to the ever-changing conditions of projects and the needs of teammates.
  • Empathy – a skills that allows you to build trusting relationships that can inspire and motivate others.
  • Growth mindset – the ability to recognize, celebrate, and build upon the efforts of others, not just their successes.
  • Creativity –outside-the-box thinking that generates solutions to problems and new ideas.
  • Self-reflection – the mindful practice of reviewing your thoughts and actions to identify opportunities for growth.

As you move into the new year and the next decade, make an intentional effort to incorporate more of these practices into your professional work and into your work with young children. By modeling these skills to children, you will provide them with valuable opportunities to build their own essential leadership skills.

Strengthening Mathematical Thinking: Program-Wide Efforts

This month’s newsletter explores many different ways that educators can incorporate math language and exploration into their learning environment.  At the program level, there are things the staff can do to ensure that everyone in the program is working toward the same math-rich environment.  Below is a list of recommendations put forth by NAEYC and the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM) to help programs determine strengths and areas of need related to math instruction. 

Work with your staff and coworkers to rate your program on each of the following recommendations.  Once you have identified opportunities for growth, create an action plan and get to work!

In high-quality mathematics education for 3- to 6-year-old children, teachers and other key professionals should:

1. enhance children’s natural interest in mathematics and their disposition to use it to make sense of their physical and social worlds

2. build on children’s experience and knowledge, including their family, linguistic, cultural, and community backgrounds; their individual approaches to learning; and their informal knowledge

3. base mathematics curriculum and teaching practices on knowledge of young children’s cognitive, linguistic, physical, and social/emotional development

4. use curriculum and teaching practices that strengthen children’s problem-solving and reasoning processes as well as representing, communicating, and connecting mathematical ideas

5. ensure that the curriculum is coherent and compatible with known relationships and sequences of important mathematical ideas

6. provide for children’s deep and sustained interaction with key mathematical ideas

7. integrate mathematics with other activities and other activities with mathematics

8. provide ample time, materials, and teacher support for children to engage in play, a context in which they explore and manipulate mathematical ideas with keen interest

9. actively introduce mathematical concepts, methods, and language through a range of appropriate experiences and teaching strategies

10. support children’s learning by thoughtfully and continually assessing all children’s mathematical knowledge, skills, and strategies.

Details regarding each of these recommendations can be found in the joint position statement of the NEAYC and NCTM.

Using Caring for Our Children Standards to Improve Program Practices

The Caring for Our Children standards provide guidance for early learning programs aspiring to create the safest and most healthy environments for young children.  Whether working as an individual, teaching team, or entire staff to improve practices, here are a few tips to help you utilize Caring for Our Children in your quality improvement initiatives.

  • Consider your priorities –Reflect on recent licensing inspections, family surveys, accreditation feedback, staff surveys, anecdotal observation, etc. to determine areas that could be improved upon. The areas that you identify will become your target standards.
  • Identify the audience – Not every standard applies to all teachers.  Some standards are specific to infant teachers or staff members who diaper children.  Determine who the right people are to evaluate the standards and current program practices.
  • Review licensing standards – In many cases, licensing regulations and CFOC standards are aligned, but it is critical that all staff members are aware of the small variations that may exist between regulations and standards. Determine the minimum requirements and strengthen your program practices from that point. 
  • Review the CFOC standards, rationales, and comments related to the area you aim to improve.  Explore the additional references that are provided after each standard as well as any related standards that align with the targeted standard. 
  • Discuss the elements of the standard to ensure that everyone involved has a consistent understanding of the language of the standard.  Use the glossary of terms and any related appendices to clarify terms or specifics related to the target standard.
  • Conduct a self-study – Staff members who are involved in the quality improvement effort should spend a period of time conducting an assessment of how they currently manage elements of the target standard.  This self-study should be and honest reflection of the current practices, where they exceed licensing regulations and CFOC standards, as well as where they fall short.
  • Identify actions that need to be taken based on current program practices and the language of the standard.
  • Create a realistic action plan – Plans may be easy to implement or require an incremental approach.  Some plans only require a change to a written policy.  Other plans will require behavior changes that take time to practice and master.  Set a date to evaluate success.
  • Evaluate and celebrate – Take time to recognize accomplishments. If further action is necessary, revise your action plan, but be sure to celebrate the dedication and efforts of all involved!

Supporting Team Development

Did you know that there are distinct stages of team development, just like there are stages of child development?

In this month’s newsletter, we explore ways to effectively onboard new employees. However, your work does not stop there.  As team members work together over time, their relationship to the team and as a team, evolves. 

According to phycologist Bruce Tuckman, there are 5 stages of team development:

  • Forming – As a team is forming, members of the team display different emotions.  Some are excited, some are anxious, some may be hesitate or even confused about the work they will be asked to do.  They will depend on leadership for direction and guidance. Activities that allow team members to get to know one another, communicate, and build trust are vital at this stage.
  • Storming – As teams begin to work together on tasks, leaders may notice conflicts or differences of opinions are common. People have different values and approaches to problem solving.  This can cause team members to clash with one another, divide amongst themselves, or give up due to undue stress.
  • Norming – As team members work through their differences and learn to communicate more effectively with one another, they start to come together as a cohesive team. Now, the goals of the team are front and center, rather than individuals’ opinions or ideas.  Compromise and collaboration are key indicators of the norming stage of a team.
  • Performing – During this stage, a bulk of the work can occur with everyone onboard. Team members are aligned with the goals and vision of the project.  Most tasks can be completed independently by team members, while leaders focus on coaching and building skills.
  • Adjourning – Once the project is complete, the team may stop meeting, as you might see happening with sub-committees. Adjourning may also occur is one or more team members leave a long standing team, which is what happens when employees turn over. This can be a disruptive and upsetting time for team members, who have built important relationships with one another. 

Keep these stages of team development in mind as you work with newly established teaching teams, staff meeting subcommittees, and family committees. How you plan activities and respond to team members will depend on the team’s stage of development.

Creating Mission Statements

In the August Newsletter, we explore ways that vision building can be incorporated into your work with children and families in early learning environments.  Vision building is the first step to defining the core values of your program.  Once a vision statement is developed, organizations can develop their Mission Statement.  Sometimes these terms are used interchangeably, but there is a distinct difference between vision and mission statements. 

Vision statements are an organization’s dreams or aspirations for the community they serve.

Mission statements  communicate broad actions that an organization will take to bring their vision to fruition.  Mission statements can include what the organization will do, why they will take these actions, and who will benefit from their actions. 

Take a moment to reflect on the vision you have for your program or classroom, whether that be a formal statement or your own personal vision.  After reminding yourself of your vision, consider the things you will do each day to make that vision a reality. 

Jot down the answers to the following questions:

  • What does our program/classroom do really well (in relation to our vision) and how can we build on this success?
  • What challenges exist in my learning environment and what are possible solutions to these challenges?
  • How do I want to be remembered by children and families?
  • What are the specific actions I need to take on a daily basis to ensure my vision is fulfilled?
  • Why are these actions important?
  • Who will benefit from the actions I plan to take?
  • How will these actions impact others in the environment?
  • What resources, knowledge, skills, or support do I/we need to move forward?

Once these questions are answered, you will have the essence of your mission statement, insight into what you need to fulfill it, and inspiration to do so.

Here are examples of mission statements to help you turn your vision into reality.

Teaching Children about Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

According to Usethisbag.com, the average person in the US throws out almost five pounds of garbage daily.  Added up over a year or a lifetime, that is a lot of trash that each of us is contributing to our environment.  Some of these discarded items take hundreds of years to breakdown, expanding landfills and harming the surrounding environment. 

Helping children become aware of how much trash we throw away can be one of the first steps to creating a generation that takes responsibility for keeping our planet clean.  Ask families to drop off plastic bottles that they collect over the period of one week.  Place the bottles collected by one family (anonymously) in a pile and ask children to notice how much space the bottles take up.  Next, add the bottles that another family collected.  Ask children what they notice about the pile.  Continue to add to the pile and ask children what they notice.  Talk about the fact that the final pile is just one week’s worth of plastic.  Ask what it would be like if there were two or three piles of the same size… then 10 piles, 20 piles, 50 piles.  From this conversation, you can transition into a conversation about efforts to cut down on the amount of trash that is thrown away. 

Discuss ways that families can reduce the number of bottles they throw away. Are there other kinds of containers that could be used.  For example, show the children a reusable water bottle.  See if the children can think of ways to reuse plastic bottles.  For example, they could be used as watering cans for your class garden or used in an art project.  You can also talk with the children about recycling programs in the community.  Invite someone from the community into the program to talk with the children about recycling or use some of the resources below to guide your conversation. 

Recycling Lesson Plan for Preschoolers | Indiana Department of Environmental Management

Kids Guide to Recycling | ReuseThisBag.com

Trash Talk and Recycling for Kids | Kids Discover

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. Most of all Reduce. | NRDC

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Supporting Self-Advocacy

The June 2019 newsletter focuses on things that ECE professionals can do to become strong advocates for issues that impact children and families.  Let’s take a bit of time to explore how we can help children become advocates – not for government policies or safe communities – but for themselves. 

Self-advocacy is the ability to identify our own needs, communicate those needs, and seek the support necessary to address those needs. When children are able to advocate for themselves effectively they build confidence in their own skills and a positive attitude about problem solving and learning.

One of the earliest tools we can give children to promote self-advocacy is sign language.  Imagine an infant who needs to communicate their desire for food or drink – but they do not yet have the words to do so.  Having a tool (sign language) to communicate needs is empowering and can reduce stress in children and the adults in their lives.

Elementary school children will likely be ready to take on true self-advocacy.  They will have the maturity and self-awareness to be effective at identifying and addressing needs.  In early childhood, we can help prepare children to be self-advocates by engaging in the following interactions:

  • Help children identify their emotions in a variety of situations. Use empathetic statements to help children recognize their feelings.  For example, “It looks like you are sad that Mommy went to work this morning. Sometimes feeling sad makes us cry. Are you feeling sad?” Once the child confirms your observation you could say, “When I am sad I ask my friends for a hug. If you want I could give you a hug.” If the child accepts, hug the child and say, “Anytime you are feeling sad, I am happy to give you a hug.” 
  • Acknowledge children for expressing needs, even if those needs are communicated non-verbally.  For example, if a child points to a desired toy, you could say, “I see that you are pointing to the truck. That tells me that you might want to play with the truck. Do you want to play with the truck?” Once the child confirms your observation you might say, “Thanks for letting me know that you want to play with the truck. You could also say ‘Truck, please.’ to let me know that.”
  • Teach children easy ways to ask for help.  When you notice a child who seems frustrated, acknowledge his/her efforts and remind them that you are someone who can assist them if they need it.  Attempt to identify words and actions children can take to communicate they need help.  Be sure to model these actions with other adults (and the children) in the learning environment.
  • Talk to children about their personal space and encourage them to talk to other children about maintaining personal space.  Encourage children to tell peers to step back if they stand too close.
  • Empower children to speak up about the actions of their peers that they do not like. For example, if a child is throwing sand, encourage the other children to talk about how they feel about it.
  • Help children discover strengths and areas of need. Remind children that they were not always good at the strengths that they have now.  You might say, “I know you are a fast runner, but when you were younger, you were not as fast. You practiced hard to be a fast runner.  What do you think you could do to improve your handwriting?” Let children know there are tools or strategies they can use to address the needs they have, but most things take time to develop or strengthen.

By learning to communicate needs and identify solutions to problems at a young age, children will have the tools necessary to become effective self-advocates as they age. 

Tell us how you promote self-advocacy in your learning environment on our Facebook page here

Making Connections between Play and Assessing Children’s Learning

This month’s newsletter is all about play and how teachers can engage in play with young children.  In the newsletter, we acknowledge the many tasks that teachers are responsible for completing on a daily basis.  Sometimes there are just not enough hours in the day to sit down and play, which is unfortunate.  Luckily, there are ways to multi-task, by using free play as a time to complete those ever important child assessment tools. 

Free play provides an excellent opportunity to gather authentic assessment data. Being at the table or on the floor with the children will allow you to get a more accurate sense of how they think, solve problems, interact with peers, and regulate their emotions.

Here is a list of things teachers can do to integrate authentic assessment into their play with children:

Learn the standards. Take time to become familiar with the learning standards or skills included on the assessment tools used by your program.  Over time, you will probably have much of the list memorized, which will help you recognize skills as they happen during children’s play.

Focus on one skill or area of development at a time. Be intentional about where you want to start your observations.  Pick one area of development or even one specific skill to focus upon each day or even each week.

Provide materials that promote the skills you hope to observe. Once you have identified the area of development or skill you want to observe, consider the materials available to you. Determine which materials would be most likely to bring about the skills you want to observe.  You don’t necessarily need to plan a specific activity for children to complete – simply make the materials available in a learning center and plan to engage in play with children in that area. See what happens next.

Brainstorm prompts and questions.  As we discuss in the newsletter, your questions should not derail children’s play, but a few properly timed and worded prompts can drive children’s thinking in a new direction. Without directly asking children to perform the task you want to observe, you can work questions into play scenarios such as, “How could we solve this problem?”

Post cue cards. Make notes on cue cards that you place in prominent areas of the classroom. Your cue cards can have the learning standards written on them or the open ended questions and prompts that you want to use.  Write these statements on Post-it notes or sentence strips to remind yourself and your coworkers of the skills and prompts you plan to use during play.

Think creatively about the materials and how they are used.  Sometimes we get stuck thinking that materials can only be used for one purpose or in one learning center.  Open your thinking to consider different ways to use materials to promote child engagement.  Ask colleagues and even the children if they have any ideas about new ways to use materials that might have lost their appeal.

Tell us about other ways that you have used free play as a time to assess children’s learning on our Facebook page here.

How to Write a Philosophy Statement

In this month’s newsletter, we discuss how teachers can compile and organize their professional portfolio.  One of the elements of a portfolio is a statement that describes your philosophy of teaching. Creating such a statement can seem daunting if you have never done so before.  Here are a few tips for how to get started:

Practice self-reflection using prompts similar to the ones below: 

  • Think about the things you learned from your formal education and how you have applied them in your practice. 
  • Make note of connections you have noticed between what you learned in school and what you have learned on the job.
  • Determine your approach to teaching and interacting with children.
  • Think about what you have noticed about how children learn best and what types of activities engage children fully in your experience.
  • Determine what you believe are the most important things that you can do to support learners in your care.
  • Recall situations when things did not work out the way that you expected and what you learned from those situations.
  • Identify how your practice has changed as you have gained experience. 

Write down your responses to these questions and then ask yourself, “How have my experiences influenced my approach to working with young children? “

Create a 1-2 page statement describing your beliefs about how children learn best and the actions you take on a daily basis to meet the needs of the children in your care.

Here are a few online resources that you can read to learn more:

https://ucat.osu.edu/professional-development/teaching-portfolio/philosophy/

https://www.colorado.edu/career/2018/02/28/how-write-your-philosophy-education-statement

http://www.celt.iastate.edu/teaching/document-your-teaching/writing-a-teaching-philosophy-statement