Capturing Children’s Thinking

Young children learn and process new concepts at an incredible pace. Just think about language acquisition. Children begin speaking, on average, around 12 months. By age two they have about 50 words and by three years old (Johns Hopkins Medicine), most can speak full sentences and express complex ideas and thoughts. Since everything is new to children, they process and interpret things differently than adults. In early childhood classrooms, it is important to capture the children’s learning and thinking.  Documenting children’s learning helps in understanding how children think, this in turn can aid in the plannin process for educators as well as  offer opportunities for reflection, both in student and educators. 

One of the best ways to capture children’s learning and their thinking process right when it happens is to carry sticky notes, or a small notepad and writing utensil with you at all times in the classroom. Whenever I am in a classroom working with children, I always have sticky notes and pencil in my pocket. If I wait to record what is happening, there is a higher chance I will forget or misremember what happend or what was said. If I need to get up to search for a recording device too much time passes, or I interrupt the moment and risk distrupting a child’s thought process and lose the sincerity of the moment.  Ideally, documenting children’s learning should not be intrusive and should not interrupt the child and their thinking and learning. The educator should be able to seamlessly document the children’s learning while still engaging with the children. Taking a picture of children  to help document their learning is only the beginning. It is important to have multiple means and use varied media, such as recording conversations, to help document learning.  

I recorded a conversation I had with a child who was between 3-4 years old.  I used short hand notes while recording the conversation and was careful and deliberate when taking notes to keep my focus on the child and not lose the connection I had with her. This takes  a lot of practice. It is important to be able to take notes that will be short and concise while still being able to decipher them at a later date. It is also important to be able to take notes while not always having to look at what you’re writing. You want to make sure the children know that they are your main focus. 

Here is my conversation with Iris (I changed her name for this post) and the accompanying pictures:

Background:

This took place at the “painting Matzah table”. Iris was painting the Matzah with a roller brush, I noticed there was paper as well. I said “I wonder if I paint the paper will there be a different pattern than when I paint the Matzah?” I used the brush with many strands to “stamp” the paper producing dot like shapes and then I said “I wonder what the pattern looks like when I do long strokes and use the brush like this” creating two different patterns on separate papers. I was just speaking out loud, not necessarily speaking directly to Iris. She was painting her matzah while watching me. This is the conversation that followed:

Iris:  pointing to the one that resembled dots) “this looks like prints” and, (pointing to the one with long strokes) “this looks like tracks”.

 

Natalie: Those area great words! I wonder what the difference between tracks and prints is? Hm….

Iris: hm… those are footprints and those are tracks (pointing to the respective papers) (she knows that they look different and she labeled them differently but she can’t explain it yet, my goal is to get her to explain her thinking and reasoning behind why she labeled them differently)

Natalie: Oh so those are FOOTprints…feet made that pattern

Iris: Yes, people made those. I make footprints in the snow when I walk

Natalie: And what made these tracks?

Iris: someone dragging something

Natalie: so there is a difference between footprints and tracks

Iris: Yes, someone walks to make these and someone drags something to make these (pointing to respective picture).

Natalie: hm, I see

Iris: yes, and someone can drag their feet to make the tracks.

Natalie: oh so a person can use their feet to make footprints and tracks?

Iris: Yes

Natalie: I wonder what else can make these tracks?

Iris: (pausing to think, continues to paint matzah, about a 20 second silence) A stick! If you drag a stick you can make this track!

Natalie: I think that would work too! I would love to test out your theories!

Iris: I have a dinosaur path (described a carpet at home with dinosaurs and walking paths and footprints)

 

We then tried the roller brush on the paper that she was using on the matzah and it made a different pattern. She said that if you drag your feet sideways it would make that track.

 

In capturing this conversation, I was able to discover a few things about this child and her thinking. I get insights into her previous experiences and knowledge of snow, dinosaurs, footprints, and tracks. I also get to know her better since she shares some facts about her home, specifically her dinosaur-path rug.  I can use this knowledge to plan curriculum for the students such as experiments with footprints and tracks, comparing different  materials to make the tracks in, snow, sand, ice, paint, grass etc., and track making materials (sticks, feet, shoes). This investigation could last weeks or months depending on the interest of the children.

  

Choosing the Right Preschool for You and Your Family

Choosing a preschool is stressful. Often this is the first time your child is in someone else’s care or away from you for an extended amount of time. Adding to that stress, in some communities the competition to send your child to the “best” preschool is fierce, motivating parents to put their child on a waitlist the moment the child is born. The decision is not just about the child it is about the parents, too. Preschool is a place for the family to build a community. Parents interact with peers, meet new friends and build a community for their whole family. Just think about how much more willing you are to take your child to an event or activity when you know your friends will be there.

As an educational consultant, I get phone calls and questions from families about where they should send their child. Families are hoping that I will share the inside scoop and give them the “real story” about each school. Sorry to tell you that this article isn’t a TMZ style gossip column about each school’s dramas or successes. Instead, I will share some simple tips to help you choose the right school for your child and family.

I tell everyone I speak with to start with a list; Write down all of the elements you want in a school. List everything. It doesn’t matter how seemingly crazy or far fetched it might be, just list it (see below for some suggestions). Once you have a list, number each element either by a number system from most important to least important, or label each element with “must have”, “nice to have”, or “not crucial”.

Once you have created and labeled the list, look at all of the must have elements and see if any of the schools you are considering would automatically be cut from your list. If, for example, a kosher school is a must have for you, then remove all non-kosher programs from your list. Take each element and work your way through your list of schools. If you really don’t have any must have parameters, then you can do the same thing with the “nice to have” list and review the schools using that list.

Once you have a list of schools you are considering, call each school and visit. Visit once without your child (so that you can have an uninterrupted experience) and visit once with your child. It is important to see how your child interacts with the staff and surroundings and vice versa. If the school will allow you, the best way to really see how a classroom and teachers operate is to spend at least 20 minutes in the classroom. If you do this, you have to follow certain protocol so you don’t disrupt the classroom. The best way to observe a classroom is to place a chair at the perimeter of the class and sit quietly and “disappear”. Do not interact with the teachers or students, unless a child approaches you. In that case don’t ignore the child, but don’t initiate the interaction. This enables the children and teachers to interact as usual and is minimally disruptive to the classroom.

Many directors won’t allow families to observe for an extended period of time because it can be disruptive to the classroom community. If this is the case, respect the director and the school’s policy and don’t demand or push your agenda.

Once you have chosen your school be happy with your decision and don’t second guess. Each child and each family is different. What works for your friends or even your first child might not work for you or your other child. Take a deep breath, relax and if it doesn’t work out, homeschooling at their grandparents’ house is always an option. Just kidding mom and dad.

Here are a few examples of items for your list:

  • Proximity to your home or work
  • Religious affiliation
    • Jewish
      • Denomination
      • Kosher
  • Classroom size (number of students per class)
  • Size of school (how many total children)
  • Student teacher ratio
  • Allergy Sensitive school
    • Nut-free school
  • Provide lunch
  • Provide snack
  • Educational philosophy of school (Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Constructivist, Emergent, Play)
  • Tuition
  • Hours of school
  • Whether they offer enrichment programming and classes such as music, yoga, art specific teachers, science, cooking etc as part of the daily schedule
  • Outdoor classrooms and outdoor space
  • Flexible schedules
  • Family engagement programming
  • Potty training
  • Staff education and professional development opportunities
  • Staff turnover rate
  • Year-round options

 

Being the Agent of Change

 

“Make G-d a verb, not a noun”

I recently attended the Third Annual Paradigm Project Conference, where about 160 people who are passionate about Jewish early childhood education (ECE) gathered for a three day conference. This is a unique conference, the only one that I am aware of that brings together people from all aspects of Jewish ECE. Everyone from Directors of schools, teachers, education specialists, university researchers and professors, to consultants and artists gather to learn together. Even more unique is that all ranges of Jewish observation are represented. Members of orthodox communities, Chabbad and yeshiva schools, JCCs and Conservative and Reform synagogues share experience and knowledge and work together to create high quality ECE practices and standards.

During the conference, there are a number of sessions to choose from. Whenever I attend any conference, the most stressful part for me is choosing between sessions. If it is a good conference, there are inevitably too many choices and I don’t want to miss out. I try to pick sessions that offer something that I don’t have a lot of expertise with. When I work with schools and educators as a consultant, I offer an experiential approach, such as play based workshops exploring materials, but I’ve rarely used cooking as a tool in teaching. I love using kitchen tools in the classroom and was interested in learning more about the actual process of cooking with children. This led me to choose my first session with Danny Corson of Culinary Kids Academy. His philosophy is to use cooking as a tool to teach “valuable lessons covering a broad array of subjects.” He integrates history, math, science, social/emotional lessons and standards; when teaching a Jewish audience, he bases his lessons around Jewish values and traditions.

One of the most apt statements Danny Corsun related during the session was “Make G-d a verb, not a noun.” I thought that this was a perfect sentiment for the conference and the mission of the Paradigm Project. Essentially this expression is encouraging one to take action and make the changes that one sees as necessary. The story of Nachshon* is often referred to when relating this idea of taking action and not sitting idly by waiting for change. When I heard Danny bring up this reference and the plea to “take action” it resonated even more for me given the setting and the company. I was surrounded by some of the most passionate, dedicated, hard-working educators and ECE activists in the US and Canada who embody this sentiment in real life.

The Paradigm Project community like to say #makeshifthappen. This puts the sometimes onerous task and responsibility directly on the individual. It is up to each person to make the shift and to take responsibility to be a leader that makes the positive and necessary changes. There is no better way to get the strength, knowledge and power to do this than learning with a community who has a shared vision of creating the best Jewish ECE centers possible. The Paradigm Project Conference offers a gathering place for the community to come together and #makeshifthappen. Each community and school represented at the conference is different. The schools and organizations represented vary in terms of their geography, finances, affiliation, educational philosophy, religious observance and so on, but they all have a shared vision of creating their best version of Jewish ECE and #makingshifthappen.

*During the story of the Exodus, Nachshon walked into the sea of Reeds before the sea had split and had faith that G-d would help. After Nachshon took action, G-d sea split the sea when Nachshon was almost fully emerged in the sea.

Inclusive Family Trees

My family participates in a wonderful program called PJ Library. Their mission is to help build a foundation of family and community through literacy and increase knowledge of and exposure to Jewish traditions and culture through books. In addition to sending a book every month, in some months we receive a music CD or an activity to build on a specific value or theme. This month we received a family tree project.

I was delighted to see a family tree that was free form, one that we could build and design according to our family structure. Long gone are the days of the “traditional American family” consisting of a mom, dad and 2.5 children. The traditional family tree design is limiting and does not allow for the intricacies of modern families. This new design, something more akin to what a tree actually looks like, allows for many modalities and ways to connect each member of the family. I encourage schools, organizations and families, regardless of religious affiliation, to adopt a more inclusive family tree model and approach.

Feeding your Chemical Engineer: Customizable Noodle Kugel

Children love mixing, creating and customizing things, especially food. My daughter is no exception. Whether it is paint colors, ingredients for baking, or dirt and sand outside, she seems to find interesting objects to mix together to create something new. I like to say she is a budding chemical engineer. My daughter’s favorite ingredient is sprinkles of course. What could be better than brightly colored pieces of sugar in fantastic shapes! Like many children, she also likes to customize and create things for specific people: Dad gets the salad with tomatoes and Mom gets the one with the cucumbers. Whether you have picky or specific eaters, I like to refer to them as connoisseurs with a specific palate or children who love to mix and create, I have a holiday solution for you.

Here is a super simple and easy recipe for a traditional holiday food, noodle kugel, that can be customized for every taste in the house. Using cupcake tins, instead of a bundt pan or baking dish, is an easy way for children to get creative and create many different flavors of kugel.

Recipe: Noodle Kugel
1 package of 16 oz wide noodles (follow directions on bag to cook noodles)

In a bowl combine:
1 cup white sugar
1 stick butter (or pareve margarine)
3 eggs
¼ cup brown sugar
3 tablespoons oil

Add noodles to mixture once they are finished cooking and mix all ingredients together
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Pour about 3/4 cup of the noodle mixture into 2-cup pyrex measuring cup or small bowl and add additional ingredients (see examples of ingredients below)
Pour from small bowl or measuring cup into cupcake tin and repeat until entire cupcake tin is filled
Cook in oven at 350 degrees for 60-90 minutes or until tops are golden brown and most of the liquid is gone.

Yields about 18 individual “cupcake” kugels

file_000-4Additional optional ingredients to mix in:

  • Diced apples
  • Pineapple
  • Pomegranate seeds
  • Cherries
  • Other fruit
  • Raisins
  • Walnuts or other nuts
  • Sprinkles
  • Chocolate chips
  • Cereal (corn flakes or crunchy flakes of any brand)
  • Cinnamon

 

Newest Art Studio: The Kitchen

I love the Denver Art Museum (DAM) and on a recent visit my daughter and I were delighted to find a wonderful art room where visitors can explore different art techniques with loose parts and found materials. Regular readers will know that I am a huge proponent of using loose parts with children  (see related articles materials, Passover, story stones, loose parts, and recycled art).

It is important to offer children an opportunity to explore different materials in an open-ended setting. Allowing children to use their imaginations and creativity with materials (especially in ways other than the original intended uses) helps encourage many skills, not least of which is creative problem solving. When children are able to envision many different possibilities and outcomes they can approach and solve a problem by trying alternative strategies. One way to encourage this in young children is to offer nontraditional art tools, what I like to call BPB (Beyond Paint Brushes).

At the DAM, two of the art tables featured materials typically found in a kitchen. Salad spinners covered one table to create spin art. This is a great activity for kids, particularly young children. Spin art requires a variety of gross and motor skills and a child has to go through a certain number of steps in the correct order. The young artist has to carefully place paper inside a basket, squeeze paint onto the paper, line up the top so that it closes properly and then push down on the button to make the basket spin. Not only is the child exploring art concepts like colors, color mixing, and shapes, but also science themes like centripetal force, friction and momentum.

Spin artwork:

Another table featured a variety of BPB tools, including sponges, loofahs, toothbrushes and other metal tools typically found in a kitchen. It is important to offer materials of varying textures to children. Having varied materials can encourage exploration of cause and effect and give children an opportunity to hypothesize, and later test, what the resulting prints and art work will look like when they use the different tools.

This lovely kitchen exhibit demonstrates that giving children an opportunity to explore art using different materials can be easy and inexpensive, and for educators it shows how providing new and different materials in the classroom throughout the year keeps children engaged and excited.

Exploring Passover in the Classroom

Passover is a Jewish holiday rich in tradition and content. The unique traditions practiced and foods eaten during the holiday can offer an exciting and enriching experience within the classroom. Combining the traditional ritual objects associated with Passover with loose parts can offer an open-ended opportunity for children to explore the holiday. For more on loose parts in the classroom, see our earlier post on play and loose parts in the classroom.

Here are a few examples of hands-on exploration ideas from a professional development workshop I recently led. 

The child safe grain grinder and wheat berries above from Kodo Kids offer an opportunity to investigate the process of making Matzah from start to finish. Highlighting and showing children each stage of wheat is a great way to develop STEM skills in the classroom. The children can see and touch the different stages of wheat from green grass to dried stalk to wheat berry and then they can grind the berries to make flour.

wheat grass

 

 

Wheat grass grows incredibly fast. The picture on the left is after 7 days of growth. If you have wheat allergies in the classroom you can use another type of grass and grind a different grain to make a wheat-free matzah.

 

 

 

 

Using wheat berries in a tray or sensory table.

Using loose parts to create a visual representation of the story of Passover. Above left: Colored sand, stones, shells and plastic people to create the parting of the Red Sea. Above Right: Blue and clear glass stones, plastic frogs, fish and plants, shells and a baby in a “basket” create the scene of baby Moses in the river.

In the pictures above, wheat stalks, white glue, wheat berries, matzah, paint brushes and liquid water colors were set-up on the table. There were no instructions or directions given to the educators about how to use the products or what to create. This provocation allowed the educators to explore the materials in any way they wished. Some used the wheat stalks as brushes. Others painted directly onto the Matzah, while others glued the materials onto the paper to create a collage with texture and color. Food coloring or dyes made from vegetables can be substituted for the water colors if children want to eat the matzah after painting on it.

Please share any of your hands-on explorations of Passover as we would love to see them.