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.

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.

Reimagining the Materials in your Classroom

“Provide materials that leave room for the imagination and sufficient time to innovate with these materials.”

– David Elkind

The types of materials used in the classroom can have a huge impact on learning and development. The challenge is to reimagine and rethink classroom materials and how they are being used in order to explore possible new and open-ended uses. Just think of the endless opportunities to create, explore and learn using recycled materials or  “mundane”, everyday objects if only viewed from a different lens.

I recently led a workshop on exploring open-ended materials used in a play based curriculum. It was an opportunity for teachers to explore, create and use materials in a completely new and different way than their intended or original purpose.

Offering alternatives to traditional tools, like paintbrushes, can encourage exploration and creativity. In the pictures above, flowers, flower stems, pinecones, and foam shapes that were once packing material were used instead of brushes to apply homemade “puffy paint” (white glue, shaving cream and liquid water color). The teachers explored the different textures of the non traditional tools and the images created.

Play dough is another wonderful activity to have in early education classrooms. It offers open ended exploration of colors, shapes, textures and encourages development in fine and gross motor skills, as well as developing physical strength (think about all the times you have seen a child use their entire body to flatten a ball of dough). Materials with different shapes and textures such as, shells, star fish, corks, and packing cardboard are just a few examples of items that can be paired with dough. They are a great alternative to the traditional plastic play dough toys and cookie cutters.

Providing materials that encourage exploration in areas of STEM in classrooms, especially ECE classrooms, is also critical. It can be as easy as bringing in a few plastic tubes, balls and cardboard tubes cut in half. These resources can be found at resource recycling centers such as the RAFT (Resource Area For Teaching) and are very inexpensive.  The materials provide an opportunity to engage in trial and error, engineering, and cooperation.

Children are incredibly creative and imaginative. It is important to provide a wide array of developmentally appropriate materials and the time and space for children to explore, create and discover using those materials.

Annual Jewish ECE Conference- Colorado

I recently had the opportunity to host a workshop at the Annual Jewish ECE Conference sponsored by Colorado Agency for Jewish Education (CAJE) and the ECE Initiative in Denver, CO. The event brings together Jewish preschools in the greater Denver, Boulder Colorado Springs area as well other cities in Colorado.  Educators attend various workshops and seminars focused around a general theme. This year the theme was “The Power of Story.” I presented a hands-on workshop, Enhancing Storytelling using Story Stones and Loose Parts, and we had an amazing group of educators who made the session a total success. For more insight on story stones, please see my related blog post.

Please enjoy some pictures below from the workshop. I would love to answer any questions you may have and hear about how you use story stones in your classroom!

Telling a Story

Creating Noah’s Ark using a combination of story stones loose parts and traditional toys:

Seminar (1 of 35)

Examples of Jewish Themed Story Stones

Seminar (29 of 35)

These stones are hand drawn illustrations using permanent art markers.

Seminar (15 of 35)

Some of the stones are decorated with clipart images that were printed from a computer and affixed with glue. Other images are hand drawn on paper and then glued onto the stones. All of the stones were covered with a water and glue mixture to seal the paper onto the stones.

Seminar (14 of 35)

These stones are either hand-drawn or they have stickers glued to the face.

Room Set- Up and Materials

 

General Themed Story Stones

 

Adding an Auditory Element to the Stories

Seminar (5 of 35)

A chime, wooden frog instrument and a rain stick

 

The Results

Storytelling Using Story Stones

Children are natural storytellers. Children want to talk about their day, the adventures they had, the enormous tower they are currently building, their new shoes or the pet that is waiting for them at home (even if they don’t actually have a pet, they will tell you an elaborate story all about their imaginary pet). Sometimes all it takes to get a child to share their story is a visual cue, a reminder or a spark that enables the child to create or tell a story. Story stones, loose parts and open-ended materials can be a great tool in story telling.

Story stones are stones decorated with different images. They can have a wide array of images: plants, animals, modes of transportation, different parts of the body and people as well as letters, numbers and even words.  The options for images are endless. These stones serve as a visual way to tell stories or express feelings and emotions. To see more examples of story stones please see the related blog post

Story stones are a useful and fun tool to employ in the classroom. They give children an opportunity to practice story sequencing, creativity, language development and cooperation. The stones can serve as a visual cue to inspire and enhance stories and they are a good resource to have in the classroom. I’ve found that an endless number  of stories can be created from a limited number of stones.

Story Stones can be created inexpensively and children can also be given the opportunity to create their own.  If you are in a Jewish classroom, the stones can have Jewish themed visuals on them, as well. Creating the stones can be as easy as using stickers or clipart printed from the computer to decorate. Often, it also works well to use sharpies or permanent art markers to draw on the stones and the results are beautiful.

I recently presented at a conference in Denver in which we explored the many uses and applications of story stones and open-ended materials in the classroom. The educators in our workshop incorporated different materials to create their stories; some were linear expressions of a story and others were more visual. Offering an array of materials like clay, paint, sand, and natural elements (wood, pine cones, sticks) can lead to a visually stunning and elaborate representation of stories. It is also important to offer unique tools to explore the materials as well. For example, a teacher can offer children foam rollers, coral sponges, etc. as a more open-ended method of applying paint instead of just laying out brushes on a table.

Not only can a varied array of materials be representative of a story but the materials themselves can serve as an inspiration for a story. The types of materials educators provide can be inspired by what the children are interested in and talking about in the classroom. If a child just returned from the beach, then a great addition to the art or sensory table could be sea sponges, shells or sand. The options for different materials can be endless but it is important to choose the materials with intention.

When you bring open-ended materials and story stones in your classroom, have fun and be prepared to see the materials used in creative and new ways.

Play in the Classroom

Incorporating Jewish Play into your Classroom

Over the past year it seems the topic of play has received a lot of attention. A recent story by NPR discussed the positive effects that play has on brain development; another story highlighted the connection between play and a child’s success in life.  Most people attribute the decrease in play in schools to an increase of standardized testing and a focus on a more “academic” curriculum. This has led to more time spent on rote instruction and less time for open-ended play.

Research shows that play is an integral and crucial part of learning and development for children. Play helps children develop skills such as language, self regulation, social competence, and emotional intelligence. Play has even been attributed to brain development. Educational philosopher Stuart Brown states, “Play is a vital way for the brain to integrate its divergent parts and build complex synaptic connections. [These connections] are critical to continued brain stabilization, organization, and development.” (Nell, Drew, Bush 15).  Classic educational theorists and researchers such as Friedrich Froebel, Lev Vygostky, Jean Piaget, and Erik Erickson all attribute and expound the importance of play in a person’s learning and development. If we accept that play in the classroom is important and we commit to providing time for it, what does play look like? Moreover, what does it look like in a Jewish classroom?

In any classroom, Jewish or secular, educators must provide a safe space and appropriate materials for children to be able to play. It is important to provide a variety of open-ended materials for children to explore. Educators can seamlessly integrate Judaism into play by adding some thoughtful elements.

Materials: By definition, there is no right or wrong way of using “open-ended materials” or loose parts. Children are not given instructions when using the materials (other than safety guidelines).  Rather, they are able to explore, create and use the materials as they wish. Open-ended materials used in a Jewish classroom can be exactly the same as those in a secular classroom. Educators can and should give children opportunities to experience specifically Jewish items, as well.

  • Do you have ritual items such as kiddish cups, shabbat candles and sticks, challah covers, kippot, a replica of a Torah, etc. available and accessible to children?
  • Do you have items used for holidays such as a lulav and etrog, chanukiah, building materials for a sukkah, seder plate, etc. available in your classroom for children to explore?
  • Are those items used for holidays available and accessible only during the holidays or are they brought out and explored at various times of the year?
  • How do you/your school/your community feel about letting the children explore Jewish ritual objects (in a safe and respectful manner)?

Music and classroom environment: Music can help create and shape the classroom environment. Educators should be intentional about playing music and the types of music being played. For example, playing Shabbat music on Friday mornings has a profound effect on classroom spirit. By playing music with holiday themes or Hebrew lyrics, educators can create a Jewish environment.

Values and Language: Play creates opportunities to discuss and teach values. Introducing language that supports values during play can encourage safe, appropriate play and offer simple ways to discuss values-based concepts in the classroom. Here are 2 examples of using play to discuss and introduce values:

  • Tikkun Olam, repair the world: Use recycled materials in the classroom. Egg cartons, empty food containers, scrap fabric, tile or wood can be used in imaginative and creative ways and offer an opportunity to discuss concepts such as recycling and caring for the Earth and resources.
  • B’tzelem Elohim, In G-d’s image: We talk a lot about treating each other with respect and kindness in preschool. For young children this value can be used to help promote the idea that all humans are similar and, although we may have differences, we should treat each other with respect and love. Highlighting this value can encourage self-regulation and cooperation.

Just like in secular play, the possibilities of Jewish Play are endless; so take a leap and explore the endless opportunities to incorporate Judaism into play in your classroom.

Making your Classroom Feel More Like Home

“And you shall write them upon the doorposts of your home and  your gates”

-Deuteronomy 6:4-9/11:13-21

For some children, they spend as much time in a classroom or daycare as they do in their homes. So why wouldn’t educators commit to making the classroom feel more like “home”? Hanging a mezuzah*on the classroom door is a way to bring the home-school connection to life and make it tangible for children. Having a mezuzah on the door also makes an important statement, saying “this is a Jewish classroom”.

The start of the school year is a great time to focus on the mezuzah. Children are transitioning from home to school and this is a great opportunity to make children feel like their classroom is a safe and comfortable place, like a second home. Children love sharing stories about their lives, so let each child bring in a picture of a mezuzah they find at their house and share it with the class.  If a child does not have a mezuzah at their home, then use this as an opportunity to discuss different traditions of families and religions. Make it an inclusive project for a diverse classroom.

Children are also much more invested in something if they have a hand in creating it. Let the children help create the decorative case for the parchment scroll to hang on your classroom door. You can easily find large plain wood cases on craft sites to decorate or you can use materials such as clay, plastic tubes, wire,  etc. to create your own case. Children will be excited to see their work hanging on the door. Make sure to let the children create their own mezuzah to take home as well. One way to include families in the process is to invite them to write a prayer or wish for their children or family on the scroll.

There are a lot of opportunities to expand on the concept of a mezuzah and create an entire project around it. Here are just a few suggestions:

  • Homes:
    • Composition of a home: (doorposts), materials (wood, brick, cement)
    • houses around the world (huts, igloos, apartments)
  • Mezuzah scroll
    • Explore the different types of writing utensils and paper
  • Mezuzah cover
    • Endless opportunities to explore different materials to create a cover (wood, clay, wire, etc)
    • Are there different traditions and artistic styles for different communities and different parts of the world?

The mezuzah is an important tradition in Judaism and something we see everyday, so celebrate it and have fun exploring and creating!
*A mezuzah is the parchment scroll on which the prayer, the Shema is written and not the decorative cover. For purposes of this post, when I use the word mezuzah, I am referring to both the decorative cover and the parchment inside.

Finding Inspiration in Recycled Materials

During a recent trip to the Denver Art Museum, I happened upon a wonderfully colorful, vibrant, beautiful and thought provoking interactive installation entitled Aqua Terra. The artist, Francisco Alvarado-Jaurez took paper bags from the grocery store to create tropical sea plants and a landscape inspired by his home, Honduras. The description stated that Alvarado-Jaurez felt this piece highlights the many different ways of recycling and using everyday objects to create art. When I saw the art installation, I immediately thought what a wonderful project for a classroom to take inspiration from and create their own. The installation also invited viewers to participate in the creative process by adding a creature, note or original art to the installation. 

There are so many great learning opportunities to stem from a project like this: recycling, taking care of the Earth, learning about the environment, becoming scientists and observing your surroundings, and cooperation.   

Exploring the different themes:

Recycling

  • Discuss the concept of recycling: the process, how it works, why it is important.
  • Ask children/ families to bring in materials from their homes. It could be anything from paper grocery bags, bottles, cans, to natural elements found in their yard that the class will repurpose.
  • Look for items in the school that can be recycled and repurposed.

Science

  • Discuss the process of recycling and the concept of turning something old into something new
  • Explore and discover the environment: the school, the city. Is there an ocean, mountain, desert near by? What trees, flowers, flora and fauna are surrounding the school?

Social/emotional

  • Create and design a piece of artwork
    • discuss a plan for the classroom’s piece. Does the class want to use one type of material or multiple? Does the class want to assign roles and specific jobs or let everyone work on what they want?

Literacy

  • Create science or art journals
  • Research different art mediums and environments

Family engagement component

  • Ask families to contribute to the piece, just like Aqua Terra. Provide some guidelines for parents and families to follow

If you are in a Jewish classroom you can incorporate Jewish values and themes. Here are some values you can discuss and highlight:

  • Tikkun Olam: Repairing the Earth
  • Shemirat Ha’adamah: Protecting the Earth
  • Bal taschit: Do not destroy or needlessly waste