The Art of Observation

It’s natural, as we work or play with young children, to look back on our own experiences in school and act as our teachers acted. Sitting back and just watching can feel awkward, maybe even boring. But young children learn by doing. Real doing, like coming up with ideas and acting on them. Experimenting. Problem-solving. Talking, making up rhymes, singing. Often times, when we try to act like traditional “teachers” we end up interrupting the real learning that children are doing on their own.

Consider this:

  • If we are always talking to a young child, asking and then answering our own questions, or pausing only a moment before continuing the monologue, we may be denying the child opportunities to talk. Shy or cautious children are especially likely to give up trying to communicate and just let you run the show.
  • If we are always the one coming up with the play ideas for children, they may have a hard time finding the opportunity to work on the skills they need to for their own healthy development. Then we complain about their attention span!
  • If we are always jumping in to fix problems (get the shape out of the sorter, get the blocks to interlock) children are missing out on opportunities to problem-solve.

At the high school or college level, teachers may be judged by their ability to give an interesting lecture or motivate their students. At the early childhood level a skillful teacher is:

  • one who knows how to actively observe children
  • one who knows how to set up an environment that encourages independence so that children can choose from a variety of play opportunities
  • And most importantly, someone who can spot the learning opportunities and “teachable moments” in children’s natural play and knows when and how to step in and guide a child to a new experience or level of understanding.

When working with young children, less is more. But becoming a careful and knowledgeable observer is not easy. It’s an art. It takes training, experience and skill and when a teacher does it well, it is something to behold!

Collaboration in Preschool

Today I spent part of the day working with a group of 3 and 4 year olds. We used a variety of recycle materials to create hats. Some of the items included:

  • paperboard boxes
  • toilet paper rolls
  • construction paper
  • paper bags
  • tissue paper
  • duct tape
  • berry cartons
  • cardboard boxes
  • egg cartons

The kids looked through the materials and we talked about the different kinds of hats we could make using each of the items on the table- a cardboard box could be a robot helmet, a paper bag could make a top hat, paperboard could be cut into a crown.

The kids grabbed their materials of choice and got to work. Emma wanted to make a crown and asked for help cutting the paperboard. Kyle thought that was a good idea and asked for one too. Then Kyle decided that a toilet paper tube would make a good tip of the crown. Emma liked the look and decided to add one to her crown too. Meanwhile Jordan decided to decorate his paper bag top had with bits of tissue paper. The crown-makers loved it and added tissue paper to their crowns. Kyle got to work decorating his crown with markers while Emma added a piece of construction paper to close off the top. Kyle liked it and did the same.

There was no complaining, no talk of “stealing ideas”. Their creative juices were flowing and they were having a great time exploring and sharing ideas. It was the sort of creative, collaborative environment that most innovative companies strive for. Moments like this should be cherished, praised and fostered.

In the end some really unique hats were created and worn with pride throughout the day. It was fun to pick out common elements and see how an idea was changed by different children’s interpretations. I was thrilled to experience such wonderful collaboration among such young children.

Simple Activities Can Have a Big Impact

In the July issue of Zero to Three’s newsletter for parents I came across a great article about young children, art and writing. The article begins describing a typical 15 month-old’s experience with crayons:

At first, it’s all about just figuring out what these cool things called crayons can do. Then your child discovers the link between her hand holding the crayon and the line she made on the page: Presto! She experiences the power of cause-and-effect. Imagine how exciting this must be for her!

It goes on to talk about the impact this creative experience has on a child’s thinking skills and takes the reader on a step-by-step tour of how a child’s art changes as she grows and how these changes relate to the child’s sensory, motor and cognitive development. It even links these early drawing experiences to pre-literacy skills.

Not only is it interesting to learn about the developmental phases of a child’s artwork, but I also found the article to be a great reminder of how simple activities, like experimenting with paper and a crayon, can have a profound impact on a child’s learning and development. To read the entire article, click here.

Activity to Explore the Outdoors

For a quick and easy way to get preschool and school-age kids exploring the outdoors, try this simple leaf rubbing activity. All you need is:

  • a few pieces of paper
  • a couple of crayons with the paper wrappers removed
  • a hard, flat surface (smooth table top, floor or hard cover book)
  • a bucket, basket or bag for collecting leaves

1. Explain to kids that they need to collect a variety of different leaves or other flat objects in their bucket. Then we’ll use the paper and crayons to make cool rubbings.

2. As the children collect their leaves, encourage them to take their time and look at and feel the textures they encounter. Point out some of the features of the leaves, plants, trees or landscape you are exploring. Keep an eye out for insects or other little creatures you might come across. Don’t worry if they collect things that you know won’t work well for rubbings. It will be a great learning experience as they try it out. Also, don’t worry if you’ve spent so much time exploring the outdoors that you run out of time for the project. After all, the whole point of the activity is to get the kids to pay attention to nature, so… mission accomplished!

3. Once you’ve got a nice selection of items, show the children how to lay one out on the flat surface and cover it with the paper. Hold the crayon so it is lying across the paper and rub it across the leaf. Encourage children to press firmly and rub all around the flattened leaf under the paper.

4. Enjoy the oohs and aahs that are sure to erupt from the children’s mouths as they watch the images of the leaves appear.

Take it a step further by talking about the types of marks that appear after the rubbing. Which leaves make better rubbings? What didn’t work so well? After trying a few different leaves, can you predict what will make for a good rubbing image?

This activity is great for active learners as well as nature lovers and those who love crafts. It appeals to kinetic, natural and spatial intelligences, and the discussion questions can also help those with linguistic and logical/mathematical strengths also get involved.

WoWKit Activities and Special Needs Programs

For years now I have been getting a lot of positive feedback from customers working with children with special needs. I know our activities work well for all children because they are child-centered. Children are presented with a learning opportunity and can work through it at their own pace. Our activities are fun. We start with a child’s natural inclination for play and give it a particular purpose, and because we also use Multiple Intelligences to guide our curriculum, it is easy to find activities that will appeal to individual children.

Then earlier this spring I got an email from the director of the Incredible Horizons A+ Academy in Florida, a program for children with autism and other non-traditional learners. Here’s what she says:

WOW kind of evens the playing ground for children with severe physical and learning disabilities. They all love it. All students have 90- 100% retention of what is presented. It is totally amazing. We have children with CP that can not write are excited about the WOW lessons. Writing takes them 5-20 times the amount of energy that a typical student uses. Some of them have gifted levels of comprehension they just can not write or it’s exhausting for them to write. Students with dyslexia need the interactive qualities of WOW rather than written lessons that accentuate their disability. Students with autism need the playfulness of the curriculum to engage their attention and social interaction.

Of course, I’m thrilled that our curriculum is working so well for her students. I mentioned this to a colleague of mine who works with autistic children using Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) and she surprised me by saying that she thought it was the instructional length of our lessons that really helped children retain the information presented. Apparently the length of a lesson is very important in ABA because studies have shown that there is a “window” of time associated with learning. I’ve been trying to find those studies, but haven’t had any luck. If anyone can point me in the right direction with a web address or name, I would appreciate it!

Embrace Repetition

“Again!” It’s the one-year-old mantra. They never seem to tire of watching the spoon fall from the high chair or pushing the button to hear the sound. Babe loves to pull himself up to standing and then fall to the floor. He does it over and over again with a great big smile on his face, followed by an eruption of giggles as his bum hits the floor. But it’s not just one-year-olds who love repetition. It’s all children. It’s how they learn.

A one-year-old may be mastering a new skill, like pulling himself up, or discovering a new concept, like cause and effect. The first few times they try it, it’s experimentation. Then it’s testing and gaining confidence. Once they’ve done it enough to feel confident, they continue to experience the joy of being able to do it. But that’s not enough…they’ll do it some more, changing things slightly to see what happens. Finally, they’ve had enough and move on.

The same is true for preschoolers. Sure, you may feel like you’re going to loose your mind if you watch that DVD or listen to that song again, but your preschooler thrives on that repetition! First, she’s becoming familiar with the song, getting a feel for it’s rhythm and tempo, where it changes and when it will end. Then she’s figuring out the words and how she can participate. Once she’s got that down, she just wants to hear it for the sheer joy of being able to sing along and know what to expect. Then, she’ll start to notice some of the details she hadn’t paid attention to before, like sound of a flute in the background, or an extra holler or chirp from the singer.

So, when you come across an activity that you and your child enjoy. Don’t just do it once. Embrace repetition! Do it again and again. Here are some tips for making the most of repetition:

  • Make materials easily accessible so that children can re-create the activity on their own.
  • Take pictures or video tape the activity. These are fun to look at later on and can help you all to see the progress made.
  • After a bit of independent repetition invite children to talk about or draw the experience.
  • Once children truly seem done with an activity, put it away for awhile, then bring it out again. With a little time and distance from an activity, your child will probably approach it again in a whole new way, learning something completely different and new.

Children are eager learners, we just need to be patient, try to see an activity through their eyes and let them do their thing!

Let’s Get Kids Out into Nature!

This morning the Today Show did a segment on the startling discovery that children are not getting out into nature. Apparently only 6% of children between the ages of 9-12 spend time outdoors on their own. I’d imagine the stats are even worse for younger children. In the segment Richard Louv, the author of the book Last Child in the Woods, discusses the many benefits that children get from spending unstructured time just exploring outdoors, including reduced stress, increased attention span, and increased creativity. You can see the segment here.

I was truly amazed to learn that so few children are getting out into nature. My daughter is four and my son is only 16 months and they both love to explore the yard and go for “hikes”. My daughter is so into discovering the plants and animals in the yard that she does almost daily “patrols” informing me of new flowers and weeds blooming and bringing me exciting beetles and slugs to inspect. My son practically goes into convulsions when he sees his hiking backpack come out, he gets so excited about a walk in the woods. I know we are fortunate to have a big yard and to live in a rural area near both town and national forest lands. For many folks, getting out into the wilderness takes a lot more planning and effort. But it’s worth it!

On Richard Louv’s web site is a resource page, giving suggestions of things parents and communities can do to encourage more “nature time” for kids. One of the suggestions is to create a Family Nature Club. Any parent could do it. It’s as simple as calling a few friends with kids and organizing a walk at a local park. I also think that preschools and day care centers could be great leaders for such an initiative. Just post something on a bulletin board or send the idea out in a newsletter home. Then help interested parents find each other. Once families get out to the great outdoors, remember, it’s all about the time in nature. Don’t plan a big walk, and don’t rush the kids along. The point is to give them a chance to stop and turn over rocks, poke at a bug or climb a tree. Just take a deep breath of fresh air and let the kids do their thing!