Can a Standardized Test Measure Skills in Preschool?

Standardized tests and young children are not a good mix. Head Start tried it for five years (from 2002 until 2007) and the results were not good. According to Samuel Meisels, president of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, items were timed, had cultural bias and were only given in English and Spanish when 98 other languages were documented as being the home languages of children enrolled in Head Start across the country. All of this was in direct contrast to what we know is important for early learning, namely children’s need to feel safe and supported, to work at their own pace and the importance of the development of the home language. The format and values of standardized test  are not a good fit if our goal is to have a clear picture of what our children are capable of.

But with more and more states looking for ways to trim the budget, early childhood programs are feeling pressure to find a way to measure the progress of very young children. What is the answer? In a recent article in Tulsa World, Meisels points to observational assessments.

“As you work with kids in a sandbox or in other parts of the classroom, you can learn their abilities,” he said. “In observing, you have to learn how to do it – observe without bias, while in action with a child and how to take yourself away from a child for observation.”

To do this well takes some training, support from staff or even parent volunteers so that teachers can be freed up to do these observations. Teachers also need a process for documentation and a program that supports hands-on, experiential activities that allow children to learn, grow and show off all they can do. Young children cannot be successful in a one-size-fits-all evaluation structure, but, as any adult who has looked up when a young child shouts, “Watch me!” all children can show us what they can do through play.

5 Ways to Help Children Love Learning

With so much focus on accountability and test scores, much of a child’s time at school is spent focusing on his or her weaknesses. If a kindergartner is having trouble learning letter sounds, teachers make sure extra time is spent practicing letter sounds. Makes sense, right? The trouble is that even very young children begin to see school and learning as an experience that makes them feel frustrated and bad about themselves. So what can teachers and parents do to help build important skills without turning children off to learning? Here are a few ideas:

  1. Make sure your expectations are developmentally appropriate– Remember, all children develop at their own rate. Some preschoolers may be ready to sound out simple words, while others are still working on matching the correct sound to a letter. These developmental differences exist into early elementary school. Know the child you are working with and don’t push a skill that the child isn’t ready for!
  2. Build a positive relationship with each child– children are more willing to take risks and persist with challenging tasks if they feel safe and comfortable with you. Get to know children as individuals and let them know as often as you can that you appreciate them for who they are.
  3. Teach a weakness through a strength– If a child is having a hard time learning letters, but loves to move about, create a hide-and-seek letter game or scavenger hunt. Look for letters already out there in signs when you walk around the neighborhood, school or classroom, or hide letter cards around the room or playground.
  4. Create opportunities for positive experiences– Pair a struggling first grade reader with a preschool or kindergarten child who is learning letters and sounds. Give them a chance to be an expert in an area where they struggle. Encourage a child struggling with number identification help you with counting jobs around the room (Can you help me make sure I have 10 pencils in my pencil box?)
  5. Let children take the lead– if you notice that a child is really interested in dinosaurs (or any other topic), let the child lead the learning. Find out what he might want to learn about these creatures and help him to explore. As you do, encourage him to count the teeth in the T-Rex skeleton or identify the first letter sound in that big dinosaur word. The child can take the lead with the topic and you can insert skill development.

WoWKit Activity Binders can help you to reach and teach every child. Each binder is full of skill building teaching ideas for preschool and kindergarten that enable you to teach children through their strengths and interests and tap into their natural curiosity.

Using Multiple Intelligences to Support a Peaceful Classroom

I love doing workshops on Multiple Intelligence Theory for early childhood educators. Teachers of young children instinctively “get it”. More often than not, they’ve noticed that different children have skills and natural abilities in different areas, and learning about MI Theory helps give words to their own understanding of the strengths and abilities of individual children.

At a recent workshop one teacher (who has been using Multiple Intelligence Theory in her classroom for years) mentioned that people always comment on what a peaceful classroom she has. Year after year, her classes of around 20 preschoolers are always busy learning through meaningful play experiences that speak to individual children’s intelligences. She is convinced that understanding her children’s different intelligences and creating learning experiences that put those intelligences to use is the reason that her classroom exhibits fewer behavior issues.

  • Children who feel smart have better self-esteem- Children with better self-esteem  act out less
  • Children see that everyone has different skills and abilities- When differences are valued and respected by the teacher, children respect one another more
  • Children are more likely to become engrossed in an activity that speaks to their intelligence strengths- When children are excited by and engaged in an activity, they are more focused and less likely to cause trouble

Yes, planning a variety of activities to accommodate different intelligences is more work that having everyone do the same activity. But it is time well spent. At activity time, you’ll be re-directing children less, correcting  children less, negotiating less and managing disputes less. You’ll get to spend more time doing what you probably like best- watching children learn and grow!

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part IV

It has now been a year since the professionally installed playground became open to the children at this child care center. It has changed very little since it was first installed. An outdoor water fountain was removed. One teacher told me it was a hazard, the way it stuck out in the middle of an area that got a lot of kid traffic. Another said it was removed because a pipe burst (New Hampshire winters do that to pipes!). Other small changes include, more rungs added to a steep wooden ramp heading up a small hill, and flat rocks embedded into a high-traffic section of another hill where the grass was quickly warn away.

The teachers and children are as enthusiastic about their natural playground today as they were a year ago. One preschool teacher described it as “a nice, peaceful place to be.” I have visited a lot of school playgrounds, and I haven’t heard many teachers describe the playground experience in that way! Here are some of the reasons these teachers love their playground:

Fewer child conflicts- it is easier to redirect children and children are more likely to walk away and find a space of their own in the varied terrain of this playground

More outdoor time- because it is so easy to link the curriculum to the playground (reenacting stories, science exploration, math activities with natural materials) teachers take the children outdoors more often. One teacher said, “we used to go for walks to find things in nature, now we don’t even have to leave the playground.”

Children use their imaginations more- the uneven, exciting terrain of the playground with its caves, hills, tunnels, dips, rocks, ridges, and trees encourage all kinds of imaginative and cooperative play with children.

While the teachers didn’t mention this, I can’t help but think that this playground has also enhanced their teaching. Research shows that when children can get out and experience math and science concepts, or act out stories, they are learning content in a variety of ways, learning it faster and learning it better.

More of the Natural Playground series:

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part I

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part II

Watching 2 Natural Playgrounds Part III

What is Academically Rigorous?

Today, as I was searching the internet for information on effective nap time routines, I came across an older article from the Washington Post, “Preschools Break From Nap Time“. Apparently Superintendents of  public schools in Virginia and Maryland eliminated nap time from their preschool day because it is precious academic time that is wasted.

Nap time needs to go away,” Prince George’s County, Md., schools chief Andri J. Hornsby said recently. “We need to get rid of all the baby school stuff they used to do.

After reading the article, I am dumbfounded! Yes, preschool and child care programs should provide opportunities for children to grow and learn, to partake in enriching and challenging experiences. Research shows that children who have these enriching early experiences are more successful in school.

Research also shows that elementary school children in classrooms where teachers group children into collaborative teams to explore concepts, topics or complex problems that are interesting and meaningful to the children perform better on standardized tests and have fewer behavior issues in school than their peers in traditional classroom environments.

The academic terms for these teaching practices include Complex Instruction, Inquiry Based Learning, Multiple Intelligence Theory, Collaborative Peer Grouping. These terms sound intimidating and complicated, but when you really take a look at the concepts, it is all about doing what most quality preschool programs do already. The teacher serves as a guide to help children learn more about the things they are curious about (brings a magnifying glass to a child looking at a bug on the playground) and invites them to try and explore new ideas (later shows the child a book on different bugs and their habitats). Teachers set up experiences so that children can learn in different ways (sing ABCs, read an ABC book, point out letters in signs). Kids work together to solve problems (how to build a really tall castle with the blocks).

It turns out that when elementary schools take these preschool teaching methods and tweak them to fit the learning goals of their students, the kids actually like learning! Instead of Superintendents trying to push outdated elementary school teaching practices to the preschool level, maybe the preschool teachers should be sharing some of their magic with the elementary schools.

Playdough Recipe and Ideas

It seems all children can get lost in playdough play, no matter what their age or ability. Here’s a quick and easy recipe to make your own playdough. This home made version works great and you don’t have to worry about toxic chemicals.

  • 1 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 1 tsp cream of tartar (keeps dough from getting gummy)
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 Tbs cooking oil
  • Food coloring
  1. Mix all dry ingredients in a saucepan.
  2. In a measuring cup or small bowl, combine the water, oil and food coloring.
  3. Stir the wet into the dry and put the saucepan on the stove at a medium heat. Continue stirring until the dough forms a ball and comes away from the sides of the pan.
  4. Remove from heat and let cool until you can knead it without burning your fingers. Knead 8-10 times to spread the moisture evenly.
  5. Store in an airtight container.

Kids love to experiment with new and different ways to use their playdough. The more options you lay out for them, the more opportunities they have to let their innate gifts or intelligences shine.

Linguistic intelligence– these children might verbally talk through their playdough play or talk out scenes with the creatures they create. Add alphabet stamps, or encourage children to form letters or write their name in the playdough.

Logical/Mathematical– children might count or sort the creatures/objects they make. You might also see them do some logical problem-solving if they are having trouble making an idea come to life.

Spatial– these children probably enjoy fitting cookie cutters into the rolled out dough. They’ll explore the shape of the cut out as well as the empty space it leaves behind. They enjoy the challenge of building more complex figures, or identifying and creating shapes.

Kinesthetic– rolling, pounding, slapping, moving. These kids are active playdough explorers.

Musical– while not directly related to playdough play, some interesting background music can have a big effect on the experience/engagement of these children.

Interpersonal– these children may coordinate an imaginary “group snack” and assign roles to others as they plan their playdough play. Play tea sets, plates, pots or platters can add to the experience.

Intrapersonal– children who loose themselves in the feel and manipulation of the dough may be focusing on how working the playdough makes them feel. Encourage them to talk about their thoughts. Telling them what you see them doing can help to start the conversation.

Natural– children who go beyond making one animal, and think more about making a network of creatures with different roles and responsibilities are using their natural intelligence. These children may also enjoy making imprints of natural objects or otherwise incorporating nature into their playdough creation.

Remember, when it comes to Multiple Intelligences, no child is all or nothing. Children will bring a variety of their strengths and interests into their playdough play. Be a careful observers and learn about them by watching what they do and how. When you can meet a child at their level, giving them a boost to a new level of understanding on any topic becomes much easier and more fun!

Workshop on Multiple Intelligences

The spring early childhood conference season is under way here in the Northeast and I’m looking forward to presenting a workshop at both the New Hampshire and Massachusetts Association for the Education of Young Children (AEYC) conferences.

The title of my workshop session is Using Multiple Intelligences: A Key to Unlocking the Potential in Every Child. My biggest frustration as a teacher was realizing that the teaching strategies I was using wasn’t reaching a particular child or group of children. When children struggled to understand a concept or had a hard time participating in activities I felt like I was failing them. When I discovered and came to understand the ideas behind Multiple Intelligence Theory, a whole new world of teaching ideas and learning possibilities opened up to me. Thinking about the different intelligences my children possess and coming up with ways of teaching related to those intelligences made me a better teacher and really improved the way my classroom functioned. All of the children became excited about learning.

Though my workshop I hope to share this “a-ha” moment with other teachers. Just the name “Multiple Intelligence Theory” sounds daunting and scary. This workshop will de-mystify that terminology and make the concepts behind it accessible to all teachers. Helping teachers reach and teach every child is what my business and WoWKits are all about. I’m looking forward to these upcomming workshops! Click the links below to learn more about these two professional development opportunities:

Mass AEYC, March 27, 2010- Westford, MA

NH AEYC, April 24, 2010- Nashua, NH

To get information about booking one of my workshops, go to: http://www.wowkits.com/pages/Professional-Development.html