Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Teaching Tools: Child Development Resources for Families

- by Wheeler DeAngelis, Constanza Henderson, Myra O'Neal, and Mahoussie Pierre, Toddler 1 South Teachers

Dear Families,
With several more weeks at home stretching before us, we are choosing to see this time as an opportunity - an opportunity to offer you a peek behind the curtain of our work that most years we don’t have the time or venue to share. As child development experts, we have a wide range of knowledge that we draw upon in our work with and understanding of your children. We would like to share some of these with you. In this post, you will find information on the following topics:
  • Roles
  • Sensitive Observation
  • Scaffolding and the Zone of Proximal Development
  • Being an "Oppositional Partner"
  • Infant Directed Speech
  • Bloom's Taxonomy

We hope that these concepts, theories, and tips will help you to feel like you have more tools in the toolbox for optimizing this time together with your children. And as always questions and further discussion are highly encouraged.


Roles are really important to children. They help children to understand what they can expect of specific people. For your children, who have been attending childcare since before they can remember, there has always been a difference between parents and teachers. From the child's perspective, teachers spend the day with them and offer tests and provocations. When children are at school, it is their version of going to “work.” When children are at home, you engage in a less structured way  with  your child while still providing boundaries and limits.  

We want to acknowledge that the condensation of these two roles is really hard on everybody. And some of us may find it impossible. That is OK! Children are built to learn, regardless of circumstance. Whatever you are doing to be present for your child is enough for them. Don’t bend over backwards to try to fill a role you’re not comfortable being in. 

For those who feel like you can be more intentional in the materials and activities you provide in this new combined “parent-teacher” role, we encourage you to lean into it a little. Simply acknowledging to yourself what role your child is asking you to play can be a big stress reliever and can guide you and your child toward better outcomes.

Taking on the "parent-teacher" role can be scary and since it is a new role for some of you we wanted to put together a quick little guide to some "teacher skills" that might help you in your interactions. 

First and foremost always remember that teaching is as much art as it is science. A well laid plan can mitigate a lot of the natural chaos that comes with toddlerhood but never all of it. That is when intention, flexibility, and engagement come into play. Just because something isn’t going as planned doesn’t mean that the learning has stopped. It is great to have expectations for how activities will play out, but if your child has other safe and reasonable ideas for how they want to play, go with it! This is sometimes how provocations unfold even in the classroom. Sure a cooking project teaches a lot about math and chemistry, but hitting the side of the mixing bowl with a spoon teaches about acoustics and physics. And if that’s what your toddler wants to learn today, then steer into it! And always involve them in cleaning up their own messes afterwards!

Sensitive Observation

What is it?
Sensitive observation is the process of stepping back and observing, not engaging with a child who is focused on some activity. Taking careful note of the contexts in which your observation is taking place, and how those contexts are affecting the child.

Why does it matter at home?
If you can find the time, even just a few minutes of sensitive observation can make a huge difference in how you understand your child's world. The goal of any good observation is to synthesize what we see and create more clear questions for ourselves to answer. 

Is your child getting cranky around the same time everyday even though they’re fed and rested and clean? Well that’s where sensitive observation comes in. Is there something happening that your child can hear but not see? Are they anticipating something frightening that will happen soon or reacting late to something that happened earlier in the day?

Through observing a child in their environment we can begin discern the reasoning behind a child’s behavior rather than reacting to the behaviors themselves.

"Do less; observe more; enjoy most." - Magda Gerber


Scaffolding and Zone of Proximal Development 
What is it?
These two concepts are at the core of most of our work with your children. Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD), is a part of a theoretical framework that separates all potential activities into three categories:

1. Things a child can do on their own.
2. Things a child can't do. 
3. Things that they can do with help.
In this image the staircase and the adult illustrate the concept of scaffolding.

This third category is the child's ZPD. Scaffolding is simply a term for all the help offered by an adult to move an activity out of their "can't do" and into their Zone of Proximal Development.

Why does it matter at home?
An understanding of which category your child keeps each activity in, will help greatly with your activity selection. 

- Activities from their "things I can't do" category will lead to the shortest and most frustrated play sessions. 

- Offering your child an activity in their “things I can do” category, like a familiar book or puzzle, will lead to longer more focused play times. 

- Activities from their ZPD will lead to the longest play and highly meaningful interactions  but will  some require adult facilitation.

Being an “oppositional partner” 

What is it?
Occasionally when you play with your child, create your own play plan and stick to it. If your child asks you for the materials you are using, tell them that you are using them and make a plan for when they can have a turn.

Why does it matter at home?
Children learn a lot from playing with a partner. The give and take of these interactions are crucial for positive socio-emotional development but they are hard to replicate at home without another toddler. It is more than the practice of turn-taking, it also teaches patience and respect for the play needs of others. Creating a play plan of your own and sticking to it can help to replicate some of these interactions.

Infant Directed Speech
What is it?
Infant Directed Speech (IDS), is the way that adults alter their voice to speak to children. Basically it is a system of slowing and simplifying your speech patterns in order to give children more time to process what they are hearing. IDS is characterized by higher pitched voices and increased repetition. It's a reflexive process and you all do it everyday. It should not be confused with "Baby talk" which is the removal of informative words from a sentence and replacing them with gibberish. Baby talk does not provide the same developmental benefits of IDS.

Why does it matter at home?
Toddlerhood is a critical period for language development. In normal times, children develop their understanding of prosody, grammar and vocabulary by hearing how people around them speak and using what they hear to create a linguistic baseline. 

In quarantine times, children are exposed to fewer of these "in the wild" language encounters, so the linguistic model that you are providing for them takes on added weight. A good rule of thumb is that you should talk to children in the way that you hope they will, one day, be able to talk to you.

Bloom’s Taxonomy  

What is it?'s Taxonomy is a hierarchical model that classified learning objectives/outcomes from least complicated to most complicated.

Why does it matter at home?
Bloom's Taxonomy is a great way to evaluate communication between yourself and a child. When adults play with children they tend to ask a lot of questions. This tendency is a common, and developmentally critical, piece of  IDS. 

Asking questions helps children reflect on their own actions but it also increases how much of their brain they are using during that interaction. And for this reason, the type of question we ask matters tremendously. 

For instance, answering the question "Is that a tiger?" requires less thought processing than answering the question "What is that?" Asking "where is it going?" or "how does it move?" require even further engagement. By steadily increasing the complexity of the types of questions you are asking (moving from the base of the pyramid up) you will increase the depth of your child’s engagement with the subject material. 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions that are “too complicated.” Toddler’s have a built-in failsafe for this scenario. If you ask them a question that they don’t have the underlying knowledge to answer, they will either not answer you at all or answer a completely different question instead. 

Friday, May 8, 2020

Extended Encounters: Part III

**This post is the third in a series about our three-month material investigation. To read more, go to the first post here.**

Going Deeper
Spending an extended period of time with the same material led many classrooms to really delve into the possibilities and potentials of their chosen area of exploration. Teachers and children alike developed new understandings and expanded their vocabularies as a result. 

“I never had the depth of knowledge [about natural materials] before… I was learning what items are called what names. I went from an admirer of nature to understanding a little bit more about it. They were playing around with it all the time… but some of their questions were fascinating and led to introducing new vocabulary like density. … and exploring along with kids perhaps at the same level at times brought me joy…. I don’t know why, but the whole time, a piece of poetry kept coming to my mind:

“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower 
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour…”
 From Auguries of Innocence by William Blake
Akbar, Toddler 2 North

“I think that the requirement of using the material in your curriculum everyday really forced our team to push past what the surface level uses of paper were. We spent the first weeks having paper in our room and building up our children's vocabularies about the material. But once we had spent a few weeks on that we were forced to dig deep into how paper can be used in the classroom. We found ourselves asking questions like  "what does paper sound like" or "what happens to paper when it gets wet." And as we expanded our idea of how "paper" could be in the classroom so too did our children. Today if you took all the paper out of our classroom, it would be mostly empty.”
- Wheeler, Toddler 1 South

“... because the kids are so much shorter, they would notice things on the ground, and it reminded me to look down not just up… and the question “what’s inside” sparked a lot of interest… it was amazing how happy or angry they got depending on what was inside the acorn.”
- Elayne, Toddler 2 North

“When we decided to explore natural materials for the first three months of the year, I had no idea how far we could go with offering authentic, raw materials from the outdoors. In the past, we had laminated leaves to offer our babies a close-up, yet indestructible way to access the leaves that fall to the ground. This year, we have offered fresh leaves, branches, pine cones, and even produce from our garden! … It’s been thrilling to see our babies, as young as three months, reach for and grasp leaves and pine cones. As they’ve grown, we’ve expanded our exploration by offering giant leaves from collard green plants, for example. How exciting it is to see how babies can make their mark, and thus, learn about natural materials, when they wouldn’t usually have access to them!”
- Christina, Infant South

“It all started with a lid. We brought lids into the classroom in August because it was a loose part that we had available to us. I had the expectation that children would use metal lids to explore sound. Although the infants did explore sound, I was amazed by the variety of ways children interacted with lids, and how their actions led us teachers in the development of our loose parts exploration over the past few months. After the children explored the sounds of the lids, they began experimenting with how the lids fit into different objects. This helped expand our loose parts curriculum into containers of different sizes. Next, the kids seemed interested in how the lids stick to other objects, and this informed our investigation of magnetic properties. The children currently seem interested in the shape of the lids, and we plan to investigate wheels and things that spin. I am amazed that the infants have shown interest in lids constantly for three months! I am fascinated by the new properties of this material that the kids continue to discover, and how their interactions with one material have been a driving force for our curriculum throughout the year. I am eager to see what the children discover next, both with lids and with other loose parts!”
- Hannah, Infant North

Monday, May 4, 2020

Extended Encounters: Part II

**This post is the second in a series about our three-month material investigation. To read more, go to the first post here.**

A Portal to Possibilities
In almost every classroom, the longevity of our exploration allowed the materials to not be simply a focus in the room, but a catalyst for other important work by children and teachers. It often served to highlight, support, and sustain larger questions, which might not have been visible without our intense observation and thinking about the original material in question. 

“Wood was present in our classroom in many forms and discussed in team meetings. I am less sure if it provided a lens for getting to know each other or a rich focus for the class. We definitely had fun. 
Early on we had a few conversations about the sensory experience of wood - what it looks like, feels like, smells like. However the children in P1 seemed more interested in what you could do WITH wood, and TO wood, than in the intrinsic qualities of wood itself. Children often used sticks in dramatic play indoors and outdoors… They used wood as a background for activities such as building, sorting, and counting… Combining wood with other materials such as string and wire and tape offered opportunities for children to create new things... They were excited to collect sticks on the river walks and on the playground, and to use tools such as drills and saws with wood... It seemed to me that their interest was in the experience of using the tools themselves, and less about how they could use tools to discover more about wood."
- Loren, Preschool 1

“The Natural Materials area in our classroom seemed like the place where the children came together and did a lot of coordinated play as well as side by side play…. These open-ended materials showed me about each child and how they thought, what their interests are and what excites them. C was all about cooking and using her imagination, M loved to sort, and R liked to bring other materials such as trucks or blocks to the Natural Material area to create something different. For me having the Natural Materials in the classroom brought this classroom together, from the children that moved up from Infant North to new children that started this year, to all the teachers.”
- Caroline, Toddler 1 North

“... I never would have guessed [the natural materials] could be used so many ways… seeing [them] used as placeholders for food, being carried around the room… and the joy of using the things they had grown in the garden…"
- AJ, Toddler 2 North

“Our investigation of loose parts has been so transformative in my thinking and even in my everyday life. I love the planet and feel that we should find value in our environment. I was not expecting this investigation to bring me more insight in my everyday thinking when we started, but surprisingly it has extended out in what I have been observing in the community I live and participate in… Loose parts are an intricate part of our classroom identity and opened a bigger question for me and my team about "how do things/people/community fit together?" I believe that this is a concept that is at the core of humans, our identity, and the need to connect. I am surprised that that is what I found from the experience, and I love that it has bent my thinking. This world is made of loose parts and we can get philosophical and say so are all individual people, we are searching for a sense of belonging and acceptance, not in spite of but because of our miss matched attributes.”
- Aleksandra, Infant North

“As we started to amass natural materials the children began to think about categorization and where and who the objects "belonged" to.  We created a natural materials shelf for our classroom and the children sorted the objects to place on the shelf.  During their play they would often return to the shelf to gather materials they needed.  The theme of belonging has since been an ongoing thread in our classroom that children, teachers, and families are exploring through multiple facets of our curriculum.  Our natural materials investigation was therefore a catalyst for a much deeper dive into questions such as:
"Does it belong?"
"How does it belong?"
"How do you come to belong? (to a group, game, place, community)"
- Amanda, Preschool 2

“We started off with a very large, nondescript clay block and a few hand tools. As weeks passed children’s interactions with the clay changed. I was intrigued, observing the changing relationship of each child with the clay as well as how their relationships with each other evolved when working with the clay together.... In their early introduction to clay the physical act of working at changing the block of clay seemed to be their main goal… As the clay chunks became smaller and more easily moved by the children we started to observe more individualized clay exploration. It became apparent when each child claimed chunks or slabs on their own they named, with pride, a specific creation such as “pizza”, “tree” “pasta”. As a group, they influenced each other more and began to migrate to the same play concepts and ideas while the individuality of their clay objects became an extended social experience… Eventually the small parts and tools used to alter the clay started to become something more... Patterns created from using materials emerged and took on their own meaning. The clay investigation came full circle. In the Studio small parts were hidden deep in a clay block by half of the class. The other half went to the Studio on another day and worked at extracting the pieces their friends had hidden, using tools, both side by side and together, for a common goal.”
- Janet, Toddler 2 North

“In the beginning of the year, [we] introduced a few of the natural materials by creating still lifes... As the year progressed we decided to challenge the children by having them create their own still life and draw it. One thing that surprised me about this investigation was how focused the children became and the pride that [this experience] instilled in their work. What brought me joy during this investigation was how the children then started taking pictures of their own work - I believe this investigation of the material helped them to gain confidence in themselves.”
- Ally, Preschool 2

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Extended Encounters: Reflecting on our long-term material investigations

“A first encounter for children with materials… is a necessary step in children’s process of knowing. Through such encounters and explorations, children build an awareness of what can happen with materials, and adults build the ability to observe and support the significance of each particular experience.”
-        Giovanni Piazza, “Materials, Relationships, and Languages,” in ed. Gandini, Hill, Cadwell, and Schwall, In the Spirit of the Studio, p. 13.

How do we build a relationship with a material? What can we gain by continuing to engage and re-engage with a material over an extended period of time? These were some of the questions at work for both teachers and children this year as each classroom embarked on a three-month-long material investigation together.
At the start of the year, each classroom chose a specific type of material (light, paper, loose parts, clay, natural materials, paint, or fabric) to explore, signing on to have that material present in their classroom every day and be part of their documentation, reflection, and curriculum planning for the next three months. Five classrooms chose natural materials, one chose paper, one chose clay, and one chose loose parts, and away we went!
Our material investigation was by no means an easy undertaking. It required stretching, growing, learning, and disequilibrium on the part of teachers and children. The same way that children often express frustration as they learn a new skill or grapple with a new concept, many teachers found themselves challenged to think differently about their material and its possibilities. 
Different classrooms took different approaches to this project – some classrooms set themselves a focus from the start, while others explored more openly, waiting for an interesting question or idea to arise. Some materials came with particular challenges that necessitated flexible thinking and collaboration on the part of teams. For many classrooms, the material itself provided a lens or portal through which other threads could be explored. In a few cases, however, the natural material itself proved the catalyst for going deeper, encouraging the children and teachers to learn more about that material’s unique possibilities. 
Many of our teachers took time to reflect on their experience with this long-term investigation, using the following prompts as a starting point:
  • How did your understanding of the material and its possibilities change over time?
  • How did children's interactions with the material change over time?
  • What was surprising or challenging to you during the investigation?
  • What brought you joy during the investigation? 
Excerpts from their reflections are collected here under the groupings of “overcoming challenges,” “a portal to possibilities,” and “going deeper” in order to share one facet of our work with you. Of course, there is always overlap, and there are cases where teachers’ words could fit into any of these categories. In each case, I used my best judgement to put them under the heading that seemed the best fit. Thank you for reading and please share any of your own thoughts and experiences from this investigation!
- Katie
Overcoming Challenges
Many challenges arose for different teachers over the course of this work - some expected and some not. Sometimes it was a challenge to find the right approach to the material in order to engage both the children and teachers in the exploration. In other cases, the material itself necessitated flexible thinking around issues, such as how to use it safely with young children. 

“It was hard at the beginning to include a material that none of us were quite interested in. Over time, though, the children's interest in this material evolved to another unexpected way of usage: Space. Children demonstrated awareness of the material as a tool to create a physical space and define it, moving the paper as a "stage" to sit, jump or play on it, or using it to hide. This was amazing to see. It brought me joy to realize the many ways and uses the children gave to sheets of paper.”
Connie, Toddler 1 South

“At first, I thought that the children would show interest in the properties of paper by exploring it in ways that included trying to rip it, crinkle it and scrunching it up into a ball. I was surprised to see that the children rarely did any of those things and would only engage with the paper when teachers initiated the paper play… The challenge for me was that I didn't know what the next steps would be after making paper. It was challenging to continue to have to think about this material that the children seemingly weren’t interested in - and I think that the teacher's lack of consistent of enjoyment with the material also played a huge part in it as well….I think that the dynamic between the children and paper, and each teacher's investment in this material investigation shifted when I hung the Tyvek paper up in the corner. It led to thoughts about space and prosocial behaviors amongst the children. This was exciting! It felt harmonious to be able to combine the paper investigation with a thread that was so prevalent in our room.”
Myra, Toddler 1 South

“Exploring natural materials in Infant South has been both invigorating and just a bit worrisome. It has been a learning experience when it comes to offering babies materials that are safe. But mostly it’s been fun to watch what they do with leaves, how we offer leaves and how they have been studying the myriad of leaves. It's been such a joy to watch how our babies have shown how long the process of exploring one material can go on for.” 
Dilcia, Infant South

“Something I found challenging was... diving deeper into our seed pod focus of our natural materials. We had some photos of seed pods but we never got around to doing anything else with the thought. Another challenging thing... We had a plan to crack open some acorns a few more times with T2 but because it’s considered a choking hazard, we had to stop. Unfortunately, something out of our control...However, at my old center, bringing any materials from outside or from home was never even heard of and I was told we weren't allowed to (along with many other things we weren't allowed to do).” 
Kelsey, Toddler 1 North 

“Throughout this emotional time [the start of the year], clay was offered during each morning and afternoon provocation….Almost immediately, the clay became food… Each child seemed to find comfort and safety with this thread…. [However} after a few months of their exploration of cooking and clay, the idea seemed to fizzle. I was frustrated because it felt like we hadn’t done enough. It seemed like other rooms had found their “thing” and were taking their material investigation further and further each day. It wasn’t until Ivonne brought up the idea that, “children will explore something until they find an answer, or will give up because they have lost interest” that I was really able to reflect on our use of clay. Did the children let go of the cooking idea because they finally felt safe and secure in the classroom? Were they able to accept the idea that their parents would come back at the end of the day? Was cooking a way for them to connect, share and learn alongside their peers, despite their big emotions? 

These were questions I wanted to find answers for. So, I observed. I watched the children come into the classroom each morning, happier and happier as each day passed. I listened as parents told us “She spent the entire weekend missing school and wanting it to be Monday!” I learned from the children that not all questions have clear answers - sometimes you have to stop looking to find it.” 
- Imy, Toddler 2 South 

“At the beginning the kids didn’t really know what to do [with the natural materials]… they mostly didn’t really use them. What brought me joy was, as we left them out, they used them more and more, and they used them lots of different ways.” 
- Kerri, Toddler 2 North 

“Our interactions with the material first started off very simple with a slab of clay on the floor. Children would break off pieces of the clay and call it pasta, pancakes, or waffles, perhaps mimicking what they had eaten for breakfast before coming to school… After some time exploring the idea of cooking, and adding natural materials, interest started to fade away from the clay, so we decided to change how it was presented… to help them re-engage with the clay… but we had no such luck. At this point, we were feeling a bit stuck, but we then started to think about the element of surprise, and hiding/finding objects [in the clay]. We first started to do this just in the studio, bringing one group to the studio to hide objects and one group to find objects. Through this we noticed that children started to become curious about loose parts, so in our team meeting we talked about bringing loose parts to the classroom. Once this was done, children started to re-engage with the clay, and we observed children build (vertically and horizontally), hide, make marks, and so much more.”
Kate, Toddler 2 South

“Not that it was a competition, but I'm not sure who has enjoyed our material investigation more; the babies or me. I obviously love natural materials, and I was excited to share my enthusiasm with our babies, families, and teammates. I was a bit intimidated at first, however, because I am not used to delving into an investigation right away, especially when we are so focused on just getting to know our babies and help them eat and sleep. But having a focus on a type of material, even if I didn't really get to observe it in action every day, still helped me get to know our babies through their individual styles of exploration….[sometimes the material itself] was ancillary to the relationship building that was happening at the forefront of their exploration. I learned about how an ongoing material investigation like this is not just about them learning about the material; everything that comes out of it is valuable.”
Amara, Infant South

“In the beginning of our investigation, hearing the term ‘loose parts’ made me wonder what that really means. I have been taking out some loose part materials to investigate over the past years, but I had not really intentionally thought about how much a loose part can be used in different ways and how children would investigate this specific material differently than others...I also struggled to set up the classroom with only loose parts - I still find myself taking out blocks and other materials that I never thought would be considered loose parts. But I learned that anything you find is considered to be a loose part.”
Gladys, Infant North 

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Pathway Play: Creating a Marble Run

by Amanda Caulfield, Preschool 2 Teacher at PTCC

The Inspiration:  
Children in Preschool Two have been interested in creating and exploring pathways during their play.  This has ranged from building paths in the sand to constructing ramps and roads as a part of our work with mapping.  One of the ways that we have been observing children’s thinking related to pathways was through their construction and use of marble runs.  I have always been interested in observing the problem solving strategies that emerge when children work with marble runs.  

I chose to create this provocation offering because I felt it was something that could be easily executed and extended at home using everyday materials.  I also felt excited about the prospect of parents being able to get a window into their child’s thinking and problem-solving skills by watching them interact with this provocation.  And of course, I felt it would be fun to make and test my own marble run in order to connect with the children!  

The children create a pathway for rainwater to flow through mud and sand on the playground.

Nate lifts the marble run up at an angle to catalyze the marble and water to pass through in the classroom sensory table.

The Provocation:  
Create your own marble run using the materials you have at home! This is a great opportunity to explore concepts related to pathways, trajectory, and motion.  

The materials that I found at home to use for this provocation were: 

Cardboard pieces
Plastic cups
Plastic lids to paint containers 
Paper towel roll
Index cards

My husband, Kevin, and I worked together to create a marble run that would knock down clothespins at the end.

At first, a part of our marble run looked like this, but the marble kept bouncing off of the plastic funnel-shaped piece. 

We decided to use a clothespin as a wall to block the marble from bouncing out. 

Here is what we came up with!

Materials, Questions, Extensions 

Other material suggestions:
-Popsicle sticks 
-Scrap wood or metal
-Wine corks
-PVC pipe
-Wooden train tracks 
-Tape rolls
-Water beads

Questions to ask while children are playing: 
-How will you get the marble to move?
-What do you notice about how the marble rolls through the marble run?  
-How can we change what happens?
-How could you make the marble move slower?  Faster?

Ways to extend this provocation: 
-Try to get the marble to hit a certain target (for example, land into a cup or knock something over).
-Create pathways for use with sensory materials such as sand or water. 
- Create several marble runs to race against each other.