Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Creating Community through Self-Expression

Lately the preschool cohort has been intensely focusing on self-expression! Self-expression can happen in many ways- it's anytime we express ourselves through a form of communication whether that's art, speech, dance, or something else! One child begins to play as a rock climber while another asserts, "No, I'm not a rock climber! I'm going to science class!". Seeing this disregard for the ideas of others may seem cold, but children can value each other without using words or engaging in play. Inviting play can be a long dance of negotiation rather than a quick fulfillment of doing whatever is said first.

There are few times when self-expression actually disrupts play or hurts someone else. It is an interesting scene on our school yard that takes place. The ebb and flow of the each child's deeply important play can look like just chaotic energy of children to an outsider. However, once you step into their world it becomes clear that playing together is actually filled with testing social skills out to fulfill each self interest. The egalitarian or altruistic ideals of our society are not inherent but rather are a learned social structure within our communities. As children work to negotiate with individual playmates (or even the whole group!) they began to define their own version of what it means to be a community.

At Tumbleweed, I often reflect on how this group of unique individuals are like planets in a solar system. Each child may become closer to another and be going the same direction but they are on their own path and may just as easily drift apart. It is fascinating to see how we all learn and work together to become such social creatures.

DC says, “AS I’m ready to play. Want to play sisters?”
EM says, “QM can I help? I will get the scoop too.”
AS says, “I need to go to a concert in a park by bike. Can you watch me?”
LC says, “CE, we are in college. Wanna do science class? You have to use goggles and a little sugar.”
RM says, “Lets make rain with this hose. Like Elsa we can solve problems”.

These statements are a glimpse into the community our Tumbleweeders have created. They reach out to one another, they drift apart, they engage with different members of our community each day... but always they are working on what it means to be together here at our school. What role do they have? How do they fit in? How will it be different tomorrow? As they grow and learn more about themselves they constantly reinvent what it means to be a community- what it means to be a Tumbleweeder.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Tumbleweed Ninjas

Ninja group was something I always wanted to introduce in our classroom. The kids often talk about ninjas and are surrounded by ninja imagery in various forms of pop culture. I wanted to discuss authentic ninjas with them- what they do, where they are from, why they exist... It's also true that I was somewhat hesitant about initiating a ninja group. There is some potential for chaos among such intense excitement. However, the words of Teacher Tom from a workshop I attended in Portland a few years ago spoke to me as I readied myself for ninja group:Try participating in it. 

If you’re a part of their play, you observe the dialog between the kids doing sword fights with sticks or chasing "bad guys". Children often are very effective communicators and when we are inside their play we can see just how effective they are. They communicate verbally and physically so that they don't actually hurt each other. From the outside looking in, a situation may seem tense or as though it needs your guidance. When you are in it, though, you are able to better watch what's happening and see when they need your help versus when you want to give your help.

Once I started looking into ninjas, I myself was so fascinated by them.  Their weapons, their strategies, their movements...everything seemed amazingly sophisticated.  As I researched and prepared for the group, I realized I was learning too! My passion and excitement for authentic ninjas was more powerful to share with the children than the information I found!

Here is how our Ninja Group went.

Step 1: Talk about Ninjas

They actually know a lot about ninjas,  including what kind of weapons they used, such as shuriken.  But there was something new for them, too.

  • Ninja means “quiet person.”  We cannot make a kung fu sounding shout if you want to be a good ninja.  In fact, you cannot make any sound.

This fact actually fascinated them a lot.  They loved being super quiet as long as they were ninjas!

  • There were female ninjas who were active.

When I said this to the kids, the girls’ faces literally brightened up.  They seemed more confident about their physical strength and capability.  Next time they come across anyone who would say things like “there were no such thing as girl ninjas” they will argue that it’s clearly wrong and historical fact shows the existence of female ninjas.

Step 2: Make a weapon and use it.

What we did was making a blow dart out of paper (http://www.wikihow.com/Make-a-Paper-Blowgun).  It’s important to make sure they don’t blow at people because the dart comes out pretty fast!  I let them draw their target on a big piece of paper on the wall.  Most of them drew “a bad guy” and they loved darting them.

Step 3: Practicing movements

This would be somewhat similar to a yoga class but it’s way more tricky.  They practiced walking while their knees are bent without making sound.  They also practiced hiding and taking advantage of “blind spot.”

Optional: Planning maneuvers

For older kids (4-5 year old), talking about how we actually undertake our mission was the most exciting part.  They had an imaginary bad guy that they’re supposed to eliminate.  Based on what they learned, they decided to collect some information: 1) where does he live (so that they can “build a secret tunnel for ninjas to escape quickly”); 2) what’s his favorite food (so that they can “poison him”); 3) what color is the wall in his house (so that they can “buy the same colored fabric as the wall to hide behind it”), and what time does he take a bath and go to bed (so that they know “when is the easiest time” to accomplish their mission).

As you can see, they were serious.  For at least several weeks after they successfully “graduated” from the “ninja intensive camp,” ninja talk was everywhere at Tumblweeed.  When I did a Tanabata art project one morning, I told them kids in Japan often write down what they want to be in the future on a piece of paper and hang it on a bamboo tree along with other origami decorations.

I hope you enjoy your ninja experience with your kids as well.

Note : A ninja book I recommend  to read with your kids is “Fierce Fighters: Ninja” written by Charlotte Guillain.  It even talks about movements kids can practice to be a ninja.



Wednesday, October 8, 2014


The children of cohort 6 are in the middle of a musical explosion.  All day they are singing and making rhythms with and through their work and play.  They are making up songs, miming playing instruments on sticks outside, singing together, asking for new and favorite songs and enjoying the instruments we already have in the classroom : a wooden drum, a gourd shaker and a kalimba. With my own background in music this new interest is highly exciting to me and we have been talking about how music makes us feel, that music can tell stories, clapping simple rhythms and basic music theory such as tempo. 

I have been wanting to bring a guitar into the classroom and the school for a while, so the next step in expanding our musical knowledge is very exciting to me.  I have always had close ties with music and even studyed it in college.  Any way I can share this love is important to me.  During our last group time we talked about what a guitar is. Many of the children shared their knowledge from home and the excitement is growing. 

"My brother has a ukulele!  He plays Oh My Darling!" - Z
"The top is sharp. You gotta watch out." - V
"My daddy has a guitar. But he doesn't play it." -C
"We need to get a violin and wear it on or back, then have a guitar in the front!" - H

I then played a bit of classical guitar music. We listen and everyone fell silent. I held my phone close to everyone could hear. 
"This is guitar music."  Then I turned my phone around and showed them all a video of a many playing the guitar. I explained about the parts of the guitar and their functions: the head, the neck, the body and the strings. 
"I have a neck!  Right here!" Z said immediately. 
We ended our introduction to the guitar by talking about how fragile it is and how it will be so much fun to enjoy making music together with this new instrument. 

This will be a very fun exploration for us! I look forward to seeing where it might take us!

Can You See the Light?

Morning light pours in.
J looks at his play dough through the light.  He sees that some parts are lighter than others.
Conversation emerges.
T explains, "I need to flatten my play dough.
In the old days, before rollers, they just used their hands or faces like this.
 Hey!  Can the light go through my hand?
J tests the same idea.

Questions and ideas build.
How does the light affect the play dough here?
What if we pinch different parts?

Collaboration continues, naturally scaffolding.
What if we have small holes?
What if we have big holes?

THIS is play!  THIS is work!  This is learning and learning to love learning and loving...
This is the genius of childhood.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Yoga at the Preschool!

Our school is abuzz with excitement as we feel something different and new is coming. This time it happens to be Yoga. It is so great to have a parent and community member take part in the school. We spark each child's interest by repeating throughout the day that there will be a yoga class offered after nap. By the time the children begin to wake and transition out of nap just mentioning Yoga gets a small group extremely focused ready for what this new thing might have to offer. 


 To get started I introduce the yoga teacher, Shira, and set some expectations. It doesnt take much as the teacher invites everyone to sit in a circle and all eyes at the center of attention. I step back and witness how powerful yoga as a part of human learning. Shira gets going with some silly movements moving around the circle to actively engage everyone. Next she calls out each child to show an animal while everyone matches. As the children match different animal movements and sounds they move around in a circle. The excitement puts everyone in a calmer mood.


The animal movements allow Shira to weave a story with yoga poses leading everyone in these difficult poses without even realizing. As the group moves from sitting down to big standing stretches each pose is met with a new joy, discovering what bodies can do, how it feels to use different body parts in different ways and to use our whole body.

As more difficult moves were offered yoga seemed more fun than challenging. Every child either carefully tried a pose or simply sat and watched what was going on. It was a truly inspiring to see the art of Yoga practiced with such a young age.

The movements focused deeper and deeper on illuminating our inner strength the child's pose or cat pose was use by all for a much needed rest. The teacher had everyone sit and very simply explained the end of a yoga class much like every Yoga class ends. We thank ourselves for our practice and say, the light in me recognizes the light in you; Namaste.

Self-Guided Play All Day!

What does self-guided play mean in a toddler cohort?

It means providing materials that are engaging to the senses - materials that invite children to look, touch, smell, listen, and taste in ways they discover themselves.  I love natural materials, bright colors, and simplicity, and I look closely to see what interests each child the most and try to stock our room with materials that meet those interests.

It means arranging materials in a way that is open to interpretation.  When I set out materials in the morning, before the children arrive, I check my expectations.  I can create provocations to try to elicit a certain type of exploration, and if it sparks something totally different in the children, then I'll follow their interest rather than what I had in mind.

It means sometimes we play together, and sometimes we play separately.  At times, toddler-aged children enjoy playing and engaging with each other directly.  Other times, they enjoy playing side-by-side, being near each other but not directly interacting.  Often, they enjoy playing apart from one another, with lots of space around them.  My job is not to force the children to play together, but to support how they wish to play in each moment - which can also mean helping the girls negotiate when one person wants to play with a friend who wants to play by herself.

It means being open to some serious silliness!  Sometimes, a toddler just needs to be upside down (or sideways, or quacking like a duck, or singing the letters "H-I-J-K" for 20 minutes).  One of my favorite parts about hanging out with toddlers all day is that they are developing their senses of humor - they love to be funny!  I remain open to the comedy that comes my way during the day, and if I'm invited to be upside down as well, you can bet you'll see me upside down!
It means offering language to help the children process their play.  All the toddlers in Cohort 9 are in rich stages of language development.  Some are speaking more than others, but each of them is listening closely to the language around her and taking in what is said.  I spend a lot of my day watching the children play and making observations out loud: "You poured all the beads into the bowl," "Those dominoes feel cold in your hand!" "You picked up two crayons.  I wonder how you will draw with them."  I try to keep my observations open and without judgement and based only on what I see they children do, not what I think of their play or what emotions I think they are feeling.

It means allowing children space to make discoveries.  The toddlers are all capable, curious people, who are building skills, vocabulary and abilities every day.  I am so excited for them, because it is indeed wonderful to learn new words and skills.  I know that each child is learning at her own pace, by her own curiosity, and doesn't need to be pushed, so I don't ask for words to be repeated or skills to be practiced. I watch closely as play leads to new discoveries.

It means allowing a game to take as long as it takes.  Sometimes that means we do the same thing over and over (and over).  Sometimes the baby doll and the toy mouse need to approach each other 50 times and then run away.  It might be tempting for me to bring the giraffe or the bunny into the game, or to direct the child's attention to the blocks that are also sitting out.  Those actions would be to entertain my own brain, not to follow the child's interest, so instead I watch the baby and the mouse and support what the child wants to do.

I feel so lucky to be the observer of play in Cohort 9.  Every day these girls are learning so much, and it is so meaningful that their learning and exploration is self motivated.  My job is then to support and help the children to scaffold upon that learning and exploration.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Teeter Totter

It's always exciting when new materials are introduced to our play areas. There's something fresh and exciting for both the children and the teachers when it comes to having something new. Personally, I'm always anxious to see how they will use it and envelop it into their current play schemas. How will it fit into the recent surge of interest in pirates, for example? I'm also anxious to see who will gravitate towards it most. I have my guesses based on the time I spend with the children.

For example, my own daughter is rather impressed by mythical creatures. Dragons, chimeras, and kraakens often take her fancy. My son, however, loves transportation of any sort and longs to adventure on the rides at any given theme park. When we bring something new into our home I'm always interested to see how it will play out between the two of them. A puzzle of a car may have the interest of my son for a moment, but it's my daughter who will sit at the table painstakingly attempting to put together a puzzle that's just beyond her spatial comprehension as of yet. It may not feature her favorite mythical creatures- but it's a mystery she wants to solve. As I watched her last night, failing again and again to find a match for a particular piece, I was reminded of one of our newest additions to our classroom outside: the teeter totter.

The teeter totter has a lot to offer. It's something very different from our other materials outside. It provides gross motor play like the bridge, the climbing structure, or sandbox- but it also inherently requires some teamwork and negotiating. To use a teeter totter you typically need two interested parties. One to sit on each side. Each party rocks the teeter totter back and forth. It can get a little crazy- which is kind of the point. When everything is in sync you get that unmistakable feeling that I can only describe as "being a kid". It feels like flying and somehow you are simultaneously completely in control and not in control at all. I'm sure you all know what I'm speaking of, but if you don't get to a park straightaway! Find the nearest swing set, sit down, and pump until you are flying. Even as an adult it is still one of the best feelings in the world to me.

The teeter totter quickly attracted everyone's attention. At first, everyone wanted to use it simply because it was new. There's an excitement that comes with being new that no one can really argue against. There were lines to use the teeter totter and a LOT of teacher guidance during play to help everyone negotiate and get used to how this new thing worked. After a while, though, the lines diminished and it became simply another fixture of our outside play. This is when I started observing it. Now that it was a trusted part of our yard, how would the children use it?

Quickly it ceased to be a teeter totter. It was a ship at sea and the captain had fallen overboard! It was a rocket ship in outer space waiting to come home! It was a house for two mommies and one very demanding daughter! It was a hiding spot for bad guys who had taken ALL the flowers from the vase! The great thing about play is the limitless options for what something can be. The teeter totter had not only a purpose but a story behind that purpose. Of course, it was also the sight of many, many negotiations.

As I said earlier, a teeter totter typically requires two interested parties. However, most of the play that takes up our time outside has more than two interested parties. Often there is a few groups of two to three children playing at once and occasionally you may see a larger group of five or more. The teeter totter in our classroom particularly called to groups of three. There is a small seat in the middle to help the stability of the teeter totter which, to many of those involved in play outside, looks to be the best possible spot for a third person to sit. Though I observed many such negotiations, I would love to share one in particular.

TUS, JK, SC, AS, LC, and EF are gathered around the teeter totter.
TUS: This is a rocket ship!
JK: Yeah and I'm just an astronaut guy!
SC: Me too, guys!
TUS: No! You can't sit there! It's just two people.

SC: I want to!
EF approaches and watches TUS, JK, and SC closely. She puts her hands on the teeter totter.
TUS: No! Don't touch it.
EF watches him closely but doesn't move her hands.
TUS: Okay, you can touch it! But no one can sit here.
TUS and JK begin to rock back and forth. EF and SC use their hands to help move the teeter totter.
SC: It's fast!
EF stops moving it and starts to climb on. TUS watches her but doesn't say anything.
TUS: Okay, I guess you can sit there. We have to move it on our own, though.

SC begins to help move it.
JK: We have to move it on our own!
SC: I want to!
LC: Guys! You have to sit on it! You can't touch it.
SC: Okay.
AS: Maybe we can have turns next?
TUS: Yeah! You guys can all have turns next!

After about ten more seconds of rocking everyone but EF leaves for a different rocket ship.

It was interesting to observe this particular negotiation for a few different reasons. First, no one got angry or hurt. Everyone felt heard as they continued to figure out what worked for them. No one seemed certain they had the right answer, they were all just working together. They kept voicing their own individual needs and concerns and eventually they got to a place where they all agreed. No one presented their opinion as their opinion necessarily- but they all seemed to be speaking the same language. Each child wanted to find a way that worked for everyone. Yes, there were heightened emotions and children felt strongly- but they felt comfortable with feeling strongly!

Second, it wasn't about the teeter totter. At the end only really EF was interested in teetering or tottering. For the rest of them, it was about the negotiation itself. It was engaging because there was a challenge at hand for them all to work on together! As a group, they needed to solve the challenge of how the teeter totter was meant to be used for their game. Once that had passed, the interest waned and they moved on.

Third, six different children- some of whom wanted to be on the teeter totter and others who simply wanted to observe- worked together. There were both participants and observers when it came to the actual teeter totter, but all six were invested and engaged in the challenge at hand- which is the real focus of play here. Everyone had an input- either verbal or nonverbal- and everyone had their moment to give something as a solution progressed.

The teeter totter is sure to be the home of many more interesting observations in the coming weeks. Negotiations have been huge lately! I'm excited to see where the children take it next, but for now I'll leave you with this: Teeter totters typically need two interested parties, sometimes more. However, one very interested party is just as useful as you can see: