Friday, September 19, 2014

Where did the orange paint come from?

Today in the studio I created a design with yellow, red and white paint. 
We paused for a moment before touching the paint to look at the lines and the colors I used. 
Then I have each child a wide paint brush and then quickly went to work. Some children focused on exploring one color, moving the paint around a small part of the paper and keeping the color pure. Other children pushed their brush in long strokes as far across the paper as they could reach. There were moments when we people would get too close, which gave us a chance to practice making space for each other. 
Soon the original design had faded away into blotches and new patterns of color. We admired our work. I reminded them of the lines and the colors we started with then invited them to see what we had now. 

Then I paused. 
"I noticed something new!  We started with white, yellow and red.  But now there is orange!  Where did the orange come from?"

We talked about how each child used the paint and the paint brush. We talked about how the paint mixed. We remembered and noticed.  There was a sense of satisfaction in the way the painting came together.  And our knowledge of how paint and color works expanded. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Building Awareness around Actions and Reactions

Turn-based and collaborative play has recently become more of a focus for Cohort 7 during our time in the classroom.  This is often instigated by very intentional sharing between two or more children.  For example, AJ often collects trains to bring near where CS is sitting, sometimes placing them right in his hand or lap.  She then finds a few trains for herself and sits down next to CS; soon, they are working together to combine their pieces, building a long train which they often take turns driving back and forth.  MH does this with animals, bringing them one by one to a nearby friend until they have a good collection to play with together.  These interactions are numerous in our classroom, with every child taking pleasure in offering well-loved materials to their friends.

Sometimes collaborative play takes the form of spontaneous games in which someone devises a sequence of actions, and then steps aside allowing for the next person to repeat.  For example, last week LC, LT, and AJ played a game in which they covered the drum with a silk, sat down on top of it, and then stood back up taking the silk with them.  They each took turns doing this and eventually started proposing variations on this:  Can two kids sit down on the drum at once?  What if we try to pull the silk out from under someone as they're sitting?  These proposals were met with mixed reactions, and negotiations ensued.  

This kind of play offers so many opportunities for the children to work on slowing down their actions and pausing to listen and understand where their peers are coming from.  My goal throughout these interactions is always to remain a supportive presence without necessarily intervening unless it seems like the situation is escalating in an unsafe way.  If and when it seems necessary for me to intervene, I calmly narrate what is happening: "LT would really like to sit on the drum at the same time as you.  Does it work for you?"  Sometimes this is enough -- the initial protest might have been due to a misinterpretation in which someone thought they were being pushed off.  Other times, the question "Does it work for you?" is met with a resounding "No!" and I help to express the need for space.  
No matter the outcome, these exchanges are rich opportunities for refining our communication with each other and building trust in each other's intentions, as well as our own capacity to voice needs.  The ways that the children elicit feedback from their peers are expanding and becoming more complex. Together, we are building an awareness of others' emotional reactions to the actions we take.  I wrote about this some time ago in my post on validating "No!" and "Mine!" as safe, effective responses for children.

May I help you build?  
Can I knock this down?  
Want to play with me?  

These are all examples of the ways we are building upon some of our foundational forms of communication (e.g. "No", "Mine", and "I need space") to include more nuanced requests of others.  Not every child in Cohort 7 is using all of this language quite yet, meaning that the children are often using body language and facial expressions as primary ways to navigate these requests.  All of this is made possible by the authentic regard the children have for each other; everyday they demonstrate a level of compassion and empathy that allows them to anticipate needs and engage in complex communication that helps everyone to feel supported and heard.  By allowing space for these kinds of interactions, we are showing children that we trust them to self-advocate and to make safe choices for themselves and others -- and that everyone's needs are valid and worthy of our respect.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Mealtimes, Rituals, and Celebrating Food

As I mentioned in a recent post, we are working on fostering independence and encouraging active participation in Cohort 9.  While there are opportunities all day long to work on these skills, lunch and snack times are particularly special to me and, I think, to the toddlers as well.  I grew up in a family in which mealtimes were an important time to be together and reconnect.  Although I was one of three daughters with busy schedules, we all had dinner together nearly every weeknight.  It didn't hurt that my mom is an amazing cook!  All this means that I hold mealtimes in extremely high regard, as a time for coming together and connecting as a group, and also as a time to learn.

There are many unique things about how we do meals and snacks at Tumbleweed.  For one thing, we don't use sippy cups, which results in a few more spills, perhaps, but also in the acquisition of new skills, a richer experience of the water or milk we are drinking, and a sense of pride in drinking from an open cup like our parents and teachers.

We choose a special song of thanks before we start to serve ourselves and eat.  Our current favorite is "All I Really Need" by Raffi, which goes: "All I really need is a song in my heart, food in my belly, and love in my family!" and has some nice simple gestures to go along with it, so the children can participate even if they aren't ready to sing along.  Taking a moment to sing before we start eating is a way to demarcate time at the table as special and focus our attention on the group, and the yummy food we are so lucky to have in front of us.

Something new to me as a teacher since I started at Tumbleweed is serving snacks and meals family style and having the children serve themselves at the table.  This was also new to my cohort of toddlers, so we have had a lot of fun learning together how to make this practice work best for our group.

Pouring our milk and water from pitchers into our cups has been a particular source of pride, joy, and sometimes frustration for the children.  This was a motion the girls were not particularly familiar with and I was asking them to attempt some precision when they poured.  Seeing each child go through the process of watching me pour, pouring with my hand there to help them support the weight of the pitcher, and then pouring on their own with increasing skill and accuracy has been exciting and fun.  They watch each other closely when they are pouring their milk and water, and cheer when the liquid makes it into the cups.

I continue to help the toddlers to be successful in my set up for pouring water and milk.  I bring a large jar of milk or water to the table and only pour a small amount into the pitcher at a time.  This gives the pitcher less weight and also ensures that the cup won't get too full.  When I pass each child the pitcher I line up the lip of the pitcher with the rim of her glass so she is set up for success. As we build our skills in this area, I will be able to offer new challenges with a heavier pitcher or not lining up the pitcher and cup beforehand.

I am conscious of only helping each child as much as she needs to be helped.  Cohort 9 is gaining the skills they will eventually bring to the preschool cohort, where they will be asked to pour from larger pitchers and to make judgements about how much water or milk to take at a time.  Serving ourselves food and drink is a simple, everyday task, but it involves a combination of complex physical and cognitive skills and it is exciting to see some of the newest Tumbleweeders gaining and building on those skills each day.

Navigating Negotiations

QM sets out the colored squares carefully. He points to them, collectively, and announces, "This is paint." CE finds a large wooden block and loads a colored square on it. She dabs at it with a citiblock and nods to QM, "I like to use this color." AS reaches in to grab some paint, too, and reaches for a square already in QM's hand while saying, "I want this color."

QM quickly pulls the square out of AS's reach, "I need that!" AS watches him for a moment then picks up another square, "This is shampoo. You can use it like this." She rubs the square on her cheeks. QM grabs it from her, "I need that! It's PAINT!" Almost simultaneously, AS yells out, "I need that! I'm using it!"

They both stare at each other for a moment. CE, sensing the tension, offers up a suggestion, "There's lots of these! We can use them together." AS, crying now, shakes her head to indicate this plan doesn't work for her. She needs this certain block. She had a plan for it and it was to be hers. QM echoes this feeling as he continues to scream that he, in fact, needs the block. They both feel passionately about this block.

It may seem insignificant to an observer- it's just a block after all!  Even after ten years of watching these scenarios play out I have to squash my instinct to simply remove the block from play or introduce new materials. I'm a peacemaker at heart and I want everyone to just be happy. It's easy to forget that by helping them be happy I'm actually negating their emotions and telling them it's not okay to want something so bad that you won't give it up- for anything. After I've taken a moment to remove myself and my own needs from their conflict, I move closer. It's not time for me to interrupt, yet, but I want them to know that I'm here. I'm available. I want to send the message that I see them and I hear them, but also that I trust them.

The block lies on the floor in between them now. They are both still adamant about being the one to use it. They slowly return to playing, but anytime one reaches for the block the other profusely protests. CE begins an elaborate story with the blocks in her hands, "These blocks are friends! They play together!" AS and QM ignore her for the most part- preferring to focus their energy on the single block still.

I start to wonder if the block will shadow their play for the rest of the day. We are inching closer to closing time, after all- maybe there won't be a resolution. I process for this ending in my head. I feel uneasy at first- there has to be a solution, right? Then I realize that I'm buying into seeing the block as insignificant again. For me, it's a block. It's something I could easily let go. I try to put it into terms of arguments I have trouble letting go. For instance, I become livid when someone mistakes a Led Zeppelin song for pretty much any other band in the world. I also cannot fathom why anyone would think that taken away a women's choice is okay? Or that defining someone by their gender, size, or sexual orientation is okay? These are things I'm passionate about. I've learned how to understand others without giving up what's important to me. Yes, the block seems insignificant but in the end it's a building block (haha) for so much more. The struggle over the block requires patience, focus, energy, and- most of all- feeling passionate about something. These are things I want to encourage in the children who pass through my classroom! And now it's right here in front of me- a scenario where two kids feel so passionately about something that they can't quite give it up but they have the patience to not actively battle with each other. I realize that I'm okay if there isn't a solution- because they have already decided that not having a solution works for them.

In the end, CE's continual efforts to engage her friends paid off. The block was used in a tower the trio built collaboratively. I'm happy to say that not a single word left my mouth during the entire ordeal. My presence was felt by all three, I'm sure, but the struggle and the end result were their own creations.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Work as Play

The children in cohort 6 have been very interested not just in the work that adults do but in replicating it in their own ways.  We offer open ended experiences and materials, which they have turned into many games which mimic the work of an adult or at least their perceived version of it.  The children use play as a way to explore this concept of work as well as feeling as if they are contributing to their environment, the social structures and caring for themselves.  Play allows them to experiment, inquire and explore their definitions of work and find their own natural interests.

"I'm hammering!  On the blocks, see?" S, 23 months

"I need to do some sweeping, Briana!  Can I have a broom?" E, 2 years

"See!  They're the same.  And I made them into towers." C, 2.5 years

"I'm making your coffee for you, Briana. Are you still thirsty?"  Z, 2 years

"I'm making soup for everyone.  See there's cups for everyone." V 2.5 years

"When I work really really really hard, then my hands feel strong!" H, 2.5 years

The observations and experiences the children have by choosing their own work and play, through the conversations we have later and the extensions I offer to support their interests provide a rich environment that is fun, challenging and interesting.  The children feel ownership over their work and pride and even satisfaction as they play. 

Friday, August 15, 2014

Active Participation in the Toddler Room

Cohort 9 is in a unique position among the current Tumbleweed cohorts, as the whole group is starting as toddlers.  Because the children in Cohort 9 are coming to Tumbleweed as toddlers rather than infants, some of the things I ask them to do or participate in every day are new to them and rather unexpected.

One thing that has delighted the group is the expectation that they be active participants in serving their own food during lunch and snacks.  They are learning to firmly grasp spoons to scoop food onto their plates.  During her first week, I would scoop some food onto a spoon and then let C drop the food onto her plate, but three weeks later, she can usually do the whole routine herself, looking to me for some guidance when the food is particularly difficult to scoop.  She's not only gaining hand strength and motor skills, but also taking care of herself in a very real way.

LP is particularly enamored with pouring her own water and milk.  I bring a large jar of water or milk to the table and pour a small amount into a petite pitcher just the right size for toddler hands to manipulate.  Again, we started with a modified version of this task: I would bring the lip of the pitcher right up to the edge of the child's cup and begin lifting the pitcher at an angle, asking the child to complete the motion.  Now the toddlers are completing most of this work themselves.  I sit down at snack and mealtimes prepared with a towel so the inevitable spills are handled cheerfully and easily.  It is great to see the children making choices about what they want on their plates and in their cups, and when.  The toddlers love to cheer each other on when a pitcher of milk makes it into their cups, so we are also supporting each other and learning through observation.

Serving food and drinks at the table has been met with enthusiasm, I think partially because at snack and lunchtimes we are all engaged with eating and drinking; there is no other goal.  Activities like putting shoes on, which can sometimes be seen as just part of a transition before we can get to our goal of playing outside, have been met with less delight and more confusion when I ask the toddlers to join me in participation.

When we sit on the porch to put our shoes on, there are times when feet are offered to me with the expectation that I will just get shoes on quickly, and when I ask for the child's focus and participation in putting shoes on, there is sometimes serious frustration.  Why won't I just put the shoes on now so we can get to playing outside?

My strategy is to present the transition as its own special and unique activity, an activity that deserves focus and respect, and an activity for which I have all the time that we need.  Let's put our shoes on together not just because shoes need to be put on, but so we can share this moment of struggle, attempt, and accomplishment with each other.  I am here to help with your shoes, and I also want you to be focusing and learning and trying with me.  Let's slow down and really think about what we are doing in this moment.  Let's not rush through it to get to the next thing.  Then, even if we sit on the porch contemplating shoes for quite some time, when you choose to close the velcro on that second shoe, we can share your pride in having worked hard and completed a difficult activity.  It was your choice to put those shoes on your feet and you did it!

We ask children to be active participants in their own care for a variety of reasons. It would be faster and more convenient to simply do these things ourselves, but by making the choice to participate, children take ownership of their bodies and the activities in which they are engaged.  Active participation teaches self-advocacy and when we listen to and discuss the choices a child is making it shows our respect for the child.  Having the patience and the time to approach these activities as pleasurable, exciting, and self-contained is not always easy, but involving children in their own care and asking them to be active participants is an amazing way to show and teach respect.  I am eager to see how active participation continues to motivate, frustrate, teach, and excite the toddlers of Cohort 9.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Saying goodbye

The past few weeks have seen a spurt of growth for our class and many bonding relationships form. Each child has begun to strongly express their own unique identities. This has led to everyone really gaining awareness of each other and forming closer bonds. With three of our loved children graduating and moving on this summer it has been interesting seeing the process of change sweep over our school. Each child has seemed to gain their own understanding of what saying goodbye means.

MR said, "WK, Im your best friend right? Who will been your friend when I'm gone?"

WK thoughtfully replied, "Hmm, DM will be my friend."

This thoughtful exploration of feelings has spread throughout the school and led every child to come to their own conclusions. What does it mean saying goodbye? What happens to your friendships when you leave? What happens when you go to another school?

These questions have been coursing through our heads in order to understand change in a healthy way.

T and M have also been asking questions like, are we still going to be friends or will I see you when I leave this school? After a bit of unease with this change, each student started to make a game of transitions, repeating conversations over and over such as, you can come to my birthday or you can come over to my house and we will play. T often starts playing with someone by asking, "Do you want to come to my house?" This has also caught on with other children as a way to invite play. By asking someone if they are a friend, everyone at Tumbleweeds has really been gaining awareness of the their class and how special it is to everyone.

These questions and more have moved through our school like a wave and as a result have accelerated many bonds and friendships in the past weeks.  Transitions at our school have always been an invitation and part of a routine that almost seems like ceremony when everyone is included and uplifted by what is occuring. This has also seemed to translate into our next difficult transition: saying goodbye.

A week later M was still processing her friendship with W. "Am I still your friend? Who is your best friend? Who is your second best friend?" As we move through each of our good byes one by one children will continue to process. Their ability to feel safe in this environment and express their emotions helps them to feel at ease with the range of feelings that comes with saying goodbye to someone we love- whether it is for a very long time, a very short time, or always.