Sunday, November 30, 2014

Exploring Materials: Paint


Before coming to Tumbleweed, I taught at an arts-based preschool in Brooklyn, New York.  After years of thinking up processed-based, sensory, child-led art activities, my morning table provocations in the TPH toddler room naturally tend toward art activities.  Art materials are incredibly satisfying to use, for adults and children alike, and one of the most versatile materials, in my opinion, is paint.

LP and LS explore red tempera on butcher paper with fingers and brushes.


We primarily use two different types of paint: tempera and liquid watercolor.  Tempera paint delights the children with it's silky texture and bold colors.  When you mix two tempera colors together, they remain distinct for a long time.  Tempera is cold and slimy when you touch it!  NA can tell you all about this, as she will happily spend lots of time with her hands dipped in tempera, rubbing her palms together to revel in the texture!



Color mixing with red and yellow liquid watercolors.












Liquid watercolors have a very different character.  They are thin and watery, easy to spread over a large surface.  When two colors are blended together they combine instantly into a third, new color, making them a wonderful material with which to explore color mixing.  CC is always happy to see the liquid watercolors come out and was amazed when she put two colors together and found "Orange, Emma!"



Each child finds different techniques.






All the girls approached paint cautiously during their first weeks at school.   They would notice paint was available, but seemed nervous to dive in and start using paint.  I offered one color at a time, usually on a table covered with butcher paper for a simple, process (rather than product) focused painting experience.  It was great to see each child approach painting activities in her own time and begin her process of exploring the material. Single color painting became a source of fun and excitement whenever the paints were out in the morning.






Using pompoms grasped with clothespins as a painting tool.



Since then, I have introduced having two colors at a time, different sizes of paper, painting on surfaces other than paper, and painting with tools other than paintbrushes.  Each activity is rich with sensory and creative discovery.  LP sits with intense focus at a painting table, mixing colors in great swirls.  LS will watch her friends paint for a while before she dives in, encouraging herself by saying "Whoa!" when she sees what she's painted.



Painting on tiles!  NA checks out her painty hands.




I enjoy my role as interested observer as the children paint.  They usually are mostly focused on the process of painting itself, but they are proud that I am watching and like to show me what they can do.  I keep my comments purely observational ("You painted lots of little lines!"  "You're holding the paintbrush with all of your fingers!").  It's hard at times to keep my opinions (which are full of enthusiasm and love!) to myself, but I am hoping to instill a love of making art for art's sake in these girls, not making art because it is "good" or because it gets adult approval.  The part of art-making that is pure play and experimentation with no expectations is so precious.






Painted tiles with mixed red and blue.  Notice on the right where LP tried using
the tip of her paintbrush instead of the brush to scratch through the paint.





We have been having a great time with one or two colors of paint and different surfaces and tools.  I can't wait to see what happens as we continue to introduce more elements to our painting provocations!









Monday, November 17, 2014

Let's Talk About Skin Color!

It may always be a concern among some parents in Portland: “How can we provide our children with a more racially diverse environment so that they won’t get biased?”  It doesn’t seem so easy for us adults to find that environment either.  Your work, a supermarket you regularly go to, your yoga class, a dinner party that you attend...it may often be the case that you are surrounded by a particular racial (or ethnic) group (in my case, it’s either white or Japanese).


You can keep on asking: What is wrong with Portland?  Why is it so white?  But there is no point in waiting until Portland becomes a more racially diverse or less segregated city to talk about skin color with your children.


More than 10 years ago, I was working as an assistant teacher at a nursery school in Boston.  It was a diverse place in different ways such as race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. One time, a brown-skinned girl said to a white-skinned girl (they were both 4) “My mom said brown people are better than white people” and the white girl said “No, white people are better.”  I remember feeling both excited and nervous as that type of argument occurred.  But one teacher (white) immediately reacted to the girls with a somewhat strong tone in her voice saying “Stop!  You cannot say that!”  That was probably a moment when the children learned: skin color is a taboo subject.


You might not see those kinds of old-fashioned reactions to the topic as often anymore (at least around here).  This teacher who said “Stop!” probably had a strong sense of justice for racial equality and did not know any better way than avoiding talking about it.  But yes.  There is a better way.




How and where should we start then?


I met a wonderful scientist named Katie Kissinger (Portland local) at the Northwest Conference on Teaching for Social Justice last year.  She presented her workshop “Teaching Skin Color” at the conference and I was inspired with her great ideas about how to approach this potentially sensitive topic with our children.


One thing you can always keep in mind is:  skin color is science.  It’s biology.  It’s OK to talk about it!


At this workshop, Katie had lots of paint color sample strips that she uses with her students.  They are all slightly different shades of brown from light to dark that can be people’s skin color.  But there are also strips of  “black” and “white” included in the pile.  This way, children eventually realize the myth of skin color definitions, Black and White.


I was very excited about this activity and made a trip to a neighborhood paint shop the following day.  I told store staff why I wanted to take some of the paint sample strips and he was very happy to help and let me take as many as I wanted.


Each of the color strips came with their own unique name, such as “milk and honey,” “red river clay,” “moonlight,” etc.  When I tried my first skin color group with Tumbleweed kids, learning those colors was a big hit.


As Katie also pointed out at her workshop, the kids were often choosing completely different color for their skin from what it actually is.  For example, LC with very light skin picked up “autumn bronze” (one of the darkest colors in the pile) saying “this is my skin.”  Does it mean kids are generally color-blind, as is sometimes said?  No.  If so, they wouldn’t notice the “purple spots” on my face or my “yellow tooth” that I myself don’t even see.  The important part is that there is no “right” color for their skin and we can acknowledge how each kid perceives their own skin color each time (because it changes frequently).


Another big hit in the group was talking about melanin.  Katie’s book All the Colors We Are explains skin color based on melanin, ancestors, and the sun.  By talking about these essential factors that determine our skin color, the children started noticing more subtle difference in tones of their own and others’ skin.  “I have more melanin than her because my skin is darker.”  “My ancestor came from a not-so-sunny place because I have light color.”


WHAT’S NEXT?


So, that’s a good start.  But of course, skin color is not just science.  Over generations, skin color has been used to divide people into racial groups and each group has been conveniently labeled by certain groups of people with power.  That norm is so powerful that the challenge to change it is certainly not easy.


At that workshop, one preschool teacher in attendance shared her anxious feeling, saying “I just don’t want to be the first one who introduces this topic to my kids.  They are not biased yet.”  I can relate to that feeling.  Why would you give them the idea of racism if they don’t even know it yet?


There is a story that T’s parents JS & JU shared once about T’s older brother G (Tumbleweed graduate), who now goes to a kindergarten.  G, who is white, was telling his parents about his new friends: one is African American (A) and the other is caucasian (B): “I could remember A’s name right away because his hair is curly just like mine but I couldn’t remember B’s name because his hair is straight.”


This is not usually the way we adults identify other racial group people, no matter how much we wish we could do so.  Again, this doesn’t mean G is color-blind.  He was more interested in his friend’s curly hair and identified him as a curly-hair buddy and the difference in skin color wasn’t an important factor to recognize this new friend.


If you don’t want to be the first one who introduces the skin color topic to your children like G, it is totally understandable.  But here is a question:  do you want anybody (or anything) else to be the first one who does that job for you?  It can be an advertisement on a magazine at a dentist office or it can be news about a white cop beating a young black man.  It can be a package of candy at a pharmacy or it can be a Latino family next door who had to leave their house.  Subtle or not, they will learn something from whatever they hear/see.


Luckily, there are great books on this topic that you can read with your children.


All the Colors We Are by Katie Kissinger
All Colors of Us by Karen Katz
All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka


Those three are perfect for preschool age.  Tumbleweed kids love them!


The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson
Sister Anne’s Hands by Marybeth Lorbiecki
This Is the Dream by Jessica Alexander

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

"Want Nothing" Time

Diapers have been changed, warm milk given to fill smallbellies, food has been tried (and eaten), we are between naps…we are having amoment, a quiet lull in our day.  Whether it is for 5 minutes or 30 minutes, there is no care-giving task I need to accomplish.  We play,explore, or crawl on my lap for a hug or check-in.

Magda Gerber calls this time “Want Nothing” time and defines it like this:
“That’s when the parent doesn’t want to do anything with the infant, has no plans other than wanting simply to be with the child: just floor-sitting, being available, being there with all the senses awakened to the child; watching, listening, thinking only of that child."

These are times when I can sit and observe the individual children in my care, how they play and interact, and what materials andactivities catch their attention.  I also get to be with them – with no agenda – just being fully present.  It is a truly beautiful time.  I sit on the floor and am just able to enjoy their presence, share their joys and frustrations, and be available for connection as needed.

In this day of “go faster, do more," it can be a challenge to slow down, be present, and simply observe.  I find that I need to intentionally choose to not accomplish some task (and there is always something that can be done), choose to quiet my inner do-something drive, and, finally, choose to be fully present and available.  It is not easy and something I continue to practice on a daily basis.  But it is a practice I see as truly important – learning to quiet down myself to be fully present and aware of the infants in my care.


“'Want nothing' time is different, more a time for taking in and waiting.  We fully accept the infant’s beingness just by our own receptive beingness.  Our presence is telling the child that we are really there and aware” –Magda Gerber 

A Reflection on Outdoor Play

Lately I’ve been reflecting on all of the hard work that goes on during our time outside everyday.  Our yard is a beautiful space with many opportunities for exploring and the children are involved in every aspect of it: caring for the garden, making art in the studio, and carefully observing the wildlife are just a few examples of how we spend our time outside together.   



















While I was observing the children outside recently, it struck me that one common thread which ties many of our outdoor activities together is the play-based exploration of physics -- even beginning in infancy the children are constantly driven to explore concepts of nature, motion, force, and balance and it is this drive to understand the fundamentals of how the universe behaves that motivates much of our outdoor play.  Some examples of this exploration at the wobbler/toddler stage:

*Carrying very large objects and propping them at different angles – large beams of wood, the giant wooden fork, bikes, rakes, etc.
*Balancing on the edge of the sandbox, on top of stumps and low tables, and along beams of wood
*Building with wood, tiles, rocks, and even gourds – experimenting with shapes and materials to understand which objects balance readily and which are trickier to incorporate into structures
*Combining large pieces of wood with stumps and climbing on the improvised structure – testing balance and carefully shifting weight between both feet
*Climbing on the structure in the corner of the front yard, which has recently begun to include swinging from the bars and dropping to the ground
*Using bikes (both striders and tricycles) – working on balance, force, energy, and speed

Save for the climbing structure and bikes that we have intentionally placed in our outdoor space, all of these other examples are ones in which the children have gravitated toward and made use of naturally occurring elements in order to challenge themselves physically.  We see these challenges as play-based, curiosity-driven physics lessons – ones that provide the foundation for all of the learning they will go on to do in this realm.  Everyday the children tirelessly investigate the forces of nature, analyzing the elements at hand and working to understand the rules that guide their observations.  What is perhaps most striking is that these challenges are sought out naturally, without our needing to prompt or guide.  The desire to understand the world around them compels children to undertake these explorations in their own way, in their own time.  








When we appreciate the children’s work for what it is – self-motivated, hands-on scientific exploration – we can see that outdoor play constitutes some of the most foundational learning in a child’s day.  The freedom to move in a large, natural space filled with open-ended materials (both added features and those that are endemic to the outdoor space) encourages curiosity and builds a child's confidence and interest in their own exploratory abilities.














Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Growing Slowly, Growing Strong

I wanted to share a quote by the poet and philosopher Henry David Thoreau that I thought was relevant to the work we do at Tumbleweed.




I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.

At Tumbleweed we emphasize trusting children.  We trust them to take all the time they need to learn, to grow, to stay in the same place.  We trust that children know what is best for themselves and that their timeline for growth is perfect.








We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing a soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected.


The idea of these precocious sprouts reminded me of the baby math and baby reading programs that are marketed towards parents with young children and infants.  The idea of packing infants and toddlers with knowledge from the get-go so they are ahead of the game may be tempting.  But Thoreau's second image, of the tree, perfected not by rapid growth but by the slow overcoming of difficulties, is of a tree that is stronger.






I believe so strongly that early childhood is for playing. It's for exploring and experimenting, trying and failing, and taking time to do nothing at all. Spending time with children has convinced me that these "want nothing" moments are often the most significant.  These are the times when discoveries are made, real discoveries that come from children exploring the world.









Such trees continue to expand with nearly equal rapidity to extreme old age.


I feel so fortunate to work with these explorers and discoverers.  By trusting them to guide their own learning, I am encouraging them to trust themselves as well.  I believe the children are building their own foundation for a lifetime of growth, of learning, and of unfettered exploration.





All together, for good measure:

"I am struck by the fact that the more slowly trees grow at first, the sounder they are at the core, and I think the same is true of human beings.  We do not wish to see children precocious, making great strides in their early years like sprouts, producing a soft and perishable timber, but better if they expand slowly at first, as if contending with difficulties, and so are solidified and perfected.  Such trees continue to expand with nearly equal rapidity to extreme old age." - Henry David Thoreau


Monday, November 3, 2014

Sharing (And Not Sharing)

One child is holding a special toy.  Another child really wants to look at it.  The first child stamps her foot and says "No!  I need it!"



One child is playing quietly with a ball outside.  Another child approaches, holds out a hand and says, "Please?"  The first child shakes her head "No," hugs the ball, and smiles.

One child is drawing with crayons at the table.  Another child sits next to her and tries to take a crayon from her hand.  The first child moves the crayon to her other hand, farther from the other child, and continues to draw.






Observing these interactions I am impressed by the ability these children have to speak up for themselves, both verbally and non-verbally. What an important skill to learn: I have the power to tell people what I want, with some of my very first words, or sometimes with no words at all.












As the play in Cohort 9 becomes more and more interactive, these interactions and skirmishes over toys, personal space, and wanting a turn will only increase.  As the adult in the room, I hope to help the children to navigate conflict, to stand up for themselves, and to understand their friend's feelings.  If the solution comes from me ("You have to share," "It's not your turn") the children might learn how to please me by passing toys from child to child, but they won't learn how to find their own solutions to conflicts.



In another interaction, one child was playing with a bowl that had been placed on the table for a pouring provocation.  Another child sat down and attempted to take the bowl.  There they sat, each with a hand clamped on a side of the bowl.  One child is saying "No!  No!  No!"  The other is frowning and pulling on the bowl.  My role in this situation is that of a close observer and impartial narrator.  I sit close to the children and offer observations and reflections:

"Wow, you both really want that bowl!"

"You are holding on tight.  You want to take the bowl and she doesn't want you to take it."

"I can see on her face that she is feeling upset because she wants to take it."

"She's saying 'No!'  She doesn't want you to take the bowl."



When the bowl is pulled so hard that I'm worried one child will let go and the other will get smacked in the head, I put my hand on the bowl between the children and tell them "You're both pulling really hard on the bowl.  I can tell you really want it.  I'm putting my hand on the bowl because I want you to stay safe.  It didn't feel safe to me when you were pulling the bowl so hard.  That wasn't working."

By offering observations and narrating the interaction while keeping the children safe, I am remaining present but not insisting on a resolution to their conflict.  I'm not offering judgement.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to hold on to a toy you are using and not give it up.  There's also nothing wrong with wanting a toy someone else is using.






What happens at the end of these disputes over toys?  Usually, one child ends up with the toy.  The other child may feel sad and come to me for comfort and to work through what just happened ("You really wanted the bunny.  It's hard to not have the toy that you want.  I wonder what you're going to play with instead?").











Other times, once one child decides she is no longer interested in the toy and moves on, the second child will follow her right to the next toy she finds interesting.  Sometimes what makes something interesting is that someone else is interested!  Our friends are fascinating and when they find something to play with of course we want to play, too!





Each day in a toddler cohort is filled with negotiations.  With my presence, I can help to give framework to those  negotiations to help the children learn to problem-solve, to self-advocate, and to notice the feelings of others.




Sunday, November 2, 2014

Giving up Plans, Control and the Paradox of choice

After having an observation and getting feedback on my approach to conflicts in class, I realized I was stuck. This was a new class with a life of its own, yet I was treating it as if it was our last cohort perfectly adapted to our school environment. The notes I took were intimidating but slowly they began to soak in. What would it be like to change all these impulses and habits we rely on when stress occurs. I strongly desired to feel connected to the Invest, Listen,Acknowledge, Invite, Accept model that Amy showed me.


Then I had a breakthrough! Can we ever know the BEST PRACTICE in childcare? Through this question a flood of thoughts and ideas came up. This question appeared to me almost as if it were a Koan in Zen Buddhism. While it could be answered both yes or no, I could believe either answer to be true. Then a thought experiment came up. What if we were to imagine there was a list of guidelines(model) that brought out in each child the most authentic version of themselves. What would it look like? To start if we believe each child is perfect, meaning having inherent qualities that do not need to be learned or fixed , then also every child care worker and parent is also perfect! The answer is simple. We are all natural parents and teachers. Yet lifestyle, comfort, and societal norms have pushed us from our natural instincts. We are all evolved to give the best possible chance for our youth and species to thrive! This lead me to think that this set of guidlines might have existed in our ancestors and been lost.



Coming from an Anthropology background I realize this might sound ridiculous to most people. The idea that primitive hunter gatherer people might have raised children in a better way then us. For we all know that life was hard, full of disease, predation, infant mortality and short life expectancy. Believe me I know we have it way better today with our advanced medical knowledge and technology. But what if we have too much information surrounding us daily to just be invested and present? The new ideas that keep coming and coming force us to rethink our instincts, feel pressured to control and fix the world around us and distract us from doing our biggest job to invest in our relationships with children.

Here are some examples studies that show hunter-gatherer communities using childrearing practices that are shown to be superior to our cultural standards. These studies also impart an approach to early childhood development that we have adopted such as Swaddling, sleeping together and longer breastfeeding.



Margret Mead deftly tied norms of infant and childhood experiences to adult patterns of behavior. For her, the foundations of learning were established in infancy through the child's continuous adaptation to movements into which it is guided by the parents who hold it.



Anthropologists maintain that breast feeding has nourished human children since the earliest known humans and must have been advantageous for mothers, infants, and the whole species.








How can we use our instinctual practices in childcare within this individualized society? One way I notice is that we often act in ways that exclude or separate children from our world and the situation at hand. Take the word no for instance. As soon as it leaves our lips we are setting up a wall that divides us and tells the childrem we are not ready to hear their feelings or accept them. I really love this quote from Amy blog Be that We.

"[We have to] reprogram all those brain pathways to go from 
FEAR! CONTROL! MAKE IT BETTER! to compassion, love, and acceptance. It's about a belief that we are whole, beautiful humans who are exactly who we should be right now; that when we are open to listening closely and compassionately to those around us, growth is inevitable."




When we bring the child into the conversation, imparting agency in solutions, feelings and expression we can allow each child to be exactly who they are. Letting the choices we make as teachers give impetus to the desire for important growth moments to come naturally.

What then can we do when creating our own guidelines for socializing and keeping children safe? There seems to be only one answer... take the hard path and give up these choices that are only in our own self-interest and revert back to a knowledge that everything is as it should be. Life is designed to survive with all its vast difference and beauty.