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:

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

As the Weather Changes

Fall has fallen here at the Infant House and we are embracing the changes joyfully. Rain gear is added to our going outside rituals. We have returned to raking the yard and harvesting the last from the garden. Chalk is used in new ways in conjunction with rain water. The changes of a season refreshes our interests outside and brings up many new conversations.

"It's raining today?" Z asked during morning  snack. 
"It is. The water is falling down from the clouds. " I reply. 
"Mommy wore her raincoat. And brother and daddy and I did. And Mommy. And brother."  Z told us all. 
"I wearing my coat outside too!" Agreed C
"I noticed many rain coats today. And rain pants. And even boots!  It feels go to be in the rain. And feels even better to stay dry!" I agree. 

We embrace these changes and get excited by what new things we get to do: listen to the rain hitting the roof of the classroom, pour and scoop from rain puddles, noticing the grass turning green again, and many stories of where the rain is coming from and why it is happening. 

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

Storytelling as a Provocation

After nap I quietly went about getting out an art activity.  I laid out the cloth on the table, placed pieces of paper in front of every chair, a jar of pencils in the center of the table. 
"What are you doing Briana?" Z finally noticed what I was doing.  "I want to do drawing!"
"Great!"  I said, "It's available!"
Soon everyone hurried at their task of putting their nap things away and gathered around the table.  Pencils are a familiar tool now, so as they began drawing I told them a story:

"This weekend I went to the beach with my family."
"With Quinn and Seamus?" V asked.
"Yes!  Everyone came.  We walked down a path.  And we found all of these round stones!"  I lifted my hands into the air and made the shape in the air.  Everyone watched.
"We had the idea of building towers with the stones.  It was tricky because they were round.  But we kept trying and they made beautiful towers.  It was so much fun!"

Then sat back on my heels and gave the children space.  They began to draw.  Some drew straight lines, but most began swirling around and around.  We talked about the different lines that were being made.  Then paint was requested, so I set out water colors and paint brushes.  The layering of pencil and paint made for some beautiful designs. 

Never while the children were painting did they talk about the story I told. They focused on the way the pencils and brushes made marks on the paper. After a while the began to finish and I noticed that many of their drawings incorporated round lines. 

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. 

Everyone is Different

C takes a bite of onion during lunch, makes a face and quickly spits it out. She looks in her han d to see what she had eaten.
"What is this???" She asks looking unsure.
"Its cooked onion, " I reply. I pause and wait for her response.
"Its icky." C spit a bit more then wiped it on her plate.
"You're not a fan of onion. I'm so glad you tried it so now you know. I wonder if you will like it next time?". We sat with the idea of the unliked onion for a bit.
" I like onion," said Z after a moment, holding up a bigger piece and then eating it up.
"I like onion too!" S added with a big smile.
"I like onion. Especially when its sweet!  S, Z and I like onion. C doesn't. Everyone likes and doesn't like different things. Isn't that interesting?"

Our conversation continued to talk about the things each child liked and didn't like, what our favorites are and what we know about each other. It felt good to acknowledge not just the good but the dislikes. Discussions like this are our way to learn about each other through our differences and similarities. 

Later in the day it was potty time. I was sitting on the floor available to help as needed during the process. Some children finished quickly and returned to play.  C came and sat close to me and E. She was carrying a tray with a cloth and a few buttons and jewels.
"I have some candy. Wanna have some?" She asked me. I explained I was busy in the bathroom.
"You wanna have some, E?". They are gluten-free.  They has no wheat in thems." She stated proudly. E cannot have gluten and this is something we have talked about often.  

When we know the differences of those around us and they accepted without judgment we normalize the fact that each of us are different.  To know our differences means we know each other.  There is an intimacy and safety when we understand the differences of another and it allows us to relax into the flow of our day together in a way where imagination, creativity and inquiry are uninhibited.