Monday, December 5, 2016

"You're Not My Friend!"

Lately, this has been the phrase of the day at the Preschool House.  Variations on this include "you're not invited to my birthday party!" or "I'm never playing with you again!"  These are powerful statements, which are almost never substantiated by actual behavior -- there are any number of conflicts that arise throughout the day and resolve themselves with negotiation, time, and/or space, and things go back to normal.  After all, children have an incredible resiliency and gift of forgiveness, able to move forward from strife with a fair amount of ease.  So what is behind these statements?  What are children processing and testing with these exclamations?

Some time ago I wrote a post about testing certain behaviors in order to cause significant reactions from others. This was written almost exactly two years ago, when the children of Cohort 7 were all beginning to turn two.  Naturally, this meant that the behaviors being explored were physical in nature: what happens if I take this toy from you? What happens if I block your body from doing something I know you want to do?  The children were incredibly curious to discover that their physical actions had deep power behind them.  They could affect their friends and the environment by doing certain things, often receiving very loud, emphatic reactions.  Whoa! Once this realization had clearly been made, it was my cue that the children had left a stage of simply exploring cause and effect, and were wanting to experiment with a very specific effect again and again, already very much aware of their physical power in these situations.

At Tumbleweed, we view this stage of focused exploration as one in which we give children clear limits about what does and doesn't work in terms of treating others at our school.  Along with these limits, we practice safe and effective tools for asking friends for toys or space, as well as easy and clear statements like "no!" and "mine!"  Children who try these behaviors again and again are offered reminders and space, always in a safe, anti-shame manner.  Over time, their interest in these behaviors subsides, as children internalize the idea that in our community, it is our job to keep everyone feeling safe and welcome.

In my reflections on our current exploration of "you're not my friend!", I have seen some parallels to the physical experimentation that happens at a much younger age.  Our group of 3-5 year olds have recently become very aware that their words and the intentions and feelings they express have immense power.  We celebrate this!  We foster each child's unique identity, voice and sense of having an impact in their community.

And as we celebrate the beauty in this discovery, we are also met with challenges: what happens when certain phrases/statements are used again and again in order to instigate a negative reaction?  As teachers, we feel strongly that a) this doesn't work for our school and b) any redirection around this needs to be framed by our anti-shame approach.  What does this look like?

First, we engage in group discussion and bring thoughtful attention to the behaviors.  We stop and notice reactions together both in small groups and even during our circles with everyone -- we reflect on how certain phrases and words have been making people feel, and always agree that they bring negativity to our school and make people feel unsafe/unwelcome.  We then invite the children to brainstorm what they can do or say in response to such words, as well as alternatives to saying these hurtful things in the first place (especially if the phrases are being used in response to a frustrating interaction with someone).  We sometimes even act this out, which everyone feels excited to do -- it feels good to practice powerful, safe and effective ways of interacting and helps children to remember these strategies in the moment, when emotions are high and it is especially easy to fall back on impulses. When we discuss these behaviors openly with children and engage them in practicing safe alternatives, together we forge new neural pathways leading to adaptive, pro-social behavior. 

In the event that the behaviors continue in the classroom, we intervene calmly but firmly, reminding children of our agreement that the behavior feels unsafe.  As with physical testing, we offer a verbal reminder, and if that is not enough to stop the behavior, we gently but firmly lead children away to take space, deep breaths and to make a new plan.  We offer compassion to everyone involved in these situations, and if children are later tempted to point out specific children who have said mean things, we always draw attention to the safe, positive things they are doing and saying now.  It feels crucial that we create an environment in where there are no "bad kids", namely the children who are most drawn to this exploration.  After all, we view this kind of exploring as a very normal part of development, and we always strive to send the message to all children that they are loved and accepted at our school, no matter what.

Outside of our conversations directly relating to hurtful phrases and statements, we are always reinforcing and discovering with the children what it means to be a friend and a member of our precious community.  The health of our school and all of the families and teachers who are a part of it is something we all share responsibility for, and indeed, this is a message we have conveyed to children even as young as infancy: every person at our school is cherished, and viewed as powerful, competent and capable.  It is our work to keep ourselves and each other safe, both physically and emotionally.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

"What do you need?"

Since I first stepped into Tumbleweed about a month ago, I've been constantly fascinated by all of the exploration, intention, and especially the tenderness I see going on around me. The kids surprise me every day with their deep curiosity and inquisitiveness, with their sense of imagination and play that so surpasses my own, and with their frequent and unexpected gentleness and care for their friends. It always strikes me how inevitably, if a friend is having a difficult time with a transition or feeling sad or lonely or frustrated, other children notice. Their brows furrow and they express concern and worry for their friend:

"Are they alright?"

"What's wrong?"

"What do they need?"

These questions, which I hear daily from the children, beautifully demonstrate a deep sense of empathy that we might not tend to expect from preschoolers, and that we often forget to express as adults. Even when a child is fully engaged in his game of pirates or dinosaurs or princesses, if a friend is hurt or sad, suddenly the game comes to a halt and all attention goes to checking on that friend.

Upon some reflection, I've also noticed that when children ask concerned questions and want to check in with a struggling friend, my impulse as a teacher sometimes is to try to keep struggles private and separate from another. As adults, we often impulsively tell children to worry about themselves, not to pry into other kids' business. I think we also try to minimize struggles by moving past them quickly, instead of creating the opportunity for growth and learning from the experience. However, what I see here at Tumbleweed among the children and encouraged by teachers is a beautiful openness about and acceptance of feelings and struggle. One child's sadness about saying goodbye to her mom at the beginning of the day can be a wonderful way for her to connect with other friends who have had similar experiences. Frustration over a lost toy or anger at an unfair game provides opportunities to discuss such issues as they relate to everyone, and these conversations can be building blocks for learning and growing from past experiences.

In our very individualistic culture, we tend not to share our struggles with others or to reach out for help. We often forget to ask others for what we need, and may even forget to ask ourselves the same question. In these past several weeks, the kids have helped to remind me of how natural and important struggle is for us as humans, and how it can be point of connection with ourselves and with others; an opportunity to ask, "What do you need?"

Sometimes it can help to have a friend there to offer encouragement while working on a task, like putting on shoes!

J and H negotiate the sharing of paints, making plans when one voices their need by saying "no."

It can feel good to give others what they need - like encouragement on their drawing or silly ideas when they get stuck!

Sometimes we all just need a little laughter!

“I am struck by how sharing our weakness and difficulties is more nourishing to others than sharing our qualities and successes.” -Jean Vanier

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

We Are Scientists

This afternoon we had a small group where we talked about what it means to be a scientist.  The children are very familiar with the term science and even scientist, though when I asked them what these things meant, they had very different answers.  They knew a scientist was a person, doing experiments were NOT magic, and they found dinosaur bones.  I agreed!  Scientists ask questions and try to figure out the answer.  I had been thinking about this, because each of us every day asks many questions and is often on a very pointed quest to find the answer.  Introduced this group in a way to encourage focus, while also introducing key concepts of the scientific process:

"Today, we are going to become the scientists.  We are all going to ask the same question: What happens when you put water beads in water.  It's a pretty easy question, because we all know things about water beads, but this way we can practice how scientists find their answers."
I moved on to explain that the next thing scientists do after they know their question, is to make guesses.  We made a list of the guesses we had for the water and water bead question:
* The water beads will grow!
* Maybe they will pop
* If there is a hole, we could use them for beading
* They will grow quickly
* They will grow slowly
"Now it is time for us to find the answer.  We have to test our guesses!  This is called experimenting."  Everyone was excited by this familiar word and I invited each of the children to the table where a tray of tools and small containers was waiting for them.  I gave each child just 5, tiny dry water beads and a color of watercolor of their choice.  Immediately everyone started using the pipettes to suck up water, mix colors, use spoons for scooping and jars for pouring.  As everyone worked, I sat near by and offered my observations returning us to our original guesses and posing what I said in the form of a question: "I wonder....." and "Did you notice....."  
As the experiment began to wind down, I took out another dry erase board to record our findings:  What did we learn?
OM said, "Well, I just dumped out my water and squished up my beads and now they're all gone.  I guess it didn't really work."
"Oh!  So if you choose to dump your water, you can't really find if the water beads can grow or not.  That makes sense, " I observed.
VM said, "I wanted to know what was inside by squishing them."
EK added, "If you squish them with your fist they go flying across the room.  I'm cutting mine with the edge of the bowl."
"I noticed you are all breaking the beads.  It seems like our experiment today lead us to wondering about what these are made from." I observed.  
"If you fold the pipette, you can suck up the water.  I wonder if you can suck up the beads with the pipette?" said LC.
"The only thing I have to say is that it worked," stated AH.  "The water beads grew and I knew that would happen."
The last step for every experiment, and every small group, is to clean up our work.  As the children tidied their materials we compared our findings to our question and our guesses.  We all agreed that the best part was playing with the water and water beads and we needed to work with them more.  As we headed outside, within the chatter of happy voices were many, "I wonder...." and "Next time I'm going to try..." as the children absorb this natural process of inquiry.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Talking to Babies

At Tumbleweed, we talk to babies.  As part of our core belief that infants deserve respect and recognition as individuals, we use language as one tool to communicate plans, responses, limits, and love to the tiniest people in our care.  As the teacher for the current infant cohort, there are many ways that I use language throughout our days together:

"I'm going to go to the kitchen and get the snack tub.  I'll be right back, and then we can sit down at the table to eat."   These phrases communicate a few things:  I am leaving the room, and your sight.  I'll be back soon.  We are about to transition from one activity (playing in the classroom) to another (eating at the table).  While some of the infants will still be sad when I leave the room, they are building the experience to remember that I always come back.  Others will begin moving towards the table, choosing a chair, and attempting to climb in.  By establishing the pattern that I always let the group know before leaving the room, even for a few moments, the children learn to trust that if I haven't told them I'm leaving then that means I'm not leaving!  This gives them the ability to relax and trust that they know I'm close by, even if I'm out of their sightline.

"I'm going to pick you up," or "I'm going to set you down now," or (during a diaper change), "I'm going to lift up your legs now."  Before I move an infant's body in any way, I come close to them, make eye contact, give a verbal cue, and give them a chance to anticipate the movement.  There are no surprise movements, no jarring from one direction to another.  The children have a chance to participate in the movement, whether by lifting arms to be picked up or lifting hips to help with a diaper change.

"You picked the blue block."  "The pear is so juicy and sweet!"  "The play dough is so squishy; what will you do with it next?"  Much of the day in an infant classroom is devoted to uninterrupted time to play and explore.  When children look to me for my reaction or acknowledgement in the work they are doing, part of my response is to put words to what they are up to.  This builds connections between language and actions, objects, and the world.

"You are so happy to see your friend today!"  "You slipped and fell -  that was so surprising."  "You're feeling really sad that your dad is leaving.  You're going to miss him so much." Part of my job as an infant teacher is to bring language to the big emotions that the children experience all day.  This begins building their emotional vocabulary.  It also sends the message that all emotions are accepted in our cohort.

As the oldest children in Cohort 12 begin turning one and experimenting with words, the vocabulary in our classroom will become more rich and varied, hopefully building on the foundation of language we are already building together.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Using Imagination and Building Positive Identity: What Color Do You Call Your Skin?

A new book in our classroom, Happy in Our Skin, brought a lot of excitement this past week as we continue to learn about how we get our skin color and what function skin serves for our body.  The book’s depiction of families with many different colors of skin gave us pause as everyone remembered the discussions we had around All the Colors We Are the previous week -- we talked about skin color as something everyone is born with and that we inherit from our parents, which they in turn have inherited from their ancestors.  We have discussed the role of melanin in protecting our skin from the sun, and about how the level of melanin activity in humans looks different in very hot, sunny places versus cooler, milder ones.  As we work with the children to understand the reasons behind different skin colors, we reinforce the idea that there is no "default" or "superior" skin color -- everyone's skin has an incredibly important job to encase and protect us and it is unique to each of us, based on who is in our family and where we are from geographically. 

While reading Happy in Our Skin, we paused as a group and invited everyone to describe their own skin using any words that came to mind.  There were many exuberant shouts of “Mango!” “Banana!” “Chocolate!”  Some took a moment to consider before offering their ideas, while others seemed ready with spontaneous labels that felt exciting to suggest.  As everyone shared words enthusiastically, many children added to their list of descriptors, repeating two or three words that felt especially suiting to them.  

We truly enjoyed this discussion that ultimately felt like a celebration of everyone’s skin and identity.  As we talked, I was struck by how excited everyone was to think of their own skin as something unique to themselves, and something that they have the power to describe. No one corrected each other when a child "mislabeled" their skin -- everyone simply delighted in finding words that felt exciting to connect with skin color. As we continue to do this identity work in small groups and as a whole, we trust that each child will explore their own skin color and identity in the way that feels right to them -- just as we don't rush to "correct" a child who misidentifies a number or letter, we follow their processing and meet them exactly where they are, trusting that their learning will guide us to just where we need to be as an inclusive, loving community.

We look forward to fostering more of this celebration: reading books, making art, and encouraging conversation that reflects our strong belief as a community:

Difference is valued.  We are each worthy, whole individuals, deserving of respect and celebration!

Monday, August 8, 2016

"You're a Bad Guy!!"

At the preschool every day there are many characters and roles that the children try on and experiment embodying.  There are always good guys, bad guys, babies, superheros and mamas.

One day during snack time we had a conversation about what a bad guy is.  It went something like this:
"I have heard you guys talking about bad guys lately.  What's a bad guy?"
"Bad guys are Darth Vader."
"Yeah!  He has a light saber and kills people."
"A bad guy does hurt people."
"He's not a nice guy and always runs away."
"Oh!  I see.  It sounds like a bad guy is someone who isn't very kind.  I wonder why he isn't kind."
Silence for a while and the topic moves on to the logistics of how light sabers work.

Recently I have been noticing children saying to each other, "You're a bad guy!"  This is often accompanied by running away quickly and the person being told they are a bad guy quickly saying that they are not.  The next day as we are heading to the back yard, we all line up along the fence as we often do, I told them that I felt like before we played we needed to have a conversation about bad guys.
"I have been noticing that there is a lot of games about bad guys lately."
"Yeah!" almost everyone shouted.
"I'm a bad guy. Rawrrrr." IG said.
"Someone called me a bad guy, but I'm not!" RM said.
"I'm not a bad guy either," HR added.
"Right!  Sometimes we call our selves a bad guy, sometimes we call ourselves a good guy. It can feel fun to be a bad guy sometimes.  Other times, someone else calls us a bad guy.  I'm noticing when that happens, it usually feels bad.  What do you guys think?"
"I don't like when I'm called it." agreed HM
"I like being a bad guy." said QM
"Don't ever call me a bad guy.  I don't like it!" said VM
"Ok.  So what I'm hearing is that we can choose if we are bad guys.  What happens if someone comes up to you and says, 'You're a bad guy!'?" I ask.
"Tell a teacher!  Run away! Tell them you aren't a bad guy!"  Everyone says.
"Yes!  And you can also say, 'My name is______________, that's what you can call me."

"But what if they don't stop?" A few people begin to get worried.  That is always a possibility.  I continue,
"If they don't stop you can choose to not believe them.  We get to choose if we are bad guys.  Can we all agree on that?"
Everyone seemed quite relieved that they got to choose if they were a bad guy or not, and they agreed quickly that that was a new agreement for our school.  By engaging the children in becoming aware of their peers, noticing how it feels within themselves, as well as how they effect each other, is a huge part of our never-ending journey of figuring out relationship building skills.  When children have agency over their emotions and their reactions, they are able to feel confident in what they know is true within themselves.  This is the big work of preschool.

Friday, August 5, 2016

At The Table With Infants

Since Cohort 12 began this June, one of my favorite parts of each day has been sitting down at our table for snacks and meals.  I enjoy preparing food for the children each morning before they arrive, steaming hard vegetables and fruits, cutting large foods into graspable pieces that still hold the shape of the whole food, cooking simple grains, and wondering what each child's reaction will be to the taste of crisp-tender steamed snap peas, perfectly ripe avocado, or tart-sweet summer plums.
The time we spend at the table serves many purposes.  It provides essential nourishment to children who are beginning to rely more and more on solids for satiety.  It causes us all to slow down and gather as a community.  It gives the infants an opportunity to hone their growing skills: drinking from cups, chewing food completely before swallowing, grasping large and small pieces of food.  It provides a rich sensory experience, as I offer foods of varying colors, textures, and flavors, and invite the children to explore what is offered with all of their senses.

At Tumbleweed, we offer whole foods to infants, meaning that food is served in as natural a state as possible.  Until a child has had experiences with the basic state of a food, we offer that food without seasoning, and separate from other foods.  Offering foods in their natural state (that is, perhaps lightly cooked and/or cut into graspable pieces, but not mashed, pureed, peeled, or combined) allows children to begin building a vocabulary around the food they experience.  Food is poked, sniffed, scratched, and examined. The next time these foods are offered they can be recognized by sight and touch before they are tasted, giving the infants rich sense memories to build upon and the ability to anticipate what they will taste when they see a certain food.  Serving whole foods also offers infants the opportunity to feed themselves, choosing what to taste and when to take each bite.

Similarly, drinking from an open cup gives a full sensory experience: the ability to see, smell, and feel a liquid before drinking it.  Open cups are exciting to infants not only because they get to experience their water or milk with all their senses, but also because the cup resembles what the adults (and big kids) in their lives use.  Even among young infants, this is an exciting and rewarding feeling!
The sense of community gained by coming together at the table is hard to overstate.  Each child expresses excitement when they hear me announce that it's time to eat and see me prepare our table and chairs.  As food is distributed, I hear sounds of enthusiasm and curiosity.  Communication between infants happens as they watch each other eat, make sounds back and forth, and make choices (what food to taste next, how to set a cup or piece of food back on the table, when to be all done) partially based on what's going on with the group.  Communication with me happens as the infants point or reach for a food they want more of, use sign language to tell me "more" or "all done," and find many ways to tell me that they are finished with a particular food.

I am so inspired by the eagerness and inquiry with which each infant in Cohort 12 greets each opportunity to interact with food.  I love facilitating our time at the table and I know our continued journey and exploration of food and eating will bring us amazing discoveries in the future!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

How We Use Clay

When we approach a new art medium the very best way to get to know it is to feel it.  By putting our hands, and sometimes elbows and feet, on the material, we learn about it's qualities, which later we will refine through new technique, tools and practice.  This week we had a brand new, 25 pound block of clay!  It is real clay like an artist might use.  This is an important fact that we talk about as I introduce this new art medium.  Most preschoolers view themselves as real artists, and we talk about how artists take great care in every step of their creative process.  They prepare their space, work with their materials, take care of their tools and clean up when they are finished.  This is the thread we will be following as we get to know the qualities of clay.
We began with large sheets on the floor and the block of clay set up in the middle, wrapped in plastic.  Near by I arranged a clean-up station of a shallow tub of water and towels for clean up after.  Finally a spray bottle of water was near by for me to use to dampen the clay as we worked.  Everyone who was interested came and gathered around and talked about what they thought.  We felt the block through the plastic, then worked as a team to pull off the plastic.

"Why is there plastic?"
"Oh!  It's so cold!"
"It's so slimy!"
"What can we do?"
"Where are the tools?"
I then explained that today we were going to get to know the clay: feel it with our bodies, see what happens, explore and learn from the clay.  This idea seemed to feel very exciting to everyone as they worked very closely together with the clay.
The children worked for a long time with the clay, some staying for just a short time, others using the entire 45 minutes to get to know the clay.  We talked about how it was similar to playdough, but different, more difficult to manipulate and squeeze.

"I'm making a road!  A long long road.  It's really hard work!"
"We can poke it too!
"I'm breaking off a huge piece.  Look how much I've collected!"
"We need to lift it up.  C'mon and help me!"
"Yeah!  It needs to be taller then we can push on it."
"I'm stompin' it!  Can you see me!"
"I might even try my elbow.  Whoa.  It works!"

As children worked I offered water with the spray bottle.  This changed the consistency from stretchy and sticky, to cool and slimy.  Some children wanted just to be sprayed with the water, while others wanted no spray at all.  We talked about how close we were all working together, yet still watching out for the comfort for our friends. 

Soon it was time to clean up.   We rinsed hands and feet with the spray bottle and the tub, then worked as a team to clean up.  Everyone agreed, "We can't wait to squish the clay again!"