Monday, April 3, 2017

Storytelling and Transcribing

We have a lot of dice in our classroom. They're everywhere! Traditional dot number dice in the wooden small parts tray, written number and letter dice for provocation activities, and story dice. These last ones are a favorite in our class, and small groups of children can often be found gathered around the little illustrated cubes. They inspire creative storytelling and are intentionally open-ended in their illustrations to allow for lots of different interpretations.

When used in small groups, these story dice can lead to amazing collaborative stories and are a useful supplement for conversations about the choices that authors make, such as story structure, plot, character development, setting, timeline, and illustration. 

During one such small group, we approached the story dice pretty freely; I intentionally left out specific guidance to see where the story would organically flow. Each of us held a die in our hands and we took turns rolling, interpreting the image, and finding a way to weave these interpretations into our ever-growing story.  The first child, VM, was responsible for choosing the title, and therefore, the theme, of our story. She rolled her die and saw a picture of a crab. "King Crab's Castle" would be our title. From this title, we could decide that the main character was King Crab, and the story would be something about his life or his castle.

After ten minutes or so, we had crafted a story about a crab who lives under the sea and who finds many exciting things, including a mysterious golden egg and a magical crown. 

After our story naturally wound down (spoiler: the crab dies after eating a poisonous mushroom, which makes him both angry and sick!) I revealed a secret: I had been recording the entire story-writing process on my phone! Our next job was to listen to our fresh story and transcribe it. 

As we listened to our voices telling our story, each child chose an element that stood out to them - a bejeweled cup, the crown, the king's castle, or the crab itself- and illustrated it collaboratively on our large sheet of paper.

As we worked, we discovered that each of us pictured the story and its setting and characters slightly differently. For example, VM, CC, and OM all chose to incorporate the crab into their drawings, and all three of these crab drawings naturally looked quite different from one another.  But we realized that since our story lived in our minds and had previously only been told in words, it totally worked to have different interpretations. This is what makes our story collaborative! We also began noticing more details being added that were not mentioned in our original telling of the story, which filled out our illustration work and made it into quite a unique masterpiece.

In the end, everyone's individual artistic styles and interpretations came together, and we were so proud to see our finished story after working so hard.  We had worked from start to finish - from brainstorming story topics and weaving a story with the help of our beloved story dice, to "transcribing" through illustration.  Just as a book illustrator would, we listened to and thought carefully about the story we had created and made choices about the illustration style, such as colors, setting, and characters to represent.  It felt so good to see our finished collaborative work and know that together, we had created something completely new and unique.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Helping, Coaching, and Celebrating Toddler Independence

The children of Cohort 12 continually blow me away - with their curiosity about the world, their openhearted embrace of their family, friends, and community, their ability to make each other (and their teacher) belly laugh on a regular basis, their sensitive attunement to one another's emotions, and their deeply-felt desire for independence.  These are children who want to figure things out for themselves, and want to do things for themselves!

I saw the seeds of this remarkable independence months ago, when, as infants, most of the children in the cohort didn't want help getting down the porch stairs to go outside.  Even if it took long minutes to figure out a way to safely crawl, walk, or slide down the steps, they were determined to do the work, and usually without any help from me.

Recently, I see the desire for independence strongly when the group is working on diapering, toileting, and getting clothes on and off.  RM figured out how to pull her feet all the way through her pant legs.  I saw NP watching her friend, and soon enough she was doing this work as well.  ZP first figured out how to pull the waistband of his pants up, and then became interested in putting his feet through the pant legs - often with RM cheering him on: "Pull, pull, pull!"  CF gets delight from seeing his toes popping through the bottom of the pant legs when he's gotten them all the way through ("Hi, toes!" we say together).

Sometimes while doing this work, the children make it extremely clear that my hands-on help is not required or desired.  My verbal offers of help when I see a foot stuck half-way through a pant leg is often met with a strong head shake or "No, no, no!"  When physical help is refused, I still offer verbal coaching ("You got your first leg all the way through!  Now you can open up your waistband really wide to get your other foot in."  "Now that you've pulled up the front of your pants, you can slide your thumbs around to find the back and pull that over your diaper as well!").  These children are hungry for information about how to do things for themselves, and eager to listen to hints I have to offer.

There are times when the desire to do tricky tasks independently leads to frustration.  Coat arms can be confusing, pants can get twisted, shirts are turned inside out, and zippers aren't easily mastered.  After allowing space for children to try it on their own and offering verbal coaching, my next move is to suggest we do it together "like a team."  This gives us the opportunity to slow down together ("When we look closely at your coat, we can see the hole for your arm is right there."  "I put this part of the zipper inside that part and then pull it down all the way.  Now you can zip it up!").  Offering only the help that is needed is a difficult balance to find, and I am always looking for that place where a child is doing what they can at their ability level, and getting a chance to try things that are a stretch.

Even the most independent toddlers at some points want things done for them.  This happens for our group most often when we are on the porch putting our shoes on to go outside.   It would be so much faster to go play if I would just put everyone's shoes on for them (or if I would let them go play with no shoes at all)!  When I'm offered a shoe and a foot is flopped into my lap, asking for me to just put the shoe on already, it's a great reminder for me to engage the children's spirit of independence and inquiry and find concrete ways to invite active participation.

It is remarkable, and fascinating, and so much fun to see these 16- to 19-month-olds at work, each fostering their own sense of independence.  It may take us a long time to get dressed, or get outside at this point in our group, but I know we are doing long term work building towards a time these children are doing it all for themselves.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Projector, a Fishing Boat, and a Neverending Journey

Anyone familiar with our school knows the importance of the "back room" -- a very open room, available for fast, big movement, and with fewer toys than other areas in our school (this room also doubles as our nap room).  Its suitability for louder, fast-paced games often means a sizable group will gather there each morning, creating complex imaginary scenarios and acting them out with energy and enthusiasm.  Lately I have been trying to dedicate at least one morning a week to observing and documenting the games that take place here and I am excited to share them with a wider audience via our blog -- they are truly a beautiful window into the ongoing processing our group is doing.  Real-life happenings, favorite movies and books, fantastic creatures and outrageous journeys (to the moon! under the sea! through tunnels and mountains on a mission!) -- you can find all of these elements in almost every game as each child contributes to the group's play.

This morning, I set up the back room a little differently than usual, plugging in our old projector and arranging a few translucent magnet tiles on its surface.  The colorful shapes projected on the wall quickly drew OP's interest, who invited LD to come check it out: "Come and see something cool!" The two spend a few minutes rearranging the tiles before LD heads over to the stair toy: "This is our fishing boat!"  OP looks up with a huge grin at this suggestion and moves over to the wall, reaching for a projection of a green triangle magnet: "Try to reach the pear! I made us a pear.  These are trees!"

This imagination leads them both quickly to the next stage of the game: setting up a picnic!  As OP spreads the blanket out for them, LD announces: "yeah, because it's my birthday! And this is still our fishing boat, ok?"  At this point, CK and EK join the back room and we catch them up to speed on the game already in progress.  CK is instantly interested in joining the food-based, boat game with LD, while EK heads right to the projector.  EK builds an intricate magnet structure and notices that it doesn't show up on the wall -- we work together to push it higher and realize the bottom strip of the projection is actually on the floor and not the wall!

OP, LD, and CK are meanwhile in a dizzying swirl of a game that I find much trickier to track than any of them do.  Their game has evolved from just a few minutes ago: they are superheroes and dinosaurs and firefighters, changing between bad and good guys, and all the while have food to protect from tipping over in the ship.  No one declares where they are going, but they all take turns exclaiming, "it's gonna be a long, long time to get there!"  The destination itself seems not to matter -- they have packed food and prepared for a long journey as heroes or villains, and change the content of their mission at a moment's notice as they rock in the boat.

I am struck by how everyone actively listens to the others in the game, despite how quickly and dramatically each child's character and plan changes.  It is like watching a dance -- all three of them expect and look forward to their friends offering new ideas and anytime someone exclaims "hey!!", the others look to them with a smile and excitement, ready to appreciate the new direction that is almost surely about to be suggested.  In my time observing and documenting the various games that happen here, I have noticed that sometimes this dance seems to be the game itself, more so than it is about where they are going or what they will do when they get there.  The game is a space to adopt different identities, experiment with various roles, and to listen to friends who are doing the same thing.

While this game continues, EK, LC, and AH have meanwhile discovered that they can project their own hands' shadows on the wall, and have turned this into a game of trying to "catch" each others shadows as one or two people head over to the wall to jump and reach for them.  EK sets his book on the projector, and a large black shadow now fills most of the wall.  Everyone pauses to check this out, and I ask: "Why do you think we can't see the colors of the book on the wall?"

LC: "Because it's not facing down!"  She turns it over, but we are met with the same result.  The children quickly go back to projecting their own hands, preoccupied with other things. I hope we get to follow up on this question another time, perhaps with a small group!  JN arrives and is thrilled to join the game of jumping to reach the shadows.  Before long, most if not all of the children are involved in the game to catch each others hands on the wall -- this goal intersects well with the action-packed nature of the never-ending fishing boat journey, and many of the characters from that game run and leap off the boat to reach for shadows, too.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Beginning of Winter

As the days have become colder, our time outside has gotten shorter. About a month ago we started noticing the early morning frost all around the yard. What started as toys stuck to a bucket or frosted leaves/ blades of grass has progressed to frozen puddles and snow fall.

Cohort 10 has always loved water, so it only makes sense that they would have an interest in ice! This past month we have done a lot of exploration of ice; looking closely, touching it, and using words to describe what they notice.
LC: “Brr! Cold!”
SWS: “It’s heavy!” as she throws a chunk of ice onto the black top.

As they move to different parts of the yard, on different days new things are discovered.
As the cold started the frost appeared, and LC realized that the boats she wanted to pick up were, “Stuck.” She tried for a while to pick them up and push them, but they wouldn’t budge, so she asked, “Help?” Initially, when I tried to pick one up, the bucket lifted off the ground slightly before it detached.

Our favorite mixing bucket that was filled with sand and water could no longer be mixed as it had a layer of ice on top. After I removed a piece of wood from it, SWS worked to break off pieces of ice, exclaiming, “Ice!” every time a piece came free.

Colder days came and with them more ice. We found a coating of ice on the bricks along the side of our patch of grass in the back, and JS and LC took note of how slippery it was. An experiment also took place, one in which we filled various bowls with water and left them over night. This made for lots of ice available to be explored the next day. Once the pieces were removed, it was easy to throw or drop them and pick up and collect all of the pieces.

Some of the ice remained in the bowls, while other chunks got carried around and thrown… During this time, they were watching as these chunks were breaking into smaller and smaller pieces.

With all of this ice handling it left their hands cold and bright red. We talked a lot about putting their hands in pockets and I offered hand holding and hot breaths, but once they got to that point it was time to move inside. They were ready to warm up.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Supporting Toddlers in Independence

Cohort 10 is approaching toddlerhood. That magical time when children begin to become aware of their ability and prefer to act independently, regardless of ability. During this time there is also a language explosion, it’s a time where they are mimicking noises we make and words we say but not knowing when to use what words and how to use the words they do know to express any big feelings they are having. This can also be a time of great frustration. We observe behaviors such as hitting and pushing as a way for the children to communicate their needs. It is important at this time to pause, evaluate, and give options.

The power of the pause. Children need time to process things; by offering a pause in between words and action it gives them that time. You narrate what you see or stop an action (such as hitting or pushing) then pause; allow them time to process what just happened or what was said before trying to correct or give solutions. Children can often resolve conflict between peers, when given time.

When we notice strong feelings arise we turn to our observational skills in deducing what is true for each child. Are they tired? Hungry? Do they need space of their own right now? Do they want to see why everyone is standing up on the steps? Is there a favorite toy that another child is playing with? Maybe they don’t need anything at all right now, and are exploring the limits.  For example, they might be thinking: “If I pull the back of your shirt, you fall down and cry; and my person (adult) comes closer.”  Or maybe “If I hit your face you cry and my person comes closer to check out what I did.” It’s a pretty powerful thing to be able to take an action and cause this big scene to play out. When you know the child, as we get to know them at Tumbleweed, it makes it easier to evaluate the situation and determine what they need from us.

We can best support this behavior of exploring limits by giving choices that always work.  Here are a few ideas:
* Avoid labeling children as a victim or aggressor, as these can only cause the children to seek more attention through fulfilling these roles.
*Simple language that creates a limit: “It doesn’t work for you to hit."  Then offers choices: "You can ask for space or stomp the ground if you feel frustrated.” 
*Narrating conflict encourages communication, “You were playing with that train. Then they took it out of your hand!  That feels frustrating.  I won’t let you hit. You can say….” 

Cohort 8 and 10 is a group of confident kids and they are exploring the limits and boundaries of their power  We know that when we give them the tools to negotiate their power in positive ways. As carers and parents we wear many different hats, and have multiple roles in the children’s lives. Sometimes that means bring a presences, narrating what we see then pausing to see what the children do. Other times observation is key to better understand and evaluate a situation before taking action. Mostly though we are support for their development, because they are capable and still learning.

Workshop Reflections: Limits, Choice, and Authenticity

"I'm in it with you,
I’m not here to fix you,
I’m not here to feel it for you,
I’m here to feel with you and let you know you’re not alone.”
-Brene Brown

When we set limits with children, there are many things we must take into consideration: location, time, energy level, safety, etc. Each of these considerations becomes simpler when we take the time to connect and become attuned to our child's needs and emotions. When the goal is to create a loving relationship built on trust while avoiding power struggles, limits become a comfort for both child and adult.

Types of Limits

Always Limits – These are always true, regardless of outside factors; they are often safety based.

Sometimes Limits – These are situational, time based, and more flexible.

Rare Limits – These are set on special occasions, for things that seldom happen, and may be based on our own energy level.

What is a true Choice?

Choices are REAL, concrete, and finite (not open ended)
It often works well to give children two things to choose between. Giving too many choices can be overwhelming, or lead to your child making choices that don’t work for you.

Examples of concrete choices:
“You can climb into your car seat or I can help you.”
“Which hat would you like to wear, the red one or the yellow one?”
“Would you like to pick out your cup for dinner, or would you like me to?

You can add in lightness, humor and something that is interesting to your child.

"Would you like to walk or gallop like a horse to the bathroom?"

Phrases we Use at Tumbleweed:

It works when ___.
That works for me!
Let’s make a plan.
These are your options... You can choose when you’re ready
I won’t let you do ___. You can do ___.
It’s up to you!
It doesn’t work when you ___. You can ____ or ____ instead.

In emergency situations we use:
These are rare, and are only used when there is danger for your child. When we reserve these to be clear markers of emergency, the child knows they are important.

Tools for Gentle Leadership:

Empathy - offering nonjudgemental understanding.
Attunement - stepping back and building awareness of and with your child, while remaining aware of your own emotional state. "Tuning in" to their station.
Slowing Down and Staying Present - This is where we set our intention and create a sense of confidence for our children, using language to scaffold and narrate, offering verbal support.


Every family culture is different, and being in a home is different from being at school. What works for us at Tumbleweed may not work for you at home, and vice versa. The unique circumstances and personalities in your family will inform the way you set and maintain limits.

While we strive to be steady, zen, gentle leaders for our children, no one is steady all the time! It is also our job to model authenticity. When adults feel strong emotions such as frustration or anger in front of or with children, we can show children that all emotions are accepted, and that there are safe ways to process big feelings. This also gives us the opportunity to practice repairing our relationship with children, and model that hurt can be acknowledged and assuaged through connection.


It can feel important to verbally set a limit, or enforce the importance of that limit, in the heat of the moment after a limit has been breached. Often, however, this is not the most useful time for a child to hear the reasons why a limit is important. Children are more receptive to language and to logic when they are calm. This is why we want to initially set and discuss limits in placid moments together. If a child is upset after not following a limit, it can be beneficial to offer connection and wait until calm returns before discussing what happened. This will allow the child to be receptive and truly hear what you have to say, and why the limit is important.

“When a [child] feels understood, she senses the empathy behind our limits and corrections.  She still resists, cries, and complains, but at the end of the day, she knows we are with her, always in her corner."
-Janet Lansbury

Friday, January 13, 2017

Independence and Supported Choice: Care Activities With One-Year-Olds

Following the threads of a child's development from infancy to toddlerhood is one of the thrilling parts of teaching a Tumbleweed Cohort.  We teachers get to see interest in shapes, contrast, and colors become interest in books, language, and sounds, become interest in letters, story, and characters, become early literacy.  We get to see object permanence play meld with one-to-one correspondence, counting, and interest in numbers to become early numeracy.  And, just as importantly, we get to see growing independence, body awareness, coordination, and many other skills become competence in care activities such as dressing and undressing, toilet use, and hand-washing.

Cohort 12 has been showing me their desire to take on parts of our diapering routine since we started together.  Since they began to crawl, they all wanted to get to the bathroom on their own.  Early on, they each learned how to climb up the stool to the sink, turn on the water to wash hands, and get a towel to dry.  Recently, the children have been taking on more of their hand-washing routine - getting soap, rinsing their hands, and putting their towel in the used-towel basket when they are done.

Once the children were confidently standing, by holding onto a stool or independently, I began having them stand up for diaper changes.  This allows them to see more of what is going on, and to have hands free to help with pulling pants up and down, picking out wipes, and more.

A big part of wobblers exerting their independence in the bathroom is the opportunity to make choices about their bodies.  Would you like to wear a green diaper or a blue diaper?  Do you want to wipe yourself or shall I wipe you?  Do you want to sit on the toilet?

While these choices may seem small, they are true choices I am offering to the children - what they decide is what we will do - and this is part of giving them power in and ownership of their activities.  The important thing for me is that each child is given the ability to make choices about their own body.  The act of sitting on the toilet is less important than the act of making a decision of whether or not to sit on the toilet - this autonomy of choice will carry over into every phase of toilet readiness.  After all, no adult can choose for a child when to eliminate, and therefore offering children as much choice and power in their care activities as possible now sets them up to be confident in their decision making as they begin to use the toilet.

As with every area of learning, one of my roles as a teacher is to offer scaffolding to support and extend the children's growth and development.  The curious and eager-to-learn one-year-olds of Cohort 12 are in such an exciting time of growing awareness, language development, and increasing independence, and I am fascinated to see how each child continues to take over their care activities!