I love creating aesthetically pleasing environments for children! I love the possibilities within each space! I love moving furniture to get just the right placement! I love finding the perfect container for our nature walk treasures! I love adding unique materials to the shelves! And, I love to watch the children discover all that is waiting to be discovered!
Years and years ago, when I opened my first child care center, my instinct was to re-create (as closely as I could) the home environment that the children had lived and played in before coming to us.
We had natural wood furniture, valances on the windows, lots of soft spaces; we had baskets of green plants, pottery vases of pussy willows, mason jars of wild flowers; we baked breads and cookies; through open windows, we heard the chirping of birds, the wind through the trees; we watched rainbows, shadows, and sunshine on the carpet as the light transformed our space; outside, we made good use of everything—the pine needled paths through the woods, the pond where we ate snack in our canoe, the hilly landscape that invited us to roll and roll in the summer and slide on the snow all winter long.
As I look back, I realize that instinctively we were taking our inspiration and shaping our ideas from those places where we experience the world of people and things most fully—through our senses. Our child care environment appealed to our senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. And, it did so, naturally. Everything somehow fit together—the color, the light, the natural beauty, the smells, and the sounds.
And I learned that it is the aesthetic elements of life that make the world a rich experience. They stimulate and nurture our many moods. They are the elements in the places where we live—and I think they are the elements we should have, especially in settings where children and adults spend their days together.
I have always been a proponent of creating inviting, homelike, and aesthetically pleasing environments for young children. The little ones essentially “live” with us five days of the week. Shouldn’t we strike a balance between the living and learning of their days?
Fast forward to my fourth child care center—thirteen years later.
I am reading about the new early childhood environment trends in one of our professional publications:
“The aesthetic appeal is all about color, lighting, display, texture, nature, sounds, and smells and the warm, home-like feel is about softness, real-life materials blended into the child’s world of things.”
More than twenty-five years ago, I had the privilege of speaking with a professor from Tufts University. He had written a book, and was at our AEYC meeting. Little did I know then that my work with young children would be shaped by this chance discussion with David Elkind, author of The Hurried Child.
What he said, and wrote, resonated with me:
“We have been inadvertently stepping up the assault on childhood—in the media, in schools, and at home.”
“We sometimes blur the boundaries of what is age-appropriate.”
“We expect or impose too much too soon.”
“We force our kids to grow up far too fast, and they experience overwhelming, unhealthy pressures.”
As a teacher, and later as a director of many early childhood programs, I found myself agreeing with his body of work. In my heart, it was what I believed.
I felt that young children needed a day that suited their temperament and their pace. A day that was leisurely, and without constant interruption; a day in which one part seamlessly flowed into the next—and it all made sense. Children were already motivated to explore and discover all that was waiting to be discovered. I saw my job as creating an environment in which this could happen naturally. If a child wanted to continue building the construction after rest time, that could happen—we protected the structure so it could be finished later. If another child wanted to wear dramatic play accessories while listening to a story, that could happen as well. Ours became days that flowed easily. Ours became days in which limits were set only when they were relevant and made sense, or when they addressed safety and health issues. Our daily pace was child-centered and child-focused.
But it was very easy to get caught up in the cycle of hurry! Many parents were on this “hurry” track and, at times, took us with them. Our child-centered pace sometimes gave way to the needs of the parents, and, sadly, the child’s day for a time turned into the parent’s day. Both the tall and the short people in our world fell apart from time to time from the sheer stress of keeping it all going. Life was a little too fast, too much, and too stressful—especially for these young children.
As early childhood educators, even we sometimes added to this hurriedness by “pushing” children as well. Some in our field were not solidly grounded in child growth and development and, as a result, made inappropriate choices for activities and experiences for the children in their care. Sadly, children who weren’t ready physically, emotionally, socially, or cognitively, were frustrated that they couldn’t do what was presented to them. Too many of these frustrations led to defeat, or to the beginning of a downward spiral, and, invariably, we had to manage the results of the stress!
This was not what I wanted for the young children in our care.
I began to slow down and put the needs, desires, interests, and developmental skills of the children first—with my own children, and then with thousands of others. I hoped that if I modeled this, others would take note and do the same. And, it often worked— just this way. I held my ground with those who wanted to “hurry” our pace. With many I discussed the pros and cons of celebrating every holiday on the calendar, and stayed away from those celebrations irrelevant to the very young children in my care. I held my ground when teachers presented ideas for field trips that were clearly not age appropriate. I held my ground when parents lobbied for performances, French lessons, dance instruction, or trick-or-treating. I ignored comments that “everyone else does it,” and felt unsure at times because we didn’t simply “follow” every other program. But my heart told me that what we were doing was better for the children—we were following their lead!
Thirty years later, I have slowed my pace; I am more deliberate in what I do; I have time to sit back and observe; I am more present in every moment; and, yes, still totally focused on the children in front of me. I work to create an oasis of calm in this otherwise hurried world—for all of us.
People are still hurrying through life. I’m not sure I know where they’re all going at such a pace, but I do know that this way of life will eventually take its toll—especially on the children.
My desire for all of us who live and work with children is to read, absorb, and reflect upon The Hurried Child. And if what David Elkind says speaks to you as well, make changes in your life—and in your work with these little ones.
Along the way, I began asking four questions before “doing” anything with our young children. But, in fact, I use these same questions when I work with teachers and other directors.
Is it relevant? Does it matter? Can it wait? Is it good for them?
Asking these questions helps me to focus on the children, and to provide the most appropriate experiences for their social, emotional, physical, and cognitive developmental ages.
My goal for children is to feel confident and competent, and then, to succeed! And, I am passionate about creating an upward, positive spiral for those (short and tall people) with whom I work.
The Japanese people have an expression, “read the air,” which, in essence, means to take in one’s surroundings before acting. Take a few moments to use one’s senses—observe and listen—to gauge what is happening in this place at this moment, before doing anything else. “Reading the air” is a respectful practice. Enter a space or situation quietly and absorb what is going on in it— the level of activity; the level of conversation or silence; the level of engagement—how others are interacting, responding to one another, or not. The Japanese people observe and listen first. And then, they act or react in a way that ‘fits’ the situation. If everyone is deeply engaged, talking quietly with one another, then enter in the same way. A loud and boisterous entry into a quiet place will have others shaking their heads and murmuring “she does not read the air.” In Japan, “reading the air” shows respect to the people already involved, and to the situation at hand. It is a polite and considerate way of being.
We, in early childhood education, can also tap into this practice. “Reading the air” easily applies to the way we enter a classroom of young children; how we join a group of preschoolers already at play; and how we enter a conversation between colleagues. Do we enter quietly, respectfully, and take in all that is happening within the space? Do we observe and listen first? And then, do we enter in a way that “fits” with what is already happening? Do we “read the air?”
Or, do we enter the room with no thought to what is already happening in it and clumsily interrupt the activity and hum of the classroom?
Best practice teaching is often described as a cycle that involves watching and listening—with care. Teachers observe everything going on carefully and listen closely to the children. Teachers reflect on, think about, and engage in dialogue with others about what is happening. Teachers respond thoughtfully in ways that support children’s ideas, questions, and thinking. Teachers gather data from the children, use what they learn, and act as a resource for the children. Teachers ask questions and discover the children’s ideas and theories. Teachers then find additional materials and equipment to test out the children’s ideas.
The best teachers of young children are keen observers and listeners. I suspect they “read the air” quite well and act appropriately and respectfully toward their children.
What about you? How do you see yourself? Are you adept at first “reading the air” in your classroom and then acting? Upon entering, are you respectful of the children and adults already engaged? Do you first observe and listen to everything going on? And do you then insert yourself into the mix with care and consideration?
If you haven’t yet spent some good time observing and listening to the hum of your classroom, I invite you to add this practice to your teaching this new school year. It will take some slowing down a bit to actually do this, but once you begin to “read the air” you will see the enormous benefits for both the children and adults who live with you.
“It stands to reason that if we’re able to raise happier, brighter children by reading aloud to them, the well-being of the entire country will ramp up a notch. Children who realize in their first few weeks and months of life that listening to stories is the purest heaven; who understand that books are filled with delights, facts, fun, and food for thought; who fall in love with their parents, and their parents with them, while stories are being shared; and who are read aloud to for ten minutes a day in their first five years, usually learn to read quickly, happily, and easily. And a whole lot of goodness follows for the entire community. Great news, isn’t it?”
Mem Fox Author, Professor of Literacy Education in Australia, and Respected Literacy Expert
Reading aloud to children before they start school is a win/win situation for all concerned. The research is in. There are huge gains to be made—for children and adults alike. I’ll spend the next few minutes hopefully inspiring you to read, read, read aloud to the young children in your life and, as Mem says, “change the world one page at a time.”
As we share words and pictures, ideas, rhythms and rhymes, and life issues that we encounter together in the pages of a book, we connect with our children through our minds and hearts. Questions, thoughtful conversation, silliness, laughter, closeness—it is such fun to truly enjoy a story together and to share the warm feelings that accompany the experience. And, if we, the reader, are throughly enjoying, you can be sure our listener is as well!
The emotional sparks between a child, a book, and the person reading, light the fire of literacy. It isn’t achieved by the book alone, nor by the child alone, nor by the adult who’s reading aloud—it is the relationship of the three coming together for the pure enjoyment of it all.
As well, brain research has revealed that the early years of life are more critical to a child’s development than we ever realized.
By the age of one, children will have learned all the sounds that make up the native languages they will speak. The foundations of learning to read are set down from the moment a child first hears the sounds of people talking, the tunes of songs, and the rhythms and repetitions of rhymes and stories.
Reading aloud to children early in life rapidly develops their speaking skills. They don’t learn to talk unless they’re spoken to—which is why psychologists and speech pathologists tell us we need to have loving, laughing, deep-and-meaningful conversations with our children long before they turn three.
Read-aloud sessions are perfect times for engaging in these sorts of conversations because the reader and listener can chat endlessly about the story, the pictures, the words, the ideas. Reading aloud and talking about what we are reading sharpens children’s brains. It helps develop their ability to concentrate at length, and to express themselves more easily and clearly. The stories they hear provide them with witty phrases, new sentences, and new words to try out.
Before long children begin to understand the look of the print and the way words work in sentences, why this happens, and that happens, and, how it all comes together to mean something. In other words, they learn to read.
Experts tell us that children need to hear a thousand stories read aloud before they learn to read for themselves. It sounds a daunting task! But, it’s not so bad when you do the math—three stories a days will get you to one thousand in a year—so, this is easily do-able before kindergarten!
The ideal three stories a day are one favorite, one familiar, and one new. But, the point is to read aloud the three stories! If your child chooses the same story three times, so be it! The end result is the same—win/win.
Read-aloud sessions can happen at anytime—whenever and wherever. As long as you have a few books with you, you’re good to go—when the moment presents itself.
It is also beneficial to continue to read aloud to children for as long as they’ll let us—even after they can finally read themselves. I remember several of my teachers reading to us in elementary school—we could put our heads on our desks and simply listen and imagine! These are still some of my best memories.
Of course, reading aloud is not quite enough—as teachers, we need to read aloud well.
There’s no one exact right way of reading aloud, other than to try to be as expressive as possible. Be aware of our body position, our eyes and their expression, our eye contact with the child, our vocal variety, and our general facial animation. Each of us will have our own special way of doing it.
The way we speak the first line should be sensational. The aim is to grab our audience immediately and never let them go.
And, if anything could be more important than the first line of a story, it’s the last line. It should be slow…ly delivered and drawn out. It is, as Mem Fox calls this final line of the story, “an absolutely delicious experience” of completed-ness.
The bottom line is to thoroughly enjoy this read-aloud time with the children. The rest will magically happen.
For more information about the benefits of reading aloud to children, about the other books written by Mem Fox, please visit her website: www.MemFox.net.
A preschool classroom isn’t a community unless every child has at least one friend.
We have found that children need three types of skills to make and keep friends. They must be able to establish contact with another child; they must be able to maintain a positive relationship; and they must be able to negotiate when a conflict arises.
And, this is where we teachers come in. By coaching and teaching, we can help children practice the skills they need to make friends.
To make contact with another, a child has to use the same behaviors that are required in any community, and that are accepted by other children. These include smiling, asking a question, offering an idea, making positive comments, inviting someone to join them, or offering to share something.
To maintain a friendship, children must know how to cooperate, share, show empathy, express affection, offer ideas, help, take turns, and express enthusiasm. Children who have these skills are key members of their community, and are viewed as reliable and fun to be with.
The behaviors that cause trouble and isolation from the community at this stage include aggression, unwillingness to cooperate, showing off, trying too hard, or acting in ways that annoy others.
By observing and then coaching with specific teaching, we can help children to see how their behavior causes them difficulty and to learn some positive alternatives. Every child wants to be accepted, so we usually have a willing participant wanting to learn!
Like all communities, classrooms can be the site of disagreements. Since disagreements inevitably arise in any friendship, children must know how to resolve differences.
Children who resort to either physically or verbally violent outbursts, or who withdraw from the conflict entirely, fail to maintain and deepen their friendships.
Socially successful children express their ideas, explain how they feel, listen to another’s point of view, and work out solutions to problems. As each child masters these strategies, the entire community benefits.
There are some classroom strategies that support friendships. Again, this is where we come in. We set the tone and then help those who are in need.
Have discussions about making friends. A good way to introduce the subject and start a discussion is to read a book on the topic. (Will I have a Friend? By Miriam Cohen)
Coach children. Sometimes, it’s really difficult to enter a group. To help children, model for them—practice how to ask a question, make a positive comment, and offer help. As children master these skills, coach them on how to share, offer trades, take turns, and make conversation. If what they do produces good results, they’ll be more willing to try—and the better the classroom community will function as a whole.
Pair children to work on a task. Partnering provides an opportunity for children to work with someone they normally wouldn’t choose—and to establish a friendship. So, find opportunities to have two children, who are not usually together, share a job or help set up for a cooking activity. Soon they may work together on their own! Success!
Interpret children’s actions. Children who have difficulty making friends often don’t know what they are doing that alienates others. By describing their actions in words, we help them become more conscious of their behaviors and better able to change the troublesome ones. You may find you need to stay with the child and continue to model and help him practice—and that is reassuring to the child. (Trust is a wonderful bi-product of taking the time to build authentic relationships with children.)
Point out the benefits. “Look at that smile on Christian’s face—he’s happy that you shared your markers with him.” A child who recognizes the positive consequences of a behavior is more likely to share again—because the sharing skill pleased another child and paves the way for him to become integrated more fully into the classroom community.
And finally, minimize rejections. Rejection is a powerful and hurtful issue in preschool. One effective rule to establish is, “You can’t say you can’t play.” This tool has been used successfully again and again. It minimizes the instances of rejection, but it also helps children to be more assertive. They can all remember ‘the rule.’
Through our observations, we can usually find the reasons why a child is regularly excluded.
There is nothing more engaging to me than having a conversation with a three, four, or five-year-old. And I do mean a shared conversation—a two-way dialogue that travels wherever our thoughts take us.
Children of all ages enjoy talking with the adults in their lives. And it is one of the most natural things we adults do with the children in our care. Often, we don’t even think about it—it simply happens.
Children like to talk about themselves, or about what they are doing. They talk about things that are familiar to them, and that draw upon their knowledge and experiences.
They tell make-believe stories and talk about things and events they cannot see; events that have already happened; or events that might happen in the future.
It matters not what they are talking about.
What matters is that they are engaging in conversation and in the process, they are building important language skills.
These language interactions are the basis for building children’s understanding of the meaning of a large number of words, which is a crucial ingredient in their later ability to comprehend what they read.
Children need practice having conversations with the important adults in their lives. By our talking with them, they build their speaking and listening skills. They will use language to ask questions, to explain, to ask for what they need, to let people know how they feel. And they will learn to listen while others talk.
We can help children build language skills through our own language interactions with them, and by setting up an environment that gives children lots of reasons to talk, as well as things to talk about.
How we talk with children matters.
It’s important that our language interactions are the kinds that give children practice hearing and using rich vocabulary; hearing and using increasingly complex sentences; using words to express ideas; asking questions about things they don’t understand.
How do you interact with children?
Who does most of the talking? Whose voices are heard the most in the classroom or in a child care setting?
The child should be talking at least half the time. There is a real difference between talking with children, when the conversation is shared, and the adult listens, versus talking at children, where the adult does all of the talking and the children listen.
What kind of language do you use?
Is it rich and complex? Do you ask children questions that require them to use language to form and express ideas?
The richest talk involves many “back-and-forth” turns in which the adult builds on and connects with children’s statements, questions, and responses.
These extended conversations help children learn how to use language and understand the meaning of new words they encounter listening to other people.
Talking one-on-one gives the adult a chance to repeat (say back), extend (add to), and revise (restate) what children say. Children have the opportunity to hear their own ideas reflected back. This is powerful stuff for a preschooler! And, it goes a long way toward helping a child feel competent and confident.
Narrating what children are doing is another way for adults to not only introduce new vocabulary, but also encourage a deeper understanding of new words so the children can begin to define and explain the meaning of these words.
Narrating also introduces and illustrates sentence structure. Describe (using verbs, prepositions, adverbs, and other descriptive language) what children are doing while they do it. Talk during formal activity time, at snack, clean up, outdoors during play—every setting during the day. And, follow up with conversation about what children did during these activities.
Talking with children makes a difference!
“The more that adults intentionally make time for talking and sharing experiences, the more support there is for children’s language development and later reading comprehension success.”
“So let them be little, cause they’re only that way for a while. Give them hope, give them praise, give them love, every day. Let em cry, let em giggle, let them sleep in the middle. Oh, just let them be little.”
These are the words to a song by Billy Dean, and every time I hear them, something stirs deep within me.
The longer I live, the less I understand the rationale behind the “rushing,” the “hurriedness,” the “sense of urgency” that accompanies everything we do today. Why the fast lane? Where are we going? What are we racing to?
Many of us today are preoccupied—we are multi-tasking. There is too much to do, too much to know—all of it overwhelming to the spirit. And we can’t focus—really focus—on what’s right in front of us. Life is passing by and we are missing many of the ordinary moments—that, as we learn along the way, are anything but ordinary! These are the moments that make up the fabric of our lives.
I am most concerned what this “hurriedness” does to the youngest of our children. They are often swept along in the current of the adults in their lives. They have no control and no say in the matter.
But, this “rushing” does go against their child nature. There is certainly a disconnect to their own sense of time and their personal rhythm—which is, in a word, leisurely.
Can we slow things down—for them? Can we let them be little? Can we follow their lead?
I marvel at children’s powers of concentration and focus when they are thoroughly absorbed in something. Nothing can move them from the task at hand. And we celebrate that the children are so engaged, and are learning so much from the experience.
Yet, we disturb all of this by ringing a bell, clapping our hands, turning off the lights, or (one of my pet peeves) yelling across the classroom that “it’s cleanup time.” We tell the children that we need to hurry, so that we can get outside on time. And, we begin to hurry—in our voices, in our actions—as we disturb the child’s activity and the tone of the classroom.
The damage has been done—the magic of their moment has abruptly ended. Abruptly. No winding down; no opportunity for the children to figure out how they can continue their activity later in the day. No thought given to their interests, their imaginations, their conversations, their problem-solving—and their JOY!
We have to move on. Now!
We know this happens every day in our classrooms. But, does it have to?
Could we just let play, the children’s work, continue—for those who are so engaged? Must we interrupt their focus and make the transition to snack at exactly 10:00—for everyone? Could we think about another way to make snack available to the children—when they are ready for it?
Could we intentionally slow down our adult pace and consider the children’s needs (their sense of time and personal rhythm) when planning and carrying out activities and projects? Could we re-visit the amazing block structure later in the day—and not tear it down right now?
Could we provide sufficient time for them to be together with friends? To get things done with satisfaction? Could we allow the children plenty of time to complete their drawing, their book, their make-believe, so that they control the start and the finish.
Could we make the time for our young children to enjoy the process of learning? to experiment? to make mistakes and readjustments? to complete a task? to laugh? to engage with others? to have fun?
Lots to consider. Lots to reflect upon.
To my way of thinking, nothing is more important. Your thoughts?
“Some memories are unforgettable, remaining ever vivid and heartwarming!”
Joseph B. Wirthlin
It has been eight years since our John Hancock Child Care Center in Boston closed.
As we were all saddened by the corporate decision, we were determined to make our last months memorable. The following is from my journal entry of June, 2010.
“On a recent summer afternoon—a Saturday—when so many other events are planned, they came to ours! Hundreds of people attended. Unbelievable! The line to the front door stretched down the block! The perfect celebration for our 20 years as the John Hancock Child Care Center. And, it was quite the party!
I’ve started many such programs during my career—for businesses, hospitals, communities. I’ve opened these programs, stayed on as the Director, grown them, managed them for a time, and then moved on to the next adventure. You could say that I was the “founding mother” of this Boston-based, corporate-sponsored, child care center. For I opened its doors as the Director in 1990, grew it to its 200-child capacity (with the assistance of some of the finest early childhood teachers in the area), created a leading edge early childhood program for the infants through kindergartners, managed and maintained its high standard of early education and care and, now, 20 years later, held a reunion for all who have been a part of this experience. The response was overwhelming!
What a rare privilege to create a community for thousands of young children, new parents, and young educators. And, what an honor to teach, mentor, manage, and lead!
That Saturday was a testament to a partnership, a team, a program—one that evolved from an idea whose time had come. We created a place where children thrived and where parents had complete trust. We worked together and made magic!And, on that Saturday, I heard this over and over again as I greeted our families of the last 20 years! The children are now six to twenty-five years old—no longer the infants, toddlers, and preschoolers that we cared for. They are poised and kind and funny and grown up—and not unlike the young children they were—just much, much taller. And, we spent hours talking about their lives, what they were now doing, what they enjoyed, their hopes and their dreams.
And, it was one of the best days of my life.
To re-connect with all of these children (now young men and women) and their parents after all of these years—I hadn’t seen most of them for ten+ years—was amazing! So, you can imagine how overwhelming our party was! They came back to the Child Care Center. They came to play—in their old classrooms, on the playgrounds—and they came to see their teachers and old friends and to re-connect!And, it was extraordinary!
There were pockets of people in all of the sandboxes—short and tall people sliding down the “roll-y” slide on the playground—others just hanging out. Little kids ran in and out of the crowds with their “big chocolate chip cookies” (a special treat at our Center). People sat on the stairs leading to the second floor, hung out at the Garden, in Infant and Toddler Squares, and in the Common where the Art Show was taking place. And, there were people visiting with one another in each of our eighteen classrooms. They found places to sit, to be—anywhere, everywhere! And, it was like old times. A homecoming, of sorts. Just as they did when they were little, kids ran to one another when they recognized a familiar face. There was lots of hugging, and laughter, and, yes, tears. It was an emotional day for most of us.
And on Saturday, the stories were told—the old familiar stories, the moments parents and children remember, the stories that make up the unique fabric of this place. These are the never-to-be-forgotten memories that we will cherish. For each family, there is a story. And, once again, I listened and took it all in. Every guest on Saturday wanted to share—and I loved hearing about their kids! The kids had their memories, too—which were often poignant, and amazingly detailed (given that they were so young when they were with us). And, the parents remembered the best parts of our time together. Things that I had long since forgotten were what parents remembered and took from this experience. They were shared from deep within.
What really hit me was the fact that we had made such a difference—a positive impact—in the lives of so many. I was truly unprepared for story after story. That our program had been a godsend for so many parents, that they had learned so much from us—that, while we were doing our jobs, they had been watching, listening, and learning how to parent. That our homelike environment had become an extension of their homes, and that we had become the extended family for so many. That there was a palpable feeling, a strong sense of being connected, one to another—as you entered the front door. That our early childhood program had made a difference in the lives of their children. That they had been well prepared for school and for life when they left us! That the children had done so well—and that a lot of the credit belonged to those who had worked with their kids while they were with us.
We heard this again and again and again on Saturday. And, it was so good for all of us to hear and to take in. The validation was real, honest, and freely given. Wow, all of our time, effort, and love given had been worth it!
We leave a legacy at John Hancock. And its memories are forever a part of our being. What an extraordinary adventure it has been! Teaching young children is an honorable profession, and often, in the day to day, we tend to forget that what we do and how we do it will long be remembered by our children and their parents. As we learned on that Saturday, we may forget, but they will not. It is an awesome responsibility, a humbling experience, and life-changing work. And, it demands the very best we have to give.”
These past eight years I have had the privilege of working with numerous directors of early childhood programs, as well as their teams of teachers. And I have lots to share!
I presented training that ranged from building effective teams, to creating warmer, homelike environments; from finding and using unique materials and activities for children, to building collaborative relationships with parents; from learning how to set goals and then move toward meeting them, to de-cluttering spaces for children and de-stressing everyone in the process, and much more.
I coached and mentored aspiring, new, and experienced directors alike—at their schools, over the phone, and via email—troubleshooting, and finding solutions to staffing, space, organization, the rhythm of the day, transition, parent, and child situations. I observed both teachers and children—as another set of eyes and ears for the director—helping to make changes as needed. And, I consulted and strategized with directors who were opening new programs; directors who were expanding their programs; and directors who were closing their schools.
I have been pleased to experience, time and time again, the level of commitment, dedication, passion, and enthusiasm of these directors and teachers. They are reaching for quality. And, it has warmed my heart, because I know that the children reap the benefit by having wonderful early childhood experiences—and I have had the best moments!
One day, I returned to a program to retrieve my Sophia. Sophia is a puppet with spiky gray hair, wrinkles, and a long, black dress. To children, Sophia is real.
Let me back up a bit. I was consulting with an early childhood program, and when I walked into one of the preschool classrooms, there was their puppet, Gloria, sitting on the sofa. Gloria is an identical twin to my Sophia! Can you believe it! Anyway, an animated conversation took place between the teacher and the children. And, I agreed to bring my Sophia to this busy room of preschoolers for a play date and an overnight. Well, apparently, the two puppets and the children had a wonderful time together, because, when I arrived at the school to retrieve my Sophia, I was greeted with stories, pictures, and a play-by-play of the Sophia/Gloria adventure:
“They had slept on the sofa under the peace quilt.” (that’s a story for another time)“They weren’t afraid of the dark—they had a night light.”
“Gloria gave Sophia her necklace.” (a beaded one that the children made)
“Gloria and Sophia are going to be pen pals.”
“Could Sophia come back for another play date?”
And just before Sophia and I left, the entire classroom serenaded us with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star”—Gloria’s screeching voice heard above all others! Sophia and I blew kisses as we left the children and teachers.Pure magic!
Gloria is a treasured part of this classroom. She is real. The children talk with her, care for her, worry about her, include her in everything. She listens, and whispers her thoughts. She is the voice for many of the “unspoken” things young preschoolers think about. And she is their friend.
The teacher who added this puppet experience to the classroom is a masterful teacher of young children. She added another dimension to an already rich program. In fact, a gift to everyone in the school—for Gloria is known and loved by all of the teachers, parents, and children!
Isn’t this what working with young children is all about!
I observed many magical moments these past eight years, as I moved from program to program and built relationships with the directors, teachers, and children. What a privilege to observe so many wonderful things happening for so many.
Our early childhood colleagues (directors and teachers alike) are doing extraordinary work with the young children in their care. They love what they do. And, there is the desire to want to do it better.
I saw the passion in their eyes; heard the enthusiasm in their voices; and noted the strong commitment to quality in their words and actions.
We are fortunate to have such people in our programs. As we know, it begins with a few, and then ripples throughout the organization. And, as we also know, it begins at the top.
As a Director, are you creating a climate for magic?
If, as a Director, you follow the trends, research, and best practice in our field, the phrase “the image of the child” will bring your thoughts to a community in Italy, Reggio Emilia, where many have studied the principles and fundamentals of the Reggio Emilia approach. Many of us have been deeply inspired by this philosophy – this way of thinking about children and early education – and it has greatly influenced our own programs.
In Reggio Emilia there is much discussion around this principle – The Image of the Child. For it is the point from which all teaching and learning begin. What the adults believe about children determines everything. These teachers and parents give great thought to the quality and the instructive power of child space. And so, for the children, how will the environment be designed? What will it include? How will children move through their day? What experiences, opportunities, and possibilities will children be able to explore and discover? And, how will the adults support all of this?
Reggio Emilia schools are places where children come first – before anything else. I’ll repeat that because I, too, believe this – deep in my soul. Children come first – before anything else! Children are the focus of all that happens. Visitors see and hear this message as soon as they enter a Reggio school – it is palpable. The presence of children and their work is everywhere.
Reggio Emilia schools are places where children are powerful. They are in control. The space belongs to them. They create again and again. They make choices and decisions. Everything is accessible and organized for them and is arranged artfully to draw them in. And, yes, they are inspired by what awaits them. They are naturally curious and interested in constructing their own learning – by touching, investigating, exploring, questioning, manipulating, taking apart, observing, discovering, enjoying, listening, discussing, putting together – everything in their environment.
This is so because the adults (both teachers and parents) hold an image of the child that allows all of this to take place. They see children as capable, competent, interested, powerful, creative, curious, thoughtful, imaginative, expressive, engaging, and involved communicators, collaborators, and learners. And, it happens, much like a self-fulfilling prophecy.
How much time have we spent thinking about our image of the child? And, do our early childhood settings reflect the image we hold?
Do we put children first? Are they the focus of our work?
What we do and why we do it are important questions to visit and revisit from year to year. I invite us to look more closely at our work with young children, and reflect upon our own practices of teaching, directing, and leading.
Some questions to get us thinking and focusing – yes, on the Child:
Do we value and respect all of the ways a child expresses his thoughts and feelings?
Do we value equally the verbal and nonverbal child? the rational thinker? and the creative thinker?
Do we listen to what a child says with her words? her behavior? her body language?
Do we interrupt the thinking processes of a child when we follow a rigid daily schedule?
Are we driven by the clock? Are so many transitions necessary?
Do we carry out meaningless activities during the day that are not relevant to the child’s real world and experience?
Do we pay enough attention to a child’s strengths?
And, the most important one of all, What is our Image of the Child?
I’d love your feedback on this topic.
See also the writings of Loris Malaguzzi and Lella Gandini.
For the last 25+ years, I have been a successful teacher, director, and leader in the field of early childhood education. My blog posts, my consulting and coaching services, along with my broad array of training and workshops for early childhood educators offer a wealth of best practice materials and resources for those who aspire to quality in the field.
Thank you for visiting! I invite you to share your thoughts, and look forward to hearing from you.