Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Transforming a Dead Tree into Loose Parts

We are getting ready to host our autumn potluck. My husband is in charge of smoking a pork shoulder. I'm in charge of readying our 1500sqft house for 70-odd people, including a gaggle of young children. Lucky for me, I watch the internet for ideas for invitations to create. My favorite invitations usually involve paint and/or natural materials. So there will certainly be some of both in the backyard for the children (and their grown-ups) to explore.

In the name of being frugal and resourceful, I decided to repurpose our old dead tree. My husband had chopped it down already but the branches were a mess of tangles. He was ready to throw the whole pile into the back of a truck and take it to the compost center. But before he could I had my idea. All that wood would make a wonderful set of building materials!

So I got out my massive pruning tool and set to work. In order for the wood to be useful, they would have to be the right size. I started snapping off the small twig-sized branches and putting them into a pile. Then I snipped medium-sized branches and longer branches into various lengths, making piles of similarly-shaped wood. What was really wonderful was that my children were excited to help. And their process and product are lovely examples of preschool STEM learning.

They participated in preschool engineering when they helped snap small twigs off the pieces of dead tree. They hadn't done that process before! When their hands couldn't quite manage to break the twigs, they explored preschool technology. With my supervision they used a real tool to solve the problem of breaking medium-diameter branches off the main part of the tree. Preschool math and preschool science were both evident as they helped me sort things by size.

At the end of the afternoon we had quite a collection of building materials. I was happy because I filled an afternoon with purposeful, child-friendly work. My kids were proud that they had helped. My husband was pleased that the dead tree was no longer the tangled eye-sore it had started out to be.

On the day of the party, I will supplement the twigs and branches with pipe cleaners and washi tape. My hope is that these loose parts inspire some building and I'm almost positive they will. I am curious to see what the children create!

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Smartest Baby on the Block, Play, All Grown Up

The Smartest Baby on the Block
1. (Re)Discovering Play in Parenthood

2. Play, All Grown Up
“Campfires are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike,” I thought. I was standing in the late summer evening sunshine watching my husband and children while they worked together to gather kindling, build a pile of sticks, and light our campfire. Together we waited while the flames grew and the wood crackled. Soon embers would appear, glowing and inviting us to roast marshmallows.

No one was concerned with anything else. We were all engaged in the process of building the fire. We all admired the work. Then we all enjoyed what building a campfire afforded us - roasting marshmallows and building gooey s’mores to eat. After stuffing themselves with sugar, my kids went off to run and play and giggle while I sat with my husband. “How do adults play?” I asked.

First, we discussed what exactly is play. I had recently read a nice description of it online at

Play is that absorbing activity in which healthy young children participate with enthusiasm and abandon. Jill Englebright Fox

For children, the idea of participating in an absorbing activity with enthusiasm and abandon is called “play.” Enthusiasm and abandon as an adult? For adults, it is often referred to as being “in the zone,” when we hate to be interrupted because we are focused on what we are doing, enjoying it, and just can’t be pulled away. It is defined as “flow” by psychologist and TED speaker Milhalyi Csikszentmilhalyi: “the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.”


My husband sat and watched the fire burn. Then he offered: “I play when I am mountain biking. It is the first time since I was a kid that I have license to splash in puddles.” I smiled. It was such a “Boulder” thing to say. This place we live, Boulder County, Colorado, is known as a the Boulder Bubble. Not everyone has the luck and the opportunity to live in a place where mountain biking, cycling, hiking, skiing, rock climbing, and fly fishing appear to be the dominant hobbies. “OK, but what about something to which more people can relate?” I asked.

We went back and forth, brainstorming the ways in which adults get to be playful. What activities can we become absorbed in and enjoy with abandon? When are we in the zone? I said that I had played when I experimented on the piano but my husband said that the same activity reminded him of hours of practice. He said he played when he cooked dinner on the weekends, taking time to plan and prepare a meal. “Thank goodness,” I thought. His work in the kitchen was a nice break from my weekday responsibilities. Then we started to think of our friends and relatives and came up with a list:
  • individual sports like running, tennis, and golf;
  • team sports like soccer, hockey, and ultimate frisbee;
  • performing arts like music, dance, and acting;
  • visual arts and crafts like painting, drawing, sewing, and modeling;
  • cooking and gardening;
  • backyard games like wheelbarrow races, bean bag toss, and bocce ball;
  • travel;
  • playing games including board games, gambling, and video games; and last but not least,
  • sex.
In others words, adult play appears to be what we do for our hobbies. These activities might be something we do with enthusiasm and abandon daily but, more likely, they are reserved for special occasions. Cooking might need to happen daily but we might not “play” with cooking daily. Sports, performance art, and gaming might be scheduled for once per week or once per month so we can decompress. Backyard games and travel happen even less frequently.

It seems like everything children do is playful. I think that is why I was so excited when I first became a parent. I used it as my excuse to forsake grown-up responsibilities and immerse myself in the life of my newborn son. But that way of life was not sustainable nor was it appropriate. As I learned about the world of independent play for children, I also started to learn about the world of independent play for adults.

What I found was at first alarming because play in adulthood falls into the mental health arena. Psychologists and other scientists the world over offer support and resources to adults to encourage playful activities. As I read articles and listened to TED talks I came to realize how important play is for people of all ages! What was even more interesting is that the reasons why adults play and what  are the benefits of adulthood play echo what I had learned about why children play and what are the benefits of childhood play. Consider the article by Robinson, Smith and Segal. To start, they list as reasons for why adults play.

REasons we Play.jpg

That list resonated with me regarding my own play. I paint to feel challenged; I calm and focus myself when I run; I have fun when I play board games. Then I considered the list from a parent’s perspective. Those reasons why people play are applicable to even our smallest persons. And while it is easy to see how our toddlers are having fun it is sometimes less apparent that they are learning.

What exactly can someone learn through play? My answers to that question lie ahead. To start, consider yourself and what Robinson, Smith and Segal suggest as benefits of play for adults:

“Play can:
  • Relieve stress. ...
  • Improve brain function. ...
  • Stimulate the mind and boost creativity. ...
  • Improve relationships and your connection to others. ...
  • Keep you feeling young and energetic. ...
  • Play helps develop and improve social skills. ...
  • Play teaches cooperation with others. ...
  • Play can heal emotional wounds.”

The day we built the fire and talked about play had been a stressful one for me. My needs and my son’s needs were at odds. He was sick with a cold and wanted to rest at home all day. I wanted to go hiking in the mountains. The compromise we ended up with was to walk for a very short time together in the mountains and for him to sleep in the car on the way home. When the time came to build a fire, I was emotionally spent and pretty fed up with my son. So instead of helping gather sticks and building in the firepit, my role was less active and more supportive. And, yet, I felt my stress fall away.

I watched and listened to my husband and children talk about what size sticks they needed, whether the wood and leaves were wet or dry, and how to build a stack of kindling so that it had a high likelihood of catching fire. Their process reeked of science and math learning. Math was evident in their talk about length, quantity and type of stick. Lighting the fire, using combustion to transform the wood into heat and light, was preschool science.

Once the fire was crackling, I was ready to step into the fold and roast. First, I helped my son and my daughter mount their marshmallows on the sticks they had found. My husband helped them roast. Then one by one, my children came to me with faces aglow with pride and excitement. I used a graham crackers and chocolate to squeeze and slide the gooey treat off the stick, forming a s’more. This cooperative process of playing with fire and food healed my emotional wounds of the day and helped me reconnect with my son before bedtime.
I believe if we recognize the value of play in our lives as grown-ups, we will start to recognize the value of play in our children’s lives, too. We will appreciate the things we do that allow us to be “in the zone” and then see our children when they are in their own zone. As families we will become playful independent learners with lives full of joy.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Assault Prevention

Note: This post is not about Engineering. However, the topic is too important. I have to write about it.

Turmoil: horror, pity, anger, fear, responsibility. Those feelings swirled inside me. Plus, my butt hurt from sitting in the hard wood chair in my son’s elementary school library. I was attending a parent in-service about assault prevention and I had no idea that what I was about to be told would provide more support for my decision to raise my children from a place of respect. Support that could help prevent assault.

The Center for Assault Prevention is an international non-profit organization whose mission is: to reduce the vulnerability of children and adolescents to neglect, physical, emotional and sexual assault through the provision of prevention education and advocacy. The curriculum seemed robust, remarkable, and inspiring. It includes a three-pronged approach to empowering people to be safe, strong and free: educate parents, educate children, and educate school staff.

I was there to learn about prevention techniques I could use and to learn what they would be teaching my son.

The purpose of the first part of the lesson was to make clear that assault is a clear and present danger that faces us all. I will spare you the scary statistics and the infuriating stories of ill-treated victims. Suffice it to say that as parents and care-givers we have an important responsibility to educate ourselves and our children about how to be safe, strong and free. 

The second part of the lesson focused on HOW we can help prevention. Our teacher spent 90 minutes discussing all the topics in the resource handbook. She outlined the basic principles from which they built their curriculum. Then she described the things we can do as responsible adults. Lastly, she demonstrated the age-appropriate role play she does with our children. For the sake of brevity, I will focus on the two things that stuck with me the most both of which have their roots in respect.

CAP describes these as fundamental rights that all humans have:

The Right to be Safe 
Every child has the right to live a life 
Free of abuse. 

The Right to be Strong 
Every child has the right to be strong 
In body, mind, and spirit. 

The Right to be Free 
Every child has the right to be free 
To love themselves, to love others, 
And to take advantage of 
All the opportunities life has to offer. 

If you agree then read on. How do we ensure that our children have and maintain their three basic human rights? 

Well, there are pages and pages of developed ideas and you can request a training to come to your school or organization. I encourage both of those things! I believe that no amount of reading will be as powerful as hiring your local CAP to educate you in person. But until you have that opportunity I will get you started.

The thing that stuck with me most, and it listed as CAP’s #1 Parenting Tip is this:

"Listen to your children - Good communication is the best antidote for assault."

It seems so simple. Listening, right? But it takes practice. And one of the most profound phrases the CAP teacher said that both made me face-palm but also made me think, “I’ve GOT to share that!”…that phrase is: 

 "I believe you.” 

 It can be used in so many situations, not least of which is listening to a child report inappropriate behavior.

So, please consider the gravity of our responsibility to educate ourselves and our children about how to be safe, strong, and free. Surf over to CAP’s webpage and read around. There is a vast amount of knowledge to be had. 

And, lastly, since many of my readers have found me through Janet Lansbury's site, I want to encourage you to keep learning from her. Because CAP tells parents:

"When you treat your baby with love and respect, you are already doing the very best thing you can do to safety proof him or her!" (CAP Adult Resource Package, p. 41)

I think that will resonate with you.

Monday, September 21, 2015

The Smartest Baby on the Block, (Re)Discovering Play in Parenthood

(Re)Discovering Play in Parenthood

What is a new parent to do? In the first moments of my son’s life, I remember looking at him and feeling an almost-intimidating sense of responsibility. It was suddenly of utmost importance that I do everything in my power to keep him safe, teach him, and otherwise be the best mother I could be.

I threw myself into the work. But, like many new parents, I had know idea what I was doing. I had never babysat or changed a diaper. Educated as an engineer first and an educational researcher second, I knew a lot about academic rigmarole. I knew how to design experiments (both engineering and educational) and analyze results. I knew nothing about early childhood education.

Luckily, we live in an age of information. I read everything I could find on infant sleep, parenting, feeding, developmental expectations. When I wasn’t reading internet articles or stuck with my nose in a book, I was experimenting with parenting...putting all that information to use.

Needless to say, I was fascinated by my son. I loved to give him my full attention. At home we would always be close to each other snuggling, playing, or reading. I loved taking him out on adventures to playgrounds, the library, or the children’s museum. I liked to think that his entire existence was “enriched” by me. Selfish, I know. But I loved playing and learning together. We were a dynamic duo!

Until I was pregnant.

Almost immediately after learning I was pregnant I panicked. I couldn’t imagine doing all this (over)parenting with two children. Luckily, about half way through my pregnancy, I discovered Janet Lansbury and a new perspective on parenthood and childhood.
This new perspective was a comfortable blend of new and old knowledge. It combined what I had already learned from books and through experience. It was a succinct meaningful framework I needed for guiding my work as parent.  

RIE parenting could be summed up as an awareness of our babies. We perceive and acknowledge them to be unique, separate people. We enhance our awareness by observing them — allowing them the bit of space they need to show us who they are and what they need. RIE parenting also makes us more self-aware.” - Janet Lansbury

On the bright side, I already enjoyed watching my son play. I was an expert at observing this little person and I knew that he was unique. What was new to me (embarrassingly so) was that he was separate from me. He was capable of learning and existing (to a reasonable extent) without my constant interference.  

And so in the name of preparing to become a mother of two I started a new way of parenting. Slowly but surely, and with frequent protest from my son, I started to step away. I encouraged him to play alone with his toys. We negotiated how much I would do for him and with him versus how much he could try to do for himself.

Like anything worth having in life, cultivating an independent child was hard work. It was hard because it was new. I had to break my habit of being hyperactive in his life. And on the flip side of that I had to reassure him that he was safe and loved even when he felt like he was on his own. I stopped interrupting him to say “look at this!” and started waiting for him to pause and look to me to reconnect. At that point I would acknowledge his work, valuing his play, by saying “I love watching you ___.”

I still enjoyed observing him. I continued to obsess over how unique he was. And with some small changes I was able to see him step away from me toward being a more independent individual. By observing more and doing less I started to see something very valuable. I began to see just how smart a young child can be.

"Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under thy observation in life." Marcus Aurelius

Like toddlers everywhere, my son explored the world with unabashed enthusiasm. The more I watched him investigate the world, the more amazed I was by how his mind appeared to be working. It seemed as though he was a tiny scientist.

I saw him investigate physics at the playground. Before he could walk he would climb up slides and go down on his own, learning experientially about friction, gravity, and Newton’s laws of motion.

I watched him discover the power of technology when he played with his first toy car. The wheel would turn to allow the car to move forward and backward. It is something grown-ups often take for granted these days but it is often considered one of humankind’s most important life-changing inventions.

Using toys in the sandbox, I saw him change his play to investigate the sand in new ways. Watching how his process evolved to scoop, dump, build or destroy was like watching a small engineer problem solve with a new material.

And math was everywhere. He would explore volume with cups in the bathtub. He learned about quantity when he would experiment with how many things his two hands could hold.

The more he played, the more I watched. And the more I watched, the more learning I saw. Was I crazy? Was I reading too much into how smart I thought my son was? I began to investigate early childhood development and read about play-based learning.

To my delight I found a growing community of early childhood educators, associations, and businesses who advocate for learning through play. I learned that children learn more than the science, technology, engineering and math that I saw evident in my son’s play. They learn social skills; they learn confidence; they learn literacy and art. Through play children learn important fundamental skills for growing up human and humane.

So I have become an advocate for play. I have learned how to play and learn alongside my children without encroaching upon them. And I have seen how smart a young child can be if only we take the time to see the value of their play. Now I am writing to invite you to the world of early childhood play!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Perfect Gifts for a Preschool Engineer's First Birthday

I love to give gifts to people. I love it especially when I find what I think is the "perfect" gift. This past year I got to buy gifts for two little girls on their first birthday. And I found two Preschool Engineering gifts that I was so excited about that I struggled between wanting to keep them for myself and my family and enjoying the delight of our tiny friend.

These toys cost about the same amount, $30. Each one is safe for one year olds, according the the manufacturer. And, when unwrapped, each one was an immediate and HUGE hit.

Tegu Pocket Pouch

The Tegu Pocket Pouch Prism is a set of magnetic wooden blocks. Yes, you heard that right! There are magnets that are just the right strength inside the wooden shapes. The wooden shapes and finished in beautiful colors and sanded so smooth that they are beautiful to touch and to see.

I love how the angles of the shapes provide opportunity to build new shapes...more than just a square and a square to make a rectangle. The triangles can be triangles, squares, trapezoids, and more. They can be made to look like animals or just long strings of blocks that stick together.

But the magnetic fun doesn't have to stop in the toy room! They can stick to vertical surfaces like the door of the refrigerator to add a different element of physics to the build. They can be taken in the car for short or long roadtrips. They are small enough to stash in the diaper bag to take to the doctor's office. These little gems and a have-to-give gift!


Rolligo is a new toy from Fat Brain Toys. I bought it for so many reasons and it was a huge hit for my one year old friend! First, it is mechanically interesting. So it qualifies to be a Preschool Engineering toy. The balls gently touch each other and as the toy is pushed by the white handle, the balls move like bearings. Second, the balls are a perfect size for one year old hands to grasp but large enough to not be  a choking hazard. And, oh how a one year old loves to throw balls, right?! The balls come out of the white handle and can be tossed around. What is more, the balls can be put back in the white handle easily enough by a one year old, which is another favorite toddler pasttime - taking things out and putting them in.

If you are looking for right-out-of-the-box-fun, then get the Rolligo!

Rolligo Video

Which one will you buy for your friend?!

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Into the Alpine

The first few weeks of school have not been easy on anyone. My son, now in Kindergarten, struggles daily and has exclaimed that he doesn't fit in at school or at karate. My daughter, as much as she LOVES preschool, is acting out at home in developmentally appropriate ways - asserting herself more, living the paradox that is growing up. So as this weekend approached, I knew that we would have to hit a sweet spot that would blend time for decompressing and doing something interesting.

The weather is beginning to turn and in the Colorado Rockies that means that our camping season is approaching its end. Everyone was excited to get outside and camp this weekend. My daughter helped make a list of what we needed to take (which will be another blog post about pre-literacy). My son prepared what he would take in the car to occupy himself while we were on the road for 1.5 hours. I could hardly wait to get up high in the mountains, enjoy that wonderful fresh air, and my favorite...waking up outside in the wilderness.

We were all geared up. Until my son woke up Saturday morning with a mild fever and the attitude that accompanies it. The morning of packing the car and hopping in turned into epic battle after epic battle after battle. "I don't want to camp. I want to practice riding my bike." "Anna can't pretend to be Dashi because we aren't pretending Octonauts." "She can't pretend to drive the Gup X because her bike is orange and the Gup X is red. I get to drive the Gup X because my bike is red." "We can't listen to her stupid songs in the car. I hate them." "If we are driving up into the mountains then we HAVE to camp." "I'm too sick and tired to do this." Oh, the litany of complaints!

On the other hand, I breathed in the alpine air. My daughter proudly marched along the trail exclaiming up pretty it was. Aspen trees have just begun to dabble the hillside in autumn color. The cloudless blue sky seemed to stretch on forever which was mirrored by the sparkling water of alpine lakes. Anna and I tromped along, listening to her brother complain. Smiling at passers-by, all of whom were tickled to see a 3 year old hiking with her own water backpack.

Anna talked about the trail. She talked about how the logs and rocks were like steps. She observed that the bridge was over muddy mucky ground. She loved showing me how she could drink from her Camalbak. I listened to her discuss what I recognized and Preschool Engineering...all the technologies that supported our hike. She made observations of the nature she saw. We discussed how the responsible thing to do was to stay on the trail so we could protect the wilderness. One thing after the next was offered to me and I recognized her learning and I loved it.

But moments of feeling lovely luckiness were countered with irritation. My son wanted to be in front. He didn't want to carry his water. He had to make dust with his feet. He didn't like the people talking to him when they passed by. And after a mere 30 minutes of walking my son "won." His father turned back with him, leaving us with a decision. Do we continue on and have a special Mama-Anna lunch or do we chase the boys back to the car? Anna chose to turn back...and it crushed me.

My disappointment nearly overwhelmed me. We had worked SO hard to get here. I didn't feel like I was done yet. But my sick autistic son needed a win. My daughter needed us to all be together. So I needed to get over myself. We walked back to the car where the kids played together during lunch. I took my sandwich and water bottle to relax by myself and wrestle with all my feelings.

I was so happy to be enjoying the mountains this way. I was angry that it had been so hard. I was disappointed that we had to turn back earlier than I had wanted to. I felt proud that we had gone further this time than the last time we had attempted this hike. And before I returned to the car my blood pressure had gone back down, my heart was happy again, and I was ready to return home.

On our way home we listened to "Into the Alpine" by Jeff Kagan. One part of it hit home for me:

"There is a relevant joy that's earned by the deserving
when you leave behind the spires of the skyline
where your feet become the trail and the trail becomes your guideline
as you step through timberline into the alpine."

It wasn't easy. It felt like an enormously frustrating morning. But as I listened to Jeff sing I thought about my daughter. She was so proud that she had hiked further this time. She was so happy to have spent some time in the mountains. All her joys - walking that trail, carrying her own water, relishing her surroundings - she earned all that joy. And she deserves it.

Child's Play: Science Learning at its Best

This is the transcript for the TALK I prepared for It was featured as their headline TALK in August 2015.

The Smartest Baby on the Block. Playground Physics

“To encourage play we have to appreciate and respect it.” Those wise words from Janet Lansbury have been my guidepost for the last three years. I have watched my son, who is now five years old, explore the mechanical and physical world with astounding attention to detail. And I have watched my daughter, now three, explore materials and patterns in her own unique way. I assume that I am like many parents who have had their eyes opened to new ways of seeing the world. We are a group of adults learning from our children. This is my story of how I have come to learn about, recognize, appreciate and respect the play of early childhood.

My name is Julie. I am an engineer turned educator turned stay-at-home-mom and blogger. I am a Catholic turned yogi. I am a midwestern American girl turned mountain woman. My journies - academic, spiritual and personal - have brought me to where I am today. I am an advocate for learning through play.

Within the wide world of learning and teaching, I have found my niche in preschool science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics, which I will call Preschool STEAM. It is a natural fit for me for two reasons. First, I have two preschoolers. Second, I have spent a considerable part of my young adult life studying and teaching about STEAM and STEAM education.

In college and graduate school in Michigan I used math to represent the physical phenomenon of electricity, magnetism, and quantum mechanics in coursework. In laboratory work I built, maintained and used an ultrafast laser. In industry work I was a computer programmer. Then because I craved something new in my worklife I transitioned to teaching at community colleges. The experience of connecting with my students around the topics of algebra, physics or engineering was very satisfying. Then by some twists of fate I enrolled in a graduate program in the Colorado Rockies to study curriculum and instruction.

Yeah... Some people might say that I am overeducated. I like to think that I am just a lifelong learner. I delight in discovering new things. I love to read. And I love to share what I’ve learned. Something about that must resonate with you, too, since you are listening to my story.

The most pressing thing in early childhood education right now is about evidence. I find this very important and very amusing at the same time. Why? Because when I first stepped from engineering into education, the idea of “evidence” was my first point of contention with my teachers. As someone with a lot of experience in the world of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, I considered evidence valid and reliable if it was reproducible, consistent across contexts. The problem with my STEMy view of evidence was that contexts are arguably NEVER the same in education. The variables are constantly changing. Learners are constantly growing, changing, and learning. Teachers are as different from each other as students are. And the triangle-shaped relationship that grows between a teacher and his or her students and the topic they are trying to teach and learn evolves over time, too.

This problem of evidence is approached by different educational specialists in different ways. Behavioral psychologists examine what people do. Communications specialists examine what people say. Neuroscientists focus on brain activity measured by scans. Anthropologists immerse themselves in a situation and discover truth through their own experience alongside their subjects. After years of contemplation, I have decided that no one way is better than another. The most important thing is being aware of what we are doing and what the limits of our claims can be. What we pay attention to and how we tell the story of our discoveries both come with caveats.

Consider a child playing in water.
  • A behavioral psychologist might pay attention what the child does with the water. Does the child splash with hands or feet? Wiggle? Crawl in, out or around the water?   
  • A language specialist might talk to the child to provide words to describe the water and the child’s play.
  • A physicist might see the child learning fluid dynamics.
  • An occupational therapist might see it as sensory play. The child is experiencing important touch-related bodily feelings that support his or her development.
  • A parent might focus on safety...or the ensuing mess that will have to be cleaned.
  • A teenaged caregiver might focus on fun.
Each specialist is right in his or her own way. I think the problem arises when this same exercise is done with academics...and then one perspective is championed over the others.

Consider a child sitting with a board book.
  • A behavioral psychologist might pay attention what the child does with the book. Does the child hold it the right way? Open it? Point to words or pictures?   
  • A language specialist might talk to the child to provide words to describe the book and the child’s actions.
  • A physicist might see the child learning the mechanics of flipping pages.
  • An occupational therapist might see it as sensory play. The child is experiencing important touch-related bodily feelings that support his or her how a book tastes.
  • A parent or teacher might take the book and read it pointing at words and pictures, using it as a prop for teaching literacy...because that is what books are for right?
So who is the most right? What is the best way for the child to interact with the book? Is there a goal the surrounds the child and the book? Should there be a goal? Is play enough? What is my role as a parent regarding play and evidence of my child’s learning?

Well, I am a do-er. I like to create. I like having something to have and hold as evidence of my own hard work. Whether it is a working laser, a tasty cake, or a picture of my smiling child, the tangible thing is important to me. I also like to have my hands busy. As a young catholic, performing the sign of the cross and receiving eucharist gave me something to do but not necessarily something to believe. I was the teacher that was sticking my nose in where it wasn’t necessarily needed. I am the parent who wants to tell the child to hold the book upright, to read the book with my child in my lap, to physically, mentally and emotionally engage with each other and the story. I want to hold my son’s hand to help him learn to write properly. I want to finish my daughter’s block stack for her by gently pushing the blocks so they don’t totter. But what I have learned is that my children learn best when they do it themselves. And yoga has helped me value my own silence.

Let me tell you a story about valuing my own silence and the playful learning my daughter did. She was two years old and I was cooking dinner. Both of my kids were playing underfoot with magnetic tiles.

At some point I looked down and saw Anna's work. She had made it all by herself. It was constructed entirely of the square shaped tiles. There was a cube in the middle and on each side she had made triangular prisms and placed a square lid on top. It was beautiful and I thought of it as a teachable moment. Then I thought better. I did what I knew I should; I didn't say anything. It was so hard for me to be quiet. I wanted to say something about the shapes. I wanted to suggest she find the equilateral triangles to replace the lids of the triangular prisms. I wanted to do it for her because I'm often impulsive and want to play too. But I didn't. I quietly snapped a picture (one that would become a “before” picture)  and wondered where she toddled off to.

The next time I looked down I saw that she had replaced the square lids with the triangle lids. I quickly grabbed my camera, not quickly enough to capture both sides in complete symmetry, but enough to get the “after” picture. She had retrieved different triangle shaped tiles and added them to her creation. Again, I bit my tongue, which was exceedingly difficult for me, and let her do her work.

It was a proud moment for me. I was proud that I heeded Janet Lansbury's advice to let our children play. I was proud that my daughter had built something and continued to change it and play with shapes. I was proud that my son had kept his attention on his own work and didn't interfere with his sister. All around, it was absolutely wonderful.

So through yoga and learning about early childhood development I have come to be more and more comfortable with letting my children play without me. I trust the professionals who tell me that my children are learning to be independent, resilient and humane through play. What isn’t out there is professionally collected and analyzed evidence of early childhood, Preschool STEAM learning. And that is what I see. My silent observations of my children are laden with STEAM.

That story I told you about my daughter building with magnetic shapes? In your mind’s eye, did you imagine her playing? Did you assign meaning to her experiment? What was she learning? Well, I saw her learning science, technology, engineering, art, and math.

Part of me knows that my children are just being children. They are pursuing their curiosities. They are playing with whatever is on hand. Claiming that they are learning academic topics or doing Preschool STEAM is based purely on my observations. But I find a lot of comfort in believing in their learning! It helps me be comfortable watching them play.

So let me share my take on early childhood play. I want to break down the acronym STEAM and tell you about how I see it manifest in child’s play.

S is for science. For our purposes, let us consider this simple definition of science: Science is to observe and experiment in order to understand the natural and/or physical world. It is nice that the acronym starts here because I believe that it is one of the most fundamental fields of learning during early childhood. From a learning perspective, observation is about all most infants are prepared to do. But think about all the ways an infant is observing the world and, for lack of a better term, collecting data. He sees with his eyes, she hears with her ears. They feel the weight of their bodies, the softness of a blanket, the wetness of water. Their little brains are using all that data to make sense of themselves and the world. However unintentional these observations are, babies still use their observations to learn. Just because they don’t have the language to express their understanding doesn’t mean that they are not making sense of the natural world in their own, important, baby way.

My favorite science experiment babies do is to explore gravity and I have yet to meet a baby who isn’t a little physicist! To start, babies drop things because they are not necessarily aware that they are holding it. As soon as they have learned their first anatomy lesson, which is “I have a hand and I can control it,” they proceed to study physics and experimenting with gravity becomes a favorite past time.

The experiment looks different for different children but they all do it. When my son was in his highchair he would hold his little spoon vertically, pointing up and down. Then he would gently let the heavy end of the spoon, which was at the top, fall to one side or the other. He would watch the movement of the spoon intently as he repeated the experiment over and over...not once using the spoon as the tool it is intended as. My daughter’s experiment was more typical, I think. She would sit in her high chair, pick up something from her tray and drop it over the side. The food or spoon or bowl would drop to the floor. Then someone would retrieve it.

The gravity experiment grows with the child. Babies and toddlers drop their pacifiers out of their cribs. They throw balls and explore gravity as part of projectile motion. Toddlers and preschoolers ride slides and swings and learn experientially how it feels to fall toward the earth. The list of examples can go on and on. And so it seems obvious to me that science learning happens early and frequently as part of making sense of themselves in the natural world.

In addition to gravity, magnetism is one of the most interesting aspects of the natural world for young children to explore. It is an unseen but powerful force of nature. It is so fascinating that magnetic toys are always a big hit with toddlers and preschoolers. Let me return to my story of Anna playing with magnetic tiles and suggest what science she might have been learning.

In order to do this you will have to know that the tiles are mostly plastic and have small magnets placed around the perimeter of each shape. The magnets hold the tiles together when the edges of two tiles are adjacent to one another. So putting two squares together makes one nice rectangle. However, if someone tries to make a three dimensional upper case “T” by placing the edge of one square at the middle of another square, the magnets will not be close enough to each other nor will the magnetism be oriented properly to hold the shape.

So in order for my two year old daughter to build a cube out of six magnetic tiles, she had to figure out how the magnets would work. She had to experiment with their placement, observe success or failure, and proceed accordingly. This persistence, quite frankly, is one of the most difficult aspects of doing science! Anna was not only learning something about magnetism (admittedly I’m not sure exactly what), she was learning that not-so-academic skill of trying and trying again.

As you can imagine, I am increasingly particular about the toys my children play with. I like the ones like Anna’s magnetic tiles that offer novel ways for children to experiment with the world. This brings me to the “T” in STEAM. No, T is not for toy in this acronym (although maybe it could be). T is for technology.

Technology is the set of tools we use to interact with the world. Contrary to popular belief, technology is not limited to computer-based devices. Technology includes everything from the words we speak to the books we read and, a toddler favorite, the buckets we use to carry.

Buckets are some of my favorite first tools for toddlers. This piece of technology opens whole new ways to be part of their surroundings. The buckets can be used in a huge variety of ways. At first, toddlers love to put things in buckets. Everything from pine cones to rocks and sand to other toys or food. Children learn what fits, what doesn’t fit, and how convenient it is to be able to carry more than what fits in their chubby little hands.

They also learn how technology can be used to change the world around them. Buckets are used to scoop sand, leaving a dent in the beach. Sticky sand gently dumped from a bucket can create a castle. Water can be transported from one place to another. It is our responsibility to quietly observe our children playing with their buckets and to ponder all the learning that I believe (perhaps we believe) must be happening.

Personally, I am astounded by how a simple piece of technology enhances our children’s ability to interact with and learn about their world. I am also fascinated by the idea that toys are the technology of childhood. Considering early childhood play from this perspective makes it seem obvious that what we offer our children as toys is of utmost importance. At the very least, we have to be aware of the constant learning our young children are doing and make informed decisions about what we offer them as the tools of childhood.

That constant learning is the heart of the natural progression of early childhood. It seems to me that our babies, toddlers and preschoolers are playing with us a high-speed game of chess toward independence. Seemingly every month a young child learns something to increase his or her autonomy. They learn to walk by themselves, speak for themselves, dress themselves. Soon enough they begin to solve their own problems which brings me to the E of the STEAM acronym. E is for engineering.  

Engineering is creating and/or using tools or processes to solve problems. By the time a young child can express himself or herself, they are probably ready to start solving problems. They have already been learning a lot of science and technology by exploring, observing and experimenting. With enough free play and well-chosen toys, young children form a solid foundation from which to expand their learning. As they grow, their play changes as does their use of tools.

Babies use buckets to do basic science. I remember watching my daughter sitting with a bucket and putting a toy in and then taking it out. She was learning about herself in the world. She has control over her actions. She learned experientially “in” and “out.” She also learned some fundamental math - but I will get to that later.

As a toddler her use of buckets changed. She had (and sometimes still has) the hoarding tendencies of a young child. Her small hands overflowing with her six favorite small dolls, she would make her way around the house. She would leave a trail of dolls that she couldn’t hold...that is until she solved the dolls-dropping problem. A small bucket could hold all her beloved dollies and more! She created a new process for transporting her toys. it is the definition of preschool engineering.

Let’s revisit the magnetic tiles. They have served both of my children and many of their friends as optimal materials for building. Most recently they have served as preschool engineering materials. The problem? Well, my kids pooled their money to purchase a set of eight Octonauts action figures. But the creatures had no where to live nor underwater vehicles for exploring the ocean, which was our house.

Anna, together with her brother, began to build. They built a house and several vehicles out of magnetic tiles. The house was big enough and intricate enough for all the action figures to reside. Each vehicle was small enough for a preschooler to hold and “fly” around but large enough for an action figure to be inside for the ride. They built something new to solve a problem for themselves and on behalf of their new toy dolls. I consider it preschool engineering at its best.

Given the opportunity children are able to and inclined to create. With my trainging as an electrical engineer and curriculum specialist, I easily recognize the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, learning in early childhood play - even if I’m reading what I want into it. STEM is a very comfortable mental place for me.

It is by parenting Anna that I have come to know the “A” in the acronym STEAM. A is for art. Art is creating something that elicits an emotional response. Ever since she got her hands on glue Anna has worked in layers. She would start with a piece of paper and smear glue all over it before placing another piece of paper on top, followed by more glue and another piece of paper, then more glue and yet another piece of paper. She would build larger and larger multi-layered sandwiches. (Sandwich is my own description of her work.)

At first it made me uncomfortable. This work of hers could be considered a big waste of materials. There was no real finished product that I would want to hang on the wall or display on a shelf. I struggled to understand the preschool STEM of it. There didn't seem to be a lot of obvious geometry and math that is evident when she plays with magnetic tiles. There wasn't much engineering going on because it wasn't solving a structural problem or creating new tools. I couldn't really see the value of any of it.

But then...

The older she got the more variation there was in her work...although you wouldn't necessarily know it. She would color pictures on the papers before gluing them all together in a sandwich - hiding all those toddler drawings from anyone seeing them ever again. Then scissors were used to cut the paper before gluing, thus making smaller, denser sandwiches.

Glitter paint was used instead of glue.
Puffballs were glued between puffy stickers.
Layers are wrapped around each other.

At best, I would classify all this work as preschool materials engineering. I want to show you, my audience, the value of this work because I'm convinced that there must be. After all, she has been doing this work for more than a third of her life! However, today, when I look at Anna's sculptures I am still perplexed by it. That her work leaves me with a burning question, a feeling of bewilderment, and the discomfort of not being able to fit it into my understanding of the world... Well, that might be the most valuable thing my budding artist can offer me.

As an engineer I had been content to watch my children play with magnetic tiles making various two- and three-dimensional sculptures and consider it preschool art. Perhaps it was...but I am CERTAIN it was preschool math.

M is for mathematics, which is the study and use of numbers, quantity and space.
Both toys I have been discussing - the bucket and magnetic tiles - offer perfect examples of early math learning. If you and I were physically and temporally togehter then I would ask you to help brainstorm examples of toddlers and preschoolers learning math. Instead, let me do it on our behalf.

First, let’s consider numbers. With a bucket in hand a toddler or preschooler learns numbers by experimenting with the number of toys that fit or the number of trips required to fill a kiddie pool with water. I think this type of counting, or number learning, also happens when a child plays with magnetic tiles. He or she “counts” number of tiles, number of sides on a tile, number of squares, number of triangles, et cetera.

Coming to understand quantity involves exploring volume, weight and answering the question “how many?”. Young children learning about volume and weight when their bucket goes from full to half-full to empty. They explore “how many?” with magnetic tiles when they put two or more tiles together or take them apart.

Watching their sand dump from a bucket, a young child see changes in space - the angle of tilt, the surface of the top of the sand. They experiment in two dimensional space and three dimensional space when they build with tiles. Two square magnetic tiles adjacent to each other make a rectangle. But two tiles stacked is something altogether different. Six squares spread in 2D make a lowercase “t.” But fold those six tiles into three dimensions and your child can make a cube!

So it seems to me that early childhood is ripe with opportunities for science, technology, engineering, art and math learning.


I believe that people, old and young, learning best through play. So I will continue to be an advocate for children to be playful, independent STEAM learnings. I will continue to educate parents and caregivers about how best to support their young children as playful independent STEAM learners. And I will continue to choose for my children experiences and toys that I believe will be safe and fun and trust that learning will happen through play.

I also believe in the efficacy of the case study that is parenthood. As parents and caregivers our stories are important. Our observations and hunches are valuable. The evidence of learning that we see and experience every day ought not be ignored. But we must proceed with caution.

How will evidence of early childhood learning be considered in the next decade? My hope is that performance will never be the yardstick by which we measure early childhood. I hope that play remains the essence of their lives. To that end, I ask the grown-ups of the world to honor our children and the work they do. Observe them. Consider their perspective. Find value in their play. Because “to encourage play WE have to appreciate and respect it.”