Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Conflict of Ideas

The weather is turning. It is time for wearing layers - allowing us to stay warm during our morning walk to school and then to peel off long sleeves when the afternoon sun shines down. That, of course, is how I understand layers. My preschooler has a different point of view.

To her a tutu under her dress counts as "dressing in layers." And she's right. However, a tutu under your skirt is less about function and more about form. So this morning when she came out of her room dressed and ready to go, I gently suggested that she put on some pants or leggings to keep herself warm. I even went so far as to suggest that she also wear a long sleeve shirt or sweatshirt too, which she rebuffed.

As she put on her striped leggings under her polka-dotted dress (layered with a sparkly tutu), I decided that I would take my small victory. I pulled a long sleeve shirt off a hanger in her closet and carried it with me. To my surprise, her hands and arms felt warm to the touch the whole walk to school. She was in high spirits, clearly her comfort was unaffected by the cool morning breeze.

Our conflict of ideas about what she should wear to school will probably be a life-long conversation. We will discuss what is appropriate and what is not appropriate based on both form (social decorum) and function (weather). But in the end, it will be the creative compromises we negotiate that will be valuable, cherished even.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Ok Google

I have been a long-time fan of Google. I signed up for a gmail account when it was in the beta testing. I like the way the software makes my life simpler. I enjoyed having ways to organize my life with the original calendar. When document and sheet editors were made available I started using those. But something wasn't perfect. I'm am happy to say that things have come a long way and Google has recently changed my life.

When my iPhone was on its last legs, my husband suggested checking out the new Google Fi plan. It was time to consolidate our phone billing by me dropping my service off my fmaily plan with my sister and mom, and he would drop his t-mobile account, then we would streamline our monthly bills by both having Google phone plans.

I was apprehensive because the Google Fi was only available on an Android and I definitely did NOT like my husband's old device. However, when the monster-sized device arrived I had no clue how things were about to change...all for the better.

First of all, the Android experience on the Google phone is more streamlined and much more intuitive than my husband's old Android. Second of all, Google has made sharing and creating so simple. My husband and I can share notes, our calendars, documents, spreadsheets and more quickly and easily. We update our grocery list over the course of the week. We update our family budget spreadsheet on the fly. And it has all the modern niceties like "quiet time" nightly, when only my "Priority" contacts will ring me and a camera for snapping pictures to send to our far-away families.

But I had no idea how the voice-activation would change life for my children! When the phone is on and just sitting there, you can say "Ok Google Call Regina" and it calls the Regina in your contacts. Or you can say "Ok Google Home Depot" and it will search for the nearest Home Depot. Or even "Ok Google 15% of 80" and it will calculate a tip for you. My children have listened to me do these types of voice commands for my phone and now they are talking to Google in their play.

Listening to them talk to Google surprised me. Voice recognition is a novel thing for me, one that I have not really imagined ever becoming part of my life. But these young children, who still believe that we are only limited by our imaginations, they take this new technology in stride. They just think it is silly that I talk to my phone and then it does what I want. They are just pleased that we finally have a "robot" to talk to and boss around. And it makes me wonder what these young engineers will grow up to invent...because like Bob Ross wisely said, "We have no limits to our world. We're only limited by our imagination."

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Re-approaching the Unapproachable

It was pre-dawn over Lake Huron. The water in the bay was calm and still, like glass if left alone, lapping lazy ripples if gently disturbed. A rarity for the Great Lakes, even in a bay. My eyes had only recently woken up, invited to observe the wee morning hours by the faintest summer breeze. My body was reluctantly paddling my kayak to the point where Lake Huron met Saginaw Bay. It longed for a cozy bed but my heart yearned to see the sun come up over the water, chasing the stars away.
The night before I had agreed to join my sister’s beau to paddle out and watch sunrise because I am a sucker for any opportunity to revel in nature. Slowly but surely we quietly made our way out into the big water. The whole reason we were there was to be in and appreciate nature. But looking back on that day I remember the paradox that emerged during our conversation - this young man who clearly loved nature was unable to think much about it.
He was about to graduate from college with a degree in business. He was smart, articulate, and adventurous in many regards. But his enterprising spirit was retreated when I asked him what he thought about the stars. He would not even venture a guess about the nature of the sun we were watching glow. I was by no means an expert in astronomy but I was inclined toward science - I had earned degrees in electrical engineering and I was about to marry a physicist -  but my vocation was teaching and learning. And so I found myself then as I often do now, inquiring about and nurturing learners.
“I’m not good at science,” he had said. I replied, “I’m not testing you. I’m just asking what you think.” But my gentle invitation talk about science was rebuffed. The sun was rising, warming everything it touched. The waves were getting bigger, gently rocking our boats and guiding us through the water. I decided to drop the science of it and just sit back and enjoy being out there.
I am acutely aware of STEM-phobia that plagues teaching and learning in the classroom. I have earned degrees in electrical engineering where I was often the only woman in the classroom. I have worked in a research lab and as a computer programmer, working by myself for hours at a time in order to contribute to team success. I have taught math and engineering at universities and colleges, where my students often said, “I’m not good at math.” And I have earned a graduate degree in education where I studied history, trends, challenges, and philosophy of science curriculum and instruction.
There is one thing I know to be true about science and science education: Scientists are excited to share what they know and what they discover. But sharing what they know is like any other social situation, the challenge lies in communication.
To open yourself to the world of science, first consider the following scenario. You are at a party, sitting with your best friend and giggling about an inside joke when another friend comes over and sits down near you and asks, “What’s so funny?”  You and your BFF exclaim, “it is an inside joke.” Jokes are funny and it always feels good to share a laugh with a friend. So you attempt to describe the context of the joke, who was there, and what happened. All the while, you hope that your other friend “gets it.”
When a scientist learns something new, he or she is often faced with a similar challenge of explaining the discovery in a way that is analogous to you explaining your inside joke. It is easier to explain the discovery to other scientists who were there or otherwise understand the context of how discoveries are made. Bringing a layperson into the conversation requires more effort and the less the layperson knows about science the more effort it takes. That is why scientists, teachers and educational researchers dedicate a LOT of energy to inviting young people into the community. There are well-defined descriptions of what to teach, how to teach, and when the learning has been achieved. But all those efforts are focused on formal K-12 schooling.
Most likely, reader, you are not constrained by the formalities of school. You are a parent or caregiver, long since graduated from high school and/or college. And as such you have the luxury of learning science outside the classroom! What is more, you can learn science alongside your young child who is also free to learn.
The best part of learning science with your child is that it is self-directed (or child-directed). You determine what you study, how you study it, and when you are satisfied with what you have learned.
So I am inviting you to re-approach something that may have seemed unapproachable yesterday. I want you to find your sunrise, enjoy everything it takes to merely observe it, and it. I believe that if you are open to learning science then your child will learn, too.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Shadow Literacy

The idea that young children do not learn academics without formal instruction baffles me. I think that the simple act of reading with your children is enough to inspire them to pursue literacy. They begin to make up their own stories and see the alphabet in the world that surrounds them. Case in point - their own shadows.

It was a sunny summer afternoon and we were working in the backyard with large pruning shears. I was in the middle of moving some stuff around when my son shouted, "Look Mama, I made an 'M'!" I turned to see him standing with his legs wide apart and holding with one hand, the shears fully opened. I could see it, too. The shadow that he cast had the shape of 'M' in it.

Shadow Letter Play
I took a quick picture and then retrieved the shears. They are, after all, not a toy. But I did not scold him for playing with his shadow and the shears. Instead, I focused on how I liked how observant he must have been so see a letter in his own shadow.

At almost-six years old, this little guy struggles to write is own name. However, it does not mean that his mind does not perceive the alphabet. It does not mean that he cannot put the letters together to spell. It does not mean that he is failing in his academic life. If anything, it frustrates him to no end that his fingers fail him creative energy.

So I write this post to urge you to find the places in your child's life where he or she is practicing literacy skills. Even if, especially if, they are in unconventional places or ways. Because in their actions, looks, words and steps, they will develop the way they learn, their learning character.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Play Baby Play

Staring at ceiling fans might be considered a national pastime. Just imagine the number of babies that find themselves lying on their backs looking with wonder at the shapes above them! You might laugh but looking at interesting things is the first self-directed play a child can do. And making the effort to recognize your baby’s interests will have profound effects on your baby’s childhood as well as your parenthood.

Imagine you newborn playing in the zone, or “fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.His body appears to be comfortable. His eyes are looking in the direction of the ceiling fan. The fan is off and the shapes of the blades are beautiful - curving on themselves, symmetrically placed near their neighbors. Over time his eyes become stronger, the familiar shapes sharpen. There is a quantity of those things that is constant but their position changes from day to day.

Your baby girl has found her hands. She looks at them, tastes them, wiggles them around. Then she discovers the true power of her hands - she can hold things. She holds a rattle, hits herself in the nose with it, and, eventually, becomes an expert understanding her hands. She knows how many hands and fingers she has and how they move. She learns how to use her hands to reach, grab, transfer from one hand to the other. She learns length of her arms, dimensions of toys including weight, circumference, and texture. Playing with her hands opens a whole new way of being in the world.

Your toddler is sitting with a bowl. He experiments with putting things in the bowl and taking them out. There are sounds that emerge from the clanking together of bowl and toy. Different toys make different sounds. Different toys fit into the bucket in different orientations. While he plays he begins to understand shape, size, and quantity. He offers a toy to you and accepts it back from you. Playing with the the bowl then becomes a social event and your son’s place in the world becomes a little bigger.

Your baby girl has grown into a preschooler. She revisits her hands as toys using them to show numbers. Her thumb and pointing finger make two, she tells you. A little while later she says that her pointer finger and her middle finger also make two. More fingers rise to make two threes and all of a sudden she is doing addition and multiplication.

None of these scenarios is particularly unique. Many parents and caregivers can probably imagine their own child doing (or having done) each of these things. What is important is that adults recognize the playfulness of newborns, babies, toddlers, and preschoolers and learn to value it.

One of my favorite quotes about early childhood play is,

“To encourage play we have to appreciate and respect it.” - Janet Lansbury

which brings me to the benefits of play for young children. The benefits of play for children are very similar to the benefits of play for adults. Years of research, parenting and otherwise attending to how young people develop has resulted in a vast amount of information about play. Play supports:
  • Physical Development including fine motor skills (using their fingers), gross motor skills (using arms and legs), coordinating the left and right sides of the body, and building healthy exercise habits.,3,5
  • Mental Development including creativity, language acquisition, and cognition.,3,5,6
  • Emotional Development including sense of self, confidence, and resilience.,,5
  • Social Development including skills for sharing, negotiating, and conflict resolution.3,,

Taken altogether a child who is developing physical, mental, emotional and social abilities means that he or she is learning life skills. It is nothing short of amazing. This important work our children do when they play is building the foundation for who they will be as big kids and as adults. They are becoming themselves. And it is the right of childhood.1,3,5

So how does parenthood interlace with childhood? For me, the best thing about recognizing and valuing independent child’s play is that it frees up time for me to do the chores of adults life. If I step away from my child and allow him or her to play, I can do things for myself, by myself. And I can know that my child is getting valuable learning opportunities. Patricia Nourot said this:

“If I get to pick what I want to do, then it’s play…if someone else tells me that I have to do it, then it’s work.”

It is the epitome for guiding us as we venture forth into the world of play because it applies to your role as a parent/caregiver as much as it applies to our children.

Imagine that you are chopping carrots for dinner. You are wondering what substitution you can make for oregano since you are all out. It is small but playful act and you are fully engrossed in what you are doing in the kitchen. Then your toddler comes along, pulling at your leg, to offer you a toy spoon to “help.” The interruption is not ideal - your train of thought is derailed and you are, for lack of a better term, robbed of your opportunity to enjoy this daily chore.

Now your toddler is sitting quietly with toy food - a bowl of two-piece vegetables held together by velcro. She is pulling the vegetables apart and putting them on the floor. Then you come by and sit down and start talking. You offer the toy knife for your child to pretend cut the vegetables. You put them all back together for her and tell her to do it, too.

In parenting an independent playful child, I struggle with interruption the most. I want to sit and play with these delightful young people. I want to be part of the play. I want to add value to the experience. But when I insert myself without an invitation I am interrupting the child’s train of thought. I am suggesting that I know better. I am making the play about me and what I can offer. Child’s play is about children. It is about their discovery, their ideas, their bodies, and their joys. Not mine.

Instead of interrupting, I practice waiting. I wait for the baby’s gaze to come to me. I wait for my toddler friend to offer me a toy in her outstretched hand. I wait for my preschooler to ask for my help. Not only am I supporting healthy development, I am helping to establish a culture of patience. If I don’t interrupt my child, then my child will learn to not interrupt me!
What is more? By not interrupting I am able to observe more. I watch my children move between unoccupied play to solitary play to cooperative play and back. I watch them learn. I recognize what interests my children and I brainstorm what other related toys, books and experiences might excite them. Then I am able to choose wisely what resources I make available - from quality toys to beautiful books.

Your baby can be the smartest baby on the block. But your role will not be to sit with flashcards or drill them with numbers. Your work will be on yourself. You will have to learn to see value in your child’s play, perhaps recognizing foundations of science, math, language, and art at the playground. You will have to learn patience, watching your child work to build a stack of blocks without jumping in to do it for them. You will have to learn humility, refraining from interrupting your child with your ideas before he or she can form their own thoughts.

In what follows I will share what I see and invite you to discover how amazing your little learner can be. I see our babies doing physics, toddlers doing math, and preschoolers engineering. And I believe that Lady Bird Johnson was right when she said, “Children are likely to live up to what you believe of them.”


Friday, October 9, 2015

Book Review: Dream Invent Create

Start Engineering surprised me with a complimentary copy of their book titled "Dream Invent Create." I was skeptical. Their audience is elementary school students and their teachers and parents. But I am happy to say that I was delightfully surprised!


"Dream Invent Create" is jam-packed with interesting information about a variety of types of engineering. Each type of engineering -- including chemical engineering, agricultural engineering, civil engineering, and more -- has a two-page spread. Each two-page spread has three short verses of rhyme that are easy to say and informative. Around the perimeter are details and "fun facts" about the discipline. The images that represent each discipline are conversation-starters for sure! 

For instance, below is the spread for Agricultural Engineering. My preschool engineer just loved it. "Who's ever seen a crane lift a pickle?!" she giggled. But this image and the ideas represented here are food for thought for my daughter who helps me in the garden as well as myself. I have been reading news stories all summer about agricultural engineering and food and nutrition challenges for the entire human race. 

Agricultural Engineering
"Dream Invent Create" can inform and delight people young and old. It is an important tool for not only children who are interested in solving the problems that face humanity in the next half-century but grown-ups, too. I recommend it without reservation.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Preschool Multiplication

I was doing my regular mama-taxi-serivce responsibilities when I head my 3.5 year old daughter ask, "What do two threes make?" Astonished, I looked at her holding up her two little hands, each with three fingers pointed up. I asked her to count them, which she did in chorus with her almost-six year old brother, up to six.

Preschool Multiplication

Then she asked me what two fours make, then two fives, and two twos. It was a beautiful thing for me as I listened to her discuss it with her brother and with me. It was her very first exploration (to my knowledge) of multiplication. Just because she wasn't writing her times tables like a third grader is expected to do, doesn't make her learning any less meaningful, or less important. In fact, this type of free play with quantity is important fundamental pre-math learning! And I just wanted to point it out to that when your child asks a similar question, and you answer, that you might think to yourself, "Wow! My preschooler is SO smart. She is doing third-grade math!" because she is.

p.s. Fingers are among your child's first play-things. And look how handy they can be if you only provide the opportunity for your child to "be bored" in the car!