Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Fan the Spark

Thanks to Paige Doughty of Jeff and Paige for sharing this lovely text. It is exactly the sentiment of what it means to be an advocate for playful, independent STEAM learners.

Fan the Spark by William Martin

Your children plan their own education,
like it or not.
You must learn to cooperate with that plan.
If they are drawing,
the become artists.
If they are reading,
they become students.
If they are investigating something,
they become scientists.
If they are helping prepare a meal,
they become chefs.
Whatever they are doing,
they are learning.
And it is, for them,
pure joy.

Can you refrain from judging their interests?
Can you give them room to explore?
Schools do not often do this.
You may be the only one
who can fan the spark of their creativity
into a flame of joy.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Right Device

With the right device you can make a pattern grow. - Phish
When considered through the lens of early childhood developing, these lyrics by Phish can snowball into a variety of ways to understand technology in the life of a young child. In this context, “the right device” is technology - anything from a wooden block to a spoon to a tablet. And the growing patterns? Those can be anything from the musical patterns a child makes by shaking a rattle, the sculptural patterns she builds with blocks, the patterns of play he makes for himself in his room, or the patterns of neurological connections happening in the brain because of his or her play.

First, let’s consider making music. Making patterns of sound is making music. For young children, the patterns depend on the technology for creating the sounds as well as the child’s ability to control that technology. Shaking a rattle once the child experiences how he or she can make a sound.
Shaking it two times in succession is the beginning of making a pattern.
Then, as the young child grows, the patterns can become more complex.
Coordinating the movement of his or her body with the instrument and changing depending on what is heard is an amazing feat of learning. In fact, scientists are constantly learning about how playing a musical instrument activates the brain in multiple places (engaging almost every single part of the brain) and in multiple ways (neurons working by themselves and in concert with one another). The types of instruments (technology) a child uses as she or he grows also gets increasingly complex. A xylophone, harmonica, ukelele and piano might be added to his or her repertoire, also adding potential for new patterns to make and practice.

Next, let’s consider blocks. Different types of blocks offer opportunities to learn different patterns of shapes. A child uses her or his body, the toy (technology), and vision to explore the process of making patterns. Whether the wooden blocks are being stacked on top of each other or sorted by color it does not matter. What matters is that the child is experimenting with making patterns. Magnetic tiles are qualitatively different from wooden blocks. Not only do they stay together using magnetic force instead of just gravity or friction, the flatter shape emphasizes new lessons in volume. And building with marble runs necessitates an added dimension of problem solving...building something that guides a rolling ball to where you want it to go. The pattern of direction of the ramps controls the movement of the marble.

In both cases of baby technology (musical instruments and blocks), the ways a child plays with the toys by himself or herself evolves as the child grows. He learns how to create music and she learns to build higher and more complex structures. However, one of the most compelling patterns of play that stems from both music technology and block technology is the pattern of human interaction. When two people sit together to make music they immediately begin to communicate through body language, musical sounds, and conversation. The same is true for two people building together. What is really cool is that the social interactions shape the young child’s brain; neurological patterns form based on the ways the adult communicates with the child!

So when I think about what “technology” looks like for babies and other young children I think about what Phish said, “With the right device you can make a pattern grow.” I ask myself, “what patterns would I like to see grow?” Then I consider what device/technology would help that pattern grow… And I go from there.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Dance Music?!

Mortified. That was my first reaction to my four year old when she came gleefully bouncing out from the shelves of CDs at the local library. "Look what I found!!" she exclaimed, excitedly. "Can I take it?" My first thought was, "Barbie? No." The glitter, the pink, the inappropriate and unhealthy body image issues, the..., the...

"Yes," I said. I have an "anything goes" policy at the library that hadn't seemed so bad until that Barbie Dance CD moment. We had discovered chapter books, kid cookbooks, non-fiction, puzzles, great music, and activity books. And, like any library adventure, you just never know what you will learn from the materials you find at the library. You know what we learned from this dance CD? We learned what sparkles sound like!

It was the end of the first song, "Good Time," when we heard the sound of chimes (probably played by a synthesizer but maybe not) twinkle in the speakers. "Mama! That's what sparkles sound like!" my daughter said with a huge smile. "I want to learn how to play sparkles!"

She wanted to learn! This CD that made my no-way-o-meter go off had inspired my daughter to learn something...and want to learn something about playing music. I couldn't have been happier at that outcome!

Then it got me thinking: Well, of course, there need to be good "dance music" artists out there. I thought to myself, "I want to learn more about dance music! What makes it good?"

I started reminiscing about my college days - dancing to "dance music" in "dance clubs" and lamenting with my friend, who was a DJ, and the quality of music. Some dance music is just better. It makes you want to move and keep moving for hours on end.

But how? What makes some dance/techno/trance music better than other music? Now, I'm no expert on music theory and that is what made it all the more interesting to me. My daughter had opened my eyes to the value of "her" music. There is space for my daughter and I to find the best of any type of music together. We will be learning and I expect we will be learning a LOT. Because in order to learn about dance music we will explore new music technology (new instruments), new processes (ways of playing instruments, recording songs), and new art (that would be new music genres, artists, etc.).

I can't believe I'm all fired up because of what I heard on the Barbie Dance Party Mix. I guess the CD is not so bad afterall.

Monday, May 16, 2016

Let's Call It "An Inclined Plane," Not "A Slide"

For years I have felt like a renegade mom at the playground and it all comes down to what most people see as a "slide." In fact, I think of it as an inclined plane. It is something that offers so much physics learning that I can barely contain my excitement when I see kids playing with it.

Here are the three most common experiments I have seen on the inclined planes:

Sliding down. 
This is what most parents expect from children and it is awesome. However, I also have seen some creative thinking squandered in the name of "safety" - the common rules I see enforced are: 1) slide are for one human at a time and 2) slide on your bottom. Unfortunately for those parents I advocate that there is so much science to learn if we break those rules! I think the kids can and should experiment with:
- sliding on their bottoms, their bellies, their feet, and their backs.
- sliding alone and in a big messy pile.
- sending objects down the slide like balls, cars, trucks, sand, rocks, dolls, or playground floor-stuff (pebbles, woodchips, sand), etc...

Going up
This is a controversial subject on the inclined plane at the playground. So many people think that going up the ramp is bad. From my observations, the children figure out when there is a good time and when there is a bad time to try and go up the slide. And while they figure it out there is so much joy and learning that it just tickles me. Here are some of the experiments I've seen that involve going up the ramp:
- walking, crawling up the ramp in various amounts and types of dress. On their feet children learn the difference between walking barefoot, in socks, or in shoes. They figure out whether walking or crawling is more effective. And if crawling with atheltic pants is different from crawling with bare knees.
- sending objects up the ramp like rolling balls, trucks, or sliding dolls up.

Whether sliding down or going up an inclined plane children are learning all about force and motion...preschool playground physics.

Making music
I remember a parent telling me that she condoned her 10 year old son pushing my 4 year old down the stairs to "protect" himself and his sisters. What was my son doing? He was carrying woodchips up the stairs to put them down the slide, which the other children protested (despite not wanting to use the slide themselves). My son explained to me that he thought it would be beautiful to watch and listen as the woodchips went down the twirling slide. This is the story I recall every time my son puts the playground floor-stuff down a slide, and I feel grateful when I see other children experimenting the same way.

These are the ways I have watched children make music using slides:
- Sending handfuls of pebbles down a tunnel slide
- Sending sand down a metal slide
- banging on the sides of a tunnel slide
- shouting/singing/oooh-ing down a tunnel slide

I'm sure I'm missing a few noisy ways prechoolers study acoustics with the inclined plane but I think you get the gist.

The point is that the "slide" is not just a slide. It is an inclined plane, which makes it a versatile tool for doing playground physics, from studying force and motion to sound. It only takes a slight re-framing to see it for all it is worth.


Some words about safety. Don't get me wrong. I take safety seriously but I also take playful childhood development seriously, too. And so I continue the parental dance on the playground to let the children make decisions as much as possible and without too much intervention. Because I agree with Alfie Kohn: "Children learn how to make good decisions by making decisions, not by following directions."

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Preschool Art, Meet Preschool Science

When I read The Artful Parent's post about observational drawing for kids, something clicked. It is exactly the intersection of preschool art meeting preschool science. Observational drawing and science both have "seeing" as the core practice.  In fact, what the Artful Parent wrote about observational drawing could have easily been an excerpt found in a 200 year old science book:

"When we look at something with the intent of drawing it, we tend to look more carefully than usual. We see, truly see, the shapes, the patterns, the perspective, the colors, the shadows, the contours, and how all of the details interact."
Looking carefully at shapes, patterns is just what scientists (and mathematicians) do. In fact, John James Audubon is a perfect example of how observational drawing is more than something to do to satisfy a creative urge. He used his drawings as data for learning about birds. So too can preschoolers use observational art to learn science.

If you choose something developmentally appropriate then they might surprise you. For example, how would your preschooler draw an orange? an apple? a banana? Drawing circles and curves are hard for young children but not too hard. If your child needs something easier than have them try to draw some grass. Choosing colors and making shapes, I think, is right up a playful, independent STEAM learner's alley.

The only itch that needs scratching here is the question: What about all the advocacy around process art? Well, I think that observational art can be and should be process art. Just because the product might look different and hold different meaning than something more abstract, doesn't mean that the process of creating it is less valuable. Just think, the process of looking at something, choosing a color, exploring how to make shapes or textures in the art, is a powerful freedom.

In the past, I has asserted that preschool art meets preschool science in choosing and experimenting with different materials. Observational drawing is a different but complimentary bent on how preschool art meets preschool science. And it is one I'm excited to learn about alongside my kids!

Strawberry by Anna, age 4 years

Monday, May 9, 2016

A Bowlful of Memories

It can be overwhelming for me to have a plan that I don't follow. So anything seasonal or attached to the holidays needs to be simple enough that it fits into our busy lives. Care in point - Easter.

I love the idea of tradition - doing something every year to celebrate. This year I started a tradition that is simple enough that a small child can do it but open enough that the activity can grow as my children grow: decorating keepsake eggs.

I went to Michaels in search of wooden eggs, thinking that would have the longevity I"m hoping for. Unfortunately I couldn't find any. But to my delight I found a really cool alternative. Cardboard eggs.

They are lightweight and the outside covering seems like the perfect consistency for taking color from everything from sharpies to watercolor paints. In fact, it comes with color for dunking, which I think would be a lovely way for a young toddler to participate.

So my ever-so-small plan for our spring tradition is for each person in my family to decorate an egg each year. I will stash them away in our crowded garage and bring them out to display in the spring in a pretty bowl. In a few short years we will have a colorful bowlful of memories. Memories of sitting together painting, drawing or dunking eggs, leaving our impression of the day on a small treasured token of the season.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Most Engaging Posts - April 2016

I love to review the most popular posts that stream on the Preschool Engineering Facebook page. It helps me meet the needs and interests of my audience. Here are the most engaging posts from April 2016:

  Beverly Cleary on turning 100: Kids today ‘don’t have the freedom’ I had
"Cleary is both set in her ways — “I don’t think I joined this century” — and keenly aware of how times have changed. “I think children today have a tough time, because they don’t have the freedom to run around as I did — and they have so many scheduled activities.”"


"Any good parent wants their kids to stay out of trouble, do well in school, and go on to do awesome things as adults. 
And while there isn't a set recipe for raising successful children, psychology research has pointed to a handful of factors that predict success.
Unsurprisingly, much of it comes down to the parents.
Here's what parents of successful kids have in common:..."


Sweet Photo Series Reveals What’s In A Preschooler’s Pockets

"Kaseman hopes people who look at the photos see “the magic of discovery in a child’s imagination.” She added, “A simple object can hold so much weight in one’s mind.” 
Keep scrolling and visit Kaseman’s website to see the “treasures” found in her son Calder’s pockets."

"Between birth and age three, for example, our brains develop quickly and are particularly sensitive to the environment around us. In medical circles, this is called the critical period, because the changes that happen in the brain during these first tender years become the permanent foundation upon which all later brain function is built. In order for the brain’s neural networks to develop normally during the critical period, a child needs specific stimuli from the outside environment. These are rules that have evolved over centuries of human evolution, but—not surprisingly—these essential stimuli are not found on today’s tablet screens. When a young child spends too much time in front of a screen and not enough getting required stimuli from the real world, her development becomes stunted."

And yet there are some equally important developmental markers — social and emotional skills, for example — that are overlooked entirely by the hand-turkey activity and others like it. If you listen for it, Christakis says, signs of this kind of development are evident in “the kind of really rich, expressive language that emerges when children are engaged in creative work” like building a fort or playing house with other children. In contrast, that kind of self-expression doesn’t happen during a more by-the-numbers “creative” activity, the research suggests.