Monday, January 26, 2015

Confessions of a STUBBORN, CLOSE-MINDED and PROUD Early Childhood Professional

FULL DISCLOSURE:  This blog post is me being completely REAL.  This confession is completely honest and from the heart.  This is what I talk about very openly and honestly when I speak with early childhood professionals across the country.  This post may hit a nerve, because YOU just might resonate with where I WAS.  If you find yourself fidgeting while reading this post, or laughing at  yourself(which is the more desired outcome), read it again and then figure out how your own stubbornness, closed-mind and pride get in the way of your program being more age-appropriate.  Now then, with that out of the way, let's get started, shall we?

I gently encourage you to NOT let your stubbornness, closed mind or pride get in the way of doing what is in the best interest for the children in your program.

I can say this, without hiking myself up on to a high horse, because I let my stubbornness, closed mind and pride get in the way of age-appropriate learning for YEARS.


A little background info:
My program began 17 years ago as a preschool with wrap-around care. My original intent was to be solely a preschool, BUT, this preschool was in my home and I quickly learned that in order to get families, as a brand-new, in-home program, in a city of 150,000 people that I was new to, I had to meet people's needs.  Their needs were all-day care.  SO...I was a preschool program for children ages 2 1/2 - Kindergarten that morphed into a family child care program.

I spent 10 of those 17 years as a teacher-controlled program, only I did not think my program was teacher-controlled.  I believed it to be child-led because all the themes that I planned out months in advance were based on the interest of the children in my program...therefore, it was child-led.  I believed my program was "play-based" because all of the learning that occurred was really play.  No worksheets...just lots of teacher-led games and activities that were all playful.  I have since learned that I was completely wrong.  My program was NOT "child-led".  My program was NOT "play-based".  My program was very much a teacher-controlled, teacher-directed, teacher-led program.  Children owned nothing, they followed my lead, and only used materials to do the things I showed them to do.  They didn't follow me like this out of fear, they followed me like this because they knew no other way to go about their day.  They were completely dependent on me.  I had wired them to follow me.  I had no intentions of doing this -- but it truly is the negative result of the way I ran my program.

Once I was able to set my stubbornness aside, open my mind and realize I could still have as sense of pride, my six-ish year journey from a teacher-centered, controlled, dictated program to play-based and child-centered program began.  After a life-changing year in 2014, I finally took the leap of faith and closed my child-care program and re-opened as a play school where children attend on T/W/Th from 8:30-11:45.  I am SO thankful for the journey as there were so many valuable lessons in it, which is why I share it so openly with you.

Here's how being stubborn with a closed mind and a lot of pride got in my way of embracing a more age-appropriate philosophy in my program:

I was one of "those" kids....just ask my mom and my teachers.  :)   Stubborn is something you never grow out of, but you reach an age where you can finally own it and see it as both a blessing and a curse, when you want to.

When you are stubborn, even if you believe the other person is right, it is really, really, REALLY hard to concede.  I can't explain it, and only stubborn people can truly understand it.

I heard Bev Bos (It's fair to say that Bev is the queen of the play-based, child-centered philosophy) speak 15ish years ago...but I was not even close to a point where I could embrace what she was saying.  There were things she said that were absolutely true, and she was right on -- but I was too stubborn to admit it.  I was one of those squished-faced people sitting in the back, appalled at the thought of allowing children to paint themselves.

 HOWEVER...seeds were definitely planted in my brain.  And I was able to embrace Bev's message in small increments through the years, finally building to a grand crescendo and eventually....YEARS later, saying YES to a child's request to PAINT THEMSELVES (inspired by the book:  "I Ain't Gonna Paint No More")

Notice the calmness in this picture?  This activity -- one that I had refused to allow children to do for YEARS simply because I was stubborn and refused to do that in which is silently thought to NOT BE OKAY -- was one of the most amazing moments in all of my program's 17 years.  The children OWNED this.  They were TRUSTED to do something that was taboo and they will NEVER forget this special moment.  They will never remember when they learned their first letter...but they will always remember when they first got to paint their legs.

The environment was set up so the children could own the entire process without needing to depend on an adult.  EMPOWERING.  Prior to setting my stubbornness aside, I would have never realized how important this part of the process is for a young child.  I had always done the cleaning up of the children, never realizing that I was making them more dependent on me, when really..don't we want children to confidently embrace their independence?  It is so clear to me now!

Is play-based all about letting children paint themselves and break other unwritten "rules"?  
NO. It's all about following the natural whims of a child's "why not?" mind.

Is play-based all about letting children do whatever they want to do?  
NO.  It's all about letting them test wonders and learning that YES! sometimes wonders turn out AWESOME and AMAZING.  It's also about letting them test wonders and learning that WHOOPS!  That didn't work so well.

Is play-based all about the shock-factor and who can have the messiest pictures to show of what is going on in their program?
NO.  It's about trusting children to lead their learning, to assess risk and make choices, to test theories and imagine solutions to problems.  It just so happens that when children are given permission to do these things -- it can get a bit messy and THAT'S OKAY.

 My mind was very much closed to the idea that children learned through play.  I VERY much believed that children learned through direct instruction from an adult.  Play time was something I scheduled into our day to get their energy out so they could then pay attention to me.

I also was very afraid to "just" let children play as parents had EXPECTATIONS that their children were learning while in my program, and in order to prove that they were, I felt they all needed to carry home a paper receipt (in the form of "art") every single day.  I felt this "art" had to be identifiable and HAD to relate to our theme.  This meant that a child's "art" was truly not THEIRS, as I dictated what they would do, how they would do it and if they would do it or not (basically, there were no choices..."art" was mandatory)  AND..truth be told, I finished MANY "art" projects for children who just weren't interested (what would their parents think if they were the only child that didn't have a toilet paper roll puppy to take home?  GASP!)

When I first started my program 17 years ago, I was just 3 years out of college.  I was an elementary ed major with a minor in early childhood ed.  I was all about direct instruction, lesson plans and themes. THAT was what my mind deemed as age-appropriate.

Little by little, aha-moment after aha-moment, my mind was opened.

Along with an open-mind came open-eyes.  I actually FOCUSED on the children while they were playing.  Prior to this realization, play time was what the children enjoyed while I  busily set up the stations that I would direct children to after they got all of their energy out.  I didn't have time to "just" stand there and watch children play.  I was in the room, I was "present", but I was NOT observing.  I was NOT SEEING the learning because 1) I'm stubborn 2) I'm close-minded and 3) I was too proud of what I was setting up for stations to even consider the fact that the children just MIGHT be doing something better than what I had planned for the day.

My ability to OPEN MY EYES was probably the very best thing I did as far as finally opening my mind.  You cannot TRULY observe children in adult-out, child-led play and NOT see the value.  If you struggle with this, come to one of my trainings.  I will gladly smack you aside the head so your eyes see better (kidding..I'm not a violent person, just stubborn, closed-minded and proud) :D

This child is playing with suction and learning through trial and error what things this vacuum hose can pick up, and what things it cannot.  His brain is constantly collecting data and storing information to he can recall it later.  His confidence is boosted through this process simply because a shop vac is generally not something a child has permission to use.  BUT, at his school, where he gets to own so many experiences, this type of play is OKAY!  A child who is empowered with a good self esteem is more likely to try new things and test new theories.  All of these things strengthen this child's foundation for future academics to build upon.

For this child's future reading success she needs to be able to track items in space so that she can then track a line of words.  This scarf organizer was just randomly placed on our pendulum.  After about 30 seconds, the children devised this game.  It is quite simple. Throw the balls through ANY of the hoops.  When ten children are doing this at the same time, the hoops start to swing -- so now you have a moving target for eyes to work extra hard at aiming for.  Immediately following this moment was that powerful moment of pride that comes from success.  Success encourages a child to do it again!

This child is taking "use your head" to an entirely new level.  She was struggling greatly to get the pink suds to come out of this bottle so she could play with them and stir them all up.  She used her imagination to come up with a solution for her problem.  Imagination is at the forefront of how we solve problems.  Little fingers are grasping and strengthening as well, something that needs to happen for handwriting success as well as many, many other important tasks.  Remember, this child was a baby, with a brand new body not that terribly long ago.  She is figuring out the many different ways her muscles can coordinate to accomplish a task.

Once my mind was opened to the power of child-centered, child-led play, it became quite closed to philosophies that don't value play.  My heart, however, is very open to closed-minded people simply because  I "get it".  I was once there myself.  I once struggled greatly to see the importance of child-led play.

So I gently encourage you to open your eyes first, and take the time to carefully observe children while they are in play.  Listen to their conversations, look at how they are manipulating their bodies and remind yourself that not all that long ago, they were babies with a body they had little control over.  Think of all the things our minds and bodies can do -- imagine learning ALL OF THAT. a child playing.  APPRECIATE what they are able to do.  The mind can only deny what the eyes see for so long.

I was VERY proud of my program.  I LOVED it.

I was also very proud of my lesson plans too, and could hardly wait to tell my littles what we would be doing every day. 
To let go of that lead role was unthinkable.  I LOVED to set the environment so the children could all learn about the pre-planned theme that I had carefully chosen based on the interests of my littles AND on what the time of year dictated was an appropriate theme.  (appropriate themes like: polar animals simply because it's January, because, polar animals are relevant to a young child living in SD where there are no polar animals and their brain can't wrap itself around the fact that polar animals do not live here, they live far far far far far far far away, so lets spend two weeks learning about them even though we can't touch them, smell them or see them in person, or grasp what a globe is and where exactly polar bears live, and how do they live on this little ball you call a globe...and you say we live on this thing too?) (and yes...that was suppose to be very confusing, full of sarcasm, with no breaks for breathing)

 (SIDE NOTE:  please don't comment that there is nothing wrong with exposing children to polar animals.  I never said don't ever expose children to polar animals.
My point here is this:  Is it worth ONE OR TWO WEEKS of a young child's life to learn about something that they cannot fully experience or wrap their brains around simply because the teacher magazine has coloring sheets you can copy and a really cute polar bear craft idea OR because one or two children think polar animals are amazing. it better to provide opportunities for the children that are interested NOW, but wait to REALLY teach about those things to an entire class, whether interested or not, when children are a bit older and CAN grasp the concept of the world and different climates and animals that live in them?  Perhaps it is just better to run outside in the SNOW and talk about how cold it is, how dirty is gets, how fun it is to squish, melt, toss, paint etc.  If you live in apologies for using snow as an example, I will gladly package up some snow and mail it to you :D )

It is safe to say that I was addicted to themes (See previous blog post on this topic), or perhaps I was addicted to the sense of pride I got when I wrote up my plans and found a way to connect almost everything that was in the environment to the current theme.  Whatever it was, that addiction was very hard to beat.  When my stubbornness and close-mindedness finally allowed some change to occur to my program, my pride in my themes was the very hardest part to let go of.  Here is my personal "6-step" program for beating an addiction to themes:

1)  I still had my themes, and neatly organized lesson plan BUT....I had "Discovery Mondays".  I gave my littles MONDAY to find something better to do than my plans.  If they didn't get into something grand, then on Tuesday we would follow my plan.  If they DID find something grand, then I would follow their lead and make THAT the theme for the remainder of the week.  ( wasn't perfect, but it was a step in the right direction)
2)  I let go of a topic theme, and did the letter of the week thing, but tried as hard as I could to keep the letter relevant to what the children were currently interested in.  I would try to find common bonds between all of the children's interests and choose a letter that could tie them all together.  SO..I no longer planned months in advance, but rather just a week or so.  We still had Discovery Monday, but truth be told, it had to be something pretty darn amazing that happened on Monday to lure me away from my plans.
3)  I added the "Mystery Word" concept to my program.  (what the heck is the "Mystery Word" concept?)  Whatever word the children led me to on Monday, we would stick with that letter for the week.  SO, if the children led me to the word "swing", "S" would be our letter all week, and the remainder of the mystery words for that week would also start with the letter "s".
4)  I realized that, with the exception of Holidays, I did not need a common bond.  CHILDREN did not need a common bond.  I recognized that there were MANY different themes going on at any given time in my program, and I did my best to facilitate exploration in all of them.  This required GRAND organization as I never knew what materials I may have to get for my littles.
5)  The realization hit me that holidays aren't that big of a deal to young children.  They aren't all that relevant in their lives until AFTER the fact.  SO, for example, this past Halloween, we explored pumpkins (because, well...pumpkins are a big deal in SD).  We rolled pumpkins down ramps, we cut pumpkins open etc.)  BUT..that is pretty  much all we did.  There were other Halloween-ish things in the environment, but the children did not show much interest in them.   I read Halloween stories, and they loved them, but the themes did not carry through to their play.  AFTER Halloween, on the other hand, they were REALLY into monsters and scary stuff from the things they experienced while trick-or treating.  So AFTER Halloween, I got out the monster books, and the children led me towards a mini-monsterish theme I would say.  It was definitely led by the interests and current experiences the children had.
6)  Reverse planning.  I now, most currently, document all the play that occurs while the children are in my program.  I then evaluate what I observed and determine what materials I should have available in the environment the following day.  I keep my intentions accountable by writing down what I anticipate might happen (do not confuse this with a lesson plan -- it is JUST what I think MIGHT happen...not what WILL happen).  The next day, I repeat the process, I write down what DOES happen (aka:  The Play by Play), evaluate, intentionally plan, repeat.  Along with written observations, I also take a plethora of pictures.  (roughly 100 during our 3 hour play school session)

Deep breath.

There you have it.

The confessions of a stubborn, close-minded and proud early childhood professional.  Please do not judge me.  I am not perfect, though I sure aim to be, I am quite flawed.  I have been on one heck of a journey and have MUCH respect for the early childhood professional who is ANYWHERE on their own journey.

Thank you for sticking it out to the end.  I hope this post made you laugh at  yourself more than it made you uncomfortable.  If it made you uncomfortable, if you saw too much of yourself in me -- then it might be time to evaluate your program and see if there just might possibly be time for change.

Research points quite clearly to the fact that young children are wired to learn through play.  I encourage you to open your mind, set your stubbornness (if you are a stubborn person) aside, and let go of your pride for long enough to embrace the value of child-led, adult-plans-out play.  If you need more convincing, Google works by Heather Shumaker, Dan Hodgins, Bev Bos, Peter Gray just to name a few!