Wednesday, January 28, 2015


I sometimes get stuck on my ideas.  Getting stuck on my ideas and refusing to follow the amazing ideas of young children is a hard habit to break...BUT, I am proud to say I have broken it, with the exception of a wee bit of regression here and there.  I am human after all, and the important thing to note here is that I LEARN every time, as every time I butt in and try to change their thinking to my thinking I ruin the moment.

I use a technique in my program called "plopping".  You can call it what you like:  plopping, play invitation, provocation, setting the environment.....there are MANY words that are similar to "Plopping", but, to know me is to know that I do not like to do things EXACTLY as someone else has done. know me, is to know that I live in "my world" and, until recently, and outside of my college courses a "few" years ago, I don't really pay much attention to what other people (aka: programs) are doing.  I do what works the best for the children that are in "my world".  And so, I plop.

When I was transitioning from a VERY teacher-controlled (only I did NOT know I was controlling...interested in hearing more about my journey?  CLICK HERE) to a child-centered, play-based philosophy, "plopping" was one of my many stages.  And plopping, is still a very valuable part of my philosophy. (Learn more about "Plopping")

To know me is to also know that my adult brain has ideas, and it really likes it's ideas.
Therefore, I sometimes have a VERY hard time biting my tongue and allowing children to take what I've plopped and run in an entirely different direction than my adult brain imagined. OR...worse yet, when children don't even explore the plop at all -- just basically look at it, squish up their face and saying "eh".  (insert sigh and a tremendous amount of self-control to resist the urge of saying "BUT..this was suppose to be GRAND!!  WATCH ME!!  I'll DO IT FOR YOU!!")

With that background information, I bring to you what happened in my program today:

My story begins with YESTERDAY.

Towards the end of our day, I introduced the children to a new story:  "Stuck" by Oliver Jeffers.  I finished this book to a chorus of "AGAIN!  READ IT AGAIN!"  Upon finishing it the second time, the chorus was repeated:  "AGAIN!  READ IT AGAIN!"  (note to self:  this book is a WINNER).

SO....based on their love of the story, "Stuck", my brain went to work imagining  HOW can I bring the concept of stuck into their child-led play?

How can I prepare the environment for the following day, in a way that will enhance their love of the book "stuck"?
I constructed what I call, the "Ball-o-Stuck-Stuff", here out to be referred to as the "BSS".  I put recognizable items in the BSS such as our beloved alligator puppet.  I knew that would tug at their heart strings and they would want to get him unstuck.  I also added items I knew my littles would love and had never seen at school before.  The pink flowers for my lover-of-all-things-pink, wagon wheels for my lovers-of-all-things-that-make-you-go-huh? and a new puppy toy for my puppy lovers.  I carefully added foam letters of each child's names (they are BIG into "their" letter right now), more puppets, jewels and random bits and parts.

I also added a PVC frame to the environment with the intent of wrapping masking tape around it and putting out sparkly fluffy pom poms and sequins and spangles for the children to stick on the tape.  As I set that out, I decided to wait until they arrived to add the masking tape.

Finally, the letters to build the word "stuck" were hidden.  I was taking a big chance by starting with the word I hoped to inspire, but I felt like this was going to be a hit.  And so...I did it.  The new mystery word (What the heck is a mystery word?  CLICK HERE) would be "stuck" and HOPEFULLY it would be attached to a meaningful experience.  (generally the mystery word is inspired by whatever the children are actively doing, and a lot of times, I ask them what our new mystery word should be....but occasionally, I start our day out with one)

I then went to bed ANXIOUS for morning, but trying hard to HUSH my adult brain.  I did not want to get too STUCK on what I thought would happen the next day that I controlled the learning.  I wanted my littles to own as much of it as possible.  I also like the children to feel like their ideas are fabulous (no matter what inner struggles my adult brain may have when the the idea of a child is no where close to where my adult brain anticipated they would go).

The homerun did not happen immediately.  In fact, I feared for the worse as only one child asked what the BSS was.

I gave my usual answer:  "I have no idea.  What do you think it is?"

His reply:  "Flowers"
(insert a "no shit sherlock"  PLEASE tell me you have SILENTLY said that phrase in your head hundreds of times while working with young children...if not, then I am a horrible person.  I will make myself a t-shirt "I AM A HORRIBLE PERSON" and on the back it will say:  "NO SHIT SHERLOCK" (to know me, is to know that I have an odd sense of humor...bare with me)).

As the children got more and more into their play, they started to find the letters to our mystery word.  They asked me what the word was, and so I told them.
As the children find each letter that is needed to build the mystery word during their play, they then hang it up in the appropriate spot.  This is an interesting process as some understand the need to leave a space for the missing letters while others do not.  In the end, a whole lot of teamwork is used to correctly create the word.

That was my cue to add the masking tape to the PVC frame.
As I was doing this, one of my littles took one look and said "That looks like a spider web"  She was RIGHT!  IT did!  AND...guess what?   BUGS get STUCK in spiderwebs!  SO..I scratched my adult idea to add the shiny, sparkly stuff and grabbed the basket of bugs instead!!  BRILLIANT (and, nice job unsticking from my plan)

After about 50 minutes or so of PATIENTLY waiting for SOMEONE to show a little more interest in the Ball-O-Stuck-Stuff, I sat down with the book, "Stuck" and had an instant audience (this is always so good for the self-esteem :D).  When I finished reading, the connection was made between this thing dangling from the ceiling and the book, "Stuck".  There were LOTS and LOTS of things STUCK in that big ball-o-stuck-stuff.

My crew is accustomed to solving problems, and sometimes solving problems requires standing on chairs.

Children need opportunities to assess risk and practice being CAREFUL.  Too often we yell from across the room "BEEEE CAREFULLLLL!!!"  Then grab our capes, and run with the speed of a super hero to remove from the hands of the child that in which we just told them to be careful with...therefore REMOVING the opportunity to
Children need to know we trust them to be careful.  I'm not talking about scaling the side of a frozen water fall "Be careful, it might be a little slick" ...I'm talking about standing on a chair that is 12 inches from the ground in order to do something they would otherwise need an adult to do.  THIS kind of risk assessment and management is EMPOWERING for a young child.

Another opportunity to be careful.
Children CAN be cautious with scissors.  Again, we need to give them the opportunity to practice using caution.  There was NO running, NO waving scissors wildly about. This was a very calm time with VERY focused children.

I carefully selected the items I placed in the BSS (Ball-O-Stuck-Stuff in case you whizzed past the beginnings of this post).  I knew this cute puppy would motivate a few of the children to work hard at removing the tape.  (side note:  this is the child I figured would go for well as the pink flowers :) )

A motivated and focused child.

This child had his sights set on unsticking the wheel.  He was working very hard on that task.

WHOO HOO!  The wagon wheel is successfully unstuck!  See the child in the blue shirt?  HE SO WANTED TO GET THAT WHEEL.  Luckily, the child in the red was all about the process of just getting stuff unstuck, and further exploring the wheel was not more important to him than getting more stuff unstuck.

I LOVE this picture.  That's all I have to say about that. :)

Let the investigating begin.

And then, SUDDENLY, the BSS was no longer hanging.  Both of these children realized it at the same time.  "HEY!  It fell!"

These two pumpkins are going after "their" letters.  Talk about motivating! :)

And then it was down the Mr. Alligator and a frog.  This child was ELATED to discover the frog was under all that tape too!
So....there you have it.

I encourage you all to be intentional with the materials you place in an early learning environment, but not so intentional that you are so STUCK on your adult plans you can't allow yourself to follow the whims of young children.

This story showed an example of both leaving my adult plans behind (the spider web) in order to follow an awesome idea from the mind of a young child as well as keeping my adult plan because the children did exactly what I thought they would.

SIDE NOTE:  what DID happen that I did NOT see coming was the use of scissors for this activity.  I had imagined they would just use fingers to peel the tape.  I loved the initiative the children showed by grabbing a tool to solve a problem.  I carefully observed and discussed safety with the children throughout...HOWEVER, at the end, when we were down to just the alligator and a few other items, and just two children working away on the BSS, a child's finger did get snipped a bit (enough to teach them all that scissors are something we must be careful with)  SO...I would suggest that when it gets down to such few things to put the scissors away and use fingers for the remainder of the task, or just one pair of scissors for all to share.  I would definitely do this activity again.

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!

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Morning in the Life of Kaleidoscope Play School

I get asked quite frequently:  "What does a morning look like in your program?"

My response is this:  "It looks different each and every day.  The only constant is snack.  That is the only guaranteed thing that will happen."

I have gotten asked this question enough that I feel it is time for this blog post, to give you a solid taste of my program and my philosophy.

And so, I welcome you to Kaleidoscope Play School.

Here is what you need to know before spending a morning with us:

My program has one session from  8:30-11:45 on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday mornings.  This allows for long weekends in which I can travel to speak at early childhood professional conferences and trainings all across the US.


In the words of Bev Bos:  "The children are the curriculum".  
I thoughtfully document the child-led play each day and use that information to set the environment for the following day.  
I do not know what is going to happen until my curriculum arrives every morning.  I have my adult ideas in place, but that doesn't mean that is what will actually happen.
In my documentation I write down what I THINK is going to happen, and then I write down what actually does happen.  Very rarely does my "I Think" match up with "What Happened".
I then use the "what actually happened" (or "the Play-by-Play" as I call it) documentation to set the environment for the next day.


The environment at Kaleidoscope Play School is rich with opportunities for the children to explore, discover, fail, solve, succeed, persevere, grab, squeeze, splat, splash, paint, wonder, test, imagine, invent, collaborate, practice, grip, climb, challenge, assess risk, strengthen, coordinate, track, plan, inquire, instigate and struggle.  All with the goal of building a solid foundation for all future academics to build upon.


All the elements of a traditional "Circle Time" are sprinkled throughout our time together.  There is no scheduled "Circle Time".  

  • Daily, we share, talk, take turns, wait patiently, read books for pleasure as well as inspiration, listen and follow direction.
  • Attention span is constantly being practiced as children follow their interests and have opportunities to use determination to persevere and stay on a task of their choosing (an age-appropriate means to strengthen attention) 
  • Whenever there is an appropriate moment for it, we sing, dance and do finger plays and rhymes.  I will not interrupt valuable child-led play for this.
  • "Calendar time" happens whenever the children discover the hidden calendar numbers.  This does not necessarily happen on a daily basis, and that's okay, since the emphasis is NOT on the days of the week, but rather number order, number recognition and measurement (click HERE to learn more about how I do an age appropriate "calendar time" in my program).  
Go Home

And now, I proudly present to you, 
"A Morning in the Life of Kaleidoscope Play School":

The day I am sharing with you just so happened to be my birthday, Jan. 9, 2014.  (it was a snow-day make up day, so we were together on a rare Friday)

Observations from the previous day included a fascination with melting.  The children melted crayons, hammered frozen balloons to smaller chunks then watched those smaller chunks melt, using an electric skillet set on WARM (a safe way for young children to assess risk, with an adult who is PRESENT) and melting ice using salt and pipettes to squirt warm water onto the frozen balloon.  The mystery word was "melt".

Taking those observations into the consideration, and also considering that the children knew the following day was my birthday, and they were very excited about it, I set the environment as follows:

1)  The electric skillet was ready to roll, but not yet in the environment.  I wanted the children to have an opportunity to ask for what they need.  A VALUABLE skill that many adults could use some practice on! :)
2)  Another balloon had been frozen and was ready to come inside
3)  The salt and warm water were ready
4)  I removed the salted balloon out of the freezer from the day before and placed it on a table with cups of warm water and pipettes.
5)  Scattered about the ceiling were 10 helium filled, mylar balloons (from the Dollar Tree) with strings thoughtfully cut to allow for some problem solving if the children wanted to retrieve them for play.
6) The "mystery word", rise, was at the ready.
7)  Birthday blowers were at the ready, but not yet present in the environment.
8) A vinegar and baking soda activity was also "at the ready" to enhance exploration of the word "rise" if the children led me in that direction, but this was not yet out in the environment

Without further aduex (hey, I do not speak French, other than "Pass the french fries, please", so I have NO idea how to spell "aduex"....  And the way I have chosen to spell it has the "Red Squiggly Line Police" going bonkers.  My apologies to the perfectionists out there! not. :D )

When my littles arrived, to my utter shock and amazement, no one noticed the 10 balloons with ribbons dangling from the ceiling.  
Instead, they went straight for the salted balloon from yesterday.  But this soon became last week's news as excitement grew for the balloons.

This little sweetie was the first to notice the balloons.  Her go-to method for capturing a balloon was simply climbing up on a chair and grabbing with her hand (she caught the balloon that had a slow leak, and was floating quite low).  

Solving problems is encouraged.  
Standing on chairs is something that happens on a regular basis.  It is always accompanied by four simple words from me:  
"What is your plan?"  This gives the child an opportunity to STOP THEIR BODY (hard for some to do, but a necessary skill) and THINK AHEAD.  They then get to express with words what exactly they plan on doing.

Children motivate each other.
One child experiencing success is all the motivation my crew needed.  Instantly, several children were off to gather their own chair and gather the tools they felt they would need to capture a balloon to play with.

The problem solving wall has loads of tools for the children to use to assist with problem solving.

The first tool of choice were the tongs, most commonly used for picking up toys (Sorry, Mary Poppins, to heck with sugar, TONGS make the job a piece of cake!)

This little pumpkin was bursting with pride upon capturing the yellow flower balloon!

Thanks to the simplicity of helium-filled, mylar balloons, children were having opportunities to solve problems, be patient, take turns, FOCUS, stay on task for long periods of time, observe, share their ideas and methods and think outside of the box. They were expressing their thoughts, struggles and unique techniques through words.

My favorite thing about documenting the power of play through photography, is sometimes you capture amazing moments like this next series of pics:

You can see the sheer exhaustion on this child's face, but he was SO determined to GET that balloon down.

Ahhhh..... the sweet taste of success.  Victory is his.....look at that intense face, he knows that balloon is not yet safe in his hands, but it is SO CLOSE....

....and  yet SO.FAR.AWAY.
"NITA!  WHY do these balloons have to rise so fast?"  (Our "mystery word" was "rise" -- I loved hearing them use the word so naturally in their descriptions of the balloons.)
My adult ideas did NOT see this coming!
This child FINALLY was successful, but he was exasperated.  Absolutely BUSHED.  He figured out how to keep that balloon from rising again!  HE TAPED IT TO THE FLOOR!  GENIUS idea!  THAT, my dear friends, is INNOVATION!  It is SO empowering for a young child to come up with an idea, test that idea and then, the best ever, watch his peers COPY that idea!  THAT is far more important for a four year old, than sitting down and reciting flashcards EVER could be.

HA!  Take that Mr. Balloon!  Rise, no more!

while these children were all having fun solving problems, capturing balloons, and taping them to the ground....across the room, the frozen balloon was brought inside.  It's important to note that the child whose idea it was to tape the balloons to the floor, had completed that task, and briskly moved onto the next -- hammering the frozen balloons!

After hammering, the electric skillet was requested (which, due to my observations the day before, I had "at the ready" just for such a request)

These two pumpkins dabbled with the salt-covered balloon -- and by dabbled, I mean spent about 30 seconds and were off to something else.
DABBLING happens in child-led play and THAT is OKAY!

When the hammers were brought out for the frozen balloons, the "workbench" was requested as well.


Back with the balloons, the "air squirters" (aka: water squirters and balloon pumps from the Dollar Tree) were added to the play.  Children were having fun moving the now floating balloons with the power of air.

Children were visual tracking the balloons as they beebopped in the air as they also coordinated a LOT of muscles in order to manipulate the "air squirters".


SUDDENLY, completely by surprise, with no apparent connecting factor (sometimes I can clearly see the flow of play...THIS, I have no idea what led to it...all I can say is it was the definition of RANDOM) the children hopped on a sled.  A really, really long sled with lots of seats.

Me:  "Where are you sledding to?"
One child:  "We are going to check on Santa."
Me:  "Will you be back in time for snack?"
Same child:  "I sure hope so."

I LOVE it when children are able to organize themselves.  This is a prime example of how this happens so naturally in child-led play if we allow the time and freedom for children to do so.  Notice that this entire morning has been led by children.
MEANWHILE..... (oh yes, there's more!)

Through all of this play, the children were discovering the letters that are needed to build our "mysery word":  "rise".  I love to watch this process.  There is a lot of teamwork involved as the children help each other place the letters in the right order, and then determine how many have been found (um..math), and how many are still missing (more math).  They then need to determine the correct placement of the letters (ordinal vocabulary) which letter should be first?  Which one is last?  HOW are we going to make room for a letter that was forgotten about (amazingly difficult for children to solve this problem).


While all the other children were off to visit Santa, this little sweetie was doing her favorite thing to do:  draw.

Because sometimes you just can't get close enough to your paper....

ALWAYS.......take the time to LISTEN.
Children rarely draw "nothing".
This illustrator is telling me that she is pretending to be an airplane in this picture (see the first person drawn in brown on the bottom?  That is her...with her arms out like an airplane).  She went on to tell me that "After my brothers and daddy and mommy saw me being an airplane, they were airplanes too."  (See the sun on the furthest side of the paper? )

As I observe, it is my job, when possible, to 
ENHANCE THE LEARNING.  Listen to the cues the children are expressing and change the environment accordingly.   Sometimes this means adding, and sometimes it means subtracting from the environment.  

In this case, the children were really having a blast with watching the balloons RISE, in the event that this would happen, I had yet another activity "at the ready".

This plan required cups of colored vinegar, clear straws, and a container of baking soda.  Time for another opportunity to use the word "rise".

Figuring out the mechanics involved in capturing vinegar in a straw was VERY challenging for some, and a piece of cake for others.  But the results are SO motivating, every child that chose to participate tried until they found a technique that worked for them.

This is the fist time that the girl, who is grinning from ear to ear with pride, was successful.  See the straw oozing blue fizz in the back?  That is hers.  She was always breaking the seal, and releasing the vinegar before she stuck the straw in the backing soda.  The fizz doesn't rise up the straw then.

Children need delayed gratification.
This activity is loaded with delayed gratification and a very specific way to be successful.   I love that it offers children an opportunity to PAUSE and wait.  Even if it is just for a couple of seconds.  It is still a PAUSE.

Sometimes, I add things JUST BECAUSE....
After about 20 minutes of this, I added some pipettes to the mix...just out of curiosity.

"Just because" can turn into "GRAND" just never know!
The children aimed the pipettes into the straws!  I never saw this coming!  What a fabulous opportunity for eye-hand coordination and visual tracking and planning!  Both necessary for handwriting, and tracking is necessary for reading and math!

Children are innovators.
This child is never content with status quo.  He is always coloring outside the lines to find a new, innovative way to accomplish something.  Without fail.
In this instance, he has put TWO straws together, and is now filling his pipette with vinegar.  So the right hand is holding  the straws together, and the left hand is crossing the body to collect the vinegar.  There is a LOT going on here.

Testing his idea....AND..... SUCCESS!!
You guessed it,
I have two brand new littles. One is a "dive in head first, no hesitation let's just go" kind of a kid.  The other child is a thoughtful observer.  He definitely knows what he likes and what he doesn't.  For example, he is in the very first picture of the baking soda and vinegar fun, with his big brown eyes taking it all in.  This.  Was not for him.

Earlier, when the children were capturing the balloons, he was off playing with the barn in the butterfly house, peeking around the curtain every once in while to observe what everyone else was doing, but choosing not to partake.

He watched as they used the tongs and grabbers (a brand new thing to him).

Fast forward an hour and a half (At least).....and the following occurred, once everyone else had forgotten about the grabbers.  (SIDE NOTE:  the grabbers are an inexpensive reach tool that is considered the holy grail here in my program.  It is the most coveted tool of them all.)

A Plethora of Visual tracking opportunities should be available in all early learning programs.
Pay close attention to those big brown eyes in this picture and following few.  THAT is valuable visual tracking.   THAT is what this child needs for reading success.  He does not need a game on a screen to prepare him, in fact, a game on a screen will do him more harm than good.  Children need to track things in LARGE, OPEN spaces.  They need to track BIG, and then track small.  To do it any other way can be setting children up to fail.  Screens should have no place in the life of a young child.  (gasp...but the technology is so cool! )  Yes.  The technology is cool, but stop and think about how the body is designed to learn and grow and develop.  All natural signs point to NO SCREENS. (NO ipads, iphones, computers, TV (VERY limited) etc.) 10:30, the very first "I'm hungry" was heard.  This is what dictates our "schedule".  The first "I'm hungry" means it is time for me to give the five minute call.  "Boys and girls.  Finish up the task you are doing.  We will be picking up very shortly."

Some play-based programs do not have a pick up time.  I am not one of them.  I believe there is value in picking up.  There is comparing and contrasting as children sort through the myriad of objects that always end up randomly scattered hither and yon.  There is teamwork, cooperation, listening, following directions and chattering.  There is organization, ownership and responsibility.  I am a firm believer in picking up.  NOW, if a child has created the most amazing thing, and they have requested to save it for the next day, I will do anything in my power to do so.

Once the toys are all picked up, the children are told one thing.  "Let me know when you are ready for snack".  I know they are ready when they work together to create a circle (an opportunity to organize themselves...LOTS of vocabulary goes on here, lots of leading and lots of following).

Then, depending on the time and the amount of tummy rumblings, I may get out the guitar and we may sing for a bit, we may chat for a while, we may play a quick, random, follow direction game, there really is no rules with this time, I just follow their lead.  

Today, the children were so absorbed in their play, the tummy rumblings were noticed quite late, so there was no time for guitar and singing. I didn't see a single reason to interrupt ANYTHING that I was observing today to sing.  Singing was not more valuable than the child-led play that occurred.  So we went straight to snack.

At Kaleidoscope Play School, the children own all experiences.  Even getting out their snack (they all bring their own), opening containers (we struggle , we solve problems, we use teamwork and we ask for help), picking up our mess when we are done and cleaning up our spills.

Children need to have the freedom of discovering their own technique.
This sweetie worked VERY hard to get her Oreos opened.  She used the scissors to snip the slightest hole, and then worked from there.  Not the way I would do it, but children need to own a technique that works for them.  They do not always need an adult to show them "the better way".

The sweet face of success.

And then, we finished the day with.......

Thank you for spending a morning in the life of Kaleidoscope Play School with me!  It is my pleasure to give you a peak inside my program and a taste of my philosophy.

I love sharing my passion for the value of play through this blog, my Facebook page, Play Counts as well as speaking at all sorts of events for early childhood professionals, administrators, parents, name it!

If you are interested in having me speak at your event, you can email me at: for more information.

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