Outdoor and Environmental Education: A Toddler’s Guide

Outdoor and Environmental Education sounds so formal…but it doesn’t have to look or feel that way. Over and over I’ve talked about embracing “science moments” as a way to make the science come alive for young children, without being overwhelming and intimidating for you. Kids and nature go naturally together, all you have to do is introduce them to the language and help them discover how they problem solve.

Most of the people I talk to who say they “can’t do” science really are saying they feel like they don’t have the vocabulary or the ideas (or energy) for complicated experiments. Luckily, that doesn’t matter and the real foundations for your toddler are when you take the time to explain to them what is happening and what they are seeing.

For example, my son picked up an acorn the other day and asked “What’s this Mama?” Instead of just saying “an acorn” I told him it was an acorn, which was a type of seed and then point out the oak tree to talk about what that seed could grow into. Only a few extra steps but now he knows that much more about it. LucyAceMaggie 003

If you don’t know the answer to something, tell them that! Maybe you can collect the item and look it up when you get home (we watch a lot of YouTube videos on everything from nebula to anthills). Or, you can just speculate together about what it might be and look for clues that give you an answer. Not knowing is OK since the process of discovery and problem solving is an important science skill!

Need a few more examples to get you started? May I present a picture gallery of outdoor/environment education…the toddler’s version.

Easter2015 053A place to dig doesn’t have to be fancy, and a garden doesn’t have to be big. Our small backyard gives us enough room to plant a few vegetable seeds to see how things grow. Containers also work great, as does a seed in a sandwich bag taped to the window. You can work with whatever space you have. (This year we left half the garden open for “digging” so that the plants stand a chance!)

Water…dirt…sticks…what else do you need? I think the trick to exploring the outdoors is being OK with a mess. When they are “messing around” in the dirt or building piles of leaves and sticks, remember, what it really shows you is the problem solving they are doing.  What happens when things combine? How do I move things where I want them to go? What if I do this?

ErdmansNats 005STEMECE 002

Of course, one of the biggest benefits of being outside is the chance to learn about nature and how to take care of it and respect it. Whether you have exotic wildlife visiting your backyard, or just the chance to observe some bushes as they start to grow leaves, you can have conversations about the world around you. We watch the bees (and talk about how to be safe around them), rescue worms from the sidewalk and put them in the garden, track the growth of our plants…all from the steps of our house.

LucyAceMaggie 010 STEMECE 005 STEMECE 003

I promise, I am just as busy and tired as you. I’m not trying to set you up for more work. It might take a little practice until it feels natural, but you can slip these moments into your everyday life. So, forget Pinterest and the carefully curated nature experiments. Don’t worry about whether you have “enough” or the “right” kind of nature nearby. Let go of any doubts you have about whether you can “do” science.  Just tell yourself that for today you are letting them take another step towards learning how to observe, discover and problem solve. Then, open the door!

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Invitations to Play

InvitationtoPlay (5)InvitationtoPlay (4) InvitationtoPlay (3) InvitationtoPlay (2) InvitationtoPlay (1) “Invitations to Play” is a buzzword I didn’t even know existed until I joined Pinterest. Now, I scroll through hundreds of blogs all linked to this idea.  Basically, an “invitation to play” is a set of materials that you set out to encourage your child to play. It is usually very open-ended, but can lead towards encourage science or literacy exploration or any sort of interest or skill that your child has (this blog had a nice little explanation).

Here is my secret, I am really bad at creating these.  Or, so I think when I compare myself to the stylish tables of natural materials that flash across my computer screen.  These are amazing, I’m sure the kids have a blast and they certainly support open-ended, investigative play. However, they are not the ONLY types of “invitations to play” that you can do. As I looked back through pictures I realized that some of the things we do naturally can help support the spirit of this idea.

Oh! A quick note. I have a basic rule, which I noted in my process centered art post, about play…the set up should not take longer then the play. So, if I am going to put together an “invitation to play” I want the actual play to be longer lasting and more complex then putting it together!

Now!  Here are a few of our “invitations to play”

* Rotating Toys: This seems simple, but it is a big one! Bring out toys they haven’t seen for a while, put away ones that have been on the shelf but not used too much. Just switching up what is around will re-energize their imaginations! Intelligent Nest has a lot of great ideas for toy rotation and display that can get you started.

* Uncommon Pairings: One of my FAVORITE ways to create new play ideas is to group together toys that don’t normally belong. One of the easiest places to do this is with blocks. Put some doll furniture in a bin nearby, add a bunch of cars and trucks, leave books or pictures to the area, even put in some play food! Anything you add can be incorporated into their play and will change things up. I have a whole Pinterest board dedicated to blocks if you need more ideas!

* Change the location: Sometimes just changing where your child plays with something makes it so much more interesting! When we put a basket of blocks up in my son’s room he suddenly was spending an hour building…when before he had barely noticed it. Building a blanket fort and bringing cars inside makes it seem brand new. If you and your child “always” play in one room, try carrying materials somewhere else!

* Sensory Trays: If you have access to snow, sand or water….bring a tray of it inside! Just like with the blocks you can add art materials, cars and trucks or figurines and the play will take on a whole new dimension. Yes the clean-up can be a bit of a pain, but when my son played with a tray of snow for 45min…on his own….I considered it to be well worth it!

* Painters Tape: I go through rolls and rolls of painters tape. Not only does it lets me put up artwork without fear for my walls, there are so many other things you can do with it! Use it to create roads on rugs, couches and even walls! Tape out letters, numbers or shapes and make an indoor hopscotch/obstacle course. Mark out the boundaries for games or other gross motor “challenges”

* Crepe Paper: Trapped inside on a cold day we hung streamers all over our hallway. My son played cars and read books in it and used it like an obstacle course to try to get through without knocking them down. A friend who came over was enamored by the “Jungle” we had created and set up her own imaginative play.

* Felt: Felt sticks to felt, so you can create new play opportunities with felt shapes! When my son was little I cut out the trains from Donald Crewes “Freight Train” for him to use. Just recently he has been obsessed with letters so we got an inexpensive set of felt letters so we can sound out words. You can use it to tell stories, illustrate play or even make felt food of all descriptions! You can buy almost anything or get your own colors at a craft store. They also make felt boards that stand up on their own or, once again, you can create your own!

* Art Materials: Art can be the ultimate invitation to play. Just put out the materials but with no expectations of what they will do. To switch it up I like to change where we do our art. Sometimes I put the paint at the big counter and he gets to stand on a chair. Other times I hang paper on the wall and he can color like he is at an easel. You can also let them paint on snow, mix colored water and drag toys through paint! Just be putting together new combinations of art materials it can open up all kinds of new ideas.

* Playdough: Along with blocks, I am a HUGE fan of playdough. Not only is it a really great activity to develop hand/arm muscles (which they need for writing!) but it just stretches the imagination. Like blocks, adding things to the playdough experience can expand the play. Tools from a play kitchen, vehicles and figurines or pieces of paper with letters/numbers/shapes drawn on them that they can “trace” with their playdough. If you need a recipe I have been so happy with this one, she uses different scents in it but I tend to leave my plain.  It works either way! The playdough has a great texture and lasts really well.

So there you go!  Nine ideas for creating “invitations to play” that won’t keep you up until midnight trying to pull them together.  Can you help me think of number ten?

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Encouraging Play in Museums

Play in Museums“Teaching kids to play” is something that goes on constantly at home and in the early childhood classroom, but it also has implications for a museum or other informal learning space.  These kids are just learning the fundamentals of play, and are now walking into a space where the rules may seem totally different!

Keeping that in mind you can look around your space and see how it supports children at play. If you are lucky enough to have a lot of staff on the floor then can model what is supposed to happen for the visitors. If not, and lets face it “not” is usually the case, then you have to get creative. Can you make signage that is understandable for pre-readers? Are the materials so clearly defined that someone can intuit their use (or, on the flip side, so open-ended they can be used in lots of different ways?). Is there media you can incorporate to do some of the modeling?

There is no ‘right’ answer, just the one that best fits your mission, space and budget. In fact, I would suggest you don’t commit to something expensive right away. Test some things out, see what gets the results you were hoping for and then implement it in a more permanent way.

Having a guide to the space is important not just for the kids, but for the adults. A lot of adults feel like they “aren’t good” at playing. They may be uncomfortable, feel like they don’t have ideas or don’t want to do it “wrong.” Having modeling and ideas out will encourage them to engage in the activity. Although we don’t want to stifle anyone’s creativity, sometimes having a “plan” in place will actually promote more play then a totally blank canvas!

Sometimes when we have worked really hard to design something, we just are too close to it. The activity seems totally logically, easy to understand and really FUN! We have to remember that to someone just walking in they don’t know the whole back story, all they see is what is right in front of them. So, let them in on your plan and give them some guidance so they can enjoy it just as much as you do.

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Teaching Kids How to Play

Teaching PlayIt seems to so counter-intuitive to us adults that children need to be “taught” how to play. After all, they are kids! It is what they do! Think about it though, we call play “the work of children,” how many of you knew exactly what to do the first day on the job?

There is so much that goes into even the simplest looking “play,” whether it is zooming cars along the rug or building with Legos. They have to come up with the plan and keep it in their head, they have to coordinate their body to do what they want it to do and solve obstacles on the fly. If there are other kids (or adults!) involved it adds another layer of social awareness and interaction that all has to be maintained while also keeping up the play scenario! Phew, exhausting just to think about it!

Children need to be coached on how to navigate these play scenarios, and one of the most effective ways is modeling it for them. Tonight, I “taught” my son how to play grocery store. We made a list together and then I asked him to get the items and put them in his basket. We rang them up on the cash register and then he started coming up with ideas of what he wanted to make in his kitchen.

He has gone with us to the store hundreds of times, so that modeling combined with what we did tonight gives him a formula that he can take and riff on himself. When you play with your kids, or give them ideas on what to do next, or do it yourself while they watch you…you are modeling play for them.

With children who are learning to play together the most important thing they need is language and ideas for how to be part of a group. This could be as simple as how to join a group of kids who are playing (or how to stop playing together when they are done!).  Watch a preschool teacher and you will realize that “breaking up fights” is really more about giving them the language to express themselves then solving the issue for them.

 

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“Engaging Young Children in Museums”- New Book!

I’ve talked a lot about the Smithsonian Early Enrichment Center (SEEC) on this blog. It was my first “classroom teaching” gig and gave me a chance every day to try out ways that the museum could benefit young children.

Sharon Shaffer, the founding director of SEEC, has a new book out called “Engaging Young Children in Museums.” I was lucky enough to be given a copy and just finished reading it. I can’t call this a true “review” because I know Sharon personally (she was still director when I was teaching there) and I am quoted briefly in the book/supplied an image for it. However, I can tell you a little about it and let you decide for yourself!

I will say that this is a dense little book. It comes in at under 200 pages but is packed with information. It does a pretty comprehensive take on the history of children in museums and also education theory/teaching methods. If you were a museum educator without a lot of background in early childhood education, this would be a good reference to have. I will say, I’d take it slow and work your way through pieces of it or you’ll get overwhelmed.

I also like the conversation it starts about helping docents and other educators become more comfortable with the audience, and there are some concrete ideas and good template documents at the back for planning purposes.

I would be interested to get some feedback from someone with out an early childhood background to see how clear the information was to them and if the suggestions could be easily implemented. If anyone has read it, let me know your thoughts!

You can purchase the book directly from Left Coast Press and it is also available on Amazon etc.

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Articles in “Teaching Young Children”

Teaching Young Children ArticlesPublishing on the web has been exciting…but I will admit there is something very satisfying about seeing your words “in print!”

I have had two articles come out in “Teaching Young Children” (a NAEYC publication) and luckily they are offering both for free on the web!

First was “Locally Sourced Culture,” which aimed to be a very concrete guide for educators looking to build community partnerships.

The second was “The Science of Superheroes,” which was a collaboration with my former co-teacher. This one was all about a lesson set on superheroes we did with our 3 year old class. It started as a way to address the superhero play happening in the classroom, but broadened to include a lot of fun science lessons!

Hope you enjoy! Let me know what you think!

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“Museums and Early Childhood Education”-NAEA Google Hangout

NAEA Google HangoutSince starting Cabinet of Curiosities I’ve had a lot of “firsts.”  I’ve been published, started teaching science classes, been a guest lecturer and given docent trainings. This month, I had another new adventure…moderating a Google Hangout on young children in museums!

The National Arts Educators Association has a Museum Education division that does a variety of “Peer2Peer” professional development opportunities, including monthly Google Hangouts on a variety of topics. This month we got to spend the whole hour talking about how museums can engage and teach young children and support their caregivers.

It was an awesome group of educators, we planned meticulously and…if I do say so myself….it shows. The conversation was great and there were some really thoughtful questions from the “audience.”

Luckily, for those of you that missed it, you can still watch! The entire Google Hangout is archived here and the message board is still active if you want to post questions. There is also a list of resources that we pulled together and will be adding to.

Let me know if you watched it and found it useful! We’d love to do more Hangouts around this theme, so keep us posted on what you’d like to discuss!

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