Illinois Early Learning Project

Feelings Are Fantastic

When people describe daily life with young children, they often talk about the emotional ups and downs children display on a daily basis as they make their way through mealtime, naptime, and playtime. Caregivers may describe moments of laughter, excitement, and energy as well as challenging moments such as temper tantrums or crying. These opposite feelings can happen in a single afternoon, and these ups and downs are typical.

Young children are learning to manage their feelings and express them with appropriate language and behavior. Parents, caregivers, and teachers can help young children develop these understandings by taking the time to become “emotion coaches.”

Why would an adult try to be a “coach” for children to help them learn about emotions? Learning about emotions is a bit like learning to swim. Swimming is easiest to learn in the water with someone to guide you and keep you safe. A good swim coach provides encouraging words and support as a new swimmer pulls her arms through the water and provides positive feedback and direction for improvement as she rests on the side of the pool.

Likewise, children learn to manage and express emotions appropriately when someone helps them work through their thoughts and feelings. A good emotion coach provides a child with support and encouragement during challenging moments and helps them reflect on appropriate ways to express feelings and manage emotions during moments of quiet calm. Here are some ways caregivers can be emotion coaches and help children as they develop these important skills:

Give feelings names by using emotion words

Help children learn that their feelings have names. Use words such as happy, sad, angry, frustrated, jealous, embarrassed, or lonely. For very young children, name simple emotions such as happy, sad, and angry when you see photos of faces or notice the child expressing their feelings. As children grow older, reflections might be longer. For example, a caregiver might say, “You look sad today after your cousin left to go home. Maybe you are wishing for someone who would play with you. People call the feeling being lonely. Is that how you feel?”

Describe how to share feelings in socially appropriate ways

Young children listen to how people talk about emotions and learn appropriate ways to show their feelings from the people around them. By narrating your experience, you are helping them learn. Let them hear you use words to talk about your feelings. “I was so disappointed when there was only vanilla ice cream. … I really wanted chocolate!” or “I feel calm when I watch the wind blow the leaves on the branches.”

We all have feelings

Let children know that all feelings are OK to have and talk about. Remind them that it is not OK to hurt others’ bodies or feelings or to destroy property. Say, “I know you feel angry when your brother takes the truck from you. Tell him you are mad and want it back.” Use what you see in books or videos to teach about emotions. “Look at that little girl’s smile! She is so happy when she is swinging in the park!”

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: Feelings Are Fantastic

Illinois Early Learning Project


One, two, three! Hearing young children begin to count is exciting! As families and caregivers listen to a child’s little voice say number words in order, they feel pride and joy in the child’s learning.

Saying the numbers in order, or rote counting, is a very useful and important skill. Children learn the patterns of number words as they rote count. They think about how a group of objects or individuals can be described using a number quantity. Children learn to rote count through songs, finger plays, stories, and by hearing the people around them count.

Rote counting is often the first time that families notice their child using “math.” Counting is one of the big math concepts young children explore, but not the only one! Math learning in early childhood includes many other concepts, skills, and understandings that children learn through their everyday exploration, routines, and play.

Sometimes, educators call this type of play mathematizing. By mathematizing, we mean using mathematical thinking and talk during play or routine activities. Here are a few examples about how young children might mathematiz

  • Children notice when piles of toys or other objects have more or less pieces. For example, a child may notice when his peer has more toy animals than he does.
  • Children use their fingers to count while singing songs such as “Five Green and Speckled Frogs” or “Five Little Ducks.” They may be eager to show their caregivers how many fingers they are still holding up after they finish singing a verse of the song.
  • Children categorize toys, natural objects, and foods into groups. For example, they may sort dry cereal, fruit salad, or candies by color or shape.
  • Children talk about whether something is longer, shorter, bigger, or smaller. For example, they may compare the length of their hair, the size of their feet, or their height to another person’s.
  • Children talk about the passing time and what they will do next. For example, they may talk about games they played yesterday and places they hope to go tomorrow.
  • Children notice colors and shapes. For example, children may comment about the colors and shapes of tiles in a hallway. They might try to walk on only a certain color or shape as they move down the hall.

Adults can help young children mathematize throughout the day. Adults can ask children questions about quantities, patterns, time, and shapes. They can encourage them to find out more about the world around them and provide tools such as tape measures, rulers, strings, or blocks for measurement. They can provide boxes and containers that encourage children to sort and classify objects.Each time an adult encourages a child to mathematize, they are helping the young children they care about to develop mathematical thinking skills that will help them succeed in school.

Writen for the Illinois Early Learning Project:

Illinois Early Learning Project

Super Story Time

“Tell me a story!” or “Read it again!” You have probably heard those words spoken by a child you know. Go ahead and answer, “Yes!” Cuddling up with a good book is a great way for children and adults to spend time together.

Reading together is one way that families, caregivers, and teachers can help children build the skills that will help them be successful in school. In fact, reading is so important that the American Academy of Pediatrics has encouraged health care providers to make literacy promotion an essential component of pediatric primary care.

Reading together supports the development of children’s language and comprehension skills. Reading exposes children to new ideas and information. Children learn how printed text works. They hear the sounds of language. As you read, children are building vocabulary.

Conversations about what you are reading are opportunities to build cognitive, social, and emotional skills. You can encourage children to recall the order of events in a story, guess what characters might do next, and talk about how characters might feel.

Children benefit from the chance to repeat and replay stories in different ways. Children show their understanding of a story through these activities. They use the words they have heard and have the opportunity to be creative with language. Below are some ideas for how caregivers can build on story time.

Act it out: Some stories describe movements or dances. Try to make the movements you see in the pictures. Dress up, play pretend, and tell a favorite story. Scarves, old clothing, and hats made of paper can be used creatively as costumes. You can even use a cell phone to video your storytelling and watch your creation together.

Create puppets: Puppets can be made out of paper, popsicle sticks, straws, and bits of cloth or yarn. Turn cardboard tubes, paper bags, and old socks into puppets. Use your imagination to create characters from favorite stories and songs. You can use the puppets to retell a familiar story or make up a new one. Try using stuffed animals and toy figures like puppets in storytelling.

Use a storyboard: Children enjoy being able to move pictures around as they retell a story or sing a song. A simple storyboard can be created with a piece of flannel glued to cardboard. Flannel, felt, or Velcro bits on fabric or paper cutouts will help cutouts of characters or a story scene stick with static. What can you do if you do not have a flannel storyboard? No problem! Try using paper cutouts and magnets on the refrigerator or other surface. You can even just move paper cutouts on a table top as you tell the story or sing a song.

Draw a picture: With a pen and paper you can tell a story. You do not need to be a great artist—stick figures and scribbles are just fine! As you tell a story, draw figures and symbols to represent what you are saying. Share the pen with your child and encourage them to join in. You can also try this with a dry erase board, magnetic doodler, or even with a stick in the sandbox at the playground.

Sing songs that tell stories: The lyrics of songs can tell stories. As you sing, act out the words and encourage your child to join in the singing. Look for books that illustrate song lyrics. Make up your own versions of favorite songs.

Tell stories about you: You and your child have many experiences and many stories to tell! Fold a piece of paper to make a little book. Write down your child’s words and illustrate the book together. If you have access to a printer or can get photos printed at a local store, you can include pictures of your family in the book. Children love to see themselves and the ones they love as part of a story!

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project:

Illinois Early Learning Project

Make Art a Part of Every Day: Focus on the Process

When I was a teacher of young children, I especially loved setting out materials in the art center. I would admire the colors and textures of the materials while pouring cups of paint and glue and filling little baskets with drawing and collage materials. I wondered how the children might explore and use the materials. I enjoyed setting up interesting ways to make art, such as painting with spoons, golf balls, or lengths of yarn.

One vivid memory is from teaching 2-year-olds. After trying to use pine needles instead of brushes, the children and I wondered about other natural items we could use for painting. We tried pinecones, sticks, and even the fascinating fruit of an Osage orange tree near our playground.

The children had noticed the large, bumpy green fruits falling from the orange tree. They were very curious to investigate these fruits. Together, we explored their shape, scent, and texture. We rolled them in tempera paint and delightfully discovered they left a beautiful pattern on the paper. What started as a painting activity ended up providing the children a chance to explore math and science concepts while building their language abilities.

Our conversation about where these mysterious fruits had come from led to conversations about the growth of trees. We talked about how the fruits grew from flowers and increased in size over the summer until they were heavy and fell from the trees. We talked about the weight, shape, and size of the fruits. We watched the squirrels nibbling the fruits, and that inspired us to look inside the fruits.

Children gained vocabulary related to trees and texture (e.g., skin, seed, bumpy, waxy). They practiced their hand-eye coordination and dexterity as they explored the materials. If we pause and reflect, we can see how powerful this type of activity can be in promoting learning because we refocused our attention on the “process” of creation rather than what was created.

High-quality visual art experiences for young children should emphasize the process of creating. However, the art created by these “process art” experiences usually lack easily identifiable images. Because of this challenge, adults guiding young children may be tempted to plan “crafty” art activities that lead to an identifiable product to avoid this challenge.

Therefore, our classroom team had to help families and other adults in the center understand how the painting experience supported the children’s development and promoted their learning. We included photos and a short explanation of the activity with our display of the paintings. When the children looked at the display, they were eager to point out how the bumpy hedge apples had created circular trails of paint as they rolled them on the paper. We wrote down their words and included them as part of our documentation display so people looking at the artwork could have insight into the children’s creative experience.

Recently, I worked with a group of Head Start teachers and family advocates in a workshop in which we experimented with crayons, different types of papers, and textured materials. I encouraged them to make crayon rubbings of bubble wrap, cross-stich canvas, and bumpy cardboard. We also experimented with drawing on bumpy paper, sandpaper, and slick aluminum foil.

The room was quiet while everyone focused on their experimentation. I heard a few people ask, “Why are we just coloring with crayons during a professional development day?” I assured them that this was part of the learning process.

Suddenly, a participant said in a frustrated tone: “This sandpaper is eating up my crayon!” We talked about how a child might make a similar observation. We realized that the art activity could easily become a science experiment with young children. Teachers brainstormed about trying different-sized crayons, trying different grades of sandpaper, and counting the number of strokes it might take for a crayon to be used up.

There were so many possibilities to explore with crayons and textures! We began to list other things to explore with texture, such as creating rubbings with chalk, dipping textured items in paint to make patterns, and pressing textured items into clay or play dough.

I think the art centers in these teacher’s classrooms will be busy this school year. Perhaps you and the children in your home or center may also make art a part of every day!

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project:

Illinois Early Learning Project

Pour It! Stir It! Yum!

Cooking is a wonderful way to engage children and provide rich learning opportunities. Cooking engages the senses and gives children hands-on opportunities to explore food. Children enjoy discovering the smells, textures, and tastes of different foods. Cooking experiences are a wonderful opportunity to work the small muscles of their hands by using simple kitchen tools and to develop hand-eye coordination as they are sprinkling, pinching, squeezing, and organizing ingredients.

Baking cookies is often what comes to mind when many early childhood educators and parents think of cooking experiences for young children. Children are excited to pour ingredients, stir them in a bowl, scoop the dough onto trays, and see raw ingredients change into finished cookies after a trip to the oven.

Baking provides many wonderful opportunities to measure, mix, observe, and predict what will happen with ingredients. Curious young learners will be interested to learn about the source of ingredients such as flour. You can describe how wheat is grown in a field, is harvested by a combine, and is processed in a mill. Read stories such as The Little Red Hen and find informational books with photographs of the production of flour to expand upon your cooking conversations.

Of course, a baking activity with young children might seem like an overwhelming task that has potential to create a big mess. Your classroom or home setup may not make it easy to bake with young children. Many cooking activities require less setup and preparation, but they are still meaningful learning opportunities. These simple cooking experiences can help you build your confidence about cooking with young children. These activities also allow you to have these rich learning experiences even when space or resources are more limited.

Here are some cooking ideas that can give children experiences that help them develop the skills and knowledge described in the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards (IELDS). Cooking with young children can provide lots of opportunities to address several IELDS benchmarks.

Make a sandwich together. As you gather the ingredients, encourage children to look at the labels on the items. You can encourage your child to look for letters and words she knows. Talk about the order you need to follow when putting the sandwich together. What food needs to be put on the sandwich first and what food is last.

Slice soft fruits or vegetables for a salad using a butter knife. Count the pieces of fruit you have cut and talk about their shapes. Compare the quantities of items in your salad. For example, ask children “Does the salad have more tomato or cucumber slices?”

Squeeze lemons for lemonade or oranges to make fresh orange juice. As you create your beverage, you can talk about the trees where the fruit was grown, who harvests and transports the fruit to the store, and the parts of the fruit such as the peel, pith, and pulp.

Spread cream cheese, nut butter, or hummus on toast or crackers. Introduce vocabulary such as thin and thick as the children use a dull knife to put the spread on the crackers or toast. To encourage math thinking, you can ask children how many crackers are needed to make three sandwiches or to guess the number of crackers on their plates.

Crack and whip eggs for scrambled eggs. Talk about how a chicken lays eggs. Name the different parts of the egg (shell, yolk, white). Supervise children carefully by the stove so they can watch the cooking, and talk about how the eggs change as they are heated in the pan.

Perhaps your next meal or snack can become a learning adventure for the children in your care. Below are some resources to help you get started.

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project:

Illinois Early Learning Project

Cherishing Children’s Treasures Can Create Many Opportunities to Learn

When you read the word treasure, what images come to mind? Oftentimes, something is considered a treasure if it has some sort of monetary value. Perhaps you think of diamonds, gold coins, or a delicate china doll. Family photographs, letters, or quilts may also be considered treasures. As adults, we may have our notions of what makes something a treasure. In addition to being a noun, treasure is also a verb. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the verb treasure as “to hold or keep as precious; to cherish; to prize.”

Adult definitions of what makes something a treasure may differ from what a child would consider a treasure. Children find treasures everywhere. Some treasures that excite children are sparkly sequins for a craft project, pebbles, pinecones, seeds, beloved toys, or a tattered blanket. The items that capture the attention of children may be different than those adults may focus upon.

We can capitalize on children’s natural motivation and desire to learn when we as adults choose to follow the lead of children as they explore. With found materials, children have a natural desire to sort, classify, talk, and write about their discoveries. These found objects are sometimes referred to as “loose parts” that can be incorporated with more traditional classroom materials, such as blocks or items in the dramatic play areas, and they can spur children’s creativity.

I was fortunate in the spring of 2014 to travel to Pistoia and Reggio Emilia, Italy, with other early childhood educators. There, we visited the municipal early childhood centers. In these centers, I saw examples of how teachers capitalized upon the treasures children had discovered and encouraged children to incorporate their treasures into their play and learning. One school I visited was La Coccinella, a program for children ages 3–6.

My fellow travelers and I noticed that in each classroom there was a shelf filled with small cardboard boxes labeled with children’s names. In the classroom for 4-year-olds, the teachers allowed us to peek into a few of the boxes, and we were delighted to see that the children used these boxes to collect items they treasured. The boxes were filled with natural objects such as stones, seashells, and pinecones. We also saw tiny dolls, toy cars, and other small treasured objects such as coins and marbles.

When we looked at some classroom displays of children’s work, we saw similar materials. For example, we saw a display the children had created that sorted stones and shells by type, shade, and size. Through this creation, the children developed several early math skills such as counting, creating and recognizing sets, and comparing the attributes of objects.

Another impressive display was an entire fairytale village that had been built by the children out of clay, recycled materials, and many treasures such as figurines and little toys similar those we had seen in the children’s treasure boxes. The fairytale village provided an opportunity for storytelling and dictation of stories, and the children used their emergent writing skills to label their creations.

I wonder what kinds of opportunities we can create for children to learn with treasures in our classrooms, family child care programs, and homes. Our first challenge is to “treasure” or cherish children’s perspectives. We can tune into what they find fascinating. We can provide containers and spaces for collecting items, write down children’s words, and encourage children to use their emergent writing skills to label their collections. We can let them play with these items and bring various objects for children to explore in small group activities rather than using “boxed” manipulatives.

Even older infants and toddlers can join in joyful exploration of treasures, provided we plan for their safety. Boxes, containers, large plastic lids, scarves, measuring cups, and spoons can be left for discovery in special treasure baskets or boxes in their play areas. You could even encourage older children to create a treasure basket for infants and toddlers. With your guidance, they can help classify items first as safe for a baby (e.g., smooth edges, large enough not to choke on) or unsafe for a baby (e.g., sharp edges, very small items) and then by other attributes such as the material the objects are created from or their color.

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: Cherishing Children’s Treasures Can Create Many Opportunities to Learn

Illinois Early Learning Project

Go Outdoors and Explore: Build Upon Young Children’s Natural Curiosity

The birds are singing and little green shoots are popping up out of the ground. Springtime has arrived in Illinois. There is new activity in our neighborhoods as people are getting out and walking their dogs, pushing babies in strollers, and holding the hands of toddlers as they make their way down the sidewalk.

You might see caregivers standing and watching their toddlers crouch down to look at ants on the sidewalk. Perhaps you overhear questions from preschoolers, such as “Where are the squirrels going?” or “How did the green leaves get onto the trees?” There is so much to see in the springtime, and being outside engages a key motivator for young learners: curiosity!

When we talk about curiosity in young children, we are referring to their desire to learn about their world. Outdoor spaces are of full of opportunities for discovery. Children can explore the natural environment as well as the “built” environment. The natural environment includes items such as trees, grass, and animals. The built environment includes things that are created by people such as buildings, sidewalks, playgrounds, and roads. There are also many places where the natural environment and the built environment cross over. Some examples of these crossovers include when dandelions poke up through the sidewalk or tomato vines climb up a trellis. These crossovers delight children’s curious minds and provoke questions. A child who notices this might say, “The stems are winding ’round and ’round!”

One discovery can lead to another. Imagine a visit to the park. As they explore, children might discover that each blade of grass is a tiny plant. A conversation with an adult may help them understand that the tiny plant grew from a seed. Next, adults and children might examine individual roots buried in the soil. The children might notice that the soil and grass feel different under their feet and in their hands from the sand. They may wonder, “Why do they feel different?”

With simple tools such as magnifying glasses and empty containers, the children can investigate these differences more closely. Upon closer examination, they might discover that soil is filled with tiny insects and little bits of leaves whereas sand is made of tiny rocks. Perhaps it is time to go over to the library and find some books about soil, sand, or insects. This is one example of how following children’s natural curiosity can lead down a path of discovery.

When you open the door to the outdoors, you will discover opportunities that can engage the whole child! Curious young children are eager to use their bodies and minds to explore. As they run, crawl, and climb in different spaces, they discover the ways their bodies can move and the properties of different surfaces.

Conversations with caregivers and peers happen during these times, and these conversations are opportunities to build vocabulary and knowledge. You might find children arranging rocks, sticks, and leaves to build nests like birds and squirrels do. Children often use found materials such as pinecones, sticks, or rocks to represent their ideas and figure things out. Outdoors, there are many chances to put curious minds and bodies to good use! Where will your next outdoor adventure with young children take you?

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: Go Outdoors and Explore: Build Upon Young Children’s Natural Curiosity