Early Childhood Education, Early Learning, Illinois Early Learning Project

Busy with Blocks

Children learn many things by playing with blocks. Spatial and mathematical thinking are important understandings that children build through block play. As children build, they gain hands-on experience with concepts of proportions and balance. They explore shapes. As they talk about the blocks they are handling, they learn about the two-dimensional shapes on the surfaces of blocks and the three-dimensional forms that blocks represent, such as cylinders, prisms, and cubes. As they build, they learn to organize things by relative size, color, weight, and form.

Natural and human-built structures fill the world. Young children notice the shapes and designs of these built structures all around them. Perhaps you have been on a walk or car ride and heard a preschooler commenting on very tall built structures such as a skyscraper, a spikey fence, or a twisty slide on a playground. Children notice bird nests, hills, lakes, rivers, and other natural structures. Then, you may have seen that child attempting to re-create that structure with wooden blocks, plastic bricks, or even rocks on the playground. Blocks are a valuable tool that allow children to represent their world and share their understandings with peers and caregivers.

Block play also is an opportunity for children to develop skills across developmental domains, prompting them to use their language, social, and emotional skills. During block play, children have opportunities to communicate and collaborate with peers. Children can share ideas and work together to build large structures. Children negotiate sharing resources. They may work out exchanges of various shapes or problem solve how to build their structure when a certain shape is in short supply. A child may need to manage her emotions and frustration when another child knocks down her structure.

Do you want to keep your young learners busy with blocks? Here are some ideas to help make block play a richer and more inclusive opportunity for diverse learners.

  • Organize your space: Provide a variety of types of building blocks and add picture and word labels to help children find and put away blocks in an organized manner. This will help them find the shapes of blocks they need for their structures as well as learn the vocabulary to talk about structures such as arch, pillar, unit, and double unit.
  • Add loose parts: Adding other items to blocks inspires children to play with blocks in new ways. Scarves can become canopies, tissue boxes can become beds, twigs might encourage children to create a small forest. Small pieces of paper and tape can be used to create signs and symbols to enhance block creations. (Be sure to choose objects appropriate for the age of the children in your setting to avoid choking hazards.)
  • Encourage dramatic play: Adding toy animals, people, or vehicles to your block play can encourage children to create stories. Clothespins and cardboard can be used to make simple stand-up people. You might also tape the photos of the children in your classroom or people in your family to blocks so they can become characters your block play.
  • Allow structures to remain standing: If your space allows, let children keep their structures standing instead of putting them away immediately. You might encourage children to write a sign with the word “save” by their structure so they can continue to work on it later.
  • Incorporate technology: Help children use a video camera, digital camera, or other recording device to document their creations. You can interview the children and ask them to describe their structures. Try rebuilding a previous creation or creating a diagram that shows the design of a structure you built.

Build, break down, and build again! For more ideas and information to help you get your young learners busy with blocks, check out the resources from the Illinois Early Learning Project website.

(Originally written for the Illinois Early Learning Project https://illinoisearlylearning.org/blogs/growing/busy-blocks/)

Early Childhood Education, Illinois Early Learning Project, Parenting

Try and Try Again

Newborns are completely dependent on their caregivers. As the weeks and months go by, they are able to do more and more. “New” skills develop quickly: smiling, reaching and grasping a toy, sitting up, scooting and crawling, cruising, and, eventually, that first independent step. Families and caregivers are excited to cheer on each new skill.

Families, teachers, and caregivers want young children to be successful. It can be hard to watch a child struggle or become frustrated. Sometimes, well-meaning adults think they are helping young children by doing things for them. However, it can be both safer and better for adults to encourage children to try things on their own or provide limited supports that encourage children to use their skills to complete part of a task.

You may have noticed that some children start talking sooner or later than others. Children reach developmental milestones at different times. Some children will need different or special supports and will meet milestones at a very different pace. Regardless of a child’s timeline on a particular skill or understanding, there are many ways that parents, caregivers, and teachers can help them develop abilities to help themselves and others in daily activities.

Imagine a group of 4 year olds trying to climb a slide’s ladder. One child may climb on her own, while a teacher may need to show another how to alternate his hands and feet by tapping on which foot or hand should be used next. Another child might be too afraid to climb up and need verbal encouragement and emotional support from an adult.

In the case of a child who is fearful or struggling to get up the ladder, adults may be tempted to help a child “too much” and just put them on the top or slide down with them. After all, the child may be focused on just being able to use the exciting slide. However, a child will be much safer, confident, and competent in using the slide by herself if adults resist that first impulse to just get her to the top and instead encourage her to try harder to climb up the ladder.

Here’s some ways adults can encourage young children to try and try again while providing a little support so they can do things on their own:

  • If a child is upset about a lost item, help them develop their problem solving skills by asking questions or helping them look for it rather than finding it for them. Ask them “Where did you think you last gave teddy a hug?” or say “let’s start looking in your cubby, and then we will check the block shelf.”
  • If a child is overwhelmed by a cleanup task after playtime, rather than clean up for him, break it down and provide a specific plan to get the job done together. Say, “I will be in charge of putting the books on the shelf, and you are in charge of getting the animals in the basket.”
  • If a child gets frustrated trying to zip her coat, rather than zipping it for her, reach from behind and show her how to start the zipper. Then encourage her to finish by letting her pull the zipper all the way up. This will give her a feeling of success and helps her slowly learn how to zip her coat by herself.

There are many moments throughout the day when young children are gaining skills to become independent. Finding the right level of support for a young child is a balancing act for the adults who care for them. Adults can find that balance for a child over time through experimentation and self-reflection. With the right balance, children can develop the persistence to try and try again, which will benefit them as they meet future challenges.

Originally written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: Try and Try Again

Early Childhood Education, Illinois Early Learning Project

Website redesign announcement from the Illinois Early Learning Project

 On behalf of the staff of the Illinois Early Learning Project , I am pleased to announce that our website has been redesigned. The Illinois Early Learning Project was started in 2001 and is funded by the Illinois State Board of Education. The web site is a source of evidence-based, reliable information on early care and education for families, caregivers, and teachers of young children in Illinois. We have resources in a variety of formats including our well known, easy to read tip sheets, videos, and information about the Project Approach. Our website includes many resources to help individuals and communities understand the Illinois Early Learning Guidelines, the Illinois Early Learning and Development Standards and most recently, the Illinois Kindergarten Learning Standards. We hope you will find the new layout to be a user-friendly and useful resource for your teaching and for your students. We also encourage you to let the families of young children in your community know about our resources through community agencies and resource fairs. Our materials are free and can be shared via print, email, and social media. A link for ordering printed materials is here located on our homepage.We have some new materials on the website that we want to highlight so you can integrate them into your teaching and outreach work. Our selection of graphic tip sheets has grown. These colorful, one-page tip sheets are great for posting on bulletin boards, sharing on social media, and easy to read. Teacher educators may wish to use them as prompts for assignments. Student can be encouraged to to reflect in small groups, discussion forums, or essays on how they might use the tip sheets as a tool in sharing child development and early learning information with families. Our new Early Learning Moments series is a resource for teacher educators presenting infant-toddler content. Use them for classroom instruction or assign them as self-study lessons.During the process of our website redesign, we carefully reviewed all of the materials on our website to ensure that we are providing current, evidence-based information in up to date and useful formats. You may find that certain links have changed. We encourage you to use the “search” field located in the upper right corner of the website. You can type in keywords to search all of our project resources. If you encounter further difficulty, our project staff would be happy to assist you via email.

Another way to search our resources is to use a database search. Click to search resources by topic and you can search our data base by keyword, language, audience, and type of media. We encourage you to show your students the different ways to search the website so they can find materials that will help them in their coursework and teaching of young children. We will continue to develop new resources and welcome you to send us ideas for resources that would meet your needs as teacher educators. You can send your ideas via our user survey. We will also be at the Sharing a Vision conference in October! Our shared session with the Early Intervention Clearinghouse will provide help in searching for resources online and our new workshop, Junkyard Math will be a hands-on workshop that will introduce the redesigned website while we explore IEL’s mathematics resources. You can also visit our table to pick up printed materials, say hello, and tell us about your work and needs as teacher educators.

This was originally written as a guest post for the Illinois Association of Teacher Educators.

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Early Childhood Education, Illinois Early Learning Project

Learn by Listening to Language: Build Phonemic Awareness Skills

When we think about young children learning to read, we might imagine children learning letter names, sight words, and exploring picture books. To become skillful readers and writers, children also need opportunities to build oral or spoken language skills in addition to these important opportunities to engage with printed words.

Oral language skills grow through listening and engaging in conversation with peers and caregivers. During these times, young children explore words, phrases, and the meaning of language. Through conversations and stories, children build vocabulary, reason, and make meaning of their world. In these moments, they are also building knowledge about the sounds and structures of language that are important for reading and writing.

Let’s take a moment to think back to how children explore language first as infants and toddlers. You might remember listening to a child coo and babble. First “ooh” and “ahh,” which eventually changed to “ma ma” and “ba ba.” You heard them repeating and playing with the sounds of language they heard around them. As children move into the preschool years, their oral language becomes more recognizable.

As children are learning to use language to express meaning, they become familiar with the sounds that make up language. Exploring the sounds of language is an important part of learning how to read and write. As children explore, they build phonemic awareness skills. Phonemic awareness is the ability to notice, think about, and work with the individual sounds in spoken words. All of these words that children learn are made up of sounds, or phonemes. Phonemes are the units of sound in language. Each bp, or eh you hear is a single phoneme. These phonemes are blended together to form words.

Most words are made of more than one phoneme. For example, the word cat is made up of three individual phonemes: K-a-t. Each phoneme can be shown by one or more graphemes. Graphemes in English are single letters or combinations of letters. When children are learning to read and write, they need to make connections between the letters they see and the sounds that they hear.

You might hear children playing with the sounds of language making up silly words, songs, and rhymes. This type of language play is important for learning to read and write. During daily routines, there are many opportunities to explore the sounds of language. The IEL project has a new tip sheet that can provides examples of how to help children learn by listening to language. These games will help your child develop an understanding of how spoken words, syllables, and sounds become printed words.

Get started by looking around you for printed words on signs. Talk about the names of people or pets around you. Talk aloud and stretch out the sounds in these words. Ask your child to guess the letter with which names or familiar words start or end. Make up silly rhymes, songs, or chants. Each time you do this, you are helping children develop skills for breaking down words when they read and building words when they write.

Written for the Illinois Early Learning Project: Learn by Listening to Language

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

Mathemetize!

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: https://illinoisearlylearning.org/blogs/growing/mathematize/

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: https://illinoisearlylearning.org/blogs/growing/superstory/

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: https://illinoisearlylearning.org/blogs/growing/artpart/