Sunday, August 26, 2012

A letter to the director of my daycare: The importance of outdoor play

Earlier this week, the director of the daycare where I work led a meeting with the teachers to discuss current events of the school, one of which was that parents were complaining teachers kept children outside too long. The director told us that he didn't care overly much, but that he didn't have anything to tell the parents when they asked what the children learned when they stayed outside. I spoke up immediately, saying something like, "You can tell them that they learn communication skills and develop spacial awareness." He agreed and said that he was just voicing concerns.

Since then, I haven't been able to get that scene out of my mind, like a missed opportunity to sell him on the wonders of an outdoor curriculum. Finally, Sunday morning, I couldn't help but write an email. I wrote it quickly, only taking about half an hour of time, so the end result is a little sloppy. I'll probably look back and cringe at myself for the lack of organization and poor writing (in fact, I'm already noticing changes I could have made), but I decided that I would post the letter here, as well.

I've been thinking a lot recently about how you were concerned you couldn't tell parents their children learned much when we stayed outside for a long while. On the contrary, I think being outside is one of the times when children learn the most.

Young children need as much time as possible to practice running and moving about in a wide, open area so as to grow their bodies, strengthen their muscles, and develop spacial awareness. It also gives them a good dosage of sunlight and fresh air to develop healthy immune systems. That, I think, is the most important reason to play outdoors--to develop strong, healthy bodies.

Second is the interactions between the children as they play, the communication and ability to empathize with others that lies the foundation for the rest of their lives. While we're outside, the kids are learning the skills that they need to get along with each other. The other teachers and I frequently model correct and friendly usage of language for the children to try when they want to play with a friend. If a child says, "I want to play with that ball," the one that another child has, I tell him, "Go ask if you can play with her." And he does! The child gets up and runs to the other child to ask, "Can I play with you?" Most of the time, this leads to a happy game of laughing children. But other times, of course, the other child wants to be left alone, to which I tell the first child, "Oops. [Child B] said, 'No.' She just wants to play by herself right now. What else can we play?" In that case, the child is learning many things: first that other children have feelings that must be respected, second that they can't always have what they want and that the world goes on regardless and they can still find something else to play and still be happy.

Another thing children learn outside is how to occupy themselves and create their own games (particularly in my favorite playground at name of daycare, the older toddler area where there is minimal equipment, just grass and a large area to run). This is especially important today while children are growing up in an age that gives them everything instantly. Computers, cell phones, and TVs offer endless "entertainment," but it's all passive--sit back and let the electronics flash bright colors and show pretty pictures. What would we do without them? Which is why the slow pace of the outdoors and the creativity of being able to design your own game with no man-made parts are so invaluable. (Not that technology and video games don't teach a lot and have their own important place in education, which I absolutely know that they do.)

We also learn respect for environment. There's a tree outside of the older toddler playground with branches that hang into our reach, and we've had many discussions about how it's not polite to pull on the leaves that are still attached to the tree because the tree is still using them.

We often practice writing letters and drawing pictures on the cement with chalk, too. One girl frequently comes to me with a piece of chalk in her hand and asks me to write, one at a time, all of her friends' and teachers' names. Since we've been doing this, whenever a friends' name is written elsewhere, for instance, on a potty sheet, she can correctly identify the child. Name and letter recognition at such an early age, and all on her own initiative!

And that doesn't even begin to cover the importance of a play-based curriculum in a world full of standardized-testing and teacher-as-the-authoritarian-figure-at-the-front-of-the-room.

Remember, there are schools that spend their ENTIRE time outside, regardless of weather., I know these are fundamentally different than our school, but I just wanted to emphasize that being outside is so important to these educators that they base their entire curriculum on it.

Finally, a few links. The first is from a blog that I like, although I know most of the skills listed are more pertinent to forest kindergartens than to our school. The others were found with three minutes of googling.


Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Tabula Rasa Classroom--Building a Learning Environment Together

This past winter I read Paula Polk Lillard's Montessori in the Classroom. The book consists of a Montessori Kindergarten teacher's diary entries during the school year. In it, she wrote about something in particular that I keep reflecting on, and that was her method of beginning and ending the year. Lillard begins each year with her classroom completely bare, a blank canvas for children to paint together upon. Likewise, she closes the year by asking the students to tear everything down and put materials back into the closet.

What follows is as mostly a promise to myself and future students.

When I have a classroom, we will begin tabula rasa, as well. "This classroom belongs to you," I will tell the children. "It will be our home together, and we will use this space to help us learn."

Each material I make available will be useful and serve its purpose in our quest for knowledge, information, and learning. When it no longer serves a purpose, I will remove it. When a material enters the room, it will be thought-provoking and will therefore be discussed.

All materials will be of high enough quality to deserve being shared with the students I value.

There will be authentic instruments and cultural items from around the world. There will be no need for cartoons when photographs exists--there will be photographs and books of our universe, planet, and people.

There will be computers, highly accessible, available to answer questions and look up anything.

There will be no patronizing themes or puns. The walls will not be covered in generic decorations purchased from catalogs or teacher supply stores (and thus found in countless other classrooms across the country). Rather, each item that goes on our walls will be constructed lovingly. There will be artwork created by individual students and larger pieces created by all of us together. There will be charts and graphs that the children will be proud to say that they designed. There will be lists of questions we are researching and words we want to remember. We will proudly display our evolving list of agreed rules.

And at the front of the room, framed, will be my Pledge to Guide Today's Students, my reminder and promise to the children and to myself, the reason our communal classroom exists.

We have the serious work of learning to do, and our classroom will show it.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

"The tree is still using those leaves."

There is a tree whose branches overhang into one of the two toddler playgrounds at the daycare center I work at. It seems that there is a cycle involving those branches that goes something like this:

1. The branches are growing down over the fence.
2. The branches are now long enough that the toddlers can jump up to pull the leaves off and break off portions of the supple limbs.
3. The branches are now shorter and forgotten, out of reach of the children.

And repeat. It's like a free trimming service.

Except that it builds unfriendly habits towards nature.

Which leads me to say, "Do not take from living plants. The plants are still using those parts. If you find parts of a plant that are on the ground, we can take those--the plant is finished using them and has given them to us like a gift."

(I think I may have gotten a line similar to this from the book, Teaching Kids to Love the Earth.)

But, of course, the two-year-olds I work with are not used to thinking along such terms, there are too many children on the playground at once for them to ignore the commotion of the others playing and pay attention to comments like this, and the other teachers are not on board with this care of plants, either.

So once every two weeks or so, I do everything in my power to prevent the flurried dance of two-year-olds jumping, pulling, tugging, and falling into each other in order to harm a tree.

Montessori teaching is difficult at a center that doesn't embrace the Montessori philosophy.

More on such thoughts later.