Hands-on Learning

I have had the privilege of presenting a number of hands-on learning workshop recently.  I’m convinced that we need to give young children  more real experiences with messy materials and activities that relate to their world. Paper and pencil activities are not the way to establish concrete cognitive learning in a child’s mind.  I was reminded about this recently when a I visited my new two week-old grandson.  He has been a much-anticipated addition to our family.  As I was watching our interactions with him, I was remind about the brain connections that he will be making this year.  Since we know that those connects are essential during these first 12 months of life, grandpa will do everything possible to provide support for those connections.  We can continue to make these important connections throughout the early childhood years if we provide hands-on learning activity and experiences.  That should be the goal of early childhood educators.

I promised my friends in Sacramento at CHSA, that I would provide the words to the song, “Oh, My Aunt Came Back” on this blog.  I’m sure there are different versions and with apologies to the composer/author, here are the words that I use for this echo song:

Oh, my aunt came back (Students repeat all the lines.), From old Japan (Repeat)

And she brought with her. (Repeat), A waving fan. (Repeat)

Oh, my aunt came back. From Old Algiers.

And she brought with her, A pair of shears.

Oh, my aunt came back. From Timbuktu.

And she brought with her, A wooden shoe.

Oh, my aunt came back From Guadeloupe,

And she brought with her, A Hoola-hoop.

Oh my aunt came back, From the County Fair.

And she brought with her, A rocking chair.

Oh, my aunt came back, From the City Zoo.

And she brought with her, A nut like you.

     I use songs like this to engage the child’s entire body.  When children become disengaged in the conversation or activity, it is time to help them physically re-focus.  To me, this is an important part of hands-on learning.

Messy Science

I recently presented a workshop on Messy Science at the annual NAEYC Conference.  Here is a copy of the handout, as requested by many participants.

Mad Scientist!  Combining Art and Scientific

John H. Funk

University of Utah / Excellence Learning Corp.

John.funk@utah.edu; jfunk@excelligence.com

Head Start Outcomes Framework & Next Generation Science Standards for Kindergarten

(question, observe, predict, experiment/test, observe)

Five Senses/Body Parts (Goals P-SCI 1, 3 – Scientific Reasoning)

  1. X-Ray Print (Biocolor Paint –white, black; white paper; tray; scraper)
  1. Color Mixing (Liquid Watercolor – red, yellow, blue; water; container)
  1. Salt Crystals (Coffee filter [or Colorations BIGTEX filters]; Liquid Watercolor; salt)
  1. Fluffy Goop (Colorations white school glue; shaving cream; Liquid Watercolor)
  1. Biocolor Window Stickers (Biocolor; acetate or slick plastic)

Weather Patterns (Goals P-SCI 3 – K-ESS2-1; K-ESS3-2 – Scientific Reasoning – Earth’s Systems)

  1. Corn Starch Fade Away (Corn starch; water; tray; Liquid Watercolor spray)
  1. Tornado Tube (2 empty 1 liter bottles; tube connector; water)
  1. Water Moving Fountain (2 empty 2 liter bottles; fountain connector; water)
  1. Sun Print (Sun Print paper; everyday object; sun)

Life Cycles (P-SCI 4; K-LS1)

  1. Life forms on light table (life forms/x-rays; light table or panel)
  1. Stamping Thumb Prints (stamp pads, paper, markers, thumbs J)
  1. Documentation Journals (paper)
  1. Collection Journal (paper bags; glue or staples)

MagnetsPush and Pull –  Floating and Sinking (Goals P-SCI 5,6; K-PS2-1, 2 – Scientific Reasoning – Motion and Stability)

  1. Marble Printing (Magnet; magnetic marbles; paper; Biocolor paint; tray)
  1. Slick Sand (Slick Sand; container; water)
  1. Oil is Lighter than Water (Vegetable oil; water; container; Liquid Watercolor)
  1. Floating & Sinking Rafts (Colorations Craft Sticks; container of water; items to sit on raft)

Problem Solving – Engineering Design (Goals P-SCI 3,4,6; K-2-ETS1 – Drawing Conclusions/Engineering Design)

  1. Building and Connecting (Building Brilliance Blocks; Light Table)
  1. What Make It Cold? (Insta Sno; Water)
  1. Engineering and Building



j.funk 8.17.15



img_0045I have been around for many years and the education community always grabs on to the latest trend in teaching strategies.  The education world has been trying to reinforce support in math and science since Russia launched the Sputnik in the 1950s.  Everyone is all about STEM or STEAM education right now. As far as I’m concerned, every school should be a STEAM school. We should always be mindful of every subject domain when working with and supporting young children.  As I travel the country right now, many early childhood workshops and conferences want to concentrate on STEM education.  I don’t usually mind reinventing the wheel as long as it gets teachers to evaluate their individual settings and strive to improve the content and teaching.  What I have found with the science and math portions of STEM is that most teachers do STEM activities.  However, many do not form their teaching activities into something that supports engineering thinking or standards, as well. Those three domains are so closely related that when I am working with science and math, I can create an engineering approach that will support a STEM education and critical thinking.   Here are some things that I think about when I give children a set of blocks and encourage them to work on their math, science, and ‘engineering’ skills:

  1. Suggest that the children plan out their activity before doing it (and provide the appropriate materials), particularly when they are using materials such as blocks?
  2. Allow the children)[ to draw what they plan to create.
  3. Have the children build their project or organize the activity.
  4. Make note, or have the children watch,  for changes that they have to make when they actually build it.(Often the blocks do not do exactly what they had planned or they do not have enough materials to make it as planned.)
  5. When the projects are complete, review what happened.  Guide the children through thinking about how they worked through the activity.img_0044

Activities such as this can add great depth to a child’s thinking, particularly if he is allowed to be part of a working group.  I’m convinced that most teachers do engineering activities in their classrooms, but don’t realize the importance of planning and reviewing.  One aspect of High Scope that I love is their philosophy of plan-do-review.  That philosophy is a great foundation for building critical thinking skills.

Quiet! Actress is Rehearsing

I recently visited my daughter’s family and had to chuckle about the sign on her youngest daughter’s bedroom door.  This was the sign taped to the door:

Audrey's Room Door 2It reminds me about how often we expect children to adapt to our agenda, even if they have their own plan.  I became convinced many years ago that if I let children speak and offer suggestions, I usually ended up with a better scenario.  I was the king of classroom meetings when I was teaching.  When issues came up in the classroom, I often turned it over to the children and asked their suggestions on solving the problem.  They always had great suggestions and they were better at following new procedures because they felt as if they had made them.

I also found out that when I had a child that seemed to be doing something completely different than the assignment, I would always ask for an explanation.  Often, their explanation made sense and actually made the project better.  I learned a long time ago not to jump on what a child was doing when it seemed they were not following the plan for the assignment.

The latest ‘big thing’ in education is to model instructions around STEM/STEAM. (My feeling is that ALL classrooms should already be STEAM classrooms!).  The foundation of STEM education is to teach critical and creative thinking skills  Let’s not shut down those skills by thinking that we always know what is best for a child.  I hope we teachers become much better at listening than we are an instructing.  Remember, a child is a candle to be lit, not a cup to be filled.

We teachers need to be courteous, because the actress needs to rehearse.

Classroom Management Should Be Easier than Herding Cats

I am currently at NAEYC’s Professional Development Institute (PDI) in Baltimore. Yesterday I presented a workshop on classroom management. One of the focus points for this year’s conference was the need to support DAP strategies in primary grade classrooms, K-3. This is important to me since I have spent most of my teaching career in those grades. I also currently supervise student teachers and interns, which include candidates working in K-3 classrooms. Although we tend to shy away from the term, ‘management’ when speaking about 0-5 settings, it is evident that it can be appropriate to use that term when speaking about school-age classrooms. From my experience, classroom management in primary grades is the foundation for teachers to be able to teach in a developmentally appropriate manner. I have found over the years that administrators and fellow teachers will listen to a DAP suggestion when they feel the teacher making the suggestion is an effective teacher and can run a nurturing and responsive classroom.
Here are some of the research materials that we use in our program at the University of Utah to provide guidance for our candidates to develop appropriate classroom management skills:
• Forlini, G, & E. Williams, A. Brinkman. (2010). Class Acts: every teacher’s guide to activate learning. Bronxville, NY. Lavender Hill Press.
• Jensen, E. (2013). Engaging Students with Poverty in Mind. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.
• Wilson, M.B. (2013). Teasing, Tattling, Defiance and More. Turner Falls, MA. Northeast Foundation for Children, Inc.
• Armstrong, T. (2006). The Best Schools. Alexandria, VA. ASCD.
• Charles, C.M. (2014). Building Classroom Discipline, 11 Ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ. Pearson.
• Cunningham, P. & R.L. Allington. Classrooms That Work: they can all read and write, 5th Ed. Boston, MA. Allyn & Bacon.
Of particular note is the ‘Big 8’ format that we use, in collaboration with Granite School District, which comes from the book listed above, Class Acts (Forlini 2010). Expectations, attention prompts, proximity, cueing, signals, time limits, tasking, and voice, provide a wonderful framework for helping pre-service teachers develop that all-important classroom management foundation.

The Blurred Lines of Assessment

There are clear and concise images displayed in most paintings and art.  However, occasionally, you see a work of art that has blurred lines and is much more subtle in it’s appearance.  I thought of this watercolor with blurred lines (a purposeful lack of specific images) as I was speaking with two education managers at a local Head Start agency.

Watercolor 2

The managers were concerned about the lack of clarity and the blurriness of their assessment procedures.  Their concern stems from indications that the students in their program are not displaying the skills that their observation assessments seem to indicate.  Their concern is that the teachers are documenting what they think they observe during their classroom interactions, but don’t explicitly determine if each child has clearly developed individual skills.

Many preschool assessment programs are like that.  My opinion is that they contain so much information and documentation that the basic tracking of skill development is lost.  I believe that many programs try to solve every problem and cover everything that could possibly happen in a classroom.  This massive amount of documentation can weigh down the teacher and she/he doesn’t master any of the procedures because of the overwhelming amount of paperwork.

Many years ago, when I was  Head Start Education Manager, I developed a simple road map of skills from the HS Outcome Indicator document.  I put them in developmental order and they were posted in each classroom.  Even though we had other assessments in place, this was a hands-on individualization that helped the teacher easily track progress.  What happened was that we began to actually see skill development in the children.  We still had our observation assessment that we documented, but we had a quick way to evaluate whether the child had the skill.  That simple road map provided so much clarity for the teacher that she/he began to understand how individualization works and how to put all the pieces in place.

I bring assessment up at this time of year since most programs do an assessment at the end of the school year.  While subtle images and blurriness may have their place in a watercolor portrait, they do not have a place in appropriate assessments. It is critical that we track a child’s progress in a clear, developmentally appropriate way.

DAP Mathematics


As I travel the country doing early childhood workshops, I am always very concerned with math instruction.  Of course there is a new resurgence of math concentration with the attention given to STEM and STEAM schools.  Each organization has it’s own set of mathematics standards.  My one large criticism is that sometimes the language used in standards is so academic that I fear many classroom teachers fail to absorb the full impact of the standard.  I’m not suggesting we dummy things down, but just make sure that we use language that is usable to the early childhood teacher.  I also worry that standards are not often listed in the order that you should introduce them to a child.

Through all of the language of mathematics standards, I think the simplicity of developmentally appropriate math strategies gets lost.  I watch many teachers instruct students in a math standard before the child has a solid foundation with which to understand and incorporate that skill.  A solid foundation will provide a solid basis for the scaffold of math the child should develop.  A good foundation will last throughout time.  I recently found the foundation of a dock on the coast of Kauai, where they used to load pineapples. The farming and production ceased long ago, but the foundation of the dock has lasted through time.  A math foundation for a child should be just as solid.


I have found that the following developmental steps provide a solid foundation for future math skills:

  1. Spatial Relationships
  2. Classification/sorting
  3. Patterning
  4. One to one correspondence
  5. Ordering
  6. Numeration
  7. Shapes
  8. Place value
  9. Measurement


Each one of the skills listed provides a solid foundation for the skills that comes next.  For more information, check out the book, Count on Math by Dr. Pam Schiller or download my conference handout about math on the right side of this blog.


For years I have enjoyed the books written and illustrated by Kevin Henkes, even the volumes that have not been chosen as award winners. His newest picture book, Waiting, is delightful and fun. The waiting theme made me think of the years I was a kindergarten teacher.


Prior to coming to kindergarten, many children experience a strong build-up by family members. Everyone exclaims, “You get to go to kindergarten in the fall. You must be so excited!” The anticipation for a five-year-old must be enormous. More than once, I had a child express concerns after the first few days of kindergarten. “Is this it?” they would say. It always kept me on my toes to make sure that my classroom was an engaging and exciting experience. I knew I had to live up to the big build-up kindergarten had received, because I wanted them to feel, “WOW! This IS it!”


Waiting also made me think about the number of times I have been in classrooms and watched children waiting…Waiting for other children, waiting for the teacher, waiting for their turn, waiting for their snack, etc. We know that when children are not engaged, the chance of them displaying negative behavior goes up dramatically. A smart teacher will be organized enough to minimize any waiting time for their students, especially early childhood age children. Here are a few things that worked in my classroom to help children avoid waiting:

  • There was always something to do. Whenever the children were engaged in a project, there were always more activities to do when they finished the planned activity. I often posted picture of each activity on the board so that the children could look up and know what to do next. This way, they never waited for other students to finish.
  • There was a procedure for everything. The children knew the procedures for going to the bathroom, getting a drink, getting a sharpened pencil, getting paper, staying put when the teacher was giving directions, etc. I reminded the children often about the procedures and used those reminders as teaching tools.
  • “I’m Next” nametags. I created (thanks to a suggestion from my friend, Sharon MacDonald) some nametags that said, “I’m Next.” Whenever taking a turn was the procedure (using the computer, iPad, sand table, play dough table, etc.), I had the child(ren) who would be next wear the necklace. That way they knew they were next and didn’t keep asking me about it. ALSO, the other children in the classroom didn’t waste time waiting, because they knew they were not next.
  • A daily visual schedule. I found it important to have a daily schedule posted so the children knew what was coming next. I was always surprised at the number of children who waited for the next activity. I always told the children that we would move to the next scheduled part of the day when we finished the one we were working on. I would give them a signal when we were ready. I do think that this visual reminder gave them a sense of security and a strong feeling that they didn’t need to wait.


There were many other things I did that helped, but these were the main strategies that helped children avoid waiting. I always strived to make my classroom an engaging, joyous environment, where the children were never waiting and the activities met their high expectations for kindergarten.


Possible posting themes:


Classroom Management


At this time of the year, we usually reflect on the past year and what we have accomplished. This feeling usually precedes the beginning of the year when resolutions are made. I’ve also noticed lately how winter scenes very often depict some type of reflection. Coincidence? I’m not sure, but it has put me in a reflective mood.


Reflection to me, however, is the mirror image that is produced by our accomplishments with young children. Will the child reflect the teaching that has taken place or will his learning be a distorted version of actuality? This thought crosses my mind often. I watched one of my granddaughters recently express thanks for receiving a cookie at a restaurant. I also observed another child grab and run when offered a cookie. While I know that children’s actions are not always a reflection of their upbringing and instruction, I do think that there is a high probability that it does often reflect their learning.

In light of this reflecting season, I will offer a few suggestions that I think are important for all teachers and parents who are surrounded by young children.

  • Manners and politeness are NOT out of fashion or useless. Being polite is always appropriate, but a lack of manners is almost always inappropriate. The comment that they are “just kids,” is ridiculous. It is developmentally appropriate to teach our young children to be courteous.
  • It is our responsibility to teach children how to take turns and wait their turn. In my 25 years of teaching, I had many children who had not been taught patience. They learned it in my class because that was the expectation. (Try allowing the inpatient child to wear a hat that says, “I’m Next” when she is the next child to get a turn. You will be amazed how that calms the savage beast.)
  • Classrooms should be places of joy. I’ve been in a lot of joyless classroom lately. I want to ask teachers in those rooms if they would like to be a student in that environment every day. For some children, learning is a task. Most of us know how difficult it is to perform in a hostile environment. I certainly wouldn’t want my life to reflect some of the classrooms I have been in during my years.
  • Remember, you are an example to young children. Would we act differently if we thought that the children in our lives would behave exactly the same way and have the same attitude?

Take some time to reflect during this last month of the year. Look in the mirror and see if you are making a good reflection. Not necessarily in our physical appearance, but in our actions and behavior. Be joyful and make the world around you a more joyful place as well.




The Pancake Challenge

While my grandson was visiting me this past summer, he had the opportunity to have cooking lessons at a local café. One item on the café’s menu is a meal called the “Pancake Challenge.” This meal involves challenging the diner to eat three plate-size pancakes in 30 minutes. If they complete the challenge, their meal is free.  As you can imagine, only a very select few are able to eat that much pancake in that amount of time. My grandson learned how to make the pancakes, flipping them with a pizza spatula. The amount of food is almost obscene, much more than I could ever eat in several meals. One of my interns this year saw this picture of my grandson and commented, “That plate looks like all of the things that I had on my plate at the beginning of the school year!”

Pancakes and boy

Supervising interns (first year teachers) this year has been a reminder to me about all of the ‘stuff’ that you have to do to be a teacher. I am in classrooms each week, but helping set up classrooms has refocused my attention on how much we are really expected to do as teachers. Besides managing a classroom and absorbing the content of the curriculum, there are helper boards, calendars, visual aids, nametags, and other responsibilities too numerous to mention. But, I thought of the pancake analogy when dealing with curriculum and standards that are part of every classroom setting. Even Early Head Start has standards now.  Looking over everything that needs to be covered and mastered during a school year, it is much like three plate-size pancakes that you need to eat in 30 minutes.  There is almost too much to consume and digest. It takes a lot of effort and skill to effectively and developmentally teach every guideline and help each child understand how it might fit into her individual life. It can be done, but it is a daunting task.

My advice to all of us seasoned (educational code for ‘old’) educational veterans is to do all we can to help the newer teachers gain the skills they need to be successful. We desperately need teachers right now, at least in my area. We need them to be good so the children benefit and so the goods ones stay in our profession. So help out the newbies and provide them with plenty of syrup. That stack of pancakes is huge.