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.
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.
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)
- X-Ray Print (Biocolor Paint –white, black; white paper; tray; scraper)
- Color Mixing (Liquid Watercolor – red, yellow, blue; water; container)
- Salt Crystals (Coffee filter [or Colorations BIGTEX filters]; Liquid Watercolor; salt)
- Fluffy Goop (Colorations white school glue; shaving cream; Liquid Watercolor)
- 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)
- Corn Starch Fade Away (Corn starch; water; tray; Liquid Watercolor spray)
- Tornado Tube (2 empty 1 liter bottles; tube connector; water)
- Water Moving Fountain (2 empty 2 liter bottles; fountain connector; water)
- Sun Print (Sun Print paper; everyday object; sun)
Life Cycles (P-SCI 4; K-LS1)
- Life forms on light table (life forms/x-rays; light table or panel)
- Stamping Thumb Prints (stamp pads, paper, markers, thumbs J)
- Documentation Journals (paper)
- Collection Journal (paper bags; glue or staples)
Magnets – Push and Pull – Floating and Sinking (Goals P-SCI 5,6; K-PS2-1, 2 – Scientific Reasoning – Motion and Stability)
- Marble Printing (Magnet; magnetic marbles; paper; Biocolor paint; tray)
- Slick Sand (Slick Sand; container; water)
- Oil is Lighter than Water (Vegetable oil; water; container; Liquid Watercolor)
- 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)
- Building and Connecting (Building Brilliance Blocks; Light Table)
- What Make It Cold? (Insta Sno; Water)
- Engineering and Building
I 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:
- 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?
- Allow the children)[ to draw what they plan to create.
- Have the children build their project or organize the activity.
- 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.)
- When the projects are complete, review what happened. Guide the children through thinking about how they worked through the activity.
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.
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:
It 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.
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.
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.
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:
- Spatial Relationships
- One to one correspondence
- Place value
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.
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!”
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.
I have been taking watercolor classes to try to expand my hobbies beyond the limited experiences I have had in the past. We were recently painting animals and I did a picture of a blue horse. Actually, a black horse that shadows and light create the illusion of being blue. One of my fellow students painted the same horse. When she sent a picture of it to her parents in China, her father said, “Why is the horse blue? Horses aren’t blue!” Even for this adult, the criticism was hurtful and unnecessary.
This experience reminded me of the many times I had parent question a project their child had completed. We often curtail or limit a child’s creativity by expecting everything to be real-life or understandable. I vividly remember having a discussion with a parent about her kindergarten child’s project. Carl had drawn a wonderful picture of the park and had made an attempt to write a couple of words underneath the picture. Of course the words were not spelled correctly and actually needed a bit of translation by Carl to understand. His mother was stressed about the fact the words were not spelled correctly. I tried to remind her that Carl was in kindergarten and the words he was attempting were not words that a kindergartner could spell. I emphasized the fact that the very idea that he had made an attempt at words (“I can write down my words!”) was outstanding and he was to be commended. She didn’t agree that he should be commended when it was incorrect. The whole purpose of the activity was to get Carl to explore, not to get him to write advanced words correctly.
Somehow, we adults need to look past correctness and applaud the creativity and thinking experiments of the children around us. There will be time for correctness during academic instruction, but when a child is exploring we must do everything in our power to encourage that exploration. The whole business model right now is about “thinking outside the box.” No one has ever been able to think outside the box unless they were encouraged to explore and develop their own thinking skills.
We don’t know what the world will be like, exactly, when our young children are adults and going into the workforce, yet we are supposed to be educating them to be prepared. One thing that is certain is that the future generation will need to think. The world is already rewarding people who can think and create, and that doesn’t appear to be changing anytime soon. I hope each one of us can celebrate the blue horses that are produced by children and celebrate their creative accomplishments.
I have been in education for many years and I have watched several educational trends come and go (or at least be relegated to the back burner). One of the latest buzz topics is STEM education. In dealing with STEM, many people insist the arts should not be ignored (I am one of them) and therefore the acronym should be STEAM to make sure the arts are present. However, one could argue that every classroom should be a STEAM classroom. Whether you follow STEM or STEAM, attention to the engineering portion is essential.
Having said that, I have been doing a few workshops on the “E” part of STEM/STEAM. There are many professional development activities headlining science, technology and math, but not too many for engineering. Some may think that engineering is reserved for the older children, but the very foundation of engineering thinking skills (critical thinking skills) must begin with the young child. Good early childhood teachers already do many engineering activities, but perhaps don’t support those activities with solid words that encourage critical thinking.
Critical thinking and engineering skills can begin when we encourage the child to build something. Blocks, sand, dough, and other building materials can be used to encourage this type of development. I love to use building materials with children because there isn’t a correct answer. I use materials that are as open-ended as possible and I stay away from block sets where the child can only build one thing. Through the use of these materials, a child should be able to hypothesize, plan, organize, make discoveries, and come to a conclusion about the project. An additional element that is often missed is the opportunity for the child the actually play with her project after it is built. Adults may think the experience is complete when the project is built, but playing with the objects offers even more skills development. This is a critical element for the child to develop skills on how to reinforce, reinvent, and think beyond what she created.
Make the most of engineering opportunities by using all of the building materials that are available to you. Keep your eyes open for new blocks and building materials that come on the market, as they may provide an extra challenge. If they are truly open-ended, the possibilities for critical thinking (engineering thinking) are infinite.