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.

A Blue Horse

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.

Blue Horse

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.

Family Support is the #1 Factor in a Child’s School Success

It is back to school time again! In fact, some classrooms are already up and running for the new school year. Last year at this time, I posted a blog entry about 10 things to remember when setting up and classroom. To access that list, scroll down to my blog entry dated, July 31, 2014. It contains a great list of things that I tried to remember as I set up my classroom each year during my 25 years of teaching.
I am supervising ten interns this year instead of student teachers. I was visiting their classrooms recently and since they have their own classrooms (no cooperating teacher), they requested help in organizing information to share with parents. This year I thought I would post some suggestions to pass along to parents. I think this content would be a great parent letter home or a nice list to share when the families visit the classroom.

How Parents can Support Classroom Learning

j.funk 8.17.15

  1. Always make positive comments about the classroom and the school. Saying negative things about school gives your child the message that school is not a good place to be and he/she does not need to respect the classroom. If you have concerns, please speak with the teacher directly and solve the problem.
  2. Make sure your child gets plenty of sleep and a good breakfast. Being rested and having proper nutrition helps a child think. Your child’s brain cannot function well when it is not rested and supported with proper nutrition and water for hydration.
  3. Read to your child. Research indicates that children who are read to, simply know more. Being read to is such a good model for learning to read and understanding new words and other important information about our world. Children who have been read to are almost always further ahead in reading and math when they attend school.
  4. Ask the teacher for activities to help your child at home. Early childhood children are building the foundation for all of their lifelong learning. Ask the teacher for suggestions on how to help support your child’s learning at home. Often the teacher will send home suggestions. Don’t hesitate to ask for more suggestions or for a clarification of the teacher’s suggestions.
  5. Please follow through on all concerns. If the teacher or school contacts you about a concern with your child’s behavior or learning, please support your child by helping to make the situation better. The best support is to not get defensive or take your child’s side against the teacher or the school. Remember that your child’s behavior is developing. Negative behavior in early childhood can get worse and become magnified as the child gets older. The best time to help your child learn appropriate behavior is now. You don’t want your child to suffer continually from negative behavior for the rest of his life. Help your child take responsibility for inappropriate behavior and work together on improving it.

According to many research studies, the number one factor for a child’s success in school is the involvement of her family. When the family members are supportive and place importance on school, the child has the most supportive environment in which to learn.

Topics in Early Childhood Education: Activities to Promote Interest and Engagement

One of the challenges of being a parent or a grandparent in 2015 is keeping children from becoming couch vegetables. With all of the electronic gadgets available now, this task has become even more difficult. I watch children all the time whose only interest is playing on electronic toys. Having said that, I don’t want to give the impression that electronics are all bad. Technology may be the future for some of our children and their occupations. What I worry about, however, is that children will lose all passion for anything else in the world. Technology has a tendency to pull children in so that they don’t engage with the rest of the world. This is one of my fears and a challenge I see when parents try to get their children interested in something else. The key is to begin early.

Early childhood developmental stages in children are the perfect opportunity to allow the child to explore many different things. Parents and grandparents should not be consumed with “no messes” or “no time” excuses when children can participate (within reason) in activities to develop their interest or skills. I do understand there are many constraints, but they should be limited to real constraints like lack of money or too much distance to the activity. During my many years of working with children, I have observed children who are uninterested in getting off the couch. Much of the time, those children are the children who haven’t experienced anything else. Summer may be an ideal time to allow exploration since the child may not be in school. Here are a few inexpensive suggestions that encourage children to expand their horizons:

  • Pick up a set of watercolors or other painting medium. I’ve heard many parents over the years saying, “Ugh. I don’t want the mess.” My suggestion is to get over it! Messes can be cleaned. The process a child goes through during painting encourages not only creativity, but also critical thinking skills.


  • Encourage your child to create projects using discarded home materials such as egg cartons, food boxes, bottle caps, empty paper towel rolls, etc. Glue, tape and scissors will probably be required for this activity.
  • Visit the library for books and other activities that are usually scheduled at that facility.
  • If there is a farmer’s market close by, take your child there and have him help choose food for meals. There are often other activities and displays at the market, such as art, jewelry, services, etc.
  • If affordable for your family, take your child to local festivals and holiday activities. Many festivals offer your child a different cultural experience than she might have at home and in the neighborhood.
  • If affordable, allow your child to participate in community sports organizations such as baseball, soccer, gymnastics, basketball, etc.  This will give your child an opportunity to see if sports are something that she would like to participate in and continue.
  • If it is within you budget, allow your child to take lessons in an area of interest, such piano, gymnastics, karate, art, singing, drama, etc.

Children rarely make make good choices when they have limited experiences.  Providing opportunities for trying new things will also help your child develop thinking skills and become willing to try new activities and develop new talents.

6 Things to do with ‘Summer Children’

Summer breaks from school are quickly approaching and I always have parents ask me for suggestions on what to do with their children during the summer. Over the years, I have come across quite a few ‘lists’ of summer activities. To be honest, they make me a little crazy. Most families are not going to devote time every day to do a project or follow what the calendar lists indicates for the day. Two things often happen with that scenario. The family gets behind because there are days when they have activities planned away from home. The children get discouraged because they think they are ‘behind,’ even though there are no requirements. The other thing that can happen is that the three month lists looks so daunting to begin with that some families give up before starting. That is why I like a short list of possible activities to do during those summer months. I like activities that help the children maintain their skills, while still being fun and engaging. Although there are myriads of ideas about summer activities, here are six that I think are good suggestions for engaging the ‘summer child.’

1. READ every day possible. I really like my grandchildren’s school because they have a ‘reading challenge’ over the summer. The children keep track of pages read and there are rewards and activities that correspond with their totals when they return to school in August. My three grandchildren are always trying to ‘win’ the page total for their classroom. Go to the library or bookstore often to make sure they always have a book to read (or books for reading aloud to the pre-readers). Kids who read and are read to simple know more!
2. WRITE often by creating a journal. A journal can be simple pieces of paper or to make it a little more engaging, have your child choose a journal book or ringed notebook from the store. Have your child write about where you go during the summer months or if you stay home, have him write about where he hopes to go someday. Drawing pictures is an important part of writing. For young children it IS writing (putting their thoughts on paper).
3. GET OUTSIDE as often as possible. We know childhood obesity is a serious threat to our children. If you do not have a yard, try to visit a park or open space often during the summer months. Purchase inexpensive items for fun games. Examples: Frisbee catch, hit balloons back and forth with a tennis racket, play kick soccer with a Nerf ball, see how many forms of life you can find in a tree (you’ll be surprised), or run/walk a 5K race as a family. For very young children, take them on a neighborhood walk and see which letters of the alphabet or numbers they can see on signs and buildings. You will notice that all of my suggestions require the body to move. Don’t spend the summer in front of the TV or electronics.
4. PUT ON AN ART GALLERY STROLL. Have your child(ren) create art projects using various materials. When you have a number of projects, display them on a fence, side of a house or building, or a large board. Invite family members or neighbors to come and ‘view’ the art show. Have your child(ren) describe and talk about each project. Serve refreshments.
Gracie's Mountains 10-13
5. BUILD SOMETHING! Collect disposable materials (such as empty toilet tissue or paper towel rolls, empty boxes or pieces of cardboard, wood pieces, etc.), glue and/or tape. Challenge the child(ren) to build a project or sculpture using the materials. Encourage them to plan out what they are going to build. In all areas of education, children are encouraged to use critical and creative thinking skills. Building helps develop critical thinking skills and reinforces many engineering skills.
6. DO SOMETHING FOR COMMUNITY SERVICE. Summer is a great time to help children understand their role in the community. Providing some type of community service helps the child feel good about helping others and builds the child’s self-esteem. Helping a neighbor with yard work, taking dinner or treats to another family or an elderly person, serving at the local homeless soup kitchen, collecting contributions for a non-profit or community need, are a few suggestions.

Make this summer the best possible by helping your children to do new things and sharpen their thinking skills for the new school year in the fall.

Putting the ‘E’ in STEM/STEAM

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. IMG_2045

Safety and Security

Last week I presented two workshops at the California Head Start Conference. I discussed with one group about one of the Head Start goals, which is helping families acquire basic needs. These basic needs are essential for the family to function well and for the child to learn in her preschool setting. We also discussed how research indicates that there are ‘other’ basic needs a child has to feel in a classroom in order for her to be an effective learner. Three of those basic needs are safety, security, and respect. I think good teachers can help children fulfill those needs, even when the physical aspect of the school/classroom is not the best. I was thinking about this again when my granddaughter, Audrey, recently sent me a sketch she made for her teacher.
I am not sure what thought processes were happening when she created this cartoon, but I do know that we can help children feel safe and accepted in many different physical surroundings. She was definitely telling her teacher that she felt safe and loved in her school environment.
Some teachers complain about their lack of resources or their less-than-desirable classroom setting. While these issues are a concern, having the teacher create a safe and loving environment is much more important. I have student teachers in a very old school building right now. However, that school is run very effectively, is spotlessly clean, and is filled with great teachers. The students there are safe, secure, respected, and are learning on a daily basis. I actually see more learning taking place in that school than in some of the other schools that are relatively new.
Safety, security, and respect are things that we can provide for children, even if we are in a less than perfect building or classroom. As Audrey stated, we can brighten any alley.

Keep Paddling

We went to the beach in San Clemente, California, on New Year’s Eve to watch the sunset. Even though it was cooler than normal, it was still a beautiful site. As we were watching the sunset, there was a lone paddleboard rider floating on the waves. I was impressed by his sense of balance that helped him navigate the waves and that he was out there even when it was quite chilly. He quietly floated on the water and made it to shore as the sun sank below the horizon.
Later, I was thinking about that lone boarder out in the ocean as I was trying to shore up a shaky student teacher who was tempted to use premade materials in her classroom, as her site teacher instructed. Even though she knew that it would be better to have the children create their own projects, she wanted to please her cooperating teacher and not cause unnecessary waves. She was looking for that delicate balance to keep from tipping over into the abyss. I showed her the picture of the paddleboard rider and compared it to the fact that there would be times when she would feel alone in her delicate balance, like the rider. I challenged her to keep her head in the game and do what she knew was right, and she would stay afloat on her board and safely make it to shore. I know this because there have been many times when I have felt like I was the only one who insisted on appropriate practices with young children. As I persevered with good practices, I felt great when I knew the children in my care had been supported in an appropriate manner. Because I haven’t given in to peer pressure to cut corners, I still feel like I am keeping my balance as I am heading to shore and will get there safely by sunset.

Excited About Paint!

I have been doing quite a number of art workshops around the country in the past few months. In addition to those conferences, I have been organizing art projects for several of my university classes. But, this past Friday, when I attended a local Head Start Conference, I was reminded again how excited early childhood teachers are with paint! Every place I went had the same reaction from the teachers. They should be excited about paint because when it is used correctly in the classroom, paint can provide open-ended activities that inspire creativity and can encourage critical thinking. IMG_0826

One of the most difficult parts of my profession comes when I enter a school or classroom and see pre-made crafts that the teacher is calling ‘art.’ I get stressed by these inappropriate activities. I witnessed a teacher looking at her wall display of cut-paste-color all the same scarecrows and saw her detach one of the heads and glue it on straighter. This is a teacher who is only concerned with a final product to go on the wall. Anyone who knows anything about art and early childhood knows that it is the process the child goes through that is the learning experience. Although the final product is always wonderful when made completely by a child, it is the thinking and creative process that is the essential teaching tool. It would have been so much more appropriate to see individual scarecrows, totally made by each child, displayed on that wall. Child-centered art activities display the child’s personality and thought processes. Plus, he has much more ownership than he could possibly have with a project that an adult created for him to ‘finish.’

At the Head Start Conference this past week, I remembered how excited we can be about paint and children. If I was in charge of the world, all coloring book-type art would disappear and all children would have paint, crayons, and paper, along with a teacher or parent who knows how to help ignite creativity.