Playdates and Projects
Weekly field trips at TOADS rotate through a list that includes self-care and safety skills, arts and classroom readiness, forage-to-fork food processing, and community involvement. Today we met at a student's home for a class that met multiple objectives: Doll Wearing!
During free play time, parents took turns respectfully coaching children through challenging social interactions. Conflict was resolved by face-to-face listening and child-to-child suggestions for reaching an agreement. Adults offered the least amount of help necessary, as we do when the children are taking on new physical challenges.
Older and younger children are used to playing together in our classes, and they learn to make allowances for each other's developmental stages, setting the stage for accepting varying levels of social skills from their peers as well.
When everyone had settled in, we gathered in a circle as Teacher Janet started the class routine, then introduced the expert who would be coaching us through a complicated carry. Our school is fortunate to have several babywearing educators enrolled, and one of them was able to make a fun story out of the knot-tying steps for a traditional sling carry. The children all listened closely, and were excited for their turn to make a wrap and wear the "babies" they had brought.
Maria Montessori reminds us that learning multi-step skills is the precursor to success in long division, and in life. Shinichi Suzuki reminds us that abilty begets ability. So as these children spend their playtime wearing dolls, with wraps they made themselves, they are not just learning to be nurturing caregivers, but are also learning to excel at the less important tasks of manipulating numbers, building machines, and creating great art.
Do you have trouble playing children's games? I do! Even when I was a child I had a hard time getting into my peers games. So when I got to be the teacher playing Hide and Seek with the kiddos today, I had to do a quick internal pep talk of some of the academic and social benefits of the game so I could be genuinely enthusiastic:
• Engaging in a group activity
• Suggesting and agreeing on a set of rules
• Waiting for a formal start and end to the activity
• Planning and prediction when choosing a hiding space, or seeking a hider
• Navigating new terrain and pushing past new textures
• Counting by 1's, 2's, and in Spanish
I enjoyed myself so much that I almost lost track of the time!
It was so good to see the community work together during circle time to support a student who was using clear language and appropriate boundary-setting tools with a friend who was pestering her, and to also offer support and suggestions to the student doing the pestering.
During story tag, we got to see the speed boat vignette begin its evolution into more complex storyline, and Teacher Janet had the chance to do a little coaching on the challenges of waiting to be picked by peers. This is tough, since students waiting for a turn are experiencing both the expected fairness of waiting for their turn, and the social dynamic of peers choosing their most familiar friends first. We will be working on this from both directions as we continue the story tag format for a few weeks!
After class, the joyful chaos of a Valentine's Day card exchange was finished off with a solid dose of dog poop on gear, but this is a farm-based school, after all. What would class be without a little muck to clean up afterwards?
How would you describe TOAD School's approach to early literacy?
We describe our preschool as minimally academic, so our teacher-directed literacy activities are short and efficient. We then use organic opportunities throughout class to build vocabulary, sing folk songs, and reference our phonemic games.
What challenges/opportunities for early literacy instruction has TOAD School experienced in its outdoor learning environment in particular?
We started as a mobile school and were able to demonstrate the use of written language to communicate as we read posted signs and maps. Now that we've added a farm class, we have our own space to build and develop designs, which include letters and numbers made from hay, mud, rocks, sticks, and charcoal.
We found storytime with books to be a challenge in rainy weather, but that board books hold up fairly well in light moisture, and now that our kindergarten class uses Rite in the Rain journals to record their observations, we are planning to write some of our own books to build a small log library.
Phonemic awareness games can be challenging outdoors because it becomes necessary to pronounce a vowel sound after the consonant (juh, for instance) in order to carry the sound across the open air. We have accepted this for now, and try to do a whisper around the circle game where we instruct the adults to be particularly mindful of pronouncing only the consonant.
Our hiking school has ample opportunities to write with sticks in the dirt and develop the fine motor skills necessary for proper pencil holding.
Most importantly, I value the climbing opportunities that are available in an outdoor setting. After teaching music for twenty years, I observed that only a few children out of the hundred or so that I have worked with have the ability to open their thumb fully, due to the constrained environments we place our children in from (before) birth. Grasping branches of a variety of sizes and textures, and relying on that grasp to support your body weight, for significant periods of time in a day, as well as freedom of movement for the majority of the day seem to be consistent factors in the students who have both the large and fine motor skills to play an instrument, and sustain the attention necessary to become proficient and literate in music. It is my belief that these skills will translate to English literacy as well.
Are there any particular activities/projects (particularly extended projects) that have been especially successful at TOAD School?
Our program is music-based, and so our phonemic awareness games are rhythmic repetitions around the circle. We combine them with casual finger spelling from ASL, and have had great success with even our 1- and 2-year old students recognizing and communicating sounds they hear.
Here are some examples of games we do to the beat of:
I am most excited about the possibilities of our beatboxing curriculum, which is still being developed after two years of use. At its most basic, we are trying to help the students maintain a pattern, at a predictable pace, with the same sounds we used in our other phonemic games. I expect the ability to maintain a pattern on a beat to be a more significant skill than reinforcing the letter sound, but we do both to make our curriculum more efficient.
Here are some examples:
What a wonderful morning of nature play today! We started easing our kids into the upcoming rule "no character play during class," and Kimmie, Laura, and Liam* all seemed fine with setting aside their personas once class started. It had the desired effect of allowing them to notice and engage in the nature things that Teacher J pointed out during their explorations.
I was thrilled that after five less-than-successful attempts to interest the children in building faerie houses over the last year, the children really latched on to the idea today and collaborated on the beginnings of a faerie village. It was difficult to leave, but the faeries can't come until we leave, so we said:
Come and play,
We'll go away,
And come back another day."
The tree shelter we found was full of interesting discoveries and experiences, including more forest "candy," branch bouncing, tree climbing, and many varieties of moss and lichen. While most of the children explored this area with Teacher J and the other grown ups, I got to help Mari with the snack store and visit with a grandmother who was taking her toddler granddaughter on the trail. They stayed to socialize the little girl for a bit and I was happy to give her the chance to experience some positive interactions with strangers.
Grandpa Sam and I had brought up the rear on the way to this spot, and had a chance to discuss the value of singing and moving to a beat through regular activities. A walking gait, engaging in a conversation, and even putting on clothes are examples of things that we do in a rhythm, measured by beats or moments of time. Those who have trouble processing their environment or finding a way to engage in it often benefit from simple time-keeping exercises, like picking up or putting down objects on a beat. In this case, I simply modeled the exercise near his granddaughter Lisa while she was playing.
Teacher J saw more of the social interactions than I did, but I got to witness Liam and Kimmie reach consensus during a territory dispute, and was honored to witness Evie's foray into a climbing tree, complete with pokey, uncontrollable twigs, sappy branches, and uncertain footing. She accepted help from a friend's mom (thanks, Shari, for the awesome "I'll show you how to get yourself up" when she asked you to give her a boost!) and walked away smiling and proud when she slipped all the way down (3 inches).
At the snack store, Evie and Mari communicated effectively enough that they were able to negotiate the appropriate trade without a grown up to translate! I thought that was impressive on both ends.
We started our class with our gathering song, including the new sign-only version, and ended with circle games using the 'W' Kimmie requested. Most of the kids came up with their own words, without too much deliberation. This is about the time of year that we saw an academic leap last year, and I'm not surprised that they are suddenly becoming aware of the sounds in the initial, middle, and terminal positions of words.
Tonight I'll ask my kids questions like:
What kind of path did we explore at preschool today?
Did you touch anything interesting?
Tell me about your friends; was there anything new that one of them tried today? Did anyone show you a discovery?
*Pseudonyms are used throughout this post.
Our field trip this morning was an instrument tour at Ted Brown Music in South Tacoma. We began our session by watching a Sesame Street episode where Elmo introduced us to a variety of sounds that are music (humming, clapping, etc.).
We learned that Job traveled on the Oregon Trail to Olympia, and then found Tacoma when he explored the Puget Sound in a canoe.
Then Holly set us up with a quilt-making activity. We had so much fun!
After a stressful morning, my 19 month old son (T) and I headed to the park. Initially, I was thinking we'd walk quickly through the grassy & treed area to the play structure. However, T had other ideas. He started out by just running "fast" on the wet grass, away from me as I walked slowly and then back again. The terrain was relatively challenging, with lots of little hills and some slick, muddy areas. He identified items of garbage in the grass, saying "garbage" or "yucky." Then he spotted his first part of a fallen chestnut.
About a week ago, T and his dad spent some time with a chestnut tree at a park near our house. I got kind of a summary of this experience after it happened, but didn't think much of it until he saw the nut in the park and said: "chestnut." So we spent a few minutes looking around the ground for pieces of chestnuts. I had low expectations because I thought it was too early for chestnuts, but didn't discourage the hunt. It turned out that the "spiky part" (burr) of the chestnut was pretty interesting; some of them were a moist, bright green with less pokey spikes and others were dried and brown with sharper spikes. It was interesting to watch T handle the pieces of burr gently, picking them up carefully by the edge to avoid touching the spikes. He found a smooth chestnut that he liked, palmed it, and then we moved on with our walk.
Soon I spotted a water feature and pointed it out to T. While heading that direction, he'd periodically point to the water and say "water" or "fountain" and we'd continue on our way. When we made it to the water feature (a man-made pond with two water fountain spouts), he explored some of the perimeter, getting much closer to the edge that I was comfortable with and saying things like "in" or "get in." The pond was surrounded with large rocks and then wood chips, so the dirt and chips were loose around the rocks and then there was about a foot drop to the mucky brown water, which was about 2 feet deep at the edge. I responded to his comments with things like "not today" or "this water isn't for swimming," and a couple of times I had to guide him away from the edge because "you're just making me too nervous." Even though I was pretty sure he wouldn't get hurt if he fell in the pond, it was hard for me to watch him scoot closer and closer to the edge of the rocks. I did my best to let him experience some challenge!
Within a few minutes, his "get in" shifted to "toss in," as he feigned a throwing motion with the chestnut tucked in his hand. It seemed he was torn between wanting to keep the chestnut and wanting to splash it in the pond. He spotted a fish, which distracted him until the chestnut accidentally slipped from his hand into the water. After pondering the water for a moment, he started throwing wood chips into the pond. When his enthusiasm started to peter out, I guided him away from the water (mostly because I was tired of worrying about him falling in it!).
He interacted with a few passers-by before discovering a second chestnut tree. This one had quite a few nuts on the ground, and boy was he excited to find more chestnuts to throw in the pond! After a few trips from the tree to the pond, we came across a goldmine; a third chestnut tree was surrounded with mature chestnuts and interesting spiky parts. When he grabbed a chestnut to take to the pond, I grabbed two handfuls and offered them to him while he stood on the wood chips, tossing them into the water. The next time, he took a chestnut in each hand to the pond. After a few trips, he started to get reckless with his throwing - not really looking at where they were going and losing his balance by the side of pond. It was getting close to nap time, so I said: "this is the last trip, the last time we're throwing chestnuts in the water, and then we're going to walk back to the car." He was surprisingly okay with this and let me pick him up after the last toss and carry him past our third chestnut tree back into the grassy hills of the park.
There was a final moment when he wasn't done with the park - he didn't want to follow me up the last big hill to the car. I sat on the protruding root of a tree and checked my phone while he pushed boundaries, walking slowly away from me until I asked him to return (we were in a grassy area surrounded by gravel paths, so I just asked him to stay on the grass). He started to do his new little tantrum-y thing, where he arches and throws his head back, but quickly realized I wasn't around to catch him. So instead, he just kind of fussed a bit and begrudgingly walked back in my direction. After a few minutes, I got up and started walking up the hill, saying "it's time to go." He followed and started to fuss for me to carry him, so we alternated carrying and walking until we got back to the car.
After a complete outfit and diaper change, and a small snack, he fell asleep in the car during the 10 minute ride home. I was so grateful that I hadn't parked by the play structure, that we were both okay with soaking our shoes in the wet grass, and that the chestnuts were in fact ready for our enjoyment!