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Become the Curriculum

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My willow tree helpers

I recently heard this phrase and it resonated so deeply with me. If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, you’ll see I truly believe in this concept and I’ve done everything I can to embody it in the classroom. When my PreK class explored the United States last year, we didn’t just look at where the Southeast was on the map or learn there was a big river in those parts. We decided to “Go Big or Go Home” and our room BECAME the Southeast for a couple months. We had a willow tree in the corner, we had a huge laminated Mississippi River that ran throughout the whole class with all the states on it and their unique wildlife cut out and pasted along, and we had regional food of course:)

03c5d825221d11ce302c723fec3f285b9e7e0b38The wildlife on the Mississippi

We made peach pie, mint juleps, ran a “Kentucky Derby”, made a giant cardboard paddle boat, and went to a local cafe famous for their Beignets. Every one of those kids can tell you who invented airplanes, in what city Mardi Gras is celebrated, and who farmed the first peanut. We did this all year with each geographical area and it was one of the most memorable years of teaching in my 10 year career. I really encourage you to understand this concept and try it. LIVE the curriculum in your room and see what happens; the level of engagement will astonish you and your creativity will flow like it’s never flowed before.

498f55552dc4a64962b9382157974a9084faea75The beginning of our paddle boat construction

You can still learn in the summer!

This past week I embarked on my first shot as a camp director and counselor of 5 of my former preschool students. If you’ve read any of my blog, you already know I’m an ardent fan of play-based learning. As a preschool teacher, I practiced teaching through play for 10 years. But as a camp director, I honestly hadn’t thought too much about what academics they would be working on during the week. I was more concerned with making sure their last week before kindergarten was a fun one. As I reflect on this time, however, I am not even a little surprised that we ended up with a ton more brain power among the group and the whole experience reinforced, yet again, that PLAY = LEARNING.

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We learned how to complete a tricky puzzle with 5 people without one single argument,

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that we know how to make patterns out of anything, even bocci balls,

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that after reading one of our favorite books, at least twice a day, we not only had it memorized, but also had mastered some awesome new vocabulary words: Slathered, Repaired, Mast, Moat, just to name a few. And when I say mastered, I really mean it. The kids actually used all these words, all week, in the correct context. (We also had fun using “pirate manners” at lunch).

Then just as I was enjoying all this, NPR publishes an article confirming exactly what I was experiencing at camp. Brains are built through play, not just in humans, but animals too. Maybe we all need to go to camp more often.

Article from NPR:

This week, is focusing on questions about why people play and how play relates to learning.

When it comes to brain development, time in the classroom may be less important than time on the playground.

“The experience of play changes the connections of the neurons at the front end of your brain,” says , a researcher at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. “And without play experience, those neurons aren’t changed,” he says.

Our friends at have been looking at the role of play in learning. Play is as much a part of childhood as school and an organic way of learning. Check out these articles that dig into play:

Let 'Em Out! The Many Benefits Of Outdoor Play In Kindergarten

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Free, unstructured play is crucial for children to build the skills they’ll need to be happy, productive adults.

At a school where free play and exploration are encouraged, children can educate themselves under the right conditions.

Many children in public school are getting less and less time outside, despite the documented benefits of free play.

It is those changes in the prefrontal cortex during childhood that help wire up the brain’s executive control center, which has a critical role in regulating emotions, making plans and solving problems, Pellis says. So play, he adds, is what prepares a young brain for life, love and even schoolwork.

But to produce this sort of brain development, children need to engage in plenty of so-called free play, Pellis says. No coaches, no umpires, no rule books.

“Whether it’s rough-and-tumble play or two kids deciding to build a sand castle together, the kids themselves have to negotiate, well, what are we going to do in this game? What are the rules we are going to follow?” Pellis says. The brain builds new circuits in the prefrontal cortex to help it navigate these complex social interactions, he says.

Learning From Animals

Much of what scientists know about this process comes from research on animal species that engage in social play. This includes cats, dogs and most other mammals. But Pellis says he has also seen play in some birds, including young magpies that “grab one another and start wrestling on the ground like they were puppies or dogs.”

For a long time, researchers thought this sort of rough-and-tumble play might be a way for young animals to develop skills like hunting or fighting. But in the past decade or so suggest that’s not the case. Adult cats, for example, have no trouble killing a mouse even if they are deprived of play as kittens.

John Poole / NPR/YouTubeWhere does play come from? Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp gives a playful answer in this NPR animation.

So researchers like at Washington State University have come to believe play has a very different purpose: “The function of play is to build pro-social brains, social brains that know how to interact with others in positive ways,” Panksepp says.

Panksepp has studied this process in rats, which love to play and even produce a distinctive sound he has labeled “rat laughter.” When the rats are young, play appears to initiate lasting changes in areas of the brain used for thinking and processing social interactions, Panskepp says.

The changes involve switching certain genes on and off. “We that play activates the whole neocortex,” he says. “And we found that of the 1,200 genes that we measured, about one-third of them were significantly changed simply by having a half-hour of play.”

Of course, this doesn’t prove that play affects human brains the same way. But there are good reasons to believe it does, Pellis says.

An overview of the Berkeley Adventure Playground, where children and their parents can paint, hammer, saw and run free.

An overview of the Berkeley Adventure Playground, where children and their parents can paint, hammer, saw and run free.

David Gilkey/NPR

For one thing, he says, play behavior is remarkably similar across species. Rats, monkeys and children all abide by similar rules that require participants to take turns, play fair and not inflict pain. Play also helps both people and animals become more adept socially, Pellis says.

And in people, he says, an added bonus is that the skills associated with play ultimately lead to better grades. In one , researchers found that the best predictor of academic performance in eighth grade was a child’s social skills in third grade.

Another hint that play matters, Pellis says, is that “countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less.”

 

Easy Science = Easy Learning

We do a lot of science activities in the Pre-K room. A LOT. But we make these activities easy and fun and always developmentally appropriate. Like the other day, when we all grabbed a journal and some binoculars and went on a leaf color expedition.

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We wrote columns with R (Red), Y (Yellow), O (Orange), and G (Green) and made hash marks for each color we saw.

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So we end up using our science activities to teach literacy and vocabulary too, because you can’t make R, Y, O, and G without learning your letters and when you use words and phrases like field journals, collecting data, making observations, results, and predictions, we’re quickly expanding their list of words.

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And then there’s the math we get to do, when we come inside and add up everyone’s results, and make a simple bar graph that uses addition and comparison concepts.

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Easy Science = Easy Learning and LOTS of FUN

 

Pollack Painting

So we’re discussing the wonderful letter P these days. Obviously painting comes to mind and given that cleanliness isn’t our main objective, the painting style of Jackson Pollack also comes to mind. We watched a cool video of him from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art….http://www.sfmoma.org/explore/multimedia/videos/249 and then proceeded outside, because, well, you’ll see why:)

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It’s one of the most fun painting activities you can do with your kiddos. What 4, 5, and 42 year olds don’t like to splatter paint? The best part I think? No one has to worry about their painting skills and whether they make a better splatter than their friend. Free-for-all style is a great self-esteem and confidence booster.

Note to teachers though: After having done this for several years, I recommend you have them take their shoes off. Painted feet are much cuter for parents than painted Nikes. And here’s our little video. I think Pollack would be proud.

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Tracing Fun

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Super fun activity – tracing the kiddos and then we all get to draw in the details. Every couple of days we trace another one and hang it on the wall. They feel famous and the conversations and observations about how they view each other are priceless……

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“Kai has a ton of freckles but I don’t”, “I want to draw Kai’s smile, because he’s always smiling”, “Where should we put Kai’s belly button?”

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Great lessons in how different we are, how we all have belly buttons, how we see each other, and just a simple, fun group activity.

Quotes

We’ve been writing the kids’ funny ones down for years. Pretty much the second they start talking, we put up a board on the classroom door and start writing down the daily hilariousness that comes out of their little mouths. When they graduate and go off to kindergarten, we publish them all for the parents and I think collectively all 5 years worth could put any episode of SNL to shame. Some of my favorites:

“We don’t talk back to anyone Suz, we only talk front”

“Hearts are for love everyone”

“I’m thankful for cows and guitars”

“I have my fastest running underwear on today”

“I’ll pretend to be the husband. The husband does nothing”

“Can we sing a song about drinking beer in a cabaret?”

“What’s first grade?! I thought kindergarten was it!”

I honestly could write 100 more of these down that make me pee in my pants every time I read them, but the point is, don’t let these little gems slip away. Regardless of whether you put them all together in a published, formal way, try to keep track of them somehow. Not only does it promote literacy to have the kids see you writing them down, but it makes the parents’ day to hear about how funny their little ones are and makes the kids feel so important and funny too:)

President Obama makes a big pitch for Early Childhood Education in State of the Union Address

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“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.

Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on – by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime. In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.” – President Barack Obama