Monday, February 23, 2015

Expanding Literacy Through Art Projects - Teacher Marah

A favorite part of our curriculum is to read a book during group time and then have an art project that helps expand the book. It can be an activity that is at our "invention table".

In January we read the book Snip, Snip, Snow. It is a book about a girl who is so impatient waiting for it to snow outside, she convinces her teacher to let them cut out paper snowflakes. All of the pieces of paper on the floor from everyone's paper snowflakes end up like looking like snow. As they are hanging their paper snowflakes on the windows of the classroom, it starts to snow outside. The following day we had paper, scissors and glitter out at our invention center and put the book there too. Some friends worked really hard on their fine motor cutting skills to cut out shapes and turn the paper into snow flakes. They were very unique. We put glitter on them and then hung them on our tree in the hallway to admire.

In February we read a favorite book called My Secret Valentine. It is about a little girl and her mom and how they go to the store and buy things to make valentines for those they love. They buy special paper and doilies and make cards. Then on Valentine's Day, the little girl is very excited to get valentine's from those that she loves including her cat Muffety. We put special paper and doilies and encouraged friends to make valentines at the invention table. We also had an art project where we made valentines to send home to those we love.

We also have art activities inspired by books that are lead by parents during free choice time at school.

We read the book Snowballs. It is a story about saving real life items and using them to "make snowmen". In the book, though, there are way more than "snowmen". There is a snow dad, a snow mom, a snow boy, a snow baby, a snow dog and a snow cat. It is so fun reading the book and seeing how the nose might be a shell or the ears might be wheels from a car. There are mouths made of sunflower seeds and a purse full of peanuts for the birds and animals to enjoy. We asked each child to make their own "snow man" and we provided as many of the "real life" items that we could. The results were snow moms, snow dads, a snow grandma, a snow cat and snow "storm troopers" complete with a "death star" made out of sunflower seeds.

Another activity revolved around two books. They are Christina Katerina and the Box and A Box Can Be Many Things. Both stories use big boxes and a lot of imagination to make something special out of a box. We talked about maybe making a machine out of a box. The next day we used lots of small boxes, bottle caps, items that could be recycled, but were saved for just this occasion to make our creation. Some comments about what we made were as follows:

"There is a horn and bug catcher."
"There are lights for when it's dark." 
"Part of it is a telescope."

We always also put the books in our library area, so that we can read and reread the books. The art goes on the walls and reminds us what joy the book brought to us originally. Books and art go hand in hand at preschool.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

More Play Dough, Please! - Teacher Jennifer

There is something so important to Small Friends School that we have a table dedicated to it.  A committee that revolves around making it.  Something so enticing that children play with it EVERYDAY.  What can it be?  PLAY DOUGH!!  Who would have imagined that mixing flour, oil, and water would create a medium that would allow endless hours of play and opportunities for children to just SLOW DOWN, engage their senses, and refine important areas of development?!  If you ever wondered why we have play dough out everyday at school, or if you needed a reason to have play dough available to play with at home, please read on!


The moldable and transformative properties of play dough make it an enticing and fun material for children (and adults!) to play with.  What children do not realize is they are exercising the small muscles and tendons in the hands and fingers while they are playing.  Building up these small muscles is very important to gain strength, dexterity, and control for using pencils and scissors.  With every squish, roll, ball making, and flattening of the dough, hand-eye coordination is being exercised and refined.  When objects such as beads, noodles, or colored stones are added to the dough, the pincer grasp (control of the thumb and pointer finger) are being used to manipulate the objects.  This is a natural way to strengthen these muscles that guide a pencil and crayon.  Scissors are even placed at the play dough table for the children to practice with.  Rolling a “snake” and then cutting through it is much easier than trying to cut a line on a piece of paper!   Coordinating the strength and movement to use the garlic press, pizza cutter, potato masher, and rolling pin at the table are other ways that fine motor and gross motor development (larger muscles) are exercised. 


The play dough table is a very safe place for children to sit and create. Every child feels competent and proud of his/her accomplishments, as there is never a “right” way to play.  This is one of the areas that a child can gain comfort in the classroom if they are having a hard time separating from an adult. There is something very soothing about putting your fingers in a ball of play dough and squishing it.  Play dough also provides an outlet for children that are feeling anxious and it can be calming to a child that may have too much energy.   Parallel play with other children here will eventually turn into cooperative play as they children need to share, take turns, and play off of each other’s ideas!  Experimenting with each other’s ideas and experiences, along with trying different approaches that work are all skills that will help children learn and succeed in school.  You might often hear, “ Let’s make a ____________!  Let’s pretend that this is a __________________.  Can you please pass the ____________________?”  

Our job as teachers is to make sure that we keep the “props” fresh at this table to keep the imaginative juices flowing in the children!  This will also help the children learn symbolic thinking by pretending that the play dough is something else! By providing some simple beads, pipe cleaners, and seasonal cookie cutters at the table, an ordinary ball of dough can be transformed into a spider, a decorated tree, or an eight-eyed monster!  Birthday candles are a great way to turn the dough into a birthday cake or party for the table!  Children love to bury play dinosaurs in the dough (once again, a great way to exercise those small muscles digging them out) and drive trucks over the surface of the play dough to create tracks.  We will even add different smells to the dough for some sensory integration.  Chocolate scented dough is a fantastic opportunity to create a sweet shop!  Cinnamon scented dough with apple cookie cutters might attract children to create an apple pie.  As the children describe what they are doing and making, they are expanding and strengthening their vocabulary skills.  The possibilities are endless.....especially with a preschool mind at play!


Following a recipe and making play dough with a child is one of the most natural ways to integrate math, science and literacy!  Children will see that print has meaning and a purpose.  Measuring out ingredients and adding them all together in a bowl is fascinating to children, especially when the texture and shape of the dough is obtained! Solids and liquids combine to make something completely different. So many mathematical and science concepts can be discussed while making play dough!  

 As children begin playing with the dough, they can be encouraged to roll “snakes” and form these into the letters in a name.  Through play children can be encouraged to practice counting, learn about shapes and how they relate to each other, and practice sorting and classifying. Children will have to learn how to estimate how much play dough they will need to make a letter or how much will be needed to use a cookie cutter. They will quickly learn the difference between “more and less,” “heavier and lighter” and “shorter and taller.”  Action words such as “pound, roll and slice” can be discussed as well as descriptive words like “mushy, sticky, and soft.”  Stories can be created and told using play dough as props.  Mats can be provided with numbers and children can create “balls” to match the number.  One-to one- correspondence is practiced while they count.  The tactile experience of creating numbers and letters with play dough lends itself to  great muscle memory - brain and fingers working together!

Open-ended experiences with play dough provide hours of enjoyment for children while  contributing greatly to learning and many areas of development!  Everything that is created at the play dough table is developmentally appropriate and a true reflection of the child.  That, in itself, is the biggest reason why the play dough will never be put away in our classrooms.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Your Child's Brain on Play - Teacher Lisa

Several years ago our staff attended a seminar called “Designing With the Brain in Mind” sponsored by the Portland Children’s Museum and the Oregon Association for the Education of Young Children. It was facilitated by Ingrid Anderson who was the Director of Programs and Education and the interior designer for the museum at that time. The theme of the seminar was how to design spaces for young children but before we could get to that, we spent a couple of hours reviewing what kind of development is taking place in young children’s brains. It is a (very) simplified version of the latter that I would like to share with you here, specifically as it applies to pushing young children to acquire some of the skills we associate with kindergarten readiness.

We have 100 billion neurons at birth. Each neuron has dendrites which connect to synapses (an average of 6000 per neuron) as we explore our world. The strongest synapse connections are created through the most highly sensory activities. Strong synaptic connections are critical because they are the ones that last. That is worth repeating: strong synaptic connections are CRITICAL.

Children build strong connections by being highly engaged in what they are doing. It’s the difference between seeing a picture of an apple with the word “apple” underneath (perhaps even learning how to spell and write the word) as opposed to holding an apple, smelling it, biting into it, listening to it crunch and feeling the juice drip down your chin. To the casual observer, a 5-year-old child who proudly announces that apple begins with “A” and can spell and write the word seems more than “ready for kindergarten.” The child holding a sticky apple core, shirt covered with juice, who doesn’t yet know how to spell apple tends not to leave quite the same impression. But upon closer analysis, if the first child hasn’t ALSO had the same “apple experiences” as the second child, then it is the second child who is actually building the strongest synaptic connections and who has a better chance of academic success in the long term.
It’s essential that we recognize and embrace the importance of letting children explore their world in sensory-rich, unhurried ways in order to build as many strong synaptic connections as they can during the first several years of their lives. In fact, there is a growing body of research that suggests that children who are “rushed” into reading as preschoolers (or even as kindergartners) tend to have weaker comprehension skills starting in about 4th grade.

This is because of a process called myelination. Myelination is the sorting process the brain goes through in order to eliminate weaker synaptic connections in favor of stronger ones. There are a couple of important things to keep in mind about this process:
            1. It starts when we are about 2 and continues until we are about 20.
                        This means that in the first several years of life, it’s really important to give children many, many opportunities to pursue activities that are highly engaging and resist the urge (or pressure) to replace them with more structured activities that don’t stimulate as many areas of their brains. It’s important to recognize that play is not frivolous to 3- and 4-year-olds. It’s the most stimulating, highly engaging thing they do and it is essential for maximum brain development. Young brains are the most receptive to making strong synaptic connections. The older we get, the less receptive we are and it is very difficult to make up for lost time. (That is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that young children don’t spend very much time watching television or sitting at a computer. Even when the programs they are watching or playing are educational, they are much more passive than authentic play so they don’t result in the strong synaptic connections that will last over time.) And unlike the rest of our bodies, our brains don’t renew themselves. Fewer highly engaging, sensory experiences = more connections that will be lost during myelination.

            2. Myelination is a totally biological, predetermined, developmental process that cannot be hurried.
                        This means that the rate of myelination is different for every child. It also means that until all of the synaptic connections related to reading have gone through myelination, a child will not successfully learn to read – even if s/he has been doing reading readiness activities for months or years. They will learn when their brain is ready – this is why people say, “It finally clicked!” They are referring to completed myelination. It is ludicrous to think that we can somehow make every child learn to read by the end of kindergarten and it is an incredibly unfair amount of pressure to put on 5-year-olds (and their parents). That doesn’t mean that we don’t continually provide engaging, creative ways for children to experience print while they are very young, but it DOES mean that we need to honor each child’s stage of development. The activities we invite children to participate in should be well-grounded in research about how their minds are developing.

That’s why I would argue that it is impossible to categorize preschools as either play-based or academic. Play and academic learning are not mutually exclusive. The latter is wholly dependent on the former. To separate them is to deny a child the opportunity to reach his/her life-long learning potential.

Sometimes it’s hard to articulate why play is so important and it’s easy to feel pressure when a friend or neighbor’s child can rote count to 100 or write the alphabet and recite letter sounds. But the research about play is extensive and makes it clear that the learning acquired through play will stand the test of time. It is one of the most intellectual advantages we can give our young children.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Parents in Our Classrooms - Teacher Rebekah

Did you know that there is scientific evidence that shows that a child’s early development is influenced greatly by his daily environment and experiences with others, especially the interactions among parents and families. But parents and families are not the only important players in this part of development. Any positive connections a child makes with caring and responsive adults helps to promote healthy brain development.  Here at Small Friends we recognize the importance of these relationships which is one of the many reasons we include parent helpers.

So what do our kids gain by having you in our classrooms? Social skills which increase their ability to listen to other caring adults and follow directions.

Emotional development is strengthened by observing the caring relationship between their peers and their parents. By experiencing these safe and comfortable relationships, the kids also feel safe at a time when some are having difficulty separating from parents for the school day. Have you ever had a child that is not yours climb into your lap or sit close by when stories are being read?

The importance of your presence cannot be underestimated. Preschool is where our kids first develop a relationship with learning. The confidence and self- esteem they gain by having adults show respect and appreciation for them lays a strong foundation for future learning.

And with confidence they begin to look like this….

Thank you for all you do for our school and our kids. You are appreciated!