Mark making or putting pen/crayon/pencil to paper, whatever you want to call it, was never something my boys had much interest in when they were young. If we talk about table activities - then mine love crafts and painting, cutting and pasting, gluing and sticking, but are/were not huge colouring fans or 'mark making' fans. My 4 year old started kindergarten and still wasn't interested. A tiny piece of me worried a bit, as much as I told myself not to. A few months into kindergarten though and he was writing up a storm. His letters are hard to read and all over the place with size and shape, but that part really doesn't worry me. He likes writing. That matters. He enjoys it. That matters.
I thought with my younger one perhaps I needed to present more opportunities to draw and colour. I was on the ball with early letter recognition (see my last post about having the alphabet in about a hundred places in our house) but maybe I didn't pull out the pencil enough? Who knows...it is all trial and error with parenting because each kid is so different.
Surely repetition is key to all learning, but I think especially so with younger learners. It is common sense really, the more you see, hear, say, explore and practise something, the more likely you are to really remember and know it. I always felt like it was difficult to do enough repetition of skills in my (older level) classrooms because the curriculum had so much packed into it. There was so much to cover, we were lucky to get back to main topics two or three times in a year. This is yet another point on my list of 'why I should home school', but we'll leave that discussion alone for now.
I recently posted about an ABC book on Instagram (see it here). My toddler has really been getting into his ABCs lately and is starting to recognise certain letter shapes. As I went around the house to look for some alphabet related activities we could do, I was actually a bit shocked at how much I found. Maybe it's because I'm a teacher? I've been subconsciously collecting alphabet items for the past five years?
I'm going to blame the fact that my closest friends are all teachers and get my kids the best gifts. However it happened, it is definitely a good thing. My kids will certainly see, touch, hear and play with the alphabet without every having me thrust flashcards in their faces. Not that there is anything wrong with flashcards. I just feel like they tend to used the wrong way with little ones more often than not. Repetitive learning is possible for toddlers, preschoolers and older children, without the need for tools like flashcards. Below are a list of just some of the alphabet related items my kids play with, that I found around our house.
I had never really heard of an 'invitation to play' before I became a mother. The majority of my teaching career was with older kids, so our learning was set up quite differently. Since having kids though and moving to work with younger children, it is something I encountered quite a bit. In the UK, children can start school as young as age 3. They don't have to, but the option is there. In Canada it is similar, kids can start at age 4 (JK) but don't have to legally be in school until age 6. After returning from my second maternity leave, I had the pleasure of covering in a nursery class (age 3-4) quite frequently for a term. It was lovely to see how they invited kids to play at various tables and stations throughout the room and in the outside space.
Even if you've never heard the term before, an 'invitation to play' is pretty self explanatory. If you make a space look appealing or interesting, children will come and investigate. That is really what 'learning' at age 3 looks like. I'm not going to pretend that I do this every day in my own house, but I do try to set something up each week for my toddler. It is in no way on the scale I would set up a classroom, but I like having a little table in the play room that I change around. It sometimes makes old toys seem interesting again.
I'm pretty excited these days because my 2 year old is really into naming colours. I love, love, love this age! Listening to his language develop and increase, blows my mind. I also happen to love colours and it is a natural stage all kids go through. Everything we see walking down the street gets labelled by its colour. Every toy is called by its colour. Colour is everywhere! It is probably one of the first adjectives that children start to use naturally when describing things. Don't let that skill pass them by!
Aside from inviting my kids to play with particular toys, I always like to link our play with a story. We visit the library all the time to keep on top of things but also have a pretty big collection of books. Loads of baby board books cover the colours but my favourite has to be a colours primer by Jennifer Adams. She has a whole series based on famous pieces of literature but that really focus on things like shapes or numbers or emotions. If you haven't seen them before, check them out.
Children are born with ownership instincts. It is one of the first social issues to come up with kids. I can still remember the look on my son's face at the first play group I took him to, when another little pair of hands reached out for the toy he was holding. "Mine!" he shouted. He couldn't understand why someone wanted to take 'his' toy. Now that I have two kids, this is an ongoing battle between the two.
Ownership can be a great thing though. Something I took away from schools in the UK (that I really don't see much of here in Canada) is the way teachers in Early Years and lower grades give the kids ownership of their work. Pieces that children produce are usually labelled by a teacher, using the child's own words to describe it. To be fair, it mostly developed from the UK's inspection system. Teachers always have to have evidence of learning in case Ofsted drop in. It is time consuming to do with a class of 30, but it really does help a teacher see the development of the child's thinking over the course of the year.
It is also really lovely for a parent to be handed a collection of work at the end of the year. You can sit with your child and read through their work together. Rather than just see a page of dots, you can read about what they were trying to draw. It gives them ownership. It jogs their memory. I think it even gives them a sense of pride in their work/creations from a young age.
So I started doing it myself at home as much as I could. What I ended up with though was a giant box of every single scrap of paper that my kids ever wrote on. It was getting pretty ridiculous!
One day I was reading a blog (I can't remember which one, so if anyone knows, please add a reference for the idea!) and the writer shared how she organised her kids' work. She had a 3 ring binder with plastic sleeves in it. Each month she selected a few pieces she loved and slipped them in the binder.
I thought it was a great idea! I'm not quite that organised though. So I try to just stick a date on the work and then save it in a box of their 'creations'. Every once in a while (when the box is filling up), I bring out the binder and sort out pieces to keep. My older son loves doing this with me. We pick our favourite pictures (he doesn't know where 'the rest' of the work goes!) and read them together before filing them in the binder.
I have also been trying to snap pictures of all their work as we go along. That way we have a digital record of them in case a small set of hands gets hold of the binder and is in a 'ripping' mood.
How do you save and organise your kids' work? If it is a way that makes it easy to look back through it together as a family, please do share! I am always looking for ways to be more efficient.
Real life learning or authentic learning. When it happens naturally, it makes me want to home school my boys so much (but that is a whole other topic!). To me the key part of authentic learning, is the follow through. In a classroom you are often in the middle of 'something' when a great question comes up. Lots of times you can pause and call everyone together and discuss the question. Pick it apart as a class. Debate it. Leave the kids energised by this 'surprise' learning.
Sometimes though, you are right in the middle of a task that you can't really stop. You say to everyone, 'Remind me after lunch', but that doesn't always happen. It is the same at home with kids. The timing isn't always perfect to stop and answer questions. Maybe one kid is screaming or dinner is burning or you've been trying get everyone in bed for an hour. So I try, try, try to remember to answer the next chance I get. Follow through. It feels so good when you do.
This week my little one's nap ran late, so I got to pick up my older one from school all on my own. It's always a bit more peaceful and I enjoy the talks we have as we walk home. As we wandered, he noticed that yellow flowers were popping up everywhere. Yellow is his favourite colour, so he loved this and ran over to pick one for me. When we passed a man squirting the yellow 'flowers', he asked why. I explained that most people considered dandelions to be weeds and wanted to get rid of them. This started a long discussion of how weeds can take over and how dandelions in particular spread their seeds. I reminded him of one of my favourite pictures from Richard Scary.
I was a bit anxious to get home since his brother was napping and hadn't been well. I didn't want him to wake up with only grandpa there and be upset. But our talk was so nice and we started spotting dandelion leaves all along the path. He realised that pretty soon there would be yellow flowers absolutely everywhere. Soon we were down on our knees, looking at leaves with buds in the middle and he asked what happened to the green leaves. I explained how they protect the bud and we looked at a fully opened flower and compared. We found one half way popping out and talked about all three of them. He tried counting all the buds he could see, but there were just too many.
Then I had a memory of a book we had at home about a city of guinea pigs who ate up all their dandelion leaves. The hero is Christopher Nibble, who finds one last dandelion and replants it, waits patiently and then blows all the seeds across a field. We hopped up and headed home to dig the book off the shelf. My little one was fine of course and I was so glad we hadn't rushed home. Our impromptu science lesson was beautiful. It was meaningful and I know he'll remember it. I'll remember it. I took the time and followed through.
The best part of it all? After having no answer for his question about where it gets its name, I got to hear him explain that a dandelion looks like a lion's mane. How good is that?
Kids and the creative world go hand in hand, right? I haven't met one yet that doesn't love imaginary play. As a teacher though, I often watched kids struggle to create ideas when it came to writing stories. I could do all the 'teacher-y' things, like scaffold the learning, differentiate the tasks, talk in partners, use picture prompts, have sentence starters, do storyboard planning...yet they still struggled. It made me wonder what I was doing wrong sometimes. Luckily, that is what made me sit and reflect and get better at my job.
The second school I taught at loved Talk 4 Writing, a program that was developed by Pie Corbett (who has lots of great books on teaching, if you don't know him yet. He is pretty well known in the UK, but I'm not sure about North America). I was already in the habit of using a lot of talk during literacy lessons, but it was usually focused on another story or a prompt that led to a task. Here is Pie himself giving an example:
Talk 4 Writing helped the kids orally practise what they wanted to write but I found it helped more with story re-telling, not creating stories ideas. I felt some kind of guilt attached to this struggle the kids had. It always reminded me of something I heard when I was in teacher's college. I have no idea whose original idea this is or what piece of research it might be attached to, so I'm just going to summarise what I remember the course leader saying.
"If you draw a dot on the board in front of a group of 4 year olds and ask them what it is, they'll give you a million answers. The sun! An ant! A rock! A circle! If you draw that same dot on a board in front of a group of 10 year olds, they'll usually say one thing. A period." - OISE instructor (eep! bad referencing, I know!)
That idea makes me so sad! Our education system (well, the UK one at least, as that is where I am most experienced) is draining the creativity out of kids. I tried my best to not let that happen in my own classrooms, but the older the kids got, the more curriculum you had to squeeze in and I think everyone fell victim to it a little bit.
So what did I do about it? I tried to throw in little creativity building activities whenever I could. Just short and simple ones. I'm not going to list them all here...but I will highlight my favourite. I stumbled upon these little gems at Tiger (a British shop that is a little bit like an Ikea dollar store).
There are probably lots of other things out there that use a similar idea. I have used picture story prompts for various different subjects and activities in the past. However, none have worked quite as well as these. ALSO - my kids love these at home too! I think my son was about three years old when I found these. He loved to roll them one at a time and I would make up a silly story that twisted and changed based on what he rolled next. It didn't take long before he was adding to the story himself and soon taking it over!
You don't really need dice (they just make it a bit more fun). You could just close your eyes and point to something in a book and start a story from there. Your little one could close their eyes next and point or just choose something random for you.
We walk a lot in our family, which also provides great story prompts. Stories about people (who doesn't already do that in their head anyway?) walking by. Stories about what might be inside a big truck. Stories about 2 ducks that waddle past. Story prompts are floating around everywhere.
Does your family create stories together? How do you do it?
Hope you create a hilarious/scary/science-y/superhero-y/every day story soon!
There have been an increasing number of studies during the past decade, focusing on the importance of parents’ verbal engagement with their children. Some studies discuss the differences between higher income and lower income housing (the famous ’30-million-word gap’ study by Hart and Risley). Other studies discredit this one and focus more on cultural differences in raising children. I am not here however to debate those or write a professionally sited paper.
I am interested though, in ways people can engage with their children and what makes sense to me is that the more words your children hear, the more they will come to recognise. Again, I have read papers that say having normal conversations with babies and toddlers is the best way for them to learn new words. I have read others that say reading books to them is actually better. Surely it is all good, no? A baby/toddler hears lots of words, from lots of places and starts to recognise them. Eventually they will start to use them. Finally when it comes to reading, they will recognise them in print. You are more likely to read/recognise and remember a word that you already know and understand.
Hello! I'm Deb,
a book-toting mother of two and an elementary (primary) school teacher. I love making stories engaging and interactive for kids.
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