Kid Music For All!

Favorite Kid Albums.png

I've been putting together mix tapes for different Early Childhood occasions: naptime, playtime, and (coming soon) dance time.  

I believe that we can all listen to the same music.  Kids are not born wired to listen to Old McDonald Had a Farm, and I have not met an adult who listens to any version of that song on their own.  Children and adults can listen to music together and enjoy it - neither party needs to suffer!

That said, there is great music out there that is technically for kids, but adults can actually enjoy.  Read on for a few suggestions.

I grew up in a household where Original Cast Recordings from Broadway shows were always playing in the car and in the house.  So, I think I have a soft spot for the sound that John Lithgow tackles on his first album.  Its funny, its upbeat, and it is for kids.  And, underwear songs are great.

In college, I worked at Books of Wonder, an independent children's bookstore in Manhattan.  This CD was displayed on the counter, played on the stereo, and made its way into my student teaching placements.  Dan Zanes and a cast of wonderful musicians play "kid songs" without making you want to rip your hair out, and he peppers his albums with interesting songs and sounds, from hip-hop to original compositions.

Lullatone is a prolific group, recording albums with interesting instruments and sounds in Japan.  Their work is all instrumental, which I prefer as background music.  The music is playful and bright; it makes you feel like you're in a movie.  Try taking a walk while listening to it on headphones - its cinematic.

Woody Guthrie recorded this album in 1958.  All of his songwriting is storytelling, but he has an extra special ability to write from a child's point of view.  I've sang some of these songs with preschoolers, and danced around to even more of them!  

I have to include Free To Be...You and Me in this list because it was my absolute favorite as a kid.  So I am partial, but the skits are absolutely timeless.  And I sang the title song in my bedroom.  A lot.

What are some of your favorite adult-friendly kid albums?


5 Reasons : Children as Photographers



Do you have a camera for children's photography?

Whether you share your camera, smartphone, or tablet; or have a dedicated camera for kids to use, photography is an incredible addition to the Early Childhood classroom.  

I sketched out a few reasons why real cameras are a great classroom tool.

The camera lets us look at the world through fresh eyes.

The world through the naked eye and the world through the viewfinder of a camera feel different - using a camera is a unique experience.  When children use a real camera, they get to try on a different perspective; and as educators, we have the opportunity to see the world through children's eyes when we experience their photographs.

Photography is one way to include student voices in documentation and stories of learning.

You may be collecting photographs of children at play and examples of their work and their words.  When we offer children a camera, we offer them a tool for sharing their perspective.  We can include that perspective when telling stories of learning to parents, families, and colleagues!  Including children's photography in digital and print documentation, and children's portfolios, adds another viewpoint on learning.

Photography is super engaging!

You know those timeless, tried-and-true materials that seem to engage everyone, week after week (and year after year)?  Blocks, paint, play dough, water - these are some universal and engaging materials that many Early Childhood Educators use in their classrooms.  Real cameras are highly engaging for children: they are not pretending to take photographs, they really are!  And, when we reflect on those photographs with children, their engagement continues.  Children love to see the world through that little screen, and also the images of familiar faces and things in printed photos in the classroom, or a reflective slideshow.  

A photograph can be realistic or imaginative. (Kids get to choose!)

I have observed dozens of children in my classrooms over the years with cameras, and they can take a realistic or an imaginative approach to photography.  A child may take ten photos of a favorite object in the classroom, or see what it feels like to move the camera while pressing the shutter.  There is no wrong way to take photos - the tool is there to experiment with.  As adults, we get pretty rigid in our thinking, but children see the playfulness of photography.  When we give children the space to make these choices, they are free to explore, which is exciting and engaging.

Photography is more accessible than ever.

Gone are the cameras that my parents had to deal with: they gave me a 35mm point and shoot camera when I was a kid, I promptly used up all the film with pictures of my stuffed animals, and then they had to pay to get the film developed, and get more film.  Digital photography is very cheap, and chances are, you already have everything you need!  You can use an old point and shoot camera; you can use any computer or screen to put together digital slideshows for reflection; you can share children's photography with parents and families through email, a class website, or shared photo albums.  

You can learn more about photography with the Little Perspectives online workshop!  Learn about big ideas around children's photography; see photography in action in classrooms; and get ideas for including photography in your curriculum, all online, on your schedule.


New Mix Tape : Playtime #1


Another playlist for your listening pleasure!  Head over to the Mix Tapes to listen, download, or follow on Spotify.

Sometimes, background music can be distracting.  People seem to be on one side or the other of the background music argument - love it or hate it - but I don't think we need to be so divided.  Music can compliment what we are doing!  When I settle in to read a book at night, I like something instrumental, something ambient, without lyrics.  When its playtime, the right music sets a tone for getting into that mindset of deep play, and can be a soundtrack for exploring.  

Adults and kids can enjoy music together - I don't assume that the only music children like is "kid music".  Learning about music can certainly include singing songs that we associate with preschool, like The Wheels on the Bus, but that shouldn't be the whole picture.  How can we learn about the diversity of wonderful music in the world if we are restricted to a genre that, to be honest, is not popular outside of preschool classrooms?

The Bakers and Astronauts Mix Tapes are an easy way for you to dip your toe into music that can make kids and adults happy.  Try the new Playtime #1 Mix Tape on for size!  


Why Reflective Writing?


You’re a busy person: you plan activities and prompts; you clean up and organize; you make sure everyone washes their hands after using the toilet, and before eating.  You chat with parents, you put bandaids on scrapes.  All this, and I still argue that you should find the time to reflect on your teaching practice and the events of each day.

Reflection helps you to articulate what is really happening in your teaching practice.  It is an introspective act: you examine the choices that you make, try to dig a little deeper to see where those choices came from.  Reflection is the act of getting to know yourself better as an educator, and as a person.  "Reflective Practice" sounds much more complex than it needs to be, so today, let’s simplify, and see how you might find the time for reflective thinking and writing in your teaching practice.

Set an Alarm.

Set an alert on your calendar or phone to remind you to stop for some writing.  

Perhaps you can reflect for 10 minutes during lunch on Wednesday, or for 15 minutes on Saturday morning. The first step is making a bit of time, and holding yourself accountable for that.  There is no wrong way to reflect - it is personal.  Anytime, anywhere, any length of time is fine: all you need is yourself and place to gather your thoughts.

Talk to yourself.

Use your smartphone to reflect!  You can use a voice memo app, or something that helps you organize more. I use Evernote.

We can have some clarifying moments when we articulate ideas out loud - it does not always need to come through writing.  An extra benefit is that you can do your audio reflections while driving home, or while cleaning up at the end of the day.  Keep the recordings to listen to again, or make some notes when you are done with the audio reflection to collect your key ideas.

Embed reflection into staff meetings.

A weekly or a monthly staff meeting can be an opportunity to introduce reflection to staff, and make time for their reflective thinking.

Try starting your staff meetings with a 5 minute reflective writing session, either open for teachers to choose their own explorations, or following a question or prompt.  This can turn into a group discussion, or just an example of how reflection might fit into what already seems to be a busy schedule.

Learn More with the Bakers and Astronauts Reflective Writing Online Workshop!

5 Myths : Open-Ended Materials

As a workshop facilitator, I have the pleasure of talking to early childhood educators about open ended materials.  I get to sit on the floor with teachers and caregivers, playing with materials, and engage in dialogue around their experiences, and the experiences they want to frame for children.

There are a few assumptions that people make about using open-ended materials with children, and they seem to come up over and over again in dialogue and conversation.  

Let's debunk a few of those myths - because open-ended materials are a timeless addition to any learning environment, with children of all ages.

Myth #1 : They need to be presented on a table.

Weaving materials at Play Lab, 2013

Weaving materials at Play Lab, 2013

Using open-ended materials has become synonymous with trays and small items: creating playscapes and prompts for children to encounter and engage with.  When you lean into this kind of thinking, you immediately end up in a corner: imagining materials as teacher chosen, and only presented in offerings.  You can offer materials on tables, of course, but it is not the only way.

Open-ended materials can be an exploration together at the carpet; moving items on the playground; an assortment of items in the sensory table; and more:  you should open your mind to new, never-tried-before opportunities when you plan.

Myth #2 : Children are most engaged when they are quiet.

Video by AnjiPlay

This goes for materials and beyond: "quiet" is not a synonym for "engaged".  There is an image in most of our minds of the child at the table (probably about four or five years old), carefully moving materials.  That child is engaged, but so is the child who is dumping all of the materials into a bowl in the dramatic play area, then putting that bowl into a purse, then carrying that purse around the room for an hour.  Is his work less meaningful than the child at the table?  

Open-ended choices in the outdoor area are a great example.  Remember that children are children, not small adults, and their behavior and choices will be different than the choices you will make.  This is not to say they are not capable, competent, and curious!  Noise is an exploration in itself, and is an excellent partner for open-ended materials and process-based play.


Myth #3 : Materials = Loose Parts = Small Items.

Radial shovels on the playground, 2016

Radial shovels on the playground, 2016

A muddy definition of loose parts has led to a common assumption about open-ended materials: that they are small items.  

When I think of open-ended materials, I think of absolutely anything that can be used for more than one purpose:  rocks, marker caps, sticks, sand, water, bolts, fabric scraps - these are items that can be mixed and matched to the heart’s content, and will rarely serve the same purpose twice.  The the whole idea of using open-ended materials is to be more flexible, and more open, with the materials that the world has to offer.  These don’t necessarily need to be small: they just need to be anything that can be used for limitless purposes.


Myth #4 : Materials are a Reggio thing.

Yes, open-ended materials can be found in the municipal preschools of Reggio Emilia.  But more importantly, they can be found in many other places, and they do not need a label or an attribution: in general, it is the way children played before the commercialization of play.  Children often find materials for play themselves when given the time and the space to explore.

Open-ended materials do not make a program more or less like the schools of Reggio Emilia, which are set in a time and a place that cannot be copied word for word.  Open-ended materials go far beyond glass beads and bottle caps in Reggio Emilia.  Materials are one language among many: other languages include paint, clay, music, construction, any way to communicate about and with the world.  


Myth #5 : Materials Play is not for infants and young toddlers.

An infant explores @ Play Lab Cardboard Playground, July 2016

An infant explores @ Play Lab Cardboard Playground, July 2016

When you are planning prompts and play opportunities for very young children, you do not need to dismiss open-ended materials: you simply need to understand how to curate the most appropriate materials.  This is true for any age group, really.  

Very young children can engage with everyday objects - and they often do, regardless of whether they are offered the materials or not.  You can take this as inspiration, offering children more open-ended opportunities to explore everyday objects on their terms.  The exploration is a young child's work and play, and it looks different for children of different ages.  Keep children's safety in mind when you plan, and offer an experience that will be engaging - not one where you need to hover and fret.


Learn More with the Bakers and Astronauts Materials and Prompts Online Workshop!



Teacher Self Resolutions

In 2016, I thought a lot about the Teacher Self: that aspect of classroom teaching that we doesn't get much attention.  We are people, in our classrooms, with thoughts and ideas and preferences and emotions.  While we should not bring our bad mood to plague children and colleagues, a sense of acknowledgement around what works for us as individuals, and what doesn't feel quite right, is important.

I am inviting you to share your Teacher Self Resolutions, anonymously.  This doesn't mean making plans for what you want to change about yourself: it simply means hashing out ideas about where you want to bring your awareness in the coming year.  What is happening, unconsciously and automatically, that is impacting your teaching practice?  Perhaps you know what your barriers are, but you haven't yet let yourself articulate them.  Go ahead and bring it all into the light here.

These answers are anonymous, but I may call on the ideas that you submit to inform future thinking and writing here on Bakers and Astronauts.  Please share: we all have a lot to think about, and writing is a way to get those thoughts (good, bad, and ugly) out of our minds and into the world.  Use the form below to share.


Cheers to a reflective 2017!

A Drawing Story

I put together this video of O, age 3.5, telling me a spontaneous story while drawing a few years ago.  

I have storytelling on the brain - I taught a workshop in Hong Kong about playful literacy recently, and I am putting together an e-course on storytelling that will launch in January!  The course will look at research on children's development as it relates to literacy and storytelling; show wonderful examples of storytelling in action in classrooms, and offer actionable prompts and provocations for your setting.  Throughout the course, you'll use reflective techniques to deepen your conceptual understanding to truly link content to your personal theory and practice.  The E-Course will be self-paced, with content available to you for one year after you enroll - meaning you engage as often as you would like to, when you would like to.  

I'm so excited to offer this storytelling course, along with a few other courses that I'll share about in the coming weeks!  If you're interested in being part of that experience, get on the Workshops and E-Courses Email list and get registration alerts right in your inbox.


The Anatomy of a Curriculum

I love working with educators and caregivers.  People ask me if I miss working with children everyday - the answer is yes, but with a caveat.  I get to spend my time supporting the adults who support children - advocates and practitioners who want high-quality, actionable ideas for their learning environment and teaching practice.  

Exploring materials at the Day of Dialogue on Mercer Island

Exploring materials at the Day of Dialogue on Mercer Island

When I work with teachers and educators and caregivers, I aim to teach in a more conceptual way, with opportunities to reflect and think about how to put ideas into action.  There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all solution to anything in life, and this is especially true with curriculum.  I cannot stand in front of you and give you step-by-step directions for immediate success - teaching is an art, not a science.  There are many people who are trying to add elements of inquiry based, play-heavy practice to other curricular obligations, including the Creative Curriculum and other outside assessments of space, quality, and time.  These tools are aiming to help early educators with structure and content, but real excitement and passion around teaching comes from living in the moment, seeing ideas and curiosities develop through thoughtful planning of the space, environment, and invitations to engage.  Every child, every group of children, every learning environment, is unique.  The world is full ideas to copy, but what if curriculum was designed from the bottom up, rather than the top down?


When I think about “high-quality” early childhood education, I think about curricular design.  What does it mean to learn about the skeleton and the basic principles of ideas, and then learn how they manifest in one’s own setting?  


I thought about this as I walked along the streets of Hong Kong in early December.  This is a time of year I associate with rain and wind and cold in the Pacific Northwest, but in Hong Kong, people are buying imported Christmas trees while wearing sandals. Christmas decorations, including snowflakes and snowmen and images of people in hats and mittens and scarves - abound.  Although Christmas doesn't look snowy on this tropical island, the standard imagery is snowy.  This is all understandable - Santa does live at the North Pole, after all, so perhaps we are celebrating like he does.  But the copy-and-paste culture is global: good ideas are picked up and implemented in new ways.  It is more important to focus on how we might remix those ideas.

The flower market in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

The flower market in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.

I grew up in a place where you were almost guaranteed a white Christmas - I could relate to the snowy graphics that I saw.  If I lived somewhere tropical, it might feel strange to buy a tree and wrap gifts and watch holiday movies -  but I would still do it: its part of the way that I prepare and celebrate for the holidays.  Right now, in the cold and the rain of Washington state, I engage with the holiday traditions that hold meaning for me.  They aren't pointless  - they connect me to culture and place and time and people.  

When we look at the skeleton of a school's curriculum, traditions can be part of what is examined, and thinking about how to make those traditions authentic and worth the time, energy, and money that they require is really important.  We don't like to let go of the familiar, and we don't like to be the person who suggests erasing a tradition.  When I would interview for a position as a classroom teacher at a new school, I would always ask about traditions: what do they celebrate?  Some centers spend a lot of time thinking about holidays, and some say holidays are for the home.  Some centers go to the fire station every year, regardless of children's interests and inquiry; some centers wait and see what happens.  Understanding the things that a collective of stakeholders value enough to weave it into the fabric of the school - that speaks volumes about the image of the child and the priorities of the center.  Traditions can be wonderful and memorable, but they can also just be old, still in place to appease a small group.


So, where do tradition, best practice and authenticity meet?  Where is that intersection?  It seems that all of those elements are important, and would be described quite differently from school to school.  When I work with teachers, the diversity of knowledge, needs, and passion is enormous, and rather than being uncomfortable or trying to teach every last detail to every last person, I am thinking through a curricular lens: how might educators apply this idea to the curriculum they have or prefer, rather than feeling a need to make a big shift in the whole system?  


This metaphor of curriculum-as-skeleton is vivid for me as I plan for both teaching teachers, and how we might plan to teach children.  The skeleton is made up of the non-negotiable aspects: perhaps the space that we have, the mandates, standards, and benchmarks from outside sources, the weather, the budget.  The skeleton in itself is worth examining, worth understanding deeply, for biases and assumptions.  Take the example of traditions from above:  traditions are worth investigating with an open mind.  There are other systems that we can add, just as our bodies have nervous, muscular, cardiovascular, and more. Everything complements each other and interacts; the well-being of one system is often tied to the well-being of another.


I'm thinking quite a bit about the skeletal system of the workshops and e-courses that I offer, and the other systems that are supported by the skeleton.  This is a metaphor that works for me when I think about curriculum, and I hope it sparks your thinking about the possibility of building curriculum from the bottom up.


(You might also enjoy It's Not About the Branch, a post from last year that muses on implementing big ideas in individual schools.)



Why I Make the Early Childhood Playlist


I have been making the Early Childhood Playlist for one whole year!  I am celebrating by sharing my motivations behind the Playlist: where it came from, why I write it, and where I think it is going.

Where It Came From

The Early Childhood Playlist is the development of the Weekend Links feature on Bakers and Astronauts.  There were times when I felt like I did not have enough to write about, or anything personal to share from my teaching experiences, but my interest in learning more about early childhood education is a constant.  We are lucky to be living in the information age, but that can also be a bit overwhelming.  Articles, videos, other people’s classrooms: all of these things that demand our attention everyday - but where is the quality?  How do we know what will be useful for our own teaching practice?


Why I Write It

The goal of the playlist is to expand our thinking about what Early Childhood Education encompasses.  Teaching young children demands that we are flexible and knowledgeable about everything from current events to the materials we can offer to children in the classroom.

I write the playlist as a casual way to connect educators with information to stretch their thinking about the field.  Teaching young children should be more than setting out materials and knowing songs for circle time.  As you shift from beginner to intermediate teacher, you need to make connections between ideas, read between the lines, and reflect on that information to put it into practice in the way that your setting demands.

Each of our settings is unique, from physical location in the world to the kinds of families that we serve and the values and priorities of each community.  This doesn’t mean that we cannot all take in the same valuable information; it simply means that how we apply ideas will look different in each place.  

I aim to share information that will spark an a-ha moment for you.  I don’t really believe in cut and paste solutions - perhaps cut and edit is more my style.  

The playlist is meant to be a catalyst for thinking and reflection.  I envision educators taking a few minutes to click through the playlist on Saturday morning, with that first cup of coffee or tea for the weekend.  Not every link will entice every reader; rather, the goal is to get you thinking about classroom practices and how children connect with the world through play, dialogue, and action.


Where It is Going

The playlist began on a whim, but it becomes more intentional with each edition.  It feels like an important responsibility to me, and an important part of the work that I am developing for myself.

My hope for the playlist is that it continues on, reaching more inboxes to expand more educators' thinking around the issues that really matter in Early Childhood settings.  I see it as a way to spark reflective practice, moving educators forward with a deeper understanding of global issues and how they translate in local communities and individual classrooms.

If you already subscribe, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the project, and for you to share the playlist with a colleague.  If you don’t subscribe, please join us: it is meant to be read by people just like you.

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Choice in the Early Childhood Classroom

I had the opportunity to interview Anne Sommer Bedrick a few years ago when she released her eBook, Choice Without Chaos (iTunes/Amazon).  Anne does not teach preschool, but she teaches primary school art, and there are so many parallels to be drawn between this particular style of art teaching and the play-centered, child-centered, inquiry based classrooms that so many Early Childhood Educators strive to create.

I am a member of some Choice-Art Teaching groups on social media, and the dialogue reflects a celebration of both common ground and differences.  The educators are not asking about crafts or products: they are supporting each other in deep understanding of what it means to engage students with choice.  As Early Childhood Educators, we are always thinking about the approaches to curriculum that truly engage children.  Choice-art embraces that everyone, every group, every day is a little bit different.  The choice, not the product, is key here.

A post in the Choice-Art Educator Facebook group

A post in the Choice-Art Educator Facebook group


I want to share the basics of this choice-based idea here because it resonates with me as an Early Childhood Educator, and I know it will inspire you as well.


What is Teaching for Artistic Behavior/Choice-Art?

Picture the stereotypical preschool classroom, and its “centers”.  What do you see?  Traditionally, we think of dramatic play, blocks, sensory, painting, books, and the like.  Some of you may have evolved to think about different centers/areas that reflect the specific needs of your community and your philosophy of teaching.  For example, a Montessori classroom may have more specific materials that are offered in more specific places; or a project-based setting may have canters that reflect a current inquiry.  

Now, picture a room with centers, but those areas each cater towards a specific material or medium for students to enjoy.  New centers are opened occasionally, adding increased choices for students.  According to the TAB Website, centers will work well if:

  • Students can find what they need without your input
  • Students are able to create a wide variety of pieces using the center (not everything is the same)
  • There is adequate space to work in the center OR materials can be easily transported to work tables elsewhere
  • Clean up takes place quickly and materials are put away properly, due to your good directions and organization

The choice-art room is like the intersection of art and early childhood.

ABC House, Brussels, Belgium

ABC House, Brussels, Belgium

The points above are good advice for any classroom, and any setup really.  The year begins with limited choice, and new choices are added over the course of the school year.  The TAB website indicates that “centers are earned with good artistic behavior”; I can agree with that statement if there are clear messages about what "good" means, and children are involved in a reflective process around their experiences with materials.  What works for each child, and each group, will be different, as well.  To teach choice-based art or infants, toddlers, or preschoolers is to be constantly observing, reflecting, and evolving.


Why Not Do it The Old Way?

Choice-based art is a contrast to the art education that I had as a K-12 student.  My experience was having a finished product as an example held up in front of the class in elementary school, which represented “what we were making”.  In high school art classes, we used the same materials as our classmates, at the same time, working towards our own products, but those products were in the same category.  For example, we are all painting a still life - the same one that everyone else is painting.  Students in a choice-art classroom will spend time working with the same prompt at the same time as their peers when a medium is introduced; children in an early childhood setting can also benefit from gathering together to inquire and wonder about new prompts and materials.

Choice-art educators are finding ways to take limited time and engage children deeply and independently in making and exploring media, from drawing to digital art and beyond.  This is a contrast to the "we're all doing this" attitude.  Early childhood educators have the same goals: exploration of the world through play.  It is easy to get caught up in the logistics, and see those as barriers to this kind of teaching - from limited time with children to basic human needs to parent expectations, it is far too easy to make excuses to just fall back on run-of-the-mill teaching.  Can we get past those voices in our head that look for problems, and shift our perspective to the big picture, where a tone of trust and true understanding of children will take us much further?

What if we took the time to share materials with children and explore them together, seeing the potential that they have?  What if we reflected on those artistic experiences with these young artists, respecting their original ideas about the potential of media?  

It seems that Early Childhood Educators spend a lot of time thinking about engaging children with materials, getting children to focus, take care of materials, and clean up.  The students who are in classrooms with choice-based art educators are older than our lovely little preschoolers, but that does not mean they will be easier to engage.  Choice-based art educators approach this topic with the understanding that we need to do some scaffolding to support students as they learn about how to use certain materials with success.  Students don’t walk in on day one and have every choice available; instead, the room is curated, with active conversations and reflections to increase understanding of the materials that are available.  

When children have the space to explore in this art environment, they make more connections with the way the world works; they learn to persevere through problem solving; they learn to focus and engage independently; they learn to talk about art and process with others; they are learning that the way they express themselves is valuable, valid, and celebrated.  Thinking outside of the box is a life skill.


Choice Art and the Reggio Emilia Approach : Parallels

The idea of choice-art will likely resonate with Reggio-inspired educators: there are some very clear parallels between Choice Art and the atelier at a Reggio-inspired school.  Learning about choice art is like reading about the Reggio Emilia Approach: there is no one way, one-size-fits-all formula for implementing this idea.  This is a philosophy about what works, translated into one approach to curriculum.  

The Atelier, Reggio Emilia

The Atelier, Reggio Emilia

Ten years ago, when I found myself deep in my own professional learning about the Reggio Emilia Approach, I was taken aback by the work that children would produce in those classrooms, before the age of six.  These children are not more “naturally artistic” - they simply have access to materials that they are able to master and understand, rather than being overwhelmed by gel pens and crayons and paint sticks and stickers and dotters- you see the point there.  Just as we can curate a provocation of loose parts, we can curate mark-making materials and support children’s learning.  We can paint with watercolors together at circle - perhaps just black on white paper, talking through the process and really understanding the medium.  Some children will engage deeply with that prompt, while others will not.  A choice-art teacher of older children might do more of a demonstration; when we work with three-year-olds, we need to be realistic about our expectations for them, and modify accordingly.  

Looking at art education through this lens allows us to increase the number of languages that are available for children to express themselves.  When children have access to black pens, watercolors, clay, cardboard, collage materials - these are materials that children can use to create and make and express themselves.  This lens also helps us transcend the idea that boys don’t like art and girls do - its probably high time that we stop making that assumption anyway.  

Exploring the digital arts in Reggio Emilia

Exploring the digital arts in Reggio Emilia


What should it look like?

“A center is a “three dimensional lesson plan.”  Each center contains menus with set-up procedures, directions and lists of materials and tools.  Resources include images by student and adult artists, books, charts and other related references.  Materials and tools are organized for easy access and return.  Centers can be as large as half the room or as small as a shoe box and can be arranged to accommodate a wide variety of ages and abilities.  Some basic centers will remain in the classroom all year, while others make brief, limited appearances.  Centers are opened one at a time.”
(Teaching for Artistic Behavior)

I think of these studio spaces as art workshops: evolving based on the projects that are happening and how much space they need.  Let go of the "art room" and the "bulletin board"; think about the kind of engaging work that children are really doing: a workshop, a lab, a studio.  The learning space should be an inspiring place that the stakeholders in the environment are drawn to working in, and you are one of those stakeholders, too.

 A communal workspace at Sabot at Stony Point

 A communal workspace at Sabot at Stony Point


Applying it to the 0-5 set: How might this look in Early Childhood?

It is really exciting to think of the possible ways that this can influence design and curriculum of an early childhood setting!  Keeping in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to classroom and curriculum design, think about the following ideas.

Make your space flexible.

 If you follow an inquiry-based, emergent curriculum, leave room for things to change.  Perhaps tables are flexible for children’s material choices, with a large work table close to materials that allows for flexibility.  In my interview with Anne, she talks about how a center can simply be a box or a kit that has the flexibility to be moved around the room; so a box with materials for exploring and using textiles may be brought to a certain part of the room with younger children, or brought to the carpet.  There may be times when everyone wants clay: instead of making that situation stressful, think about expanding the clay choices temporarily.


Make observations about how children use space and materials.  

 How much flexibility and freedom do children have with the choices they have in your setting now?  What is their understanding of the materials at this point - do you need to slow down, or are they already confident, independent creators?  If children are not engaged with an open-ended painting prompt that you set out, reflect on that information rather than jumping to the conclusion that “this group doesn’t like to paint”.  That may be your final conclusion, but take some time to observe, write, take photographs, and reflect on what is really happening in the classroom.

Let children be part of the design process.  

If you want to make change, involve children in that process!  Use a simple material together - black pens and paper - and think out loud during that process.  Point out how you see children using the materials, and ask them where pens and paper should be in the room, and talk about what children might use that material for throughout the day.  As you introduce materials to children, ask them about how they might use them.

Apply the choice-art “centers” philosophy to the overall design of your classroom.  

Those “standards” for a good center, listed above, are wonderfully applicable to the idea of early childhood settings.  When you create a center for materials for children’s use, ask yourself if they fit those standards.  Again, observe children as they use the materials, and revisit the kit/center as a group to reflect on children’s experiences with it.  Inspire children with their art, famous art, books, music, sound-making.  Ask yourself, what might the children explore?  Am I telling them what to explore, or offering the building blocks for them to take their explorations wherever they decide?


Extending Your Thinking

The essence of Choice Art is open-ended, child-centered choice-making.  Rather than that example of the snowman made out of cotton balls available as an example, children might extend their exploration of glue with your “kit” that includes paper, cotton balls, glue, the little circles that fall out of the hole punch, white paint: that curation of materials may help children find focus, and you can use the word “collage” to introduce that idea.  If you have been meeting to talk about materials and reflecting on the experiences in the room (and if you have talked about collage!), this will be a no-brainer for everyone.

Like loose parts, art-making does not always need to be about a permanent, take-home product, but rather about the experience of being deeply engaged with materials and following your own path.  Listen, observe, and reflect, and you'll see the ways that you might apply these ideas to your learning environment.

Photography For and With Children

In a past life, I was a live music photographer.  I took photos for Rolling Stone, for Seattle Sound magazine, and for KEXP.  Its a job that paid in the perks of being close to music, and it is not a job that I knew how to do when I started it.  At my first gig, I had a point and shoot camera, and my old 35mm film SLR from college.


I didn’t exactly make any money doing this, but I did it because I was 25, and there was no reason not to try to be a rock photographer.  I was in little recording studios and at the edge of the stage with some of my favorite artists, trying to translate sound into images for my viewers.  Photography began to creep into more aspects of my life than just shooting live music, and although I upgraded to a Digital SLR to do my job, my film camera collection began to grow, and I began to take photos all of the time, documenting little life moments.  I made myself a little side gig taking photographs for kids' birthday parties:


I began to take more photos in my classroom.


In 2008, pre-smart phone, when I moved to Brussels, I took photos constantly, in and outside of the house, and noticed how often I just shot little moments.  Being trapped in a phone booth with a plaid umbrella during a downpour, the way the light hit the wall in the living room: these are more than “smile and say cheese” pictures - these are memories.

My personal photography habit made its way into my classroom in Brussels, and other teachers would comment on what they saw on our shared server.  “So artsy!” they would say - and I felt pretty self conscious.  I imagine that some might think that I was spending all of my time taking photos, and not much time teaching.  I would argue that to me, teaching is about prompts and interactions and observations, stepping in when at the right times, but letting children be: this is what allows me to have the time to take a few extra photos.  I also want those photos to be good photos: to tell the story.  All of those photos tell stories to parents, and obviously to my colleagues; they are also a simple way to reflect on learning experiences with children.  Being ready to take photos, and knowing how to frame the photo and use camera features, can enrich stories of thinking and learning.


This November, I’m pleased to share that I’ll be leading another online inquiry workshop: this time, we’ll be thinking about the language of photography, for teachers and for children.


A common theme of the writing workshops that I led this summer and fall was the storytelling that we are able to do with children: to support telling their stories for an audience, and engaging that audience in a deeper understanding of why we do what we do in project- and inquiry-based early childhood settings.


If a picture is worth 1000 words, we can say a lot with the images that we share.  This seems especially magnified in today’s digital sharing society.  I don’t need to know you personally to know what you value in your day to day life, as I see your posts on Instagram and other social media sites.  I think about the images that I post: I take many more pictures than I share, because I think one single image can probably tell the story I want to share.  

We talk so much about the hundred languages of children: what about the hundred languages of teachers?  Do you engage and express with other languages?  This workshop lets us look at photography as a language for us, and for children.  You likely already take photographs in the classroom, so what ideas can make those photographs fuller and engaging for an audience?


The Language of Photography inquiry workshop engages both teachers and children with the language of photography.  The first two weeks are focused on you behind the camera, with thinking and learning in front of the lens.  Week one is focused on basic photography skills with simple digital cameras, smartphones, and tablets.  In week two, you'll take a closer look at the stories that you are gathering, thinking about how we might share photos with our audience to engage them in learning stories.  I'll be interviewing inspiring teacher-photographers and sharing our dialogue around capturing learning moments.


The second half of the workshop is focused on children with cameras.  How do we start to engage children with photography, and what kinds of prompts and ideas can support that exploration?  In week three, we think about some logistics: sourcing cameras, and simple prompts for implementing them in the classroom.  In week four, we support children's thinking and learning in the classroom by using photography as a reflective prompt; we also think about how children's images can be part of documentation that is shared with an audience.


"Photographer" is yet another hat that we wear as Early Childhood Educators, and this workshop is meant to support that aspect of your teacher self.  


Engaging Children with Cooking

Cooking can be a deeply engaging activity for children, especially when they have freedom in their work.  I have cooked with children throughout my career, and it is one of my absolute favorite prompts: regardless of our inquiry, project, or big idea, there is always room for cooking.  Cooking can also become a central inquiry for the group.  I am sharing some thoughts about cooking with children, along with some resources and tips for engaging children with food.

Children are capable cooks.

It is appropriate to cook with children of all ages, and much of what worries adults about children cooking is safety and hygiene.  When we are well organized (but also prepared for the unknown), we can meet children where they are as cooks.  Some children may have experiences cooking at home, some may not be welcome in the home kitchen.  Children cutting, grating, and sautéing causes anxiety in most adults.  If we have not spent time doing that alongside children, yes, it can be dangerous.  We can scaffold the experience without just hovering over them nervously while they execute every step.  There are appropriate tasks, even for very young children.

One chef friend of mine, Jesse, has two girls, whom he has been engaging with cooking since they were capable of stepping up to the counter on a stool.  They cut, knead, pound, mash, and more, with a calm adult who believes in them nearby to support, and to take on some of the more technical tasks.  Their experiences can continue to evolve and grow, too, as they get a front row seat to skilled, passionate cooking.  Before long, they'll be taking on the "too hard" tasks to make recipes from start to finish - or at the least, the adult's role will be as the sous chef, supporting the child, who can take the role of head chef.

Jesse + Avalon make dutch baby

Children like to cook.

This is especially true when things are well organized, and the adults are calm and open to children's queries and wonderings about the recipe and the ingredients.  Engage children in conversation about what is happening, using open ended questions.  What other recipes do you know that have salt?  What does this vinegar look like?  Smell like?  Taste like?  These questions take the pressure off of waiting for a turn, and engage children in the full richness of a cooking activity.  The act of cooking is an opportunity to use a variety of language and vocabulary that is unique to the kitchen, and to cuisine.


You don't just need to make "kid food".


This may be a very American perspective, but when adults think of cooking with kids, cookies and cupcakes end up on the top of the list.  When I work with a new group of children, I like to sit down as a group before we do any cooking and ask what children like to cook.  This sometimes happens naturally as we all sit down with our lunches or our snacks, or as we are reading a book that involves food or cooking.  In the home, children are usually invited to cook a treat, like sweets.  When I started teaching, I made a lot of made a lot of baked goods with children: cookies especially.  I wanted the children to enjoy the food, and my thinking was that of course, they will want cookies.

I spent a year as a garden educator with preschoolers through fifth graders, and I cooked with children all of the time, outside, with an electric skillet.  The recipes were garden inspired, from vegetable fried rice to frittatas with herbs to Moroccan carrot salad - and I watched children thoroughly enjoy these foods.  I find that children are more open to trying a food when they have been part of the cooking process, and that motivation is amplified when children are also growing the food.

We can make food with children that nourishes and excites both us and them.


The food should be super tasty.

If we want children to eat different foods, it should be delicious.  Season food with children!  They have a palate, and they have tastebuds.  They are not too young for interesting flavors: just think of the baby who puts a lemon wedge in her mouth!  We should trust and respect that children can get pleasure from food, just like we can.  A touch of salt goes a long way with vegetables - trust me!


Take recipes for a practice run.

Whether salad or cookies or bread, take recipes for a spin before you make them with children.  This way you can understand some of the intricacies of the recipe, and also understand how the process might need to go when eight eager young chefs ALL want to crack an egg.  Perhaps the oven at your center runs hot, or cold.  Perhaps you taste the finished product and want to make some tweaks.  You'll run into something unexpected while cooking, so you might as well eliminate a few possible scenarios.  This is also an opportunity to make something for yourself, and to try out cooking outside of the box of "kid food".


Think of cooking as inquiry.

Listen to the children as they cook - what is jumping out to them?  What are they talking about?  Engage the group in conversation as you share the food - what do they like?  What might you change about the recipe for next time?  What else do they want to make?  Adding a regular cooking activity to the routine can be a way to test out the group's interest in cooking and food; it is also simply an engaging experience that teaches a life skill.


Don't Pressure.

Cooking with children, and sharing that food, should be pleasurable.  Its okay if not everyone tries it.  Its okay if not everyone likes it!  But rather than saying "yuck" and moving along, open up a dialogue with children around the food: what is the flavor like?  What is the texture like?  What do they like, and what don't they like?  The "yuck" and "ew" can spread like wildfire through a group, and I always encourage children to be more specific.  

It is important to keep talking, and support children in sharing their opinions.  The food tasting and sharing is also a great opportunity to talk about how those opinions can differ, and how we all have food preferences.  It is okay to not all like the same thing!  I encourage children to taste the food and share their ideas, but I don't force tastes or finishing food.  Everyone has a small amount, and seconds and thirds can be available.


Reflect and Plan.

Children can add their ideas to the cooking conversation through talking, sketching, dramatic play, and much more.  Jot down notes while the children taste and eat - what are they saying to each other?  What dialogue has the food sparked?  Document the experience, and reflect with the children.  what is happening in the photographs, what is the process of making that dish?  Cooking once can spark a desire for more cooking, more eating, more food sharing, more stories - but each setting is different, and the inquiry that develops is often subtle.  Children can be part of the reflection and planning process, individualizing this big idea - food - specifically for your learning community.


Bon Appetit!


Resources for Cooking with Children

Pretend Soup and Other Real Recipies, by Mollie Katzen

The Edible Schoolyard

The Languages of Food: Recipes, Experiences, Thoughts

Cooking with Preschoolers - tips from Epicurious

Cooking in Child Care: Practical Tips + Recipes


A Cardboard Kite

This girl came to Cardboard Playground excited to engage with materials - and especially to MAKE.  This is a common goal when children approach all of these materials - what should they make?  What CAN they make?

She made a kite, inspired by the dragon kite that her Grandparents have.  There was just enough wind to make this cardboard kite take flight, but she did not really believe it - she couldn't see it floating in the air behind her as she ran.  She asked her mom to take a video, and she watched it; then she decided to make some modifications to the design.  She cut flaps and made more designs on the cardboard, then asked me, "Can you take a video?  I want to see if it flies!"


Some adults may have told her how to make the kite fly better.  Some adults may tell her that cardboard is not an idea material for a kite.  Some adults may think that this does not support children in learning how to "do things right".  Play Lab exists because even though we, as adults, might not do things the same way a child chooses to, its okay to make it up yourself.  When you enjoy the process, you'll likely engage in it again, becoming more and more of an expert each time.

I made a new friend, Jack, yesterday at Cardboard Playground - I'll be writing more about that soon.  But I was thrilled to come home and read this in the preface of his book on woodworking with children:  "There is something magical about the process of building, the transformation of raw materials by knowledge, skill, and persistence into a useful and nice-looking product."  His words have helped me expand my understanding of the two sides of the coin: process and product.  And, on top of that, interest and support for Play Lab seems to be growing, and I'm looking forward to seeing what happens next!

Risks and Hazards

As the summer begins to wind down, so does the Play Lab programming that was organized way back in the spring.  The main series of the summer has been Cardboard Playground, which feels more defined with each iteration.  There is one more Cardboard Playground on September 10th, but have already started to reflect on the what and the why and the how of these installations.  I can't help but draw connections between Cardboard Playground and two powerful pieces on play from the past year: writer Amy Fusselman's Savage Park and filmmaker Erin Davis' The Land.

Cardboard Playground has been the most visible project of Play Lab in the four years that Play Lab has been installing materials in community spaces.  It is the first time I tried to get people to come out JUST for Play Lab; in the past, Play Lab has been a compliment to other community events like concerts and picnics.  Each week in Bellingham, the newspaper puts out a section that recommends five things to do in the coming weekend: Two of the three events have been featured.  This is exciting for me, and a bit anxiety producing.  Play Lab is still mostly in my head, but something has people excited - perhaps it is the increased sharing of stories about play from large publications like The Atlantic and The New York Times.  Each Cardboard Playground has had at least 50 visitors, with more and more repeat players with each installation. It exists because situations where there is nothing to copy, no rules to follow, and no specific product expectations are rare: Play Lab is an opportunity to just explore materials in a space that draws people in to play.

Although the execution is different, Cardboard Playground was inspired by my growing awareness of adventure playgrounds, most of which are in the UK and Europe.  I revisited The Land recently and found myself even more deeply engaged watching the children's actions and listening to the words of the Playworkers.  


Cardboard Playground does not have materials for fire-building, or a zip line eight feet up, but most adults still see risk.  The balance between child-directed play and adult oversight is difficult to navigate, because it involves humans - basically walking variables.  When children and families arrive, I tell them to “be safe”.  But, I realize, my definition of safety is different than theirs.  I am comfortable seeing a baby crawl under a large piece of cardboard, into the secret unknown space that exists for them alone under there.  I bring first aid supplies to Cardboard Playground because I would rather a child have an amazing time and a cut on their finger than an overly structured experience with fretful adults who keep saying "no".


In the film The Land, one of the Playworkers talks about the difference between risks and hazards.  When we take risks, we know that something is risky: we are willingly choosing to interact.  A hazard, on the other hand, is something that we are not aware of in the environment, creating a danger that is less avoidable.  A nail sticking out of an old piece of wood?  I can remove that hazard.  But, giving children a big pile of wood to create with implies other risks: splinters and thumbs hit by hammers and collapsing buildings.  Do you see the difference?  When children experience splinters and hammers and a lack of structural integrity, and they are given the space and time to understand what is happening and why, they learn from those experiences.  Isn’t risk-taking the best way to learn about risk?  Won't they have more awareness of avoiding danger from those risks in the future?

The challenges of a temporary installation like Cardboard Playground are overwhelmingly related to risk.  Because children are not dropped off, their adults stay close by.  Oftentimes adults create a construction with a little bit of child input; sometimes adults heed my advice on the signage, step back, and let the children take charge.  Even this, though, gets a bit muddy: adults often cut, tape, support, change, and make things for children either without being asked, or far earlier than they need to.  Dr. Alison Gopnik's new book, The Gardener and the Carpenter, addresses this idea, specifically as it relates to parents.  A review of the book in the New York Times summarizes: "...children are such naturals at learning and playing and innovating that parents should just loosen up and let them do their thing. "We can’t make children learn," [Gopnik] writes, "but we can let them learn."" 



That is one of the striking elements of Playwork and adventure playgrounds: the adults with the deep understanding of the balance between safety and development.  Rather than be yet another place where children must do things a certain way in order to reach an outcome identical to those around them, open-ended play spaces are meant for discovery, exploration, problem solving, risk, challenge, mistakes, and development.


This may not sit well with everyone - and it certainly did not sit well with Fusselman when she was first brought to Hanegi Playpark, aka Savage Park.

“I looked up at the trees.  I was astonished to see that there were children in them.  The more I looked, the more children I saw.  There were children fifteen feet high in the air.  There were children perched on tiny homemade wooden platforms, like circus ladies dressed in glittery clothes about to swan dive into little buckets.  There were children sitting up there, relaxed, in their navy blue sailor-type school uniforms, chatting and eating candy on bitty rectangles of rickety wood as if they were lounging on the Lido deck of the Love Boat.  There were children in creaky homemade structures like this in the trees all over the park.  There were children, preteens, crouching fifteen feet up on the roof of the playpark hut and then - I gasped to see this - leaping off it onto a pile of ancient mattresses.” (Savage Park, p. 37)


Risk and challenge and problem solving - these ideas are at the core of places like Hanegi Playpark and The Land.  In the excerpt above, Fusselman also touches on the social layer that is naturally embedded in these spaces: children, connected with each other, in a place where they are heard, respected, and trusted.  That is work that I have been unable to fully match (so far) with Play Lab.  When children - and only children - are working together to create and manipulate and play and explore - they do not get sidetracked by an adult agenda.  Both Davis’ and Fusselman’s stories highlight this intricate and delicate work done by the adults who are paid to work in these adventure playgrounds - Playworkers.  These trained adults support children by curating the space (bringing in materials, creating play prompts, removing hazards), and by stepping back and truly letting children explore.  When you watch The Land, you might find yourself gripping your seat as children make a fire in a pallet shack with a ceiling.  The Playworker sits just a few feet away, exuding calmness and truly assessing the level of risk.  An intervention from a Playworker is not an arms-flailing-and-yelling-stop situation.  The Playworker watches, and understands that kids need to explore to figure things out.  There are times to step in, and there are times to step back.


Cardboard Playground is, obviously, not a permanent, ongoing space where children can explore and take risks and start fires.  Perhaps it can evolve if my community is interested.  Regardless of the future of Play Lab and Cardboard Playground, there are still plenty of things that we most people consider “risky” happening at Cardboard Playground.  The majority of the time, if a toddler gets a hold of a pair of scissors, they are snatched away with a gasp.  A child with scissors is a learning opportunity - how can we be safest with that tool?  There is a moment I love in The Land where a child is sawing a piece of cardboard that is wet and slick with snow.  The saw slides around, the child keeps adjusting the cardboard and the saw, and I imagine that most of us would stop him from that work.  But, remember the difference between a RISK and a HAZARD.  When we are constantly after a child telling them not to do this, be careful with that, watch out for that, its sharp, stop that, do it this way - what is a child learning there?  They are learning to avoid risk, they are learning that someone else will be around to regulate their behavior at every moment.  They are told what the problem is rather than discovering it for themselves - and to step back even further, they are being told that a problem exists.  The children at Savage Park and The Land watch out for each other, helping and supporting through play and exploration.  Their connections with the other players is deep.

Many wonderful moments happen at Cardboard Playground that are “just right” for children - especially for very young children.  The environment is prepared for exploration without hazards, and when children are left to their own devices, they have many wonderful ideas about what to do.



Although I might define the biggest “risk” at Cardboard Playground as scissors, they are an approachable risk.  You can look that risk in the face and say, okay.  I am going to model carrying scissors - children learn from the world around them.  I’m not going to jump to the conclusion that a child with scissors is synonymous with a child being dangerous with scissors.  I am going to stay in the mindset that this experience - whether they get hurt or not - allows a few more neurons to fire and connect in the “scissor schema” category.  


Risk is a child using a tool that has the potential to harm her if used incorrectly.  Hazard is giving a child an inappropriate tool that cannot get the job done, and the child may get hurt out of frustration.  I have experienced this over and over again when cooking with children.  Cutting bananas and strawberries with plastic knives to make a fruit salad is an appropriate cooking exploration for two year olds.  Cutting raw potatoes with a butter knife?  Not so much.  When we step back and think about the decisions we are making to avoid risk, we are also taking away factors that will engage children; and if we expect them to persevere, those experiences won’t teach them about problem solving.  We are the ones who gave them the raw potato and the non-serrated knife.  We are the ones who have the opportunity to sit around with children in a group with raw potatoes, passing them around and asking, how might we make this into smaller pieces?  In Early Childhood, at least, we have the time and freedom to do that.  And as we do that, we are supporting children’s learning about how stuff really, truly works.  They may suggest something they have seen in their home kitchen.  Adults may also have ideas to help children expand, and because adults and children alike have experiences with food, there is already an entry to a dialogue.  Glass jars for markers and hot glue guns for making are not hazards, they are risks: risks that can be discussed through dialogue and mastered through exploration.  


Cardboard Playground is still an evolving idea that can never truly be replicated between sessions, mostly because of all of the factors involved.  Different people come and go; the physical location of Cardboard Playground changes.  The cardboard itself is a factor: I have observed significant differences in events when there is more very large cardboard available as compared to when I have only gathered smaller boxes and pieces.  These factors of people and space and materials are never the same, keeping me, as a playworker, on my toes.  I need to understand the possible risks and how far to let these little humans, most of whom I am just meeting, go with these tools and materials.  I don’t like to jump in and offer “help” when people arrive.  I say I am available, there are tools and materials.  If I offer to cut duct tape or make a structure more stable, what learning opportunities are the children missing out on by me, quite literally, doing the playing for them?  This is akin to what I say to children when they ask me to draw a cat or a person for them in preschool: but if I do that for you, how will you figure it out for next time?  Fusselman articulates:

“Allowing babies, children, and young adults to spend as much time as possible with the lowest level of interference in the highest-quality environment we can provide for them - that is, an environment that we have not engineered ourselves and do not completely control, an environment we don’t fully understand, an environment that includes devils and angels and accidents and trees and swings and lunch - this is another approach.  It also has its drawbacks, the major one being the pain of our own uncertainty and vulnerability, the process of making peace with the unknown, and the requirement that a noninterfering adult Be Here Now.” (pp. 87-88)

The Land, Hanegi Playpark, the forest, a friend's backyard, a city street: the world is a place full of new situations, even for adults.  I am not suggesting that children do not need us or that we should not help them.  But perhaps if we give children a bit more space and time, and we treat them as capable and trustworthy, we will all see more confident, playful, inquisitive children.  You can't be inquisitive if everyone is telling you to stop, or if there is nothing novel to explore or do.


Favorite Playwork Resources

The Playwork Primer by Penny Wilson

Evolutionary Playwork by Bob Hughes

Planning for Play by Lady Allen of Hurtwood

Pop Up Adventure Play