“One reason to stay calm is that calm parents are the ones whose children keep talking. ”
On December 15, 2020, I had the opportunity to meet with a group of parents, via zoom, so that we could discuss their experiences parenting during this unusual time in our history. The ages of their children varied from almost two years old to a just-starting- middle- school eleven year old.
Did any of their experiences overlap? How were their children adapting to the changes in their schedules and in the life-styles of their families? In addition to caring for their families, supervising school-age children with schoolwork, doing their own work from home, and generally worrying about when this would all end, how were these hard-working adults taking time to care for themselves?
In 2018 I had the very exciting experience of traveling to Hong Kong to work with the educational staff of the Hong Kong Dalton School. Larry Leaven, who was director of the school at that time, had introduced my book on Choice Time as a professional study text to his staff. I had my first experience doing a professional development session over Skype and then Larry proposed that I come to Hong Kong in August and spend a week working with his staff. What an exciting experience I was in for.
The teachers were all interested and so engaged in their work. I went into classrooms to work with them and we also had one full day dedicated to professional development. Teachers from other schools in the city were invited to join us. Nancy Du was the assistant director of the school at the time (She is now co-director with Shaun Porter) and she and Larry had the wonderful idea of translating my book into Mandarin. The Beijing Normal University Press was interested in the idea. They all believed that the teachers in China were eager for information on how to bring more inquiry and play into their classrooms.
Over the next few months, Nancy worked on the translation, occasionally asking me to clarify some points in the book. And so, at last, the Mandarin version of the book was published and went into the hands of many teachers in China!
One evening in New York, (morning in Hong Kong,) Larry, Nancy and I met via zoom to discuss their experience of bringing Choice Time, the book and the ideas in the book, to China. Here’s a bit of their personal backgrounds.
Larry Leaven, most recently the Founding Principal of the Dalton School Hong Kong, has worked in education for 32 years. He earned a degree in elementary education and in music education from Houghton College, Houghton, NY and received his master’s degree in education and a certificate of advanced study in educational administration from the State University of New York College at Buffalo. Before moving to Hong Kong in 2016, he served two years as the principal of the Beijing International Bilingual Academy in Beijing, China. Prior to that, Mr. Leaven served in various capacities in New York State, including: teacher, principal, adjunct lecturer, and assistant superintendent. In addition to his teaching and leadership roles, he has presented at international education conferences and has served on various non-profit boards.
Dr. Nancy, Lijuan, Du grew up in Beijing, and studied at the Beijing Normal University, the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the University of Hong Kong. She has degrees in Pedagogy, Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language and Assessment. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Du has been working in different international school settings in Beijing and Hong Kong, and has been serving in many leadership roles. She is currently the Co-Principal of Dalton School Hong Kong. She is super passionate about education, and is a great advocate of Chinese culture, dual Language program and child-centered philosophy.
“Let children touch nature because that which is untouched is unloved.” (Emma Morris)
John Allgood, a very dedicated kindergarten teacher, observed that when he brought children into the natural environment, they quite naturally become engaged in collaboration. Although there were still disagreements, they were of a different nature than those that took place in the classroom and children more naturally learned to resolve them. He said that the hierarchy that often exists in the playground, where students with the greatest physical facility become dominant, was devalued when children are playing in parks and in the woods.
On Thursday, December 10, 2020, I met, via zoom, with John and three other early childhood teachers, Bill Fulbrecht, Amy Binin and Merril Miceli. All four of them have found ways to incorporate bringing children into the natural environment into the lives of their classrooms.
Here is our very informal and engaging discussion,followed with a link to Emma Morris’s TED talk, and also a link to an exciting early childhood program in China, Anjiplay.
Thank goodness we have educators like Kristin Eno and Richard Lewis. They both prioritize joy, wonder, poetry, art and music when they work with children and they don’t forget about how important parents are in this equation.
On the afternoon of Wednesday, December 9, 2020 I had the delightful opportunity of taking part in a conversation with Richard and Kristin. The discussion became so exciting that we decided on making plans for a part two. But that is still in the works. For today, here is part one of Living by Wonder: The Imaginative Life of Childhood. After listening to our talk, you can view one of Kristin’s studio lessons for the preschoolers that she works with at Beginnings Nursery School at the bottom of this post.
I met Lella Gandini in 1996 when my husband and I were visiting Rome and staying at the American Academy . At the time, her husband, Lester Little, was the director of the Academy. On the plane trip I was reading The Hundred Languages of Children and I was so surprised when we reached the main desk of the Academy to check in and I saw Lella’s photo on a bulletin board above the receptionist’s desk. We have remained correspondents since that visit.
Amazingly, I had a second surprise visit connected with Lella. This one included Cathy. When my daughter was having a concert in Worchester, Massachusetts, I was introduced to the publisher, Wyatt Wade. He invited me, along with my daughter and son-in-law, to visit his newly restored office. When we arrived, Lella and Cathy were there waiting for me! After a tour of the office, we all went to Wyatt’s home for dinner. It was a visit that I’ll always remember.
When I came up with the idea for this new series of conversations, I immediately thought of these two inspiring women. I crossed my fingers when I invited them to participate and to my utter delight, they immediately accepted the invitation.
Lella serves as Reggio Emilia Liason in the United States for Dissemination of the Reggio Emilia Approach. The Principles of the Reggio Emilia Approach include:
a deep respect for the ideas of children and teachers.
a belief that knowledge is constructed through social interchange.
the value of using materials and media to express and communicate feelings, thoughts and understandings.
the desire to document children’s and teacher’s processes to preserve memories and sustain in-depth work.
the joy and growth that comes from collaborating with other teachers and with children in the search for knowledge and understanding of relationships.
Cathy Topal and Lella Gandini took some time the morning of November 17, 2020 to talk about Beautiful Stuff and the Gift of Discovery.
Here is a very apropros and entertaining video of how the artist Hanoch Piven uses beautiful stuff in his art. You might want to share this with your children. They will love it! https://youtu.be/f7bZWbzuW_I
When I began teaching in the late sixties and early seventies, I heard about the new public school in Harlem, Central Park East, and its foundation of progressive education. At the same time, I was reading Charles Silberman’s magisterial anthology, The Open Classroom Reader. These possibilities for creating schools and classrooms that honored children’s innate intelligence, desire and need for play and exploration filled me with an excitement for teaching.
Then, as the years went on, the educational landscape changed. Testing and rigid standards that didn’t take into account all that we know about children, how they develop and what they need to become creative thinkers and future adult citizens, took over what was happening in classrooms across the country.
Some, however, stayed strong and true to their ideals. Deborah Meier and Anna Allanbrook are two of the shining examples of progressive leaders in education who did not give up and who keep fighting for what they know education should stand for.
I’m honored to have had a conversation with these two noted educators and inspired thinkers. I hope you enjoy this important dialogue.
During this frightening and sad time in our history something personally disturbing happened to me. While I stayed practically locked up in my house with my husband, I saw so many people busy at their important work. We live near a hospital and in addition to the painful sound of ambulance alarms, day and night, I was so aware of all the brave people who were working in the hospital, always facing personal danger of catching the virus themselves.
Teachers were quickly learning the technology that would allow them to reach out to their students, hoping that they could soothe, assure and instruct them at the same time. Parents were working from home while simultaneously becoming home-schoolers, teaching their children how to manage often-confusing technology and helping them to stay focused on this new mode of instruction.
In my own family, my husband, whose time had been taken up with some exhibitions of his work, was now back in his studio, totally immersed in an exciting new painting. My daughter saw her entire year of piano concerts get cancelled one by one. After a few months, she pulled herself out of an understandably depressed state and began recording CDs, teaching students, via Zoom, as far away as Asia, and performing concerts that are being streamed on the internet. My son-in-law took on a huge project, with the help of my grandson, and built a magical, screened-in summer room in their garden. Now he’s back at work, teaching 4th grade students at P.S. 321. My grandson, who has been studying acting in London, auditioned and was given an important role in a new Netflix film about a group of teenagers who attempt to start a heavy metal band. He’s now in Portland, Oregon filming Metal Lords!
That leaves me. I seemed to be faced with a personal, existential crisis. Where is my place during this unusual time? As an early childhood consultant, focusing on exploration, play, Choice Time and inquiry, my work disappeared for now and possibly in the future. I seemed to have no constructive purpose and I felt, to put it mildly, useless.
My daughter wondered why I wasn’t writing on my blog. How could I? I don’t have an authentic voice. I’m not working with teachers or children now. I’m not parenting a young child. Why would anyone have an interest in what I would have to say?
Simone, forever wise, suggested that I interview interesting people and post the interviews on my blog. I thought about her suggestion and came up with a twist to her idea. Instead of interviews, I am going to record conversations between people who have very interesting and provocative contributions that should inspire refreshing thinking about the education of young children.
Perhaps these ideas might guide us in taking hold of education and assuring that something positive will grow out of this challenging, distressing time.
Here is the list of the upcoming blog post conversations:
“Tell me about when you were a little girl.” “Tell me about how you and daddy met.” “Tell me about your grandma and grandpa.” Simone, my daughter, was always asking for more “Tell me about…” stories. She loved to hear stories that our friend Teresa, in Rome, would tell her about what it was like in Italy when she was a little girl. My stories of growing up in Brooklyn (in the olden days!) intrigued her. She ate these stories up. She wanted the same story told over and over. She never seemed to tire of the same story just as she never tired of hearing Goodnight Moon before going to sleep each night. . Now, years later, my 18 year old grandson is hungry for stories about my father, almost as though my memories might provide a magic key to unlocking some mystery that might be hidden.
Children just love to hear stories about what seems to uncover the secret lives of their parents. Now while families are all sheltered together at home, why not have a special time a few days or evenings for story sharing. Adults can begin the storytelling, remembering special moments from their childhood. After a few days of story sharing, children can be encouraged to share their own stories about memories from their lives.
When I was teaching kindergarten, the children in my class were fascinated to learn about how the Egyptians wrote messages in hieroglyphs, using pictures to stand for words and sounds. We had a flurry of hieroglyph writing for a while!
Of course, oral storytelling has a rich, international tradition. The Cherokee Native Americans gathered together as different versions of the creation story were (and still are) shared as are more moralistic stories that tell why a certain animal looks a particular way, or acts with unique behaviors.
Anansi, the spider who is a cunning trickster, is the subject of the very rich oral storytelling tradition that was brought to this country from West Africa and the Caribbean. Anansi was such a trickster that he was considered able to turn the tables on the slave owners, allowing the slaves to gain the upper hand. He was considered an inspiration of resistance. Telling the Anansi stories allowed the Africans who were enslaved in the United States to maintain a connection to their homelands.
Some years ago, when I visited the early childhood schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy, I was surprised to see how few books they had their classrooms as compared to the classrooms back in NYC. I asked one of the teachers about this and she told me that the Italian families would sit around the dinner table and listen to stories told by the elders in the household. Dinner would last until late in the evening and this rich tradition of family story telling took the place of our bedtime stories.
Story telling can become a fun, comforting and inspiring tradition in your home during this pandemic. If you have spent, say, a week sharing stories, why not come up with the exciting idea of putting all the stories into books? You could staple or click a few blank pages together and begin the process as collaboration. Draw pictures together to recreate one of the stories.
If your child is young and not doing traditional writing, you might wonder if you should be transcribing the story onto the pages. This is a tricky question. Sometimes, in my class, a child would ask me a question about some aspect of religion. That’s when I would say, “That’s a good question to ask a grown-up in your family.”
I have my own ideas on whether adults should be writing on children’s stories but I would say that this is something to ask your child’s teacher. What are the protocols for writing in children’s books? Some teachers transcribe the child’s words and some ask the child to write “as best as you can”. My personal instinct is to leave the writing up to the child. What looks like random marks on a paper to an adult can have very personal meaning to the child who is writing a story. If you want to read more about this way of thinking, I would suggest the Heinemann book, Already Ready, Nurturing Writers in Preschool and Kindergarten by Katie Wood Ray and Matt Glover. However, bottom line is that you might want to be consistent with the instruction your child will be getting when school returns and so it probably makes sense to consult the classroom teacher on this.
Here’s another possible fun follow-up to story telling. If you shared the history of cavemen’s wall paintings with your child, find a big piece of paper if you can, tape it to the bedroom wall, give your child some crayons and talk with him about what family story he’s going to draw as he imagines that he’s in a cave, drawing with a stick on a muddy wall!
You also can cut out strips of paper, find images of hieroglyphs on the Internet, and challenge your child to write one of the stories with hieroglyphs! Remember that it will be the process of thinking about what to write, not whether or not the final product is correct, that counts here.
If you have family photo albums, sharing them together can spark the telling and retelling of family stories.
The next time your child says, “Tell me a story” why not begin a meaningful storytelling tradition in your home?
Everyone understands that this is a stressful time for parents and for children. Parents are thrown into a new role. Now they are responsible for taking care of their families such as cooking, cleaning and caring for children, suddenly being a home-teacher and in many instances also working a day job from home. It’s exhausting just to think about it.
I’m going to concentrate on how families can support the learning that kindergarten children are doing now that they are confined to home. Here is the truly important idea about the education of young children that parents can hold onto. Children learn through their play! If they’re pretending to have a restaurant they might be making menus, using important literacy skills. If they’re building a tower with blocks or a fort with couch pillows, they’re learning about balance and also, most important, they’re learning to problem solve.
Let’s create a situation where you can find some cardboard boxes , you’ve had deliveries in boxes or you get some when you go out for groceries., Rather than throwing them in the recycle bin, you hold onto them. ( If you don’t have any, you might ask neighbors if they can leave one or two outside your door.) You have a true treasure to give to your child. Empty boxes can get the wheels of the child’s mind spinning. If you have a big box, that opens up so many possibilities. All you need to do is “gift” the box to the child and say, almost to the room, “I wonder what this box will become.” Then leave the child alone with it. It’s helpful if crayons or markers, paper, glue, maybe even cardboard strips and empty paper towel dowels are nearby. Now the fun begins. Just to warn you, it doesn’t begin quickly. Children need, what I call, mess around time. They need time to think and to consider. Maybe it’s necessary to step away from the box, but just leave it in place because he/she will, I’m sure, come back to it. Perhaps at dinner it could be the topic of a family discussion. You, or grandpa, your partner or an older child might think aloud about what you might be doing with the box. “I always wanted to go to outer space. Wouldn’t that be a great rocket ship?”, you might say. Then another adult might disagree. “I would make a big fire truck that I could ride in.” If your child doesn’t say anything, then just drop the subject and go on to something else. Be assured that he/she is starting to think about what will happen.
Perhaps the next day you might casually give your child a big piece of paper and say, “I found this paper, just in case you want to make a plan for your box.” You don’t have to say anything else. You’ve planted seeds.
There’s a nice YouTube video of the author reading her book “It’s Not a Box” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PMCKXaFsmCA&t=45s0 ) and you might want to look at it together as a family. It’s a lovely story.
I want to assure you that an activity like this, which is very open-ended and leaves so much to the child’s imagination, is important play. It’s actually so much more powerful in terms of a young child’s learning than practicing with worksheets. When a child is playing he is learning to make a plan and follow through (such as if a child decides to draw a picture of his family and has to plan who is to be included in the drawing); he learns through trial and error and uses his imagination, such as building a tower or a fort with pillows. (Oops, it fell. Now I have to figure out a new way to build it so it won’t fall.); makes scientific and mathematical observations when cooking or making play dough with a parent and seeing how the addition of each ingredient creates changes and how important it is to measure just the right amount of flour, salt and water. uses reason and analytical thinking if she’s doing a puzzle and has to figure out where the pieces go; derives feeling of satisfaction when a puzzle or a rocket ship is completed; and thinks creatively such as when she is figuring out how to mix paint or crayon colors to make a new color.
Think of these learning categories and how they are important skills for success in life– creating a plan, following through, trial and error, imagination, making mathematical and scientific observations, using analytical reasoning, and thinking creatively.
One way that you can help support children with their play is to step back and give the child time and space, as I mentioned before. But you also can ask meaningful questions and make important observations to provoke children’s thinking. As strange as it may seem, these are questions that have no right or wrong answer. For example, if you’re looking at your child’s drawing, instead of asking, “What is this color called?” you might say, “You’ve made such an interesting choice of colors here.” and then wait a moment to see if your child wants to talk about the colors. Sometimes though, the child is deep into the creative process and that might be a time for the parent to just step back and give some space.
Here are some examples of questions that you might ask your child during and after play: • Can you tell me how this works? • Could you tell me what you were thinking…? (When you decided to do this? When you added this part to the drawing? Etc.) • What might happen if ___________? • Why did that happen? • What is the problem you’re trying to solve? • That is very interesting. That time you _______ instead of _______. • I see ________. What’s happening here? • Hmm, how does that work? • I wonder____________(wondering is always good to do) • What are other ideas you have about ____________.
“Play is our brain’s favorite way of learning.” – Diane Ackerman (famous poet, naturalist, essayist)
It was August, 1976. My husband, Simon, my daughter, Simone, my dog, Lucky, and I were just about to leave our apartment in Brooklyn to spend a year at the American Academy in Rome. At the time we didn’t realize that the year would be extended to almost three years. Just before we left, my friend Connie stopped by with a gift for Simone. In addition to a lovely picture book, she also gave her a portable transistor radio. For my almost four year old daughter, this radio was an exciting new possession and she couldn’t wait until we arrived in Rome so that she could play it all by herself.
After what seemed like an incredibly long trip to Rome (our dog had to be sedated and she nervously chomped on my finger when I gave her a piece of hot dog with a pill inside of it, my husband got a major toothache while we were on the plane and calmed the pain with many glasses of Scotch, Simone realized she could get as much soda as she wanted from the lovely stewardess and I was so exhausted that I didn’t put a stop to her increasing sugar high) we finally arrived in Rome! When we got to our apartment in Monteverde Vecchio, Simon and I were eager to take a nap and Simone was eager to turn on her new radio. We left her in her charming bedroom, went into our bedroom and immediately fell asleep until…
There was a wail of horror coming from Simone and we rushed in to see what the problem was. “My radio! Somethings wrong! It’s an American radio and it’s talking Italian!” Her world was crumbling. She was in a new country, a new apartment, a new bedroom without all of her toys from home and now to make everything unbearable, her radio didn’t know how to talk right! Her almost four year old world seemed to be falling apart.
This memory returned to me while I was thinking about the children who were confined to their apartments or, if they were lucky, their yards, not able to play with their friends, wisked away quickly from their teachers and classmates, living in a world where people’s faces were covered with masks and where they had to keep a social distance whenever they did get the opportunity to go outside.
One thing that I’m certain of. This is not the time to worry about children falling behind. I’ll write more about this idea of children falling behind in another blog post. It is a time for everyone in the house to respect and comfort each other. Children need respect and comfort and parents need the same!
In an upcoming post, I’ll write about how giving children time to be bored can lead to some wonderful discoveries and creations. I’ll also write about how parents can support children’ in developing higher-order thinking by chosing questions and observations carefully. I’ll also write about the difference between play and playful. These are important distinctions to recognize.
I encourage parents to have confidence that their children are always developing and learning. Watch them as they use their powers of investigation and imagination to figure out what they can do with that plain empty box that you were going to toss into the recycle bin. Is it play? Is it learning?