Supporting Parents -“Play is our brain’s way of working”

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” ( ) 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)

Simone’s Italian Radio-a story for parents and teachers

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? 

“Play is the work of the child.” Maria Montessori


Experts Everywhere

From 2011 to 2015 I had the pleasure of working as a consultant in Katie Rust’s first grade classroom. Katie’s wonderful co-teacher was Andy Mastin. We focused on how to move their instruction from a more traditional teaching approach to one which emphasizes inquiry, play and exploration. We had a blast! Katie and Andy just grabbed any suggestions that I shared, made it their own and ran with it. Now Katie is a second/third grade teacher and she’s writing her own wonderful blog. I’m really eager and pleased to share her latest blog entry with you.

Experts Everywhere
Posted on July 30, 2020 by Katie Rust Brown

Students learn from experts on pizza, commuting and pet care.

As word of the coronavirus’ spread from one nation to another began to circulate in the news, our 2019-2020 school year was in its glory days. Many teachers, myself included, often note that it can take months for a classroom to fully develop into the type of community that we envision for our students. Routines take time to learn and, by the time the holiday break arrives, the classroom resembles the ‘well oiled machine’ often cited as the ideal.

In February, as we began to anticipate school closures, our class was chugging along in the middle of a study on trains (pun intended). We learned about the communities of New York state, focusing particularly on how different types of communities rely on one another and connect to one another. Rural, suburban and urban communities may differ, but they all need one another to work as an interdependent system. We used the train system as our main topic to weave in these bigger concepts of connectivity and interdependence. Then, as we’d been fearing, our school closed. The train, metaphorically, stopped.

The school I work in, Compass Charter School, understood the urgency of caring for children’s basic needs first. We were offered flexibility in our curriculum, and our grade shifted our study to a focus on resilient communities, which allowed us to utilize some of our previous work plans, but also engage students in learning about current events in real-time. During the following months, our class focused on strengthening and maintaining emotional bonds with families and students, while continuing to encourage curiosity about the world around us.

The question, of course, is how to interact with the world when the world has shut down.


This post focuses on experts. For our purposes, an expert is anyone who knows a lot about a topic. Sometimes experts know about a topic because it’s something they’ve studied in school. More often, though, an expert knows a lot about a topic because it’s part of their everyday life, either at home or at work. A mechanic is an expert at cars. A chef is an expert at food. But experts have grander banks of knowledge than you may even realize. Birders know a lot about birds, but they also may know about local parks, how to keep bugs away while birding, what boots to wear while hiking and how to pack snacks on the go! Experts may gain knowledge of their topic through their own personal research and education, but most knowledge that our students want to learn is likely to be information that’s been learned through experience.

During our quarantine here in New York, from March through June, our school community utilized the knowledge of experts on multiple occasions, on the small scale level of students calling an expert for information, to larger, full-school interviews with experts. Both for in-school learning as well as remote learning, utilizing an expert is a way to maintain social interaction with others, practice listening and speaking skills, and to encourage learners to explore a topic of personal interest with someone with common interests.

Why experts? The unique value of experiences with experts lies in their personal connection to the material that they share. Experts who share about their daily jobs, their family life or their own cultures have particular investment in the information that they’re sharing. This investment often leads to an emotionally engaging lesson built on the passion of the expert for their topic. Although reading books and watching videos can provide new information to students, experts offer their own unique perspective on a topic and can provide detailed facts in response to student questions. Utilizing expert knowledge also provides validation and appreciation of experts in fields that are often overlooked. Gas station attendants, pet store workers, train conductors and protestors are important parts of our society that deserve to feel recognized for their contributions.

How do I find an expert? The wonderful thing about experts is that they’re everywhere. They’re everyone. Everyone is an expert at something. The challenge is finding an expert at the specific topic that you are researching. As an example, if your class is learning about ponds, you can ask yourself who you may know that has any experience with ponds. Think broadly. Do you know anyone whose job involves ponds? Do any family members have stories they’ve told about ponds (real or tall tales)? Do you know any friends who have visited ponds? Have you yourself ever been to or seen a pond? Are there ponds close by (and if there are, can you call the local ranger’s office or find someone who frequents the pond to answer questions for your students?) Are there pet stores nearby that may have experts on pond animals? It’s likely that whatever topic you’re studying, you know someone who has expert knowledge on that topic and can broaden your student’s knowledge.

If you can’t find a personal connection to a topic that you’re researching, I highly suggest contacting any known expert on the topic. Why not try? I’ve personally throw out flyers to friends, “looking for someone to talk about organizing protests,” I’ve emailed professional chefs, I’ve walked to the local junk yard and Target… all of which ended with offers from experts to meet with students. You would be warmed by the willingness of people to share their knowledge for the benefit of teaching children.

Preparing for an expert experience: Before meeting with or interviewing and expert, you may sometimes want to expose students to the topic at hand or the expert themselves. You can do this by writing or finding short articles about the expert’s topic. Depending on whether this experience is launching or extending student learning on a topic, you may also want to brainstorm a list of questions for your expert. These questions can either be shared ahead of time, answered in written format, or can be asked during a live experience together.

Expert experiences, in person and while learning remotely

Live Expert Interviews and Visits: When teaching in a classroom, experts may be asked to visit in person. You may also want to plan a trip to the expert’s place of work to experience their knowledge even deeper. But, a live interview with an expert is also possible remotely via any video platform. This can be done as a whole class, in small groups, or privately between a student and the expert. A “visit” to an expert, when the expert brings you into their world, is another option for a live experience. Experts may show you what they do at work, they may demonstrate a talent or hobby from home, or can take you on a tour of a location that may not be accessible for the class as a whole. These live experiences have the benefit of allowing questions on the fly that students brainstorm, but may also be more difficult to plan due to time restrictions of students, experts and teachers. These live experiences are not limited only to students. During remote work times, teachers and staff may also learn from experts via video call PD and interviews. This past spring, my staff and I attended professional development sessions with Paula Rogovin, author of The Research Workshop, and were able to learn from her expertise and ask questions about moving forward with the work in our school.
Staff members learn about research and inquiry from Paula Rogovin via an online video call during remote learning

Pre-Recorded Expert Interviews/Videos: If interviewing an expert live is not an option, or you would like to utilize experts with whom you don’t have personal contact or connections, you can utilize pre-recorded interviews or videos to encourage students to learn from those with knowledge of a particular topic. While learning remotely in April, our students were studying resilient communities and were learning about and analyzing the job of essential workers. We wanted students to broaden their view of the word ‘essential,’ and we reached out to a class parent, Heather, who was a veterinarian in our area. While it was difficult to find the right time to interview Heather live, she was gracious enough to film parts of her work day at her veterinarian office to share with our students. In this way, our class was able to learn from Heather and her work in a time that best suited both our expert and our students. You can view Heather’s video an example of this type of pre-reorded expert experience HERE. Additionally, utilizing interview videos or day-in-the-life videos of experts in a variety of fields, found on youtube or other video websites, can supplement student learning.


A class family assists in creating pre=recorded videos for student research

Experts as study resource When researching a topic of interest, students may be encouraged to contact an expert as a source of knowledge. You can list a brief summary of the expert’s experience, list their contact information and the preferred ways of communication (email, phone call) It is advisable to contact with experts first to let them know that students may be reaching out. I also suggest limiting the time that students may be contacting this individual, which helps students schedule their learning during work/school hours and offers the expert the flexibility of answering student questions in times that are helpful for them. Our school has a foundational belief in sustainable living. During our study on resilient communities, it became clear that many systems in New York City (and globally) were becoming strained as a result of the excess of people working from home. As an option, students were able to contact a friend of mine to ask about his job in engineering and how his job had been affected by the quarantine in NYC.

Experts can be found everywhere. They’re your family members, your friends, your teachers, your grocers, your firefighters and your nail technicians. Utilizing an expert promises a personalized and engaging lesson for children and validates the work of our everyday heroes who keep our society moving.


You can read Katie’s blog here, at  You can also find Katie on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram under the name TeachItOut.

Virtual Conversations on Virtual Choice Time



For so many of us, all around the world, this Coronavirus pandemic has tilted life to an unfamiliar and uncomfortable angle. Life isn’t as it should be. It’s a confusing time, a frightening time and a complicated time. Days take on  different meanings depending on what is and is not  happening in our lives. Many teachers are struggling to connect with their students as they juggle their personal responsibilites as parents  who are  home schooling  their own children. It’s overwhelming!

As an early childhood consultant I have been trying to imagine how to productively use my time and how I can virtually connect with teachers. Those first weeks of sheltering at home caused my days to stretch on and on. I was feeling like a person without a purpose.

I wondered if there were a few teachers or parents who would like to explore Choice Time with me. I posted a proposal of my Facebook page and waited to see if anyone might be interested. This is what I wrote:

I’m planning to begin an online, Zoom, presentation/conversation with teachers about Choice Time and Inquiry Projects. My idea is to present a Powerpoint and classroom videos. There would be opportunities for discussion. Using Zoom is quite new to me but I’m pretty excited at the prospect of communicating with teachers! It would be appropriate for teachers of Prekindergarten through Second Grade. PM me if you’re interested.

The response was overwhelming. Teachers from all parts of the world responded. How impressive it was for people who were working so hard to continue teaching on line to even consider spending some of their “spare” time joining a Choice Time discussion group.

The conversations the first week focused primarily on play and Choice Time. We explored what free play looks like and how it might be transferred into the classroom. You can watch the first session here:

The second week was devoted to looking at and discussing two different whole class inquiry projects. One study took place in a prekindergarten classroom and the second one took place in a kindergarten class. Both classes were in New York City public schools. You can view the second week’s session here:

The third week was opened up for teachers to share how they were providing Choice Time opportunities for children as part of their virtual teaching.

How can we avoid giving children “tasks” to do? Can we tweak what was originally a task and encourage children to use the same materials in a more explorative and creative way? For example, instead of giving children specific  activities to do with 10 stones or buttons, might we challenge them to see if they can create an interesting design or pattern with the stones. Perhaps we could ask them,”What were you thinking about when you created your design?  Can you think of ways to move them around to create  something new? Would you like to add something to your collection and see what you can make? What kinds of ideas do you have?” This gives the children  opportunities to play, explore and use creative, higher-order thinking.


In a recent zoom workshop for prekindergarten and kindergarten teachers, I was asked if I could include ideas for virtual choice time. Not having taught virtually myself, I was reluctant to do this. I wondered if my ideas might not be helpful. I did give it a try and the feedback was positive, so I’ll share some of what I came up with.

  • Keep a consistent daily schedule
  • Maintain routines that children will become familiar with
  • Include songs and chants
  • Have a regularly scheduled storytime. Perhaps invite family members and other people in the school who the children know to record a reading of a storybook.
  • Perhaps include a question of the day. When this becomes routine, children can come up with a question or wondering for everyone to consider.
  • •Remember that this is a stressful time for all, teachers, children and parents. Keep the emotional needs of all a priority.
    •Parents, during virtual teaching and learning, are our partners. Is it possible to have separate group meetings with parents to answer their questions and to tell them what your aims are? This will help them bond as partners in teaching and learning

Some ideas…

A Looking Out of My Window book

•Take some blank papers and fold them together to make a little book.
• Every day draw a picture of something you see when you look out of your window.
•You might see a bird, a car, a tree, maybe even flowers.
•You can make a “detail finder” by cutting a peep-hole in a paper. This will help you look really closely!



Ikea posted ideas for making hide-outs.

•First get children’s ideas and then, if it seems helpful, show these pictures.
•Only use these pictures as prompts to start a conversation about building a special reading and play spot at home.
Chore Week
•At morning meeting, brainstorm some chores to do at home. Possibilities are washing dishes, setting the table, sorting socks from the laundry, folding laundry, putting away toys, making the bed, etc.
•Each child can pick a chore that they want to do.
•Parents (or older siblings) can video tape the child doing the chore and send it to the teacher.
•The teacher can  make a “chore montage” and everyone can watch it together.
•This might be followed by a discussion of other ways to be helpers at home, how it felt to get a chore done, who helps out in our community and in our home, etc.
Go on a search around your home
•See how many electrical items are in each room.
•Can you draw a picture of something you might invent that could use electricity?
You might want to use recycled materials to construct a new machine.
•Can you give names to parts of your invention and label them?
•You might want to write a story about your invention. Let your imagination go wild!
•Listen to your favorite song. Make up a dance or exercise routine to go with your song. Ask the teacher if you can share it at meeting and teach it to the class.
•Play a board game with someone in your family. Then see if you can make up your own board game. You can play it with someone in your family. Ask your teacher if you can share it at a class morning meeting.
•Can you draw a map of your room or of your apartment? What are the landmarks that are very important to you?
•You might imagine that you are a pirate and you’re looking for a treasure. Draw a treasure map.
•Think of everything on your mind. How could you draw a map of your mind? What about a map of your heart?
Cooking Together Day
•Children (with an adult) cook the dish and the teacher cooks along with them.
•Send the recipe a week ahead so parents can prepare ingredients and be familiar with the recipe.
•Children who can’t participate might sketch what is happening and make a recipe/cook book. Perhaps they might want to create their own recipe.
Some recipe ideas
•Making playdough together
•Cinnamon toast
•Scrambled eggs
•Deviled eggs
•Ironed grill cheese sandwiches
•Fresh squeezed OJ or lemonade
• Pancakes
•English Muffin Pizza
Two kindergarten teachers from the Dalton Hong Kong school shared some ideas with me via zoom.
I sometimes asked children if they could change their intials into new or silly pictures. This is a similar challenge.

As a final 2-cents piece of advice, I really would like to urge teachers and parents to ignore any message that children are “falling behind” during this time. Children are naturally curious and they are always learning something. It’s the responsibility of the teacher to observe, listen, support and facilitate children’s learning by understanding what they know, what they’re interested in and to build on that. Vygotsky wrote of the zones of development. Young children need to have the freedom to explore and learn in their Actual Zone of Development, their comfort zone. As teachers, we can gently and perceptively challenge them to stretch into their  Zone of Proximal Development. This is where they can experience the excitement discovering new understandings just as this prekindergarten boy did when he proudly blurted out, “I did it!.”

Teaching Kindergarten: Where Did the Garden Go?: Sowing the Seeds of Social Justice

I’d like to share information about an exciting conference for Kindergarten educators that will be happening at the Bank Street College of Education in NYC on April 3rd and 4th, 2020.

Kindergarten plays a unique role in a child’s life when language, literacy, science and math take on real meaning through play and active learning. It is a year filled with discovery, wonder, creativity and friendship. This year’s focus, Sowing the Seeds of Social Justice, emphasizes the role of teachers as they inspire children to be empathetic members of their community and learn what it means to advocate for fairness.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Teaching, Learning & Curriculum in Politically Uncertain Times: Moving Towards Civic Participation

Children engaged in protests, walking picket lines, delivering rousing speeches are often praised by adults for their visible engagement. Yet beyond these hypervisible, familiar political acts, how are children already engaged just by their very being as children in the world? Children’s identities, differentiated along the intersections of race, gender, ethnicity, citizenship, and ability are already political in nature. As political beings, what are they creating, embodying, and doing in the course of their everyday life at school through moments of play, curricular conversations, and inquiry? During a particularly tumultuous political moment, I feature young children whose conversations lead teachers to reimagine curriculum and pedagogy; I show children engaged in thoughtful dialogue around issues of race, gender, and religion; I bring together playful exchanges that make prominent the social, cultural, and political issues children are still grappling with. In doing this, I highlight the importance of capturing and following children’s inquiries and questions as we strive to engage alongside young children towards civic action.

Dr. Haeny Yoon is an Assistant Professor of Early Childhood in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University where she teaches courses on curriculum, language/literacy, children’s play, and qualitative methodologies. Her interest in how children play with materials, spaces, their peers, and in popular culture stems from working as a staff developer and primary school teacher. Partnering with in-service and pre-service teachers, she is committed to listening to children’s descriptions of their lives and the world around them. Her book, Rethinking Early Literacies: Reading and Rewriting Worlds (2018), co-authored with Dr. Mariana Souto-Manning, honors the diverse languages and practices of families, homes, and communities across the United States. Dr. Yoon received her MA in Elementary Education, and her Ph.D in Curriculum and Teaching from the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign.

Stories that Nourish the Hearts of Children

Laura Simms reconnects us to the dynamic, inspiring, and profound experience of Storytelling. By telling stories and listening to stories, we will explore how and why storytelling touches the hearts and minds of kindergarten children. Laura will also share her experiences of storytelling with young children from around the world. She will be accompanied by musician and storyteller Therese Folkes Plair. Teachers will leave with a renewed appreciation as well as the joy of bringing storytelling into the life of the classroom.

Storyteller, writer, arts-educator, and humanitarian, Laura Simms has been telling stories and training teachers for over forty years. She is the author of over 20 books, recordings, and articles including Our Secret Territory (2011) and Stories to Nourish the Hearts of Our Children (2013). Simms is the artistic director of the Hans Christian Andersen Storytelling Center in New York City and the Founder and Story Mentor for Girls Write Haiti, Port au Prince, Haiti. In addition, she is a senior teacher of Dharma Art in the Tibetan tradition of mindfulness. Previously, she was a Senior Research Fellow at Rutgers University and worked with UN Women, Mercy Corps, Common Ground, and The Arthur Mauro Peace and Justice Center. Simms has taught master classes in storytelling and fairy tales at Antioch University, NH and New York University, NYC. She is known as an advocate for engagement, compassion and imagination as a powerful antidote to the challenges we face in today’s world. She earned a BA from Harpur College, Binghamton University in Comparative Literature and History.

Therese Folkes Plair is a musician, storyteller, educator, and activist with 30 years experience developing arts education programs. She has worked in schools with grades prek-12 in the New York State and the New York City tri-state area. Plair is currently an NGO Representative to the United Nations for IDEAL Society (Institute for the Development of Education, Arts & Leisure) British Columbia, Canada and Co-Chair of the United Nations NGO Committee on Children’s Rights. Her international work includes the US State Department’s Speakers’ Program sponsorship of Storytelling: A Culturally Familiar Means of Educating and Disseminating Information About Social Issues (2001). She has a BA in theater and anthropology from Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, New York.

Saturday April 4, 2020

2020 Honoree:

Tom Roderick, educator, activist and writer retired recently after 35 years as founding director of the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. He has worked closely with educators to help young people develop the values, personal qualities, and skills necessary to thrive and contribute to their communities.

Back to the Garden: Inspiring Kindergarteners to Grow into Curious and Concerned Citizens of the World

Kindergarten children, in the presence of gifts of nature – seeds, tall trees, rain storms, birds with many types of beaks, and leaves that change color- wonder, explore, and talk about how things grow and change as they seek to become experts. We, their teachers and their multicultural families, with the magic of the outdoors, help children understand the complex concerns for conservation, health, food, shelter, and climate. Our contribution will be to prevent raising the last children in the woods.

Dr. Maritza Macdonald has been on the faculty of Bank Street College, Columbia University, Teachers College, and the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). Her expertise and research focus on the importance of learning outside school, the importance, beauty, and humans’ need for nature, while encouraging cultural and linguistic knowledge for all. Her major contributions at the AMNH include the development of URBAN ADVANTAGE, a partnership between museums, botanical gardens, zoos, and The Hall of Science. Most recently she created the Master Level Science Teacher Preparation Program. Dr. Macdonald is an Alumna of Bank Street College and Teachers College and the recipient of two Honorary Doctorates in Humane Letters from Bank Street (2011) and Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History (2019).

Big Questions for Young Minds: Extending Children’s Thinking

This talk will give participants a chance to think about and practice using the range of questions to support high level thinking. We will explore the types of questions that can stimulate culturally responsive conversations in kindergarten classrooms and share many ways to engage kindergartners in discussions about their family and their community.

Dr. Janis Strasser has been in the field of early childhood education for more than 45 years as a preschool, kindergarten and music teacher, and Head Start Education Coordinator. She is also a professor of early childhood education at William Paterson University. Dr. Strasser has been consulting editor for Young Children, a member of the Advisory Board of Teaching Young Children, and has published more than 60 journal articles and several book chapters. She is the co-author of two books including Big Questions for Young Minds: Extending Children’s Thinking (2017), with Lisa Mufson Bresson. A graduate of Bank Street, she received the 2001 Bank Street Alumni Association award for Outstanding Accomplishments in the Field of Education.

Morning workshops:
1. Animals Alive! Using a Science Way of Thinking and Doing
2. An Unexpected Baby Study
3. Play with Me and I’ll be Smarter
4. Reframing Stories of Black Resistance in Early Childhood
5. Validation Through Collaboration: Empowering Students to be Problem Solvers
6. Building with Boxes: Imagining New Ways to Play
7. Powerful Play, Powerful Curriculum
8. Learning to Listen to Children’s Stories
9. Rhythm and Rhyme: Making Musical Connections in the Classroom
10. Clay!!
11. The Magic of Being, the Delight of Becoming
Afternoon Workshops:
1. The Garden Endures! How and Why Kindergarten Invites the Emergence of Social Change
2. Incorporating Play in Traditional Classrooms
3. Opening the Door to Inclusivity with Music
4. Cultivating Your Secret Garden: Bringing Positive Changes to our Kindergarten Class
5. Immersive Language Learning in the Reggio Model
6. Sunlight in the Forest & Shadows in the Garden: Developing and Documenting Outdoor Classrooms
7. Engaging With Children’s Pretend World to Create an Environment Where Imaginations Drives Learning.
8. Asking K Children to Think about Their Thinking
9. Blocks: Building: A Democratic Community for Birds
10. Little Innovators: Out of School Engagement for Young Students and Their Families
11. Young Woodworkers: Sanding, Cutting, Hammering and Thinking Three Dimensionally

Fanny Roman and I will be presenting An Unexpected Baby Study. I’m sure that it will be both interesting and provacative!

There is still time to register. Here’s a link to the site –

Kindergarten teachers, isn’t it exciting to have an entire conference devoted to this grade that is often overlooked?



In our push to try to get play and inquiry back into kindergarten classes, we tend to forget ( or overlook ) the importance of remembering that FIRST and SECOND GRADES ARE ALSO EARLY CHILDHOOD GRADES. I’m pleased to share how, with the support of the school’s principal, Robert Groff and assistant principal, Tu Harris, a second and first grade teacher are both incorporating play and investigation in their classrooms. In this post, I’ll focus on the first grade class.

This past November, Angela Valco, a second grade teacher at P.S. 244 in Flushing Queens, Tu Harris, the assistant principal, and I presented a session at NCTE where we shared how a second grade teacher in an academically high-performing school, was able to incorporate a student-driven study of Robots into her weekly schedule. I am an early childhood consultant working with kindergarten teachers on implementing inquiry-based choice time and whole class inquiry projects based on student interests. Angela was intrigued by the work being done in kindergarten and asked the administration if she could have some time to work with me.

Anyone who teaches in a public (and also, in some instances, private) school knows how difficult it is to avoid following a daily teaching schedule that closely resembles an Amtrak train schedule. Because of the many academic demands that fill up the day, teachers are forced to breathlessly rush students from one “literacy” subject to another. When Angela decided to try something new, it was a big step for her. She wanted to give children time to explore topics that interested them without sacrificing the high adademic expectations of the school and of her grade.

After beginning her study, Angela sent me this email:

“I am constantly stepping out of my comfort zone to make learning more engaging and to give more ownership to the kids. …Choice time and inquiry is a time where I see learning come alive! I watch and observe my kids in a way that makes me understand them more. It’s my favorite time. It’s worth all the extra time and all the uncomfortable risks.”

Angela and I worked on a pre-plan for her study. She thought of seven essential questions to guide the investigation.

Children were now ready to work in groups to record what they already knew about robots. We all know that it’s important to begin with what children already know and to build upon that.

Here is what the children knew about robots at the start of the study.

  • It can move by itself
  • Some need batteries
  • Some are helpful
  • Some need to charge up
  • Some go to space
  • Robots can do anything
  • Some are to play with
  • Some can draw
  • Some can move by itself

After spending some time studying robots, the information began to get more specific.

Angela’s challenge was in  working out a schedule where children had a weekly Choice Time (alas there was only time for once a week) and incorporating the study throughout the school day. The structure of the schedule was flexible based on Angela’s observations. When I met with her yesterday, she was considering moving Choice Time to Thursday, when children returned from lunch and recess. and scheduling Independent Reading for the start of the day. Each class has its own personality and Angela understands that she cannot be rigid about her schedule. 

LITERACY CENTERS offered opportunities for researching information about robots.

In addition to Literacy Centers, Angela also incorporated new vocabulary into her WORD STUDY lessons.

Angela fit aspects of the study into her morning message. The children responded in their Heart Journals.

Angela amassed books that were appropriate for Independent Reading, Research Centers and Read Aloud.She also included the Inquiry Topic in Shared Reading and in Look, Think and Discuss activities.

This year, Angela asked some children, now first graders, to reflect on their memories or thoughts about choice time in second grade.



And here’s a little peek into what I saw in Angela’s room when I visited one day last year when they were still working on their Robot Study.

I would love to hear about about how second-grade teachers are incorporating Choice Time and Inquiry Projects in their classrooms!

Inquiry-based Choice Time

Inquiry and Play.As they say in the song, “you can’t have one without the other.” When children are playing, they are always creating their own inquiry. It’s only when the adults step in and set up a “play agenda” that the opportunities for inquiry get squashed.

Watch these four-year olds in the school playground after a rain.Without a particular plan, they’re making discoveries as the repeatedly bounce their rubber balls in the puddles that formed in the schoolyard. Wow, how exciting! Every time the ball bounces into the puddle the water splashes and there’s almost a hole in the center of the puddle. What a marvelous discovery. They happily try it again and again. (Isn’t that what scientists do? Don’t tell them they’re being scientists. They’re just having fun!)

Stella is the fifteen month old grandchild of my friend Silvia. Silvia lovingly sends me videos of Silvia as she explores her world and I marvel at her persistence and her inventiveness.

Now comes our challenge as educators. How can we keep this sense of discover and exploration alive in our classroom without giving children a task or presenting them with a a “Choice Time agenda” for exploration?

Here’s a scene from a kindergarten class in a NYC public school. These boys have been playing in the block center for a few days. Consider the persistence and inquiry that they are exhibiting. Pay attention to the young, snack-munching observor on the side and listen to his words of wisdom.

We Care, WeChat

Andy Yung is a prekindergarten teacher at P.S. 244 in Flushing, New York. I wrote about a study that he did with his class, “It Started With a Leaking Sink

He recently wrote a wonderful article that I would love to share with you. It’s a marvelous example of how a sensitive teacher can impact on his student and parent communitiy.

Here’s Andy’s article:

I walked back into my classroom after lunch. The room is dark, quiet, and the 8- hour loop of best baby lullaby on YouTube is playing to help lull children to sleep. “Mr. Andy,” A short shadow coming from the block center whispered. “CM is crying,” she tells me. “Thank you. I’ll see what’s bothering her. Go lay down,” I told her. However I already knew what was upsetting her. “CM? Are you okay?” “Mama…” she sniffled. “I know.” I embraced her and let her know that her mom will be back soon.

The little girl who told me about CM, overhearing our conversation, added, “Don’t worry, you’ll see mommy soon. Mommy will always come back.”

CM continuted to cry silently. She isn’t usually a sleeper but today she slept, most likely thinking about the next time she’ll see her mom.

Where I teach, it isn’t an uncommon thing for our children to go long periods of time without seeing their parents. I know this because I experienced this when I was their age. I grew up in the same neighborhood I teach. I strongly believe it gives me an advantage when it comes to understanding my families on a deeper level and developing rapport with them.

I never gave much thought to my own family situation when attending school and how it affected my school life. My parents would work seven days a week and over twelve hours each day. I would see them in the morning before leaving for school and dinner at night. At least I got to see my mom. CM gets dropped off and picked up by her dad most of the time. Her dad walks with a limp and one hand is noticeably weaker than the other. CM stated that she doesn’t like playing with her father because he’s slow. I felf sorry for her dad. He rarely smiles but when he does, it’s usually when his strong-headed daughter is speaking like an adult, scolding him and sometimes even myself. She’s one of those students who seems to be an adult trapped in a young child’s body. However, no matter how mature they are, every child wants their mommy.

Every once in a while, CM’s mom will drop her off and pick her up. One morning she had time to stick around for a bit after arrival. As the children played, she sat to play with her daughter who she rarely gets to see.  She struck up a conversation with my paraprofessional and she told us she works in Washington, DC at a nail salon. When asked why DC when she could work closer to home and see her family, she revealed to us that it was her own business and there was less competition there than in New York. She needed the business to do well because  she had to become the sole provider after her husband’s car accident that left him in his current state. It happened when CM was just a few months old and mom made the difficult decision to open a business to provide for her family far away from home. It broke my heart to find out the sacrifices CM’s mother made to provide her family food and shelter and to know that CM may never know the man her father was before the unfortunate accident. The mother comes back once a week to visit on her day off and the reason CM was overwhelmed with sadness was because her mother’s stay was over and the long wait for her to come back would begin again.

I want CM and all my other students who rarely get to see their parents to know that I understand what they are going through because I was them before and I am here for them now.

When they look at me, I want them to think, “I see me!”

As I have stated before, teaching in the same community I grew  up in, I have a better understanding of what my families are going through and why they do things that may seem questionable to my colleagues.

I remember walking to school and home alone when I was in the second grade. During dismissal, I would tell my teachers that I was walking home with a friend and his parent. I would tag along for the walk until we reached a point where he had to turn and I had another block left. When I got home at around 3PM, I would boil some water in a pot and make myself instant ramen noodles. It would hold me over until my mom got home at around 8PM. In between that time, I would turn on PBS for Arthur, watch some Nickelodeon cartoons until 5, then switch to Cartoon Network for some Dragon Ball Z. Homework would get done within that time. When my mom came home, we’d have dinner and it would be time to go to sleep.

My mother worked long hours and every day of the week. There was no weekend for her because the week never ended. Her day would start at 7 AM and go until 8PM with hardly any real breaks in between. At this time, my father was in China and we were on our own.

The situation wasn’t ideal but it was the only thing my mom knew. I think back to this a lot since I started teaching in the community. I see the same hard working parents working jobs that are physically and mentally draining. Although the work may be different, the hours are still long and seeing their kids is scarce.

The first day of school is always so exciting. Meeting my new students and their families is always something I look forward to in September. Some parents we meet for the first time and do not see them until parent teacher conference because their work isn’t flexible enough to allow them to drop off or pick up their children. Some parents I never get to see because it’s just impossible for them to take off. In these situations the grandparents are caring for the children.

After the first parent teacher conference, we have either seen and met with one or both parents. For the conference, we always insist that the parents come to the meetins so they have an idea of what’s happening in their child’s class and the progress they are making. The grandparents are understanding and will relay  messages back to the parents. This wasn’t the case  for RG. RG’s aunt attended the meeting but the conversation wasn’t as impactuful as it would have been if his parents had come. We asked about mom and dad and it turned out that they lived in another state running a restaurant business. Business is always better out of state because there’s less competitition. It’s great for the family to earn a decent living, however something must be sacrificed. For RG and his two siblings, that meant seeing his mom and dad only once or twice a year if they’re lucky.

Memories of my childhood comes rushing back to me. My mom was never able to attend school events that happened during the day. No one came to my 6th grade graduation but I understood why. My mom would make time to come to conferences, however the language barrier would be an obstacle and having my brother or me translate was equally difficult as we were both losing our Wenzhou dialect and you can forget about any educational jargon that needed to be translated. It think about RG and how happy he is even though he doesn’t get to see his parents much. He makes the best of his situation because that’s all he knows. That’s the experience he grew up with.

RG’s situation was a stark contrast compared to one of my other students, CZ. CZ’s mom dropped her off and picked her up every day. CZ’s mom was super involved in her children’s academic life and would often bring her children to many of the free programs offered at the Queens Public Library. Love and care was displayed in different ways between both families. CZ would often take photos of her and post it somewhere. I had inquired about it and she revealed to me that she was sharing on WeChat, a social media platform that’s very popular in China and the Chinese community. I was semi familiar with the app since it’s the only way I could effectively communicate with my mother other than calling her.

I told CZ’s mom of my ignorance to the app and she gave me a quick tutorial. This would become the game  changer I needed to help engage parents. No matter how much I tried to get parents to follow our class social medial accounts, only a fraction knew how to work them. With the help of CZ’s mom, we created our own class WeChat group. She invited parents she with close with and I invited the parents whose info I had. The group quickly grew and we had over 50% of our class parents represented.

I started to learn more about the platform. It became a great resource to engage parents in discussion about what we were doing in the classroom, asking for volunteers, and replenishing certain classroom supplies. Parents who I couldn’t communicate with before, I was now able to because of the translate feature for text messages. It dawned on me that perhaps we could finally get in contact with RG’s parents through WeChat. RG’s grandma gave me his aunt’s number to add to the group and, once aded, she added RG’s mom. As soon as we received each other’s contact, she messaged me instantly. All the conversations we would’ve had during the parent teacher conferences were now happening through the platform our parents were most familiar and comfortable with.

When the second parent teacher conferences were scheduled, I decided to reach ot to RG’s mom to see if she wanted to have a live video chat and have RG’s grandma there in person to receive the necessary documents. We were able to work it out and have a successful conference with a parent we would hae never been able to converse with. Today, we have over 80% of our families in our WeChat group and it’s been the highlight of this year as parents are more informed and know what’s happening in our classroom even if they aren’t able to come to school or live in another state.

Andy has a webpage, if you want to know more about him and read more of his writing.





Planning for Choice Time

I’ve had some recent requests for me to share my Choice Time planning templates so I decided to post them here on my blog.
This is one that I wrote after a school director requested a “Choice Time rubric.” I was actually rather appalled by the idea of creating a rubric to rate children and/or teachers in relationship to Choice Time. I’m more interested in teachers and children becoming more reflective about their play, explorations and discoveries.

However, after a lot of thought, this is what I did come up with:

If you are planning to add a new center to Choice Time, this template may help to structure your planning. When you’re planning a center, be sure to have unstructured materials so that it is the children who are imposing their ideas on what will be happening at the center. Think of your job as structuring the center for unstructured investigations.

You can also add to this any way that you might add materials to the center to  enhance the inquiry work that you are doing in Social Studies, Science or Math.

This is a very easy way to observe children at centers, reflect on the observations and then, based on observations and reflections, plan instructional “next steps.” The only work during Choice Time is to spend a few minutes observing children at centers. Then put aside the observation sheet and return to it when you are not working with the children. Here’s a blank template and then one where the teacher made observations as children worked in the block center. What would you make of what was happening in the center? What might your next step be? Would you do a minilesson to address something that happened at the center? Add or take away materials?

Are any of these templates helpful? I would love to hear from you!

Describe Choice Time in Three MInutes!

Can I describe Choice Time in three minutes? My book, Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, was recently published in Mandarin by the Beijing
Normal University Press and they requested that I send them a three minute video talking about the book.

Where do I begin? What should I emphasize? I want to stress the importance of play in the life of the child and also in the life of the classroom. How can I best and concisely describe how play looks in a first grade and a kindergarten classroom? It is important to include that the book gives teachers concrete information on how to prepare an environment that entices children to explore, create and collaborate while they play and how, through playing in these centers, they also become more independent in using space and materials.

What does the room look and sound like when children are playing in the Dramatic Play Center, the Block Center, the “Science Lab,” the Art Studio? What might teachers observe happening in these centers? What is the role of the teacher before, during and after Choice Time?

There’s so much to include! I’m almost frozen because I don’t know where to begin and how to fit it all into three minutes.


I tried to record a video and it was more than seven minutes!

Oh no! This won’t do!

I asked my friend Laura Wagonlander to share with me some important ways that my book helped her create a vibrate Choice Time in her kindergarten classroom in Fenton, Michigan. Here’s some of her feedback: “I think my big “aha” moments were that Choice Tim empowers children to be learners and show their understanding of what they are learning in a context that is meaningful to them. It (the book) guides educators in how to set up the classroom environment so they can honor children’s interests and abilities while at the same time teaching them skills they can use to nudge their thinking deeper. …When we teach in isolation or we do an activity with an expected outcome, even if it’s “playful,” it isn’t the same as giving them true choice …If you can give kids enough time in choice, magic happens…It’s all like a beautiful dance.”

I wondered if I should start all over again, creating a new 3 minute video. Then, to the rescue came my grandson, Adrian Greensmith. Thank goodness for 17 year olds! In a few minutes he cut my seven  minute video down into just a little over three minutes. This is what I’m sending to Beijing. I hope it does the trick!  There is so much to say about Choice Time and how I hope my book helps to support teachers.

What would you have included in a three minute video about my book on Choice Time if you could?