Saturday, March 17, 2012


I’ll be honest:   I don’t like finding out that I’ve been wrong about something. I don’t like to admit this, but I feel a little squirmy and uncomfortable when I’m confronted with the vastness of all the things I don’t know.  Like anyone else, I do try to avoid discomfort whenever possible, which is why at home I often escape into the simplicity of dog-walks, novel-reading, and old-movie-watching. It’s just easier to not think too hard.  But thank goodness, my curiosity and desire to learn new things overrides those unfortunate insecurities most of the time. Being a teacher of young children and their parents (and sometimes of other teachers)  is such an important responsibility that I know I have to look my insecurities square in the eye sometimes and push myself to deeper levels of understanding. If you’re a teacher, you have to keep learning.

While attending the Co-op Preschool Convention last weekend, I felt the familiar exhilaration of learning many new and useful ideas or understanding old ideas in a deeper way.   But at the same time I felt the equally familiar discomfort of wondering if maybe I have been off-base for a long time on certain long-help beliefs. Fortunately, I’m finally old enough to understand that this is what learning is all about:  being confronted with incongruencies in your thinking, and forcing yourself to examine alternative ideas.

Throughout the weekend at the convention, I  also had many confidence-building moments as I heard speakers presenting some of my most basic and long-held ideas as if they were brand new.  It’s always great to have the validity of your teaching practices re-affirmed by “experts.”

Here are a few of the things I learned or re-learned this weekend at this excellent conference.  I’ll share some of the challenging ideas that made me wonder about my own wisdom or lack thereof, as well as some of the stuff I heard that made me feel like a “great teacher.”

I’ll start off with the “easy stuff.” From a workshop on outdoor play and learning:

-Outdoor learning is better.
This is an easy concept for me to accept, and I always try to set up my curriculum to reflect this basic premise.  There are more sensory experiences outside, and children thrive on having a connection with nature.  Children’s brains develop through body movement, which outdoor play encourages.

-The Why-Not Rule. 
I know that children are driven to learn through exploration and play.  So when a child wants to do something that you may not have had on your “lesson plan,” ask yourself, “ Why not?”  If it doesn’t harm themselves or others, or mess up the environment or someone’s stuff, it’s probably ok even if it wasn’t what you had in mind.  These kid-generated activities (such as painting the grass as well as the paper on the easel, or pouring sand into the water table) are often where the best learning begins. Of course, limits related to how much time it might take to clean up, or other adult concerns are perfectly valid at times.  Real-life dictates that sometimes we simply don’t have the time, energy, or patience to allow kids to make a big mess, even if it’s a “productive” mess. And honestly, kids do learn about “being civilized” when we put the brakes on their big ideas of painting on the walls, dumping every toy out of every shelf, etc.  But if you don’t have the Why-Not Rule in the back of your mind, you’re very likely to reflexively say no to some valuable play and learning that are really not much trouble at all.   I’ve been a Why-Not Teacher for a long time, but now I have some new vocabulary to explain it.

-Anything that can be done inside can be done outside.  Again, this is already part of my teacher-belief system and practices.  I try to set up a variety of learning activities outside every day, in addition to the basic daily sand-and-water play. But hearing this again made me challenge myself to think of more things we could do outside, with just a little extra set-up:  such as an outdoor reading area, maybe even more outdoor art or sensory activities, or possibly outdoor block play.

-Water, water, water. 
As the presenter showed photos of infants and toddlers in various outdoor play scenarios, many of the activities looked very familiar, because they are things we already do in my classes.  I was gratified to hear the presenter talking about how important it is to let children work and play with the hose while a trickle of water runs into the sand.  When she mentioned the idea of allowing the water-source to trickle down from above, I remembered how much fun my toddlers have when I climb up and attach the hose into the tree branches above the sandbox, and let the water trickle, drip, or spray. The presenter confirmed my solid belief that the vast learning that springs from endless forms of water play is well worth the trouble. Darn- I sure wish some of the parents I’ve had in my classes who are allergic to messes could have heard this expert talk about this! I try my best, but sometimes it’s hard to convince parents that although their children are very sweet, they won’t melt like sugar if they get a little wet.

-Stuff I hadn’t thought of, or had forgotten. 
By the end of this workshop, I had jotted down a long list of things I wanted to try at school in the near future.  This list included things such as  wrapping a large tree in big paper, and having kids painting it all the way around (I did that first thing Monday morning!),  an awesome paint-ball-throwing activity which I’d never heard of, bringing in more largish rocks and stones that can be moved around to enhance play and construction in my sand area, and helping children build things with long branches from tree-trimming (Dang- I wish I had thought of saving the trimmings a few months ago when our playground trees were trimmed!)

-The Outdoor Classroom.
 Using the outdoors as a major part of your classroom is very basic to my teaching, and to the philosophy behind Explorer’s curriculum.  For more information about why this is important to us, check out the information at this site:  

From the two major keynote speakers, I learned or re-learned lots of important concepts related to brain development, emotional development, and how the two are linked.  Some of these ideas were a bit challenging to me, as I’ll explain:

-Surviving Tantrums. 
Dr. Tina Bryson discussed how most tantrums are the result of emotional overload.  When children’s emotional needs build up, the logical reasoning part of the brain becomes overwhelmed by the more basic, emotional brain regions.  The amygdala, responsible for basic emotions, takes over.  Children cannot be reasoned with in the middle of a big blow-up, but they do need comfort.  Adults can help by staying nearby to give the nonverbal message that the child, along with the child’s big feelings, are loved and accepted.  As soon as the tantrum begins to wane, the child is usually ready to be hugged and comforted. This reassurance and support helps create an atmosphere in which the child will gradually feel less of a need for big explosive tantrums.  Over the years, my own approach to dealing with tantrums has changed and evolved.  I agree with Dr. Bryson’s ideas about this, but I haven’t always thought about it this way.  At a previous point in my understanding, I’m sure that I advised parents to ignore tantrums, or to let the child cry in their own room.  I remember doing this with my own kids, too.  Sorry, girls.  I now see how this is much less on-target in terms of how the brain works and how children develop.  So yes, I have to admit that hearing Dr. Bryson discuss this was a squirmingly uncomfortable moment for me.  However, I still hold to one aspect of my old, less-evolved point of view:  sometimes parents CAN’T stay physically or emotionally present.  Real life has taught me that there are moments when even the best parents can be pushed to a breaking point. If a parent can’t handle one more moment of the screaming without becoming a tantruming toddler themselves (don’t tell me you’ve never felt this way!) then I think it’s best to remove yourself from the tantrum if you can.  When it comes to parenting advice, there’s always the “best case” scenario and the “worst case” scenario. Sometimes we simply can’t do what the experts advise us to do, so we have to muddle through the best we can. Certainly:  it makes perfect sense to make every effort to be the strong, dependable adult who can stay nearby, giving an upset child the important message that their feelings are accepted, and they are loved no matter what. But when you can’t, don’t immerse yourself in guilt.  Apologize and try again next time.  Parenting gives us LOTS of chances to try again.

Most other aspects of Dr. Bryson’s talk were pretty much in line with what I teach to parents and students, which of course feels great.  (Honestly, no one likes a smug preschool teacher!  But I can’t help feeling good about being right sometimes.) However, it’s true confession time once again:  I’ll admit that I was jealous of Dr. Bryson’s ability to explain things in ways that are MUCH better than the tongue-tied ways I often talk or write about these same topics.  I just wish I were as articulate and smart as she is!  I think I’ll buy her book and see if I can steal some of her ideas, and incorporate more of them into my teaching.

For more excellent information about the brain and emotional development in childhood, look at Dr. Bryson’s website or buy her book, The Whole Brain Child.

-Connect Before You Direct. 
Dr. Larry Cohen was a fabulous keynote speaker.  He has some excellent ideas and a wonderful way of explaining them.  I completely agree with his idea that guidance and discipline has to be based on a strong and loving relationship between the adult and the child.  I also agree that at most of the moments in life when it’s necessary for some reason to “direct” or “correct” a child, it’s best to take a few seconds to connect emotionally with them first.  This makes everything work better for everyone concerned, and helps the child to be more ready to learn.

-Beyond “Use Your Words”.
One of my “discomfort” moments came when Dr. Cohen discussed the old preschool-teacher phrase, “Use Your Words.” “C’mon, give me a break!” he said.  “If they COULD have used words, they WOULD have.  And if they didn’t, then simply telling them to do it isn’t going to help.”  I’m sure that I’ve used that term more times than I would want to admit, although I like to think that I understand the need for a wide range of teaching strategies when it comes to helping children learn socially appropriate behavior.

-Not Puppies Or Pigeons.
Fortunately, Dr. Cohen confirmed my belief in my own wisdom when he said that adults can’t stand the idea of doing anything that looks like it’s rewarding bad behavior, so we often refrain from giving children the attention they need when they need it the most.  “Kids aren’t trained pigeons,” he said . I think I have used the word “puppies” in this context, but he and I are definitely on the same page when it comes to the idea that human development is MUCH more complex than cause/effect, or reward/punishment. When training puppies or pigeons, you do have to think at a somewhat simplistic level to understand the motivations of the animal. But with children, individuals vary so widely from one another, and we have to take into account so many other things such as temperament, ages and stages, prior experiences, and family culture, that simplistic thinking doesn’t get us very far. Dr. Cohen clarified this further by saying that giving the right kind of attention to an upset child isn’t rewarding bad behavior, it’s solving the problem at its source. I think this is brilliant, and will be quoting it often in conversations with parents from now on.

-“Parents don’t have to be on the same page, but they need to be in the same book.”  Well said, Dr. Cohen!  Since I heard him say this last weekend, I’ve already stolen this astute phrase as a way of talking about the differences of opinion or style that exist within families. I’ve always knows that no two adults can be in complete agreement about everything, and moms and dads need to be reassured that this is ok.  But experience has taught me that there are a few areas that require some sort of consensus in order for co-parenting to be successful.  Dr. Cohen’s simple sentence has given me a way to think about and talk about this important topic with parents.

Dr. Cohen has a lot more great ideas to share and some books that I’ll probably want to read.  Here’s his website:

Ok—that’s all the True Confessions for now.  Now you know that “insecurity” and “need to be right” are two of my most basic character flaws…… and if you know me at all, you’re probably aware of a few more. I came home with many pages of notes from the conference last week, and I appreciate the opportunity to share just a few of my insights with you.

Learning is awesome, whether it’s easy or uncomfortable.  Writing this has reminded me that some of the most important learning happens when we challenge our own thinking and step out of our cozy cocoon of familiar knowledge.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Teacher Annie!

    I really like your blog and there are some great posts on here. I really liked this blog post because I can relate to what you are saying. Being a new teacher as well as a parent, I appreciate your honesty about how hard it can be but also the positive tone of it's okay and you can always try again. I love how you said parenting give us LOTS of chances and isn't that the truth! :) I have learned and relearned and unlearned so many times and I think this helps to becoming a great teacher and parent. The ideas on outdoor play are amazing. I truly enjoyed your class this summer and I have learned so much on how to be a great teacher but most importantly better at parenting. Thank you! -Cindy


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