Friday, February 27, 2015

Play.... It's Academic (Part One)

The more I study play, the more of a purest I become.. It brings to light the thought that if we say that humans are designed to play and learn from life and through interactions with people and things.. then why do we try to alter or speed up that natural process ?.. I think the saying " You can't fix what ain't broken" comes to mind..

A play based program is one that does not come prescribed with pre-written daily lesson plans.. No calendars of pre-planned activities ripped from the pages of cookie cutter pre school workbooks. No worksheets, no flashcards, no teacher decided lesson plans and blanket lists of academic goals to reach.

 A play-based preschool is rooted in the idea that through play, children will learn socially, cognitively, physically and the whole child will be developed and nurtured.

    This IDEA.. is not just an IDEA it is well backed up by research and is proven in classrooms worldwide.  Knowing what we know about children and what science has proven, has supported my passion to provide a play-based program for the children enrolled at my school.

***In this set of posts I will attempt to show a small glimpse into the learning of all kinds that happens naturally in my play based preschool.  Play... It's Academic, Play... It's Emotional, Play... It's Work,  Play... It's Person Building,  Play.. It's the Foundation, and finally Play... It's Learning. This is Part One Play... It's Academic** 

I found this sitting on top of the shelf in preschool. I was impressed by the child's attention to detail and the ability to repeat the pattern in such an intentional way. I even, for a second thought that maybe one of the teachers assembled these tiny pieces.  After asking the children, one child pipped up saying " That's my whole family, the green one's my grandma." I went from impressed with mathematical accuracy, to being impressed with his symbolism, and his ability to clearly represent the members of his family. He started with an idea and carried it through with clear understanding. Experiences like this form that layer of knowledge and experience with ideas and materials that will support later lessons in both math and reading.

Programs designed for young children should reflect the developmental needs of the children in the program not mimic that of children much older with a completely different set of developmental needs.

Preschools should not look like schools at all, they should look like living breathing places for play.. heck I think SCHOOLS can use a little re design to meet the needs of the children and support children of all ages in active, engaged learning.

Each day I witness children engaged in self guided learning. These experiences are meaningful because they are initiated by the children based on their interest in that moment. I find that the children are deeply engaged in tasks and challenges that they choose. They spend much more time and effort to solve their problem or complete their task because it's their task and the motivation is coming from within.

Animal Talk 

These two friends pulled out a basket of small animals and set up shop at one of the tables in the classroom. they started by dumping the basket on the center of the table and then, as if they had a non verbal agreement, they began arranging the animals. As I observed further, I noticed that they began to group like animals together.  They discussed the characteristics of the different animals and also, at times, referenced animal facts. This sharing of dialog and of prior knowledge gave each child the chance to be the expert and to share and gain additional knowledge. This ping pong style dialog continued throughout the entire play session.
 As the animal groupings began to take shape their conversation turned toward the value of each grouping.  Counting and comparing the groups educed vocabulary such as more, less, and same. By simply observing, I was able to clearly asses what these two children understand about classification, sorting, graphing, as well as their knowledge base and interest in animals. This "lesson" was totally child initiate, lead and completed. No adult was needed to plan this.. It was not extended on because what the children needed to learn and practice was done through play, they had constructed new knowledge and will, I'm sure, return to these animals our countless other loose parts in the classroom and practice this same skill over and over each time constructing a deeper and deeper understanding of what it means to count, sort, classify, and compare.

Why not set up "work stations"  to learn through play like the play that naturally took place in the example above?

Because, natural and authentic learning like what was observed happens when the idea is owned by the children. When it is THEIR inner voice that leads them to fill their time with that task. It's like a lit fire that they control the flame of, if we keep trying to fan and blow on it to make it grow we may risk accidentally putting out that fire.. Instead we tend to the fire giving it what it needs to continue to glow and flicker. If we trust that play is enough we can allow experiences like this to take place, we can trust that children will re play these same schemas time and time again until the layer of learning is set and they are ready to construct additional layers.

Uninterrupted play with open ended loose parts is vital to the development of the whole child. Play supports the development of social/emotional, physical, cognitive, and creative skills in children. How do you make time and space in your program for play?

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Co-op Nuts & Bolts: Starting Your Own Preschool

When Kisha asked me to contribute a piece on cooperative preschools, I told her I would contribute five. Back in 2011, I wrote a multi-part series called "Cooperative Nuts & Bolts in which I tried to include everything I knew about cooperatives at the time. This is the first in the series, dusted off and updated a little. I suspect that once all five are up here on the Play Empowers blog, I'll have one more new one to add because I'm sure I've learned a few new things over the past four years.


I've received quite a few questions over the years about the nuts and bolts of how our cooperative preschool works both from people considering starting their own cooperative or seeking to incorporate more parent participation within their existing classrooms.

If you're entirely unfamiliar with our model, please take a look at my Cooperative Manifesto in which I attempted back during the dawn of this blog to provide a sort of socio-economic-political context for what we do. I will have written nearly 100 pieces on my own blog covering various aspects of what it's like working in a cooperative preschool. So, there's plenty of further reading should you really want to delve into what I've had to say on the topic so far.

So you're thinking about starting your own cooperative preschool . . .

I'll begin with what the cooperative model is not. It is not a pedagogical approach like Reggio Emilia or Montessori, but rather a structural model for how to organize an entire school from the classroom right through administration, enrollment, and teaching, to maintenance, purchasing, and janitorial. Our school has a progressive, play-based curriculum, but a co-op model could accommodate any type of pedagogy from one of rigorous academics (not recommended by this blogger) to democratic education or "free school" (highly recommended by this blogger).

The fundamental characteristic of a cooperative is parent ownership and management. Once you've signed your parent agreement and paid your tuition, you are an equal owner of the school along with the other families. From there, theoretically, anything can happen, but all the co-ops I know about are characterized by a professional teacher, supported by a high level of active parent participation in the classroom and other day-to-day operations.

Many people have written me after having researched their area, found it lacking in terms of cooperative options and wondered how I would suggest going about starting one from scratch. I've never done this before so understand that this is really just an educated guess about the best way to go about it.

The first thing I would do is more research, just to make sure you haven't missed anything because plugging into an existing school would be so much easier, but if you've resorted to writing to some guy on the internet, I'm assuming you've run into a brick wall. In that case, my first step would be to start talking up the idea among your fellow parents with the idea of putting together a team committed to the idea of a cooperative. (For the teachers who've written me with this question, I've thought a lot about this, and I can't envision any other way for a cooperative to get off the ground than via a group of committed parents. A teacher could, and perhaps should, be part of the start up team, but it must be parent lead.)

The original co-ops founded back in the 30's and 40's didn't even hire teachers. They were simply groups of parents who took turns hosting the "school" in their homes, garages and backyards, cobbling together a curriculum from their own reading and instincts. I'm sure that many of them included former teachers in their membership. I doubt they asked anyone for permission to do this. I'm no lawyer, but this may still be a credible option for many of you. And that may be enough, but in any event this could at least be a way to get started.

If the idea is to create a more formal school with a proper facility and professional teacher, I could imagine that these in the home school days could be structured so that 3-4 parents handle the "classroom" while 3-4 parents, in another room, tackle the nuts and bolts of building a cooperative school.

I would then think you would want to get busy making sure it's even possible to do what you envision. Not only do the laws and rules surrounding schools and incorporation and regulations vary so widely from state-to-state, not to mention nation-to-nation, that it's very possible that the kind of cooperative I write about could literally be illegal where you live. You may have to buy and hour or two of a lawyer's time to sort this through, but if you're doing it on your own, I'd suggest taking a look at regulations surrounding non-profits, cooperatives, home schooling, and the school regulatory policies in your area. Are there any schools in your area that are in any way similar to what you envision? It might be a good idea to talk to them. And understand that it may take a great deal of creativity to come up with just the right structure to make a cooperative fly where you live. Our own school avoids many of the more onerous regulatory requirements by running as a half-day program and by legally operating as 3 separate schools.

What you learn from this process will impact to a greater or lesser extent the exact shape of your cooperative preschool, but I suspect that there is a legal set-up possible in every part of the US that would allow for a workable version of a cooperative. I can't speak about other countries, but when I was in England last fall, I was told by several people that our model would be flat out illegal there. Then two of my fellow conferees came up to me after a presentation to let me know that cooperatives do in fact exist in England and that they indeed work at one, so I really don't know.

I don't know if this getting started post will be helpful or not. It's the part of this topic I know the least about having had the good fortune of living in a part of the world with several robust and well-established systems of cooperative preschools.

In the coming days I will cover the parts of this about which I consider myself an expert such as the parent role in our school, their rights and responsibilities, parent education, and the dynamic between me, the professional teacher, and our parent-teachers.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Open Your Door Let the Children Explore

Think back to your childhood days, most of you can remember long days playing outside. Some of you had few a “toys” to play with while others would improvise with items found around the neighborhood. You would climb trees, build forts, play stick ball, hop scotch and pretend to cook with items found in nature and so much more.

As I looked out my kitchen window the other day I was so excited to see the neighborhood children playing in the field behind my yard. They did not have bikes or balls or other toys. They found all the items they needed for play, a pallet, a few empty paint buckets, a broken shovel, an umbrella stand and sticks and stones. They arranged the items to create a house and played for several hours. It brought back memories of my childhood when I had the freedom to play, to really play, uninterrupted, imaginative play. It made me think how lucky these children were to be able to play without worrying.

Today’s children do not always have the same opportunities for self-directed and initiated play in their neighborhoods as we did when we were growing up because their neighborhoods have become unsafe or are perceived as unsafe.

As early childhood professionals we have a responsibility to provide play for all of the children in our care. Children in their early years of development learn best through play.

What opportunities do you provide that will impact their growth and development and have a lasting impact in their lives that they will carry with them into adulthood?

When planning for play in your program one must consider some basics:

  • Play spaces must offer a variety of materials that stimulate the senses through access to sights, sounds, textures, tastes and smells. 

  • There should be areas where children can socialize and play in small groups, large groups or by themselves.

  •   The play area should be large enough to promote movement and physical activity. 

  • Play spaces should have “loose parts” for children to explore and create with. 

  • Natural and man-made materials for exploration should be available.   

  • Play spaces should offer children a variety of activities that challenge and test the limits of their capabilities.

What are you doing to open your doors to let children explore?

By: Sue Penix Infant and Toddler Specialist and Capacities Building Coordinator for the Baltimore Child Resource Center 

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Messy Art with Infants And Toddlers

First creative art experiences are all about the process of sensory exploration, and is an important part of their development. When infants first interact with their environment, they do not have words to describe what they encounter, but they do absorb information through their senses.

Infants use their senses to explore the world around them. Their visual tracking, physical movements, and attempts to speak are reflective of brain development taking place. Engage your infant's sense of vision and touch with open-ended process art activities. Your goal should be to enjoy the process of making art versus the creation of a finished project.

Art with infants and young toddlers can be messy, but this creates a wonderful opportunity for tactile experiences, developing hand eye coordination, and fine motor skills. What may look like a mess on the surface is truly a learning experience for your child. 

The idea of messy art experiences may seem daunting at first, but there are many benefits to messy play. We know that play is the work of the child. This is true for children of all ages, but especially for infants and young toddlers. Try not to be intimidated by messy art play. Keep a bucket of warm soapy water and washcloths nearby. You can cover and protect surfaces with drop cloths or newspaper. 

Embrace messy art, and remember; Children are 100% washable! 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Why There Is No "Math Area" in my Play-Based Classroom

Children are capable, competent mathematical thinkers. Play, organized by children, according to their interests, allows them to create, explore and expand their ideas. What started out as an interest in building an “Elsa castle”, from their obsession with the movie “Frozen”, turned into a playful exploration of height, length and units of measurement.

photos taken in The Big Room at Garden Gate Child Development Center

teachers: Dawn Warner & Delia Gibson

Children are intrinsically motivated to explore mathematical ideas in play. They need lots of time, to think, to discuss, to plan and to collaborate. They need the freedom to combine materials in new and creative ways. They need adults who support their ideas but don’t overtake them. They need to play!

Friday, February 13, 2015


Play....I'm so excited to be contributing here, and more importantly to the 
play movement many of us are setting out to grow BIG...

because play...

Play is so very, incredibly important!

The more play I observe, the more I learn.

The more I play myself, the more I grow myself.

Play speaks for itself (as many of us have seen),

but play deserves a voice...

a voice that shares with those who have not yet seen...

that play is complete...

that play IS learning...

that truly...


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"NO BOYS ALLOWED!" -- Exclusion in Play


A few years ago, hearing that statement would have stopped me in my tracks. At the time in my journey, with all good intent, I would have made sure that exclusion was not a part of our day. "Everyone plays or no one plays" was part of our mantra.  I was concerned about everyone feeling like they belonged and I used my power as the adult to impose that false sense of community upon our program. Looking back- I do a palm slap..... what was I thinking? I mean, in reflection I was trying to create an environment that was not real, and that was in no way helping the children I was entrusted to care for. My job, as their teacher and caregiver was to assist them in being where they are developmentally and to help them navigate their social world. Creating an environment that was not real- that was falsified by "everyone is friends here" and "everyone plays" prevented the children from opportunities to experience their full range of emotions and to problem solve when conflicts arose. Children need the opportunity to experience ownership, they need the power to make choices. Exclusion is tough, but it is real. It is honest, and it happens to us throughout our entire lives. So, what happens when you allow children to exclude?  Let me share a few examples....


I run a home based program, we can have twelve children present at any given time. Due to various part-time schedules, the make up of children (aged from birth to aged 12) changes each day. Additionally- some days we have a major difference in gender. One day in particular, We had a group of girls (aged 2-4) that were having a great time playing together and one four-year-old boy who was intently watching the girls play. After a period of time, he decided to jump right in and join the play. 

"NO BOYS ALLOWED!!!" yelled one of the girls, as the young boy came into their playspace.

Without skipping a beat, the young boy said. "That's okay, I'm a girl!"

The young girl then shrugged her shoulders and replied, "Okay, you can play."

That was it, done deal. All of the children continued to play for quite some time, together without the need for adult intervention. What would have happened if I heard the initial statement of exclusion and jumped in to force it? Would play have continued? or would it have stopped because of my interference? Would the children have continued to play and expand upon their explorations? I would have prevented them from the opportunity to work out a solution on their own. 


In the summertime, our program tends to look much different from the school year. Some of our families have been with us for almost a decade and the older, school aged children like to come back during the summer months. It is sometimes a challenge to juggle the age gap, but the benefits often outweigh the drawbacks. Sometimes the "big kids" need their space. One of these instances was during their creation of an outdoor fort. They were quite adamant in the beginning that the younger children were not welcome in their play space. 
They were so adamant about keeping children out that they dug a moat around the space!
This was difficult for some of the younger children in the beginning. When children are having a hard time navigating this social exclusion, I am there to support if needed. First, I make sure that they really need my support. I wait, watch, and listen. When they do need me, I remind them of what the other child(ren) said... "I heard (child's name) say........ it sounds like they need their space. I know you really want to play too, but right now we need to respect their choice. What do you want to do while you wait for them? or what do you want to do while you wait for a turn?" Sometimes the child's choice is to continue to ask, or to watch the other children play. Sometimes the child chooses to do something different or to play the same thing somewhere else........ There are a lot of options.  In this specific situation, all of the younger children we extremely interested in the fort the older children were making.  

One of the three-year-olds was adamant about being able to play. He continued to go back to the area where the older children were playing to ask if he could enter their fort. After awhile, when he kept hearing "no" he decided to ask "why not?" The older children responded that they were afraid that he was going to break the fort. He assured them that he would not, and was then permitted to join in on the play. Within an hour- all of the children were given permission to enter and join in on the play. 

When I reflect on these situations and how differently they played out than various similar situations in the past, I see the gifts of time and power. The children are now trusted to experience exclusion and given tools to help them deal with those feelings and situations. They are also given the power to decide when they are ready to share their spaces and their play. Interestingly enough, when given this power they tend to exclude less and to find ways to play together more! 

It took a lot of patience and trust on my part to make changes to allow the children to exclude in order to include. It took a lot of self control to wait, be there to support and to listen.  I often find myself carefully observing and reminding myself to WAIT... Asking myself Why Am I Talking? This gives the children more time to work things out on their own and me an opportunity to reflect on when it is necessary to jump in for support. 

I feel as though I am always learning and growing, and that each new child or group of children provide me with a new challenge and opportunity to learn and grow. Thanks for stopping by to share a little bit of my journey, I'd love to learn more about yours too! Hop on over to our Play EmPowers community on Facebook or feel free to leave me a comment below! 

Monday, February 9, 2015

Figuring It Out..

For anyone who knows me or has seen my Saturday morning Facebook posts.. I am a Goodwill-aholic. I am there picking up odds and ends almost weekly, each time pushing a cart full of items that would confuse almost any onlooker.  I tell stories of what the children did with the last haul. I'm sure part of the employees think I am a crazy hoarder and the other half thinks I'm some sort of eclectic preschool lady.. I think I am a bit of both. Just call me crazy eclectic-preschool lady.  Each week as the cashier rings me up she asks " What are you going to do with this?" My answer is always the same. "I don't know, the kids will figure it out."  I often bring her photos of what they did, if anything, in hopes that she will see I'm not totally crazy.

When I bring items into the classroom I try to present them in a way that does not reveal how they are to be used. Most of the learning happens as the children work to figure out the materials and how they can be used for play.  I call this the 'figuring it out' process.

The materials are noticed and used as tools for play, art, or often times overlooked for days or weeks only to be found as if they were treasure.   While observing this process I learn so much about the children, how they think and how they see the world.

 Are they out of the box thinkers, testers, experimenters, scientists, inventors,  leaders, observers, onlookers, active players, passive players? What skills have they mastered, What do they still struggle with?

This process also allows me to learn so much about how to work alongside these children. Knowing their thought process helps me provide more materials and challenges to our environment.

  "Children, and even babies, inherently use many of the same strategies employed in the scientific method — a systematic process of forming hypotheses and testing them based on observed evidence." -Laura Schulz PhD

After a weekend of thrifting I added several interesting items to the classroom. One of the items was some sort of game. I had no idea how to play the game and still to this day do not. I was not interested in the game itself, I was more interested in the many ways the children would use the parts of the game. 

The new material was almost immediately spotted and the investigation began from there. Inside of a cylinder tube were two balls with long elastic strings attached. After extensively observing interactions between children and "stuff" I have noticed a pattern. Three phases, if you will.. 

Phase One: Discovery- Placing the materials in the classroom in a way that does not dictate its use is important for supporting the children's ability to "discover" them and all of their possibilities.

Phase Two: Curiosity- Constructing questions & hypothesis "What is this?", "How does it work?", " How can I use it in my play?"  " I think this could be used to..."

Phase Three: Investigation- Now the experimenting and testing out of one's ideas happens. The " DOING." This phase can answer many of the questions presented in phase two, but at times it may add additional questions. This extends the experiment and deepens its value, encouraging the children to construct more and more knowledge.

The more uninterrupted time the children have to explore these opened ended loose parts, the more dynamic the play becomes. Handling the balls, squeezing, bouncing, tossing, and catching them developed a relationship between the children and the material. They gathered information about the capabilities of the ball and it's elastic strings, ideas were shared and theories tested. 

"While learning from a teacher may help children get to a specific answer more quickly, it also makes them less likely to discover new information about a problem and to create a new and unexpected solution."- Schulz 

A challenge is born! The children, still "figuring it out," decided to take the balls outside. After testing its elasticity indoors, they attached the velcro straps to the balance ropes and began using it for a sort of sling shot. As this play developed, a game emerged, buckets were stacked and each player was tasked with using the balls to knock over the buckets. Children who typically care about being first, or best, or the winner suddenly became children who celebrated the winnings of their peers, who compromised as the "rules"of the game were created, and who relished in the joy of pure creative play. 

Leaning back to take aim    

By providing open ended materials and allowing children to discover their uses, you are fostering a child's creativity, and natural sense of curiosity, building relationships, and supporting their natural NEED to be an active part of their own learning. 

I often think about how much learning is lost when we "over-teach." If I was to pull out the parts, read the directions and tell the children the "RIGHT"  way it was intended to be used..would learning happen? Yes, but imagine the learning and creativity they would have missed out on. Right now, at this time in their lives the "RIGHT" way is not as important than the process of figuring out the MANY ways something can be used. 

Through this child lead experiment learning was abundant. The children learned about trajectory, force, buoyancy, weight, angles, speed, gravity and exercised their large muscles, social emotional skills and gained self pride. 

Let them "Figure it out".

Other Supporting Evidence 

Welcome to Play Empowers

It was PLAY that EMPOWERED the creation of this blog.. here's the scoop.

Play Empowers was started as a private learning community on Facebook under the name Play Is Power. After operational changes Lakisha Reid called on the support of several members and together they took the group in a public direction in order to broaden the reach and share the value of play with the public. With this came a name change and the development of a public page, a conference and this collaborative blog.   It became abundantly clear that a public outlet to share ideas and promote and advocate for play was necessary. This blog is a collaborative effort taken on by a few key group members of the Play Empowers group Amy Ahola, Dan Hodgins, and  Stephanie Krause . The purpose of the blog  is to reach out into the community to share the power of play. It's for caregivers, educators, parents, grandparents, policy makers and anyone who wants to learn more about the many ways play empowers children. The blog will present documentation through photos, video, learning stories, research, articles, book suggestions, quotes and all things play. We look forward to sharing our stories and hope to inspire you to share yours.

Meet the Collaborators.

Our vision for this blog is of one that will speak with the voice of, not only educators in centers, but also educators in family homes, outdoor classrooms, parents of children attending play based programs, presenters, policy makers, book authors and the voice of many who are learning and growing each and every day alongside  children.  It is our hope that by sharing these many perspectives our readers will hear a voice that speaks to them.

Collaborating Creators/Authors : 

Resident Authors:  

Bj Richards- Owner/ Lead Teacher at Bj's Kids ( Family Child Care)
Michael Leeman- Teacher ( Roseville Community Preschool)
Marc Armitage- Independent consultant, writer and researcher in playworking

Guest Authors 

We each tell our own stories from our own point of view to provide an abundance of prospective on this shared mission to creating, supporting and enhancing developmentally appropriate high quality early childhood programs. Through this blog we all hope to grow and change and invite you along for the journey.