Tuesday, August 16, 2011

When you need to teach everything, it can feel overwhelming

Summers here at Happy House are flexible and laid-back.  We had a few school-agers this year.  I keep the normal routine, with the focus areas for each month, adding things the older ones will be interested in too.  The alphabet, numbers, shapes and colors are on a 'review' status for the summer.  This year we tried some new outdoor games and added a few crafts.  We don't "do" crafts normally.  We are "process" art oriented, not "product."  But the big kids like to make things, so make things we did!  The school-agers this summer were a wonderful group....respectful, helpful and kind, but they also really liked to talk.  They also do not take naps.  Need I say more?

School started last week.  WHEW!  Breathe with me.....we did it!!  Now here we are, making the transition from a house full of big and little kids, to a group of eight preschoolers.  Life is wonderful!  It's funny, but I'll take a group of three and four year olds any time! We all have our favorite age group, which is a very good thing both for children and providers. 

Now the real work begins....I start to feel overwhelmed when I think about the task at hand, which is getting this group of diverse, lively children ready to go to kindergarten.  Not every one is heading to kindergarten next fall, but three of the four year olds will turn five during the year, making them PreK kids at Happy House.  I take that responsibility very seriously.  Very possibly, others will join them along the way as new children enroll and fill empty slots in the enrollment.

Since I'm a traditionalist, I begin our preschool/pre-K program ceremonially on the day after Labor Day, since during the summer we've been on a hiatus in certain areas of our school work (alphabet, numbers, shapes, colors).  I change the room around and make learning centers new and different.  I get as excited about it as the children! 

During the year we follow a monthly curriculum that I developed last year.  It's a framework of focus areas that includes a nursery rhyme, classic story, certain letters, numbers, a color, shape and positive affirmation.  I also divided our books into bags that go with the monthly focus areas.  For me the curriculum must be specific, because I need to be sure I cover what needs to be covered....and there is SO much that needs to be covered.  Daily activities are not written and are very flexible.  Actually, during the weekend I plan in my head what the main activities will be for the coming week.  (If I need to purchase or find something from what I have, I do that during the weekend's errands and organizing/cleaning which is always on-going.)  I'm a bit ADHA and can be very spontaneous about developing activities on the spot.  In this line of work, that's a very good thing.  But I need a framework so I don't leave out something important.  That's what the year's worth of monthly curriculum is for me.  This is not "sit down and be quiet so you can learn" type curriculum....oh, no....quite the opposite.  This is "come here and touch this, smell this, experience this"....hands-on learning experiences that are fun and make remembering the activity how we remember the learning.  I love the philosophy of Bev Bos, a renowned early childhood educator and advocate:  “If it's not in the body, it's not in the mind.”  I believe it is that important for children to explore the world through their senses.  That's where learning begins....in their eyes and ears, their noses and mouths, and in their hands.  If it doesn't begin there, you've already lost them.

Each month the curriculum I have developed uses four focus areas. In the beginning (last year) I started doing one focus area each week, but I've found that the children seem to enjoy and learn much more by mixing the focus areas even daily.  It's been really easy to blend them during our day and pull one thing into another.  Dinosaurs and fossils are one of our focus areas this month.  The "Five Senses" is another focus area along with "I Can Be A Friend" and "Camping."  This week is "Friendship Week."  All during the day we talk about what makes a good friend and how we can practice those attributes.  The last week of August we'll set up a tent in the backyard and if the weather is nice, have naptime in the tent one day.  We'll do camping activities (like use a fishing game to go fishing) and we're going to pretend to be paleontologists on a dinosaur dig with chicken bones and shells buried in various places in the backyard.  (See how the focus areas can blend?)  Here's some examples of things we've been doing: 

I found perfect dinosaur skeletons at Dollar Tree a couple of weekends ago.  Two in a pack for $1 with various kinds in different packages.  I made cooked playdough during naptime last Wednesday.  Every now and then we have to start with a fresh batch.  The kids have had so much fun making imprints in the clay with the "bones" of the dinosaur skeletons.  The dinosaur skeletons are made very durable, all one piece, and so far none have come apart or even lost a rib...quite amazing for fifty cents each.  Fossils.  Hands-on fossils for three year olds.

We made "coffee sand" yesterday for the outdoor sensory table:  4c. used, dried coffee grounds, 2c. cornmeal (yellow or white, doesn't matter), 1c. flour, 1/2c. salt; mix all together.  It smells wonderful, looks like sand, but brushes off and feels so soft.  Everyone loves it.  We put our tiny dinosaurs in it, then got the dishes out when they got bored and stirred, spooned and transferred it all over the playground.  There's almost none left in the sensory table, but it was good for lots of engaging quality play....for cheap.  They helped me make it, which involved reading the recipe from Lisa Murphy's Ooey Gooey Handbook, looking at each ingredient, measuring, counting how many cups to put in, smelling it, stirring it.  We told each parent about it at pick up time and the children retold how we made it.  Of course, some of them took a little home: in their hair, shoes and pockets.

At the end of the day, it seemed like we just played all day.  That's exactly what we did!!  But in the meantime, the children learned a lot and it was all hands-on learning.  They learned about reading being necessary to make something really fun.  They measured, counted, looked at letters on the bags of cornmeal and flour and talked about where those things came from (not the grocery, the farm....).  We talked about how it smelled and how it felt, using descriptive words.  Since one of the focus areas is  "Our Five Senses,"  this activity wasn't just about dinosaurs.  It's a good example of how our themes or focuses mesh and blend during each month.

Today we started work on a volcano.  We always learn about volcanoes during the dinosaur theme.  They just seem to go hand in hand.  There's always pictures of them together in books, and it's just so much fun to see them erupt!  We made a double batch of the flour/salt clay that hardens when it air drys.  Each child added ingredients and helped stir.  We made a big mess and had a great time.  We formed the clay around an empty water bottle inside, copying a volcano I found online.  They squished and patted and smoothed the clay as the volcano took shape.  It's on a sheet cake size cookie pan so we can move it around as we need to.  With the bottle to fill inside, the clay mountain will be much more sturdy when the vinegar/baking soda solution erupts a dozen times, as the kids shout "do it again, do it again!"  Hopefully it hardens enough tonight so we can paint it tomorrow.  I'm not sure if the kids can wait one more day if it doesn't dry.  They are so excited about the eruption, they almost can't bear it.  I thought about baking it on a low temp, but with the water bottle inside, not sure that would be a good idea.

By they way, when we learn a new word, one that's new in the kids' vocabulary, I print it (by hand or computer) on a blank business card (cheap cardstock for making your own business cards from Sam's Club, like 1,000 for $5.99).  We add it to our word basket for the month's words, then put them in a photo album or glue them onto paper in page protectors in a binder.  You'd be surprised how many they remember.  Let the children copy them, identify letters, sound them out.  Preliteracy skills abound as you play with language and make your child care areas "print rich" by having reading materials and words all around the room.  I bought enough clip boards from Sam's Club (3/$5 something) so everyone has their own.  There's a pencil box of colored pencils.  Those are a favorite writing tool!  Writing is serious business at Happy House.

I sit here now, covered in volcanic ash (aka flour).  I think I'm as excited as the kids about erupting the volcano.  Think I'm going to add some red liquid watercolor to the vinegar to make the "lava" look more realistic.  I found instructions online for making a volcano (for erupting outside) out of the spray foam used to fill cracks in houses.  You make it big, with a 2 liter bottle inside.  It erupts using Diet Coke and Mentos.  Have you seen that trick on YouTube?  It shoots way up several feel high.  The kids would LOVE that!  I can hear them now...."Do it again!!  Do it again!!" 

I've already bought the can of Great Stuff gap & crack filler.


  1. Nice Debbie. So much fun to get started again, isn't it? Nice blog. I've been doing one for some time. Google me.


  2. Great "snapshot" of how children can experience things appropriately in high quality care!