Catching a Piece of the Sky

Richard LewisOne evening last week I found myself, along with six other parents and teachers, sitting around a low table located in the basement classroom of a small Brooklyn cooperative pre- school. A candle, giving off peaceful aromas, was lit and we were all focused on the gentle-looking man at the head of the table. After introductions, he reached his hand upwards and grasped at an imaginary piece of the sky, explaining what happened when he did the same with a group of kindergarten children. “Can we bring back a small piece of the sky to share?” Without questions or doubts, the children caught the sky in their hands and carefully shared it with each other. This gentle man that I’m referring to is Richard Lewis, founder of the Touchstone Center in NYC.

For decades Richard has been exploring the role of poetry, art and fantasy in the lives and imaginations of children. At our meeting he shared a marvelous story that took place last March, a month filled with crazy fluctuating weather. One windy day, while walking in Central Park, he came across a young boy gathering twigs. Very purposefully, the child piled the twigs one over the other. His mother, who was standing quietly nearby, observed but didn’t intervene. At one point the child lifted the pile and moved it to another spot, standing quietly, looking at the twigs. He seemed to almost be in a state of reverie. This small boy appeared to be taking part in an age-old ritual of gathering.

Perhaps, Richard posited, this child was making a poem. The twigs were the words that he was carefully arranging in an arrangement that pleased him. Perhaps children have a natural poetic instinct.wood pieces

We adults at the table shared childhood memories, and even more recent adult memories, of gathering and arranging – sea glass, shells, stones, even my memory of arranging and talking to my Tinkertoy sticks as a young child in my solitary play. It was obvious as we shared our stories that this kind of gathering play lasts a lifetime.

Our discussion turned to how children invent an inner language of play and the way that this is method of connecting to something that is a non-verbal feeling about the world. Children show amazement about the natural world. To support this instinctual awe, more schools are nurturing this by creating time and space for exploring parks, woods (Forest School), and even the little bits of natural world that pushes itself out from the cracks in an urban streetscape. However, parents and educators need to take care not to create a contemporary problem by substituting this natural amazement with a mechanical amazement as children spend more and more time with Ipads, Iphones, computers, television and videos. Children once spent hours outdoors interacting with and exploring the natural environment . Now, for so many children,  those  hours are spent indoors, glued to some sort of screen

When we teach young children, pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, first grade and beyond, it’s so easy to get caught up in the practicalities, the data, the lesson plans, and all the daily rituals of classroom life. But Richard left me with a simple and yet complex question, one that I will want to hold onto as I spend our time with teachers and children.

What is wonder?



Some books by Richard Lewis:

Joyful Journals in Kindergarten

journal 4Can I let my teachers devote an hour each day for children to take part in inquiry-based choice time centers? Will my school still be able to maintain our high scores in reading and math? That’s the conundrum gnawing at the conscience of the very concerned principal of an early childhood public school in New York City.

In his heart, he understood the importance of play and exploration but he was dealing with of the outside pressures that came with his job. Nevertheless, he put his anxieties aside and asked me if I could do professional development with a focus on inquiry and play with his pre-kindergarten and kindergarten teachers. I was eager to work with his dedicated and intelligent teaching staff, to help them deepen the investigations and play and make Choice Time a priority in their schedules. The teachers were also eager to work with me. This was a big step for them. Before I came, Choice Time was more of a free playtime for a half hour at the end of the day. It was the time that the teacher could catch up on paperwork or perhaps pull out some children for guided reading. When we made changes, moving Choice Time to a prime time during the day, creating centers that held opportunities for inquiry and collaboration, and actively involving themselves as facilitators and observers, they could see how the quality of play and socialization was improving. Children were filled with joy as they played at a water center, built with blocks, pretended to open a bakery at the dramatic play center or created beautiful collages at the art table. And yet these caring teachers had twinges of anxiety. Did Choice Time use up precious minutes that should be devoted to reading, writing, math or phonics?

I understood that the early childhood staff was making major changes in their schedules and their thinking about kindergarten priorities. The teachers were excited and invigorated by the explorations and collaborations taking place during Choice Time. However they had so much pressure to teach their students (mostly ELLs) reading, writing and mathematics.

I wanted to acknowledge and honor their concerns about not meeting the Common Core standards. But I also wanted them to see how centers could be infused with opportunities for children to use the literacy skills being taught and reading and writing workshop. In one room, during Choice Time, we observed children writing menus and signs for their bakery in the Pretend center, labeling their block structures, drawing and writing from observations at the science center, and creating bead patterns at the jewelry center. Even though we were excited to see all of this activity, I still sensed the principal’s trepidation. I realized that there needed to be something else in place so that he would understand how children were developing social, emotional and literacy skills while playing during Choice Time .

I presented a new possibility. What about adding on ten minutes at the end of Choice Time for children to write and draw in their own, personal reflection journals. Would the children resent this extra writing? We decided to give it a try. Each child had his or her own Choice Time journal, a primary notebook with pages that had areas for drawing and areas for writing. Children were told that after they cleaned up their centers they should take out their journals and write about something that happened during Choice Time. They could draw, write or do both. It was entirely up to them. They could read it to the teacher but they didn’t have to do that. They had ownership of these journals.

The results were so exciting! Children loved journal time and wrote with pleasure. Children who were reluctant writers at writing workshop were asking for more time to write in their journals! We wondered why this was happening. Perhaps it was the sense of ownership. Nobody was instructing them to write in a particular genre. Nobody was checking up on his or her writing. Children were writing about immediate experience connected to their play. Play is to very important to children.

I would like to share some of the journal pages of two kindergarten children. Both of them are learning English as a second language. The journal writing began in December. The journal examples of these two children represent writing from December through March.

Play, Collaboration, Socialization, Agency…a wonderful kindergarten combination!

Student One

#1-child 1#3 student 1#4 student `1#6student 1#7 student 1#10 student 1

Student Two


Teaching Kindergarten

Susan Ochshorn wrote an astute and important review of a new book on good practices in kindergartens around the country. I’m so pleased to have participated in this project and I’d love to share her review with you.

Posted by Susan Ochshorn, on March 7th, 2016 on her ECE Policy Matters blog –
These are dark times for the children in the garden. They have lost their place at the center of education. The shepherds of early development are struggling to move them in from the periphery. But the task is daunting, efforts thwarted in the age of standards-based

Teaching Kindergarten: Learner Centered Classrooms for the 21st Century breaks the silence—not a moment too soon. As editors Julie Diamond, Betsy Grob, and Fretta Reitzes note in the introduction, teachers determine what happens in a classroom, their voices critical for translating best practice to the uninitiated. Yet they’re experts in absentia, a rare presence at the policymaking tables.

A compendium of narrative accounts by early childhood educators across the United States, the book is, at turns, exhilarating and heart-breaking. I was riveted by these tales of young students, architects of their own learning. They’re the feisty, ingenious heirs of progressive philosopher John Dewey, moving toward complex understanding, and the “having of wonderful ideas,” in the words of educator and theorist Eleanor Duckworth. While the language of education reform—critical thinking, creativity, and innovation—may evoke this legacy, the prescribed methods these days for nurturing all of the above could not be more misguided.

Young children learn through exploration, inquiry, hypothesis, collaboration, and play in the messy, emotional arena of relationships with peers and adults. Progressive educators conceive of curriculum as organic, emerging from the interests of the child, primed to make sense of the world. They believe deeply in all children’s capability and intelligence. Teachers meet their students with love and respect, wherever they are on the path of development. The adoption of the Common Core State Standards, high-stakes testing, teacher evaluations based on student scores, and punitive actions against schools that demonstrate inadequate progress has disturbed this delicate ecology, changing the tenor and texture of life in the classroom.

Yet, the teachers persist. They’re determined to do right by the kids—holding fast to the rich theoretical base for their practice. Some have greater autonomy, like-minded supervisors giving them latitude. Others struggle to keep their courage in the face of anxious, overbearing administrators, narrow curricula, and conflicting claims on their space and time.

The book’s stories sparkle with the motivation, vibrancy, and pride of young learners. Katherine Clunis D’Andrea sees children as changemakers with a “voice.” A teacher at the Mission Hill School in Boston, she seeks the input of her kindergartners and first graders in a combined classroom including English language learners and students with special needs. After reading them Jeannette Winter’s book about Wangari Maathai, a Kenyan, the founder of the Green Belt Movement, and the first environmentalist to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, D’Andrea asks them: “If you were the president of the United States, what would you use your voice to do?” One youngster talks about installing speed bumps, another about making the city safer.

She then gets the children thinking about the possibilities for them, as five-, six-, and seven-year-olds. “What are you going to use your voices to do?” she asks. A question that launches days of long conversations, writing and drawing in journals, and, ultimately, the seeds for three projects to educate people about the importance of trees, recycling and endangered animals. D’Andrea had integrated nature into the curriculum, a “lush schoolyard” with raised gardens her youngsters’ learning laboratory.

When Dana Roth began her student teaching in New York City as No Child Left Behind had taken hold, disappointment set in. Everything she had learned about developmentally appropriate practice went out the window. Kindergarten, she writes, was “jam-packed with reading, writing, word work, and math…Where was the play? Where was recess? Where were open-ended investigations?”

Roth adapts to this new reality as best as she can, designing curriculum to meet the needs of all her students. Along the way, now ensconced at P.S. 10, in Brooklyn, she meets Renee Dinnerstein, a veteran early childhood educator and staff developer for the city’s public schools. In “Saim’s Wheelchair,” through a dialogue between the two women, we become flies on the wall, privy to the dynamic, fraught process of coaching and innovation.

Asked by the principal to introduce an inquiry approach to the school’s youngest learners, Dinnerstein starts work with Roth and her colleague, Karen Byrnes, in March. She predicts resistance to this intervention, so late in the year, her concern confirmed by Roth’s response: “Now what? “Our school day is packed with so much as it is. How can we possibly fit something new into our schedule?”

But the teachers sign on, transforming a transportation study into an opportunity for deep investigation tailored to the students’ emotional, social, and cognitive needs. A model of child-centered practice, as it’s known in the field. The account of their brainstorming is riveting. As Dinnerstein describes it, the two teachers were “fired up with excitement.” What were the opportunities for writing, they asked. What about collaboration and negotiation? How would the project help their students make sense of their world?

The study would include a trip to the local subway station, with sketches begun by the children in situ and revised in the classroom. But no sooner had the teachers embarked on the fieldwork than they realized that Saim, confined to a wheelchair, had no access. “How could we be so insensitive?” Roth writes. Yet, the faux pas opened a path to deeper inquiry and knowledge.

The result: a marvelous project, with Saim at the center, his cooperation having been secured. The class sits in a circle and sketches him, while he simultaneously works on a self-portrait. Roth and Byrnes begin gathering the children’s findings about wheelchairs. One day, at school closing, they observe Saim boarding the bus with the special door and platform, noting, too, the blue-and-white sign with the icon of a wheelchair.

The kindergartners also watch as Manny, a fourth-grader, negotiates this process on another bus, with his walker. Roth and Byrnes follow up, inviting him to their classroom for an interview, extending the children’s knowledge of disability and access. The children ask him how he uses his walker, if he can navigate with one hand, how he gets off the bus, if he can walk unaided, and if he took lessons to learn how to use his walker. “Kind of,” he says. “My therapists helped me. Do you want to try?”

As the study gets off the ground, Dinnerstein suggests rearranging the classroom to allow for more space for active learning. Soon, an observation center has sprung up, with measuring tape, magnifying glasses, paper, scissors, writing tools, and detail finders, the better for kids to zoom in on what they see. An old wheelchair has been procured from the custodian. Each child signs up to spend a day navigating the terrain on wheels. “The experience had a powerful impact on children’s development of empathy,” Roth writes. “They wanted to make our classroom more accessible for Saim or anyone else entering our room…”

“Teaching kindergarten is not for the faint of heart,” write Kelly D’Addona, Laura Morris, and Cynthia Paris in the book’s final story. A sobering account of facing “wolves”—as the teachers refer to the colleagues, families, administrators, and community members who challenge their practice.

D’Addona is all set to go with an activity that uses blocks to meet the objective of identifying and describing five plane shapes (circle, square, triangle, heart, and star). But her excitement wanes as her advisor declares it inappropriate:

She said the children would probably be too focused on building to identify and describe the shapes. She worried about my maintaining control…what children might do if I didn’t place a limit on how many blocks they could use. I was directed to lead an objective-based center in which students would simply identify and describe the five shapes. I should—and this made my heart sink—make sets of index cards with pictures of the shapes and have the children quiz each other…It went against everything I was taught about how children learn.

Paris, dirt under her fingernails after a morning building nests in the classroom, is called in for a chat with the first-grade team leader. She was failing to prepare her students for first grade, her colleague told her. “How frustrating and…painful,” Paris writes, “to be expected to teach in ways that violate deeply held convictions about what is best for children.”

Facing the wolves is risky, and frightening. But it must be done; the alternative is unacceptable. The authors of this chapter offer a set of advocacy lessons learned—a call to action to their peers on the front lines of teaching kindergarten in a new age of anxiety. May their brave efforts be replicated, along with their enlightened practice.


at water tableThis coming fall Heinemann will be publishing my book on inquiry-based Choice Time for grades pre-k through grade 2. To my amazement, I’ve just recently finished the manuscript. Some days this past year the task of writing seemed like climbing a mountain! Wonderful photographs have been taken and photo release forms signed, and now we are at the point of thinking about a good title for the book.

BNS hermitcrab_hold

I recently reread my initial proposal letter and I thought it would be interesting to share it with you. I’ll illustrate my proposal letter with some of the marvelous photographs that Kristin Eno took at the Brooklyn New School.
Here’s the letter that I sent to Heinemann over a year ago:

Without play, humans and many other animals would perish
Diane Ackerman, Deep Play

First, enter the classroom:
Elaine, Jeffrey and Matthew have turned our “pretend” center into a doctor’s office. The wooden play stove has now been covered with white paper to become an examining table. Placing her baby doll on the table, Elaine, dressed up in silver high-heels and my daughter’s outgrown fancy party dress, pretends to cry. “My baby is dead,” she sobs as Jeffrey, the “doctor”, dressed in an oversized white shirt with a stethoscope dangling from his neck, takes rapid notes on a pad. “Don’t worry. I’ll fix the baby.” Jeffrey, taking a needle from the play doctor’s kit, jabs the baby doll’s arm. “O.K. now the baby’s not dead anymore.” Elaine picks up her baby, hands over a wad of play money from the pocketbook draped over her shoulder, and happily teeters away, balancing herself on her high-heeled shoes.

In the block center, Larry has enclosed Mario inside what looks like a house without doors. Each time Mario’s arm reaches out, a wooden block falls down and Larry quickly replaces it. Then he runs to the book corner, where we have a collection of stuffed animals, selects one, returns to the block building and passes a stuffed animal to Mario. I observe this happening for a few minutes. Each time Mario’s arm comes out, a block falls down and Larry replaces it and adds another animal to Mario’s growing collection. Curious about what this is all about, I walk over to the blocks and ask Larry about his building. “Mario is in jail, but don’t be worried. I bring him toys so he won’t be scared.” Although Larry’s father was in prison, this was something that he never spoke of with me, his classmates or with his mother at home. I noted that Larry, who often challenged his behavioral boundaries during the school day, must have been thinking about his father. Perhaps in his block play he was finding a safe outlet for expressing his fears and concerns.

Our ABC center, stocked with magnetic letters, paper, pencils, pens, and a variety of ABC books, was very popular at the start of the school year but was beginning to lose its appeal. It hadn’t been a popular choice for the past two weeks. Rather than eliminate the center, I brought in some carbon paper and showed the children, at our morning meeting, how I could place it over one paper, put a second paper on top, and then write my name. I lifted up the bottom paper to show the children. It’s magic! The carbon paper was renamed “Magic Paper” by the excited children. The ABC center was rejuvenated and today it was filled with four joyfully writing and giggling children.

If we think about the activities of these children during Choice Time, it brings up the question of how we define play in kindergarten, first and second grade classrooms. Does it look the same as the play that children engage in at home or on the playground? This is a point that often comes up when I speak with teachers, administrators and student teachers about Choice time. It’s an important and somewhat difficult question to answer.

Children engaged in free play set their own rules. They might create or find props that enhance their role-playing such as a stick or branch that becomes a sword or a piece of fabric that is transformed into a queen’s robe. Free play can be highly social when children form their own groups. It can also be a solitary experience such as when a child finds an insect on the ground and commences to have an animated monologue directed towards the small ant. She can be totally oblivious to the activity around her while she is immersed in her private world. In both of these play possibilities it’s important to notice the absence of adult intervention or planning. It is all in the hands of the children.

The challenge for classroom teachers is to plan an inquiry-based, explorative Choice Time, acknowledging important elements of free play but doing this within the expectation of high standards expected of the classroom experience. We want centers to be interesting and free enough for children to truly have the opportunity to make choices.sharing painting ideas bns

Maria Montessori, the groundbreaking Italian educator, introduced the idea of a prepared environment. Two characteristics of the Montessori classrooms, based on her theory of education, are that the prepared environment should include beauty, order, simplicity, reality and accessibility and that children be given the freedom to become part of a social group. She also believed that children should be provided with specifically designed materials that help them to explore their world and enable them to develop essential cognitive skills.

The teacher’s prepared environment is essentially what differentiates free play and Choice Time. Children make decisions about how they will interact with materials and also socially interact with peers but it’s the materials the teacher provides within each centre that will provoke the children’s engagement. The way that children decide to use materials during Choice Time is not only creatively up to the students. Innovative explorations are encouraged and celebrated by the teacher.Compass art center

The centers described in this book implicitly address many of the Common Core Learning Standards while children have opportunities to incorporate their learning through play and exploration. This vision of Choice Time and centers may be new for many readers so I will carefully describe, using classroom examples and photographs, how to develop an inquiry-based, playful Choice Time.

In my own classroom I wanted children to know that in our room they could be artists, writers, designers, builders, scientists and mathematicians. In fact, all possibilities were open to them. One way that I shared the message with my students was by organizing the classroom to reflect these possibilities. In addition, the various centers were stocked with a wide variety of materials that were almost asking to be acted upon rather than imposing a limited possibility for activities. Therefore, the ABC center had blank alphabet grids, little stapled books ready to be written in, alphabet stamps and, as I previously shared, “magic” carbon paper. Notice that there were no alphabet kits or matching boards that might have limited their use to the rules of the game.

When I reflect on my personal history as a teacher, I must admit that I tiptoed my way into Choice Time…It took me years to understand how children learn and to have the confidence that allowed me to create a classroom that reflected this understanding.

Teachers who are new to the profession and also those who have years of experience are facing so many challenges. To address rigorous Common Core Learning Standards teachers are under pressure to revise their curriculum. The bar has been raised to a level that puts children as young as three and four years old on a trajectory that is supposed to move them towards becoming college and career ready. Administrators and teachers are being rated on how well their children do on high-stakes standardized tests that are aligned with, and sometimes even surpass, these new standards. Kindergarten children are being given tests where they must fill in the bubbles on a paper to show their answers to questions that are often confusing and unfamiliar. This fallout, resulting from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top mandates, has put teachers’ jobs at stake. In many cases, the actual continued existence of some schools also hangs of the results of these scores.

How can we possibly have the luxury of even thinking about play and Choice Time in this educationally stressful era? While acknowledging this concern I ask, “How can we possibly NOT think about the importance of play and Choice Time in this educationally stressful era?” It is of the utmost importance to give children time to be playful, explorative and creative when so much of their day is geared towards standardization. According to the American Academy of Pediatricians, “The overriding premise is that play…is essential to the cognitive, physical, social and emotional well-being of children and youth.”

When I speak with early childhood educators, it’s clear that they understand the importance of play and they bemoan the way that it has been eliminated from their classes. It is the interest and inquiries of teachers that inspired me to write this book about Choice Time. My goal in the book is to help new teachers in integrating centers that support explorative play into their classrooms. I’ll provide suggestions for getting started, describing, in detail and with actual classroom examples, many helpful strategies and routines. For teachers who have included Choice Time in their program for many years, I hope that this book will confirm their good practices and also provide some new possibilities for their classrooms.

Loris Malaguzzi, one of the founders and leaders of the world – famous early childhood schools in Reggio Emily, Italy, wrote, “Once children are helped to perceive themselves as authors and inventors, once they are helped to discover the pleasure of inquiry, their motivation and interest explode.” I hope that this book will give ideas and inspirations for creating classrooms that explode with the excitement of inquiry and discovery!worm  bns


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The summer of 1992 I had the good fortune to take a course where I learned about the Primary Language Record. A marvelous teacher, Olivia O’Sullivan, presented this program. Olivia’s common sense and enthusiasm had me all pumped up to go into my kindergarten class in September, ready to implement this marvelous method of observing and assessing children in the school environment.

When I started using the PLR in my kindergarten class, I particularly loved beginning with interviews that valued the voices of parents and children. This assessment program was developed by experienced teachers (Olivia included at the Centre for Learning in Primary Education, based in London, England.

Unfortunately just as data, data, data has become the focus and goal of assessment in the US, the same seems to be happening abroad. Olivia and her colleague Sue Ellis, not comfortable with the changing priorities at the organization, are no longer working for the CLPE.

That, however, has not put a stop to their advocacy for early learning.

12661825_1725109771058248_9006689302508574739_nTwo weeks ago I met up with Olivia in Paris where we both went to see my daughter, Simone Dinnerstein, perform the Goldberg Variations for the Paris Opera Ballet. Olivia told me about her passion for drawing and art classes, her involvement with the Save Lewisham Hospital Campaign where her husband, Dr. Tony O’Sullivan, is head of services for children and about an ambitious new website that she, Sue Ellis and Sue McGonigle have developed. It has the enchanting name, Love My Books and there’s lots of information about it at

The blurb on their card says “This FREE and FUN website brings together brilliant books with creative activities to share and excite young children about reading.

They share ideas to encourage families to read together, list favorite books, and include helpful videos and websites.

I’m really excited about this website. I hope you feel the same way and that you will share it with colleagues and with anyone who cares for and interacts with young children.


T-E-S-T not PLAY is a four letter word

December 22, 2015


A Conversation about Putting the Child
at the Center of Education Reform

January 19, 2015 | 6:00 to 7:30 pm
Brooklyn New School, 610 Henry Street, Brooklyn, NY

Today’s education policies are dangerous to young children’s healthy development. We’re foisting the Common Core and rigor upon four-year-olds, and testing kids out the wazoo. Play, the primary engine of human development, is disappearing.
America’s youngest students are guinea pigs in a misguided experiment that’s squashing their imagination, critical thinking, and capacity for innovation—the engines of our prosperity and pillars of a democratic society. For the 25 percent of kids under 6 in poverty, the unintended consequences are severe. Instead of leveling the playing field, we’re depriving them of a high-quality 21st-century education.
Please join us for a conversation about the challenges of the policy environment, as well as promising practices and strategies that can illuminate our path forward.

Susan Ochshorn, ECE PolicyWorks, Author, Squandering America’s Future: Why ECE Policy Matters for Equality, Our Economy, and Our Children
Anna Allanbrook, Principal, Brooklyn New School
Kristin Eno, Founder, Find & Seek
Takiema Bunche Smith, Early Childhood Consultant and advocate
Jeff Frank, Early Childhood Educator, parent of Castle Bridge Elementary School student
Davia Brown Franklyn, Senior Director of Partnerships, Bank Street Education Center

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Yes, our early childhood classes ARE crushing kids


A disturbing but familiar article is published in this month’s Atlantic magazine. Erika Christakis‘ article shines a light on the negative effect the “race to the top” driven curriculum is having on children’s education. This, of course, is not new or surprising news for early childhood educators. The big question and challenge is, “What will we do to change this destructive trend in 2016?”



How the New Preschool Is Crushing Kids 

by Erika Christakis

Step into an American preschool classroom today and you are likely to be bombarded with what we educators call a print-rich environment, every surface festooned with alphabet charts, bar graphs, word walls, instructional posters, classroom rules, calendars, schedules, and motivational platitudes—few of which a 4-year-old can “decode,” the contemporary word for what used to be known as reading.
Because so few adults can remember the pertinent details of their own preschool or kindergarten years, it can be hard to appreciate just how much the early-education landscape has been transformed over the past two decades. The changes are not restricted to the confusing pastiche on classroom walls. Pedagogy and curricula have changed too, most recently in response to the Common Core State Standards Initiative’s kindergarten guidelines. Much greater portions of the day are now spent on what’s called “seat work” (a term that probably doesn’t need any exposition) and a form of tightly scripted teaching known as direct instruction, formerly used mainly in the older grades, in which a teacher carefully controls the content and pacing of what a child is supposed to learn.

One study, titled “Is Kindergarten the New First Grade?,” compared kindergarten teachers’ attitudes nationwide in 1998 and 2010 and found that the percentage of teachers expecting children to know how to read by the end of the year had risen from 30 to 80 percent. The researchers also reported more time spent with workbooks and worksheets, and less time devoted to music and art. Kindergarten is indeed the new first grade, the authors concluded glumly. In turn, children who would once have used the kindergarten year as a gentle transition into school are in some cases being held back before they’ve had a chance to start. A study out of Mississippi found that in some counties, more than 10 percent of kindergartners weren’t allowed to advance to first grade.
Until recently, school-readiness skills weren’t high on anyone’s agenda, nor were the idea that the youngest learners might be disqualified from moving on to a subsequent stage. But now that kindergarten serves as a gatekeeper, not a welcome mat, to elementary school, concerns about school preparedness kick in earlier and earlier. A child who’s supposed to read by the end of kindergarten had better be getting ready in preschool. As a result, expectations that may arguably have been reasonable for 5- and 6-year-olds, such as being able to sit at a desk and complete a task using pencil and paper, are now directed at even younger children, who lack the motor skills and attention span to be successful.
Preschool classrooms have become increasingly fraught spaces, with teachers cajoling their charges to finish their “work” before they can go play. And yet, even as preschoolers are learning more pre-academic skills at earlier ages, I’ve heard many teachers say that they seem somehow—is it possible?—less inquisitive and less engaged than the kids of earlier generations. More children today seem to lack the language skills needed to retell a simple story or to use basic connecting words and prepositions. They can’t make a conceptual analogy between, say, the veins on a leaf and the veins in their own hands.
New research sounds a particularly disquieting note. A major evaluation of Tennessee’s publicly funded preschool system, published in September, found that although children who had attended preschool initially exhibited more “school readiness” skills when they entered kindergarten than did their non-preschool-attending peers, by the time they were in first grade their attitudes toward school were deteriorating. And by second grade they performed worse on tests measuring literacy, language, and math skills. The researchers told New York magazine that overreliance on direct instruction and repetitive, poorly structured pedagogy were likely culprits; children who’d been subjected to the same insipid tasks year after year after year were understandably losing their enthusiasm for learning.

That’s right. The same educational policies that are pushing academic goals down to ever earlier levels seem to be contributing to—while at the same time obscuring—the fact that young children are gaining fewer skills, not more.
Pendulum shifts in education are as old as our republic. Steven Mintz, a historian who has written about the evolution of American childhood, describes an oscillation in the national zeitgeist between the notion of a “protected” childhood and that of a “prepared” one. Starting in the early 2000s, though, a confluence of forces began pushing preferences ever further in the direction of preparation: the increasing numbers of dual-career families scrambling to arrange child care; a new scientific focus on the cognitive potential of the early years; and concerns about growing ability gaps between well-off and disadvantaged children, which in turn fueled the trend of standards-based testing in public schools.
Preschool is a relatively recent addition to the American educational system. With a few notable exceptions, the government had a limited role in early education until the 1960s, when the federal Head Start program was founded. Before mothers entered the full-time workforce in large numbers, private preschools were likewise uncommon, and mainly served as a safe social space for children to learn to get along with others.
By second grade, the children who had attended preschool performed worse than their peers.
In the past few decades, however, we have seen a major transfer of child- care and early learning from home to institution: Nearly three-quarters of American 4-year-olds are now in some kind of nonfamily care. That category spans a dizzying mix of privately and publicly funded preschool environments, including family-run day cares, private preschools in church basements, and Head Start programs in public elementary schools, to name a few. Across all of them, the distinction between early education and “official” school seems to be eroding.
When I survey parents of preschoolers, they tend to be on board with many of these changes, either because they fear that the old-fashioned pleasures of unhurried learning have no place in today’s hypercompetitive world or because they simply can’t find, or afford, a better option. The stress is palpable: Pick the “wrong” preschool or ease up on the phonics drills at home, and your child might not go to college. She might not be employable. She might not even be allowed to start first grade!
Media attention to the cognitive potential of early childhood has a way of exacerbating such worries, but the actual academic consensus on the components of high-quality early education tells another story. According to experts such as the Yale professor Edward Zigler, a leader in child-development and early-education policy for half a century, the best preschool programs share several features: They provide ample opportunities for young children to use and hear complex, interactive language; their curriculum supports a wide range of school-readiness goals that include social and emotional skills and active learning; they encourage meaningful family involvement; and they have knowledgeable and well-qualified teachers.
As an early-childhood educator, I’ve clocked many hours in many preschool classrooms, and I have found that I can pretty quickly take the temperature from the looks on kids’ faces, the ratio of table space to open areas, and the amount of conversation going on in either. In a high-quality program, adults are building relationships with the children and paying close attention to their thought processes and, by extension, their communication. They’re finding ways to make the children think out loud.

The real focus in the preschool years should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening. We forget how vital spontaneous, unstructured conversation is to young children’s understanding. By talking with adults, and one another, they pick up information. They learn how things work. They solve puzzles that trouble them. Sometimes, to be fair, what children take away from a conversation is wrong. They might conclude, as my young son did, that pigs produce ham, just as chickens produce eggs and cows produce milk. But these understandings are worked over, refined, and adapted—as when a brutal older sibling explains a ham sandwich’s grisly origins.
Teachers play a crucial role in supporting this type of learning. A 2011 study in the journal Child Development found that preschool teachers’ use of sophisticated vocabulary in informal classroom settings predicted their students’ reading comprehension and word knowledge in fourth grade. Unfortunately, much of the conversation in today’s preschool classrooms is one-directional and simplistic, as teachers steer students through a highly structured schedule, herding them from one activity to another and signaling approval with a quick “good job!”
Consider the difference between a teacher’s use of a closed statement versus an open-ended question. Imagine that a teacher approaches a child drawing a picture and exclaims, “Oh, what a pretty house!” If the child is not actually drawing a house, she might feel exposed, and even if she is drawing a house, the teacher’s remark shuts down further discussion: She has labeled the thing and said she likes it. What more is there to add? A much more helpful approach would be to say, “Tell me about your drawing,” inviting the child to be reflective. It’s never possible to anticipate everything a small person needs to learn, so open-ended inquiry can reveal what is known and unknown. Such a small pedagogic difference can be an important catalyst for a basic, but unbounded, cognitive habit—the act of thinking out loud.
Conversation is gold. It’s the most efficient early-learning system we have. And it’s far more valuable than most of the reading-skills curricula we have been implementing: One meta-analysis of 13 early-childhood literacy programs “failed to find any evidence of effects on language or print-based outcomes.” Take a moment to digest that devastating conclusion.
I was recently asked to review a popular preschool curriculum that comes with a big box of thematic units, including lists of words and “key concepts” that children are supposed to master. One objective of the curriculum’s ocean unit, for example, is to help preschoolers understand “the importance of the ocean to the environment.” Children are given a list of specific terms to learn, including exoskeleton, scallop shell, blubber, and tube feet. At first glance, this stuff seems fun and educational, but doesn’t this extremely narrow articulation of “key concepts” feel a little off? What’s so special about blubber, anyway? Might a young child not want to ponder bigger questions: What is water? Where do the blue and green come from? Could anything be more beautiful and more terrifying than an ocean?
The shift from an active and exploratory early-childhood pedagogy to a more scripted and instruction-based model does not involve a simple trade-off between play and work, or between joy and achievement. On the contrary, the preoccupation with accountability has led to a set of measures that favor shallow mimicry and recall behaviors, such as learning vocabulary lists and recognizing shapes and colors (something that a dog can do, by the way, but that is in fact an extraordinarily low bar for most curious 4-year-olds), while devaluing complex, integrative, and syncretic learning.

Last year, I observed some preschoolers conversing about whether snakes have bones. They argued at length among themselves, comparing the flexible serpentine body with dinosaur fossils and fish, both of which they had previously explored. There was no clear consensus on how these various creatures could contain the same hard skeletons, but I watched, transfixed, as each child added to the groundwork another had laid. The teacher gently guided the group as a captain might steer a large ship, with the tiniest nudge of the wheel. Finally, a little boy who had seen a snake skeleton in a museum became animated as he pantomimed the structure of a snake’s spine in a series of karate chops: “One bone, one bone, one bone,” he informed his friends. “I think we’re all going to have to do a lot more research,” the teacher replied, impressed. This loosely Socratic method is a perfect fit for young minds; the problem is that it doesn’t conform easily to a school-readiness checklist.
The focus should be not just on vocabulary and reading, but on talking and listening.
The academic takeover of American early learning can be understood as a shift from what I would call an “ideas-based curriculum” to a “naming-and-labeling-based curriculum.” Not coincidentally, the latter can be delivered without substantially improving our teaching force. Inexperienced or poorly supported teachers are directed to rely heavily on scripted lesson plans for a reason: We can point to a defined objective, and tell ourselves that at least kids are getting something this way.
But that something—while relatively cheap to provide—is awfully thin gruel. One major study of 700 preschool classrooms in 11 states found that only 15 percent showed evidence of effective interactions between teacher and child. Fifteen percent.
We neglect vital teacher-child interactions at our peril. Although the infusion of academics into preschool has been justified as a way to close the achievement gap between poor and well-off children, Robert Pianta, one of the country’s leading child-policy experts, cautions that there is “no evidence whatsoever” that our early-learning system is suited to that task. He estimates that the average preschool program “narrows the achievement gap by perhaps only 5 percent,” compared with the 30 to 50 percent that studies suggest would be possible with higher-quality programs. Contrasting the dismal results of Tennessee’s preschool system with the more promising results in places such as Boston, which promotes active, child-centered learning (and, spends more than twice the national average on preschool), lends further credence to the idea that preschool quality really does matter.
It’s become almost a cliché to look to Finland’s educational system for inspiration. As has been widely reported, the country began to radically professionalize its workforce in the 1970s and abandoned most of the performance standards endemic to American schooling. Today, Finland’s schools are consistently ranked among the world’s very best. This “Finnish miracle” sounds almost too good to be true. Surely the country must have a few dud teachers and slacker kids!
And yet, when I’ve visited Finland, I’ve found it impossible to remain unmoved by the example of preschools where the learning environment is assessed, rather than the children in it. Having rejected many of the pseudo-academic benchmarks that can, and do, fit on a scorecard, preschool teachers in Finland are free to focus on what’s really essential: their relationship with the growing child.
Here’s what the Finns, who don’t begin formal reading instruction until around age 7, have to say about preparing preschoolers to read: “The basis for the beginnings of literacy is that children have heard and listened … They have spoken and been spoken to, people have discussed [things] with them … They have asked questions and received answers.”
For our littlest learners, what could be more important than that?


So I ask, once again, what will we do to change this trend in 2016?

School is for learning to live, not just for learning


OpalIn 2012, when I was part of a study group visiting the schools and meeting with the educators working in schools in Reggio Emilia.
The diverse group of 68 educators gathered together with the intention of using what we saw in the schools to help spark a discussion focused on developing a greater view of the possibilities for educating children. The group consisted of teachers of very young children, elementary school teachers, college teachers, administrators, and consultants. The tangible outcome of our discussions can be found in the recently published book, The Teacher You Want to Be. Our Statement Of Beliefs and an introduction by Alfie Kohn begin the book, followed by fifteen essays and interviews.

One of the study group participants was Susan Mackay, the director of the prestigious Opal Charter School and the Portland Children’s Museum in Portland Oregon. Susan is inspiring because she not only has a clear vision of what education should be, but she allows it to happen in her child-centered school, where the many positive advantages of a constructivist education are visible. Her recent TED talk, School is for learning to live, not just for learning, says it all in her articulate and passionate presentation. I hope that you will take a few minutes to listen to this video. It’s so much worth your time.

Just click onlink to hear Susan’s TED talk. (I guess it’s obvious that I’m not up to date about using technology!)

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Fungus, or what we’ve been doing with all those mushrooms

Lately, I’ve been both depressed and angry at the inappropriate curriculum that has been imposed on young children. Then, every once in awhile, I encounter a teacher who is defying the move towards test prep, test prep, test prep and academic pushdown at the expense of joy, inquiry, exploration and play. I’ve decided to start sharing the work of some of these teachers. I hope it make you feel good. Sharing it is good for my soul.

This week I’ll begin with a study that was done by the wonderful Amy Meltzer. Amy teaches kindergarten at a Jewish Day School, the Lander Grinspoon Academy in Northhampton, Massachusetts. Amy refers to the school as a Gan. When I looked it up it seems to be (and I hope I have this correctly!) the Hebrew for an enclosed garden.

Believe it or not, she and her class did a study of Fungus! Here is Amy’s blog post about her study.



Many, many people have wondered why we study fungus in the Gan. It’s not a typical unit of study in many elementary schools, but in my opinion, it ought to be. First of all, fungi are just amazing. They pop up overnight in the strangest and often most overlooked places, and they are both complex and beautiful. They are in great abundance in the wild in the Fall, when we typically delve into a science topic in our Writing Workshop. Many varieties can be purchased at supermarkets, farmers markets and asian markets, allowing children to investigate, compare and contrast numerous varieties. As nature’s recyclers, they help teach important lessons about conservation, awareness and life itself. (If you haven’t already read it, check out the article in last week’s Sunday Times Magazine about mushrooms.)

We are visual creatures; to us, forests seem places made of trees and leaves and soil. But all around me now, invisible and ubiquitous, is a huge network of fungal life, millions of tiny threads growing and stretching among trees, clustering around piles of rabbit droppings; stitching together bush and path, dead leaves and living roots. We hardly know it is there until we encounter the fruiting bodies it throws up when conditions are right. But without fungi’s ceaseless cycling of water, nutrients and minerals, the forest wouldn’t work the way it does. Perhaps the greatest mystery of mushrooms is that they are the visible manifestations of this essential yet unregarded world.


Our unit began with a trip to Arcadia, to see a variety of mushrooms and begin to learn about their important work – clearing the forest floor and helping to turn dead matter into rich soil. As a nice surprise, our guide happened to speak Hebrew! The children each took at least one photograph of the amazing specimens we saw that day. The pictures are on display in the Gan.


We then began our close observations of the most well known mushroom, the white mushroom – the ones that come in blue plastic boxes and wrapped in cellophane in the supermarket. We practiced working like scientists, trying to document what we noticed in our science journals.






IMG_2229After becoming well acquainted with your average mushroom, we headed down to Tuesday Market and visited the booth of New England Wild Edibles.



Thanks to some generous contributions, we were able to purchase five varieties of mushrooms to study. This time, we recorded our observations in clay – but not until we had a chance to do some free exploration with this new medium!





Our mushrooms are being fired and should be ready to come home at the end of the week.

As we continued to document what we know and observe in our science journals, we added a bit of whimsy into our study. After looking at images of some of the most beautiful mushrooms on the planet, we designed imaginary mushrooms – featuring the parts of a real mushroom – but with imagined colors, shapes and designs. Aren’t they gorgeous?






Speaking of whimsy, we are singing this song every day. Debbi Friedlander taught at our school many years ago and stopped by last year for an impromptu concert. We hope she’ll return this year some time.

And of course, many of you have seen our new “class pet”, a shiitake mushroom growing log from MycoTerra farm. We’ve already harvested a few dozen mushrooms, and today we’ll be picking some to make spore prints.

This week, we are winding down our mushroom unit with a little foray into yeast, part of the fungus family. We watched a very cute video which described yeast cells as “yeast monsters” who burp carbon dioxide. We are trying to catch and grow some wild yeast in a mixture of flour and water to create our own sourdough starter.


I could probably spend a whole year learning about fungus, but all good things must come to an end wind down at least a little.


I’ll keep looking for early childhood teachers who take their students on exciting journey’s of exploration. It’s good for my soul!

PLAY ON THE MOVE: A conference dedicated to the import

Jimmy playing houseThe Association for the Study of Play
2016 International Conference of The Association for the Study of Play (TASP)
American Association for the Child’s Right to Play (IPA/USA)
Graduate School of Education
Rutgers University
New Brunswick, NJ
March 16-19, 2016
Play on the Move
Link to Proposal Form

After over two decades of play being systematically pushed out of the lives of children, youth and adults, we are at a tipping point. From multiple articles in The New York Times to research reports in neuroscience journals, play is being (re)discovered and is moving to the forefront of conversations on everything from invigorating classroom practice and addressing global conflicts, to understanding brain chemistry and advancing inter-species relations.

What does this moment offer? What doors are opening for the further study of play? What can we do to make a difference?

The 2016 TASP/IPA conference is an opportunity for the field to come together and explore the current state of play, including theoretical, empirical, and applied work that informs our knowledge of play throughout the lifespan and across contexts.

We hope to generate momentum to move the importance of play further into the public domain. The organizing committee has chosen the theme of Play on the Move and we are eager to bring together a diverse group of researchers, practitioners, and advocates, both those new to play and those who have made it their life’s work. We are particularly excited to expand the reach of TASP and IPA to emerging fields and arenas of practice that could enrich and be enriched by our experiences together at the 2016 annual meeting.

Proposals are encouraged from all academic disciplines related to play and from play practitioners and advocates. Submissions from undergraduate researchers and graduate students are encouraged. All proposals will go through a peer-review process.

Below is a brief description of the possible formats sessions may take:
Individual Papers – These sessions will be arranged by the program committee around research themes comprised of four related papers within one session.

Organized Session – A group of papers or presenters submitted together and organized around a common theme with a chair and an optional discussant.

Workshop/Performance – These interactive or performance- based sessions will focus on current issues in play centered on research, practice and/or advocacy.

Roundtables – These sessions will include informal presentations of student research, research in progress, pilot studies, and play-oriented programs. Presenters will discuss their research/practice with small groups of interested participants.

Posters – Participants wishing to share their work in a visual medium may submit posters presenting new research and scholarly work. The sessions will provide opportunities for presenters to discuss their work informally with interested participants.

To submit a proposal, please complete the proposal form. You will need to have:
• contact information of all the presenters
• title of proposal
• presentation abstract of 200 words or less
• program description of 50 words or less
• bios for all presenters
• audio-visual needs
• preferred day of presentation
Please note that all presenters will be required to register for the conference.

If you have any questions or are having trouble submitting your proposal
please contact:
Carrie Lobman
[email protected]