No Fair: What’s Fair and Unfair to Preschoolers

NO FAIR!! What teacher or parent has not heard that lament from children? I’ve been exploring the concept of what is fair and what is not fair according to preschoolers. Not fair can mean many things, including someone not what they wanted, being excluded from something or something undesirable occurring.

In the world of art making, we teachers and parents have the opportunity to explore what feels fair to children. In the process, we get a glimpse into their unique worlds. Once inside, we can gather information for helping the children solve conflict or working together more joyfully.

I asked a group of 3 and 4 year olds what “fair” meant to them. “What is fair?” I asked. After a long pause, one 4 year old said, “It’s not happy, it’s not sad, it’s fair.” He then wrote his words, trying to grasp and express the abstract concept.

He grouped fairness with feelings. I thought about that and concurred that when something was fair we could feel it inside our bodies. It is kinesthetic, a sensation of well-being that accompanies our sense of fairness. While adults may not as easily access the sensations, children more-readily can. And unfairness is often felt intensely by children.

“What is ‘not fair?'” I inquired of the same boy.

Previously he had shown interest in a “No Parking” sign. When asked what a “No Fair” sign would look like, he thought for a moment, then sounded out and wrote “Fair,” encircled it and drew a line through it.Image

When another teacher demonstrated “unfair” with objects, pretending to take all the markers, the boy used his sign to show “No Fair!!”

I’ve been using the coveted sticky jewels as a way of stretching the idea that ONLY equal is fair. Cutting the strips in a variety of ways (different amounts of jewels, different sizes, same or mixed colors, as well as different shapes) I ask the children to take a specific number of strips for their project. This amount can be arbitrary or based on the amount of gems and number of children present. I then tell the children, “The amount of jewels on each strip are not equal, take those strips that you really want.”

I then ask, “Are you happy with what you have? Is it fair? Does it have to be equal; exactly the same? What if you are happy with less than other children have? Is that fair?”

I acknowledge all their responses.Image

I found that with those directions they didn’t fight or accuse each other of having more. Each chose what he or she wanted and seemed to be satisfied. If they wanted more than the designated amount of strips, I’d ask what their plans were.

One 5 year old needed just two more jewels to form the outer circle of her flower. It seemed “fair” to me to give permission for two more. While everyone at her table looked up, I took their silence as agreement.

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Something else I tried was to have the group decide on what was fair. When that day’s allotment of “two strips of jewels no matter what the size or amount” was not heeded by one of the children, a roar went up.

“She has much more than two strips,” came the cry of injustice. Looking at what they pointed out, I could see their point.Image

When I asked the group what would make it fair, they decided that everyone else should get two more strips. I agreed and the children were again content. But, a few minutes later the girl with an abundance of jewels on her project asked if she could have just one more. “It’s not for my folder,” she said earnestly, “I need just one heart for another project I’m doing with my friend. I have a jewel heart inside my sticker heart and need just one more for the other sticker heart.”

I turned the decision over to the group asking if they thought that would be fair, since it was for her friend. “Does everyone feel OK with giving her just one more heart shaped gem?”

“That’s OK with me,” one girl answered.

“Doesn’t bother me,” said a 5 year old boy.

One by one the children voiced their approval of one more jewel… until another voice was heard, “Well, it’s not OK with me!” Before she could express why she felt this way, another child pointed out that this girl didn’t have any jewels.

“Oh, you don’t have any. Did you want some?” I asked. “Yes, I do,” she answered, and a friend spontaneously brought over the box of sticky jewels.

“Can I have the heart jewel now,” asked the child who needed just one more.

“You can,” was the reply.

“Sometimes, when we get what we need, we feel more generous,” I commented.

Guidelines:

When there are special supplies that are in demand, we can offer them in different sizes, shapes and amounts, asking the children to take what they really want. Some will say none, some will chose according to size or color or shape, and others will choose by the amount they will receive.

While it’s developmentally appropriate for young children to see “fair” as always equal, as teachers and parents we can help stretch their concept of fair.

Recycling the Holidays

Happy New Year!!

If you’re like me and couldn’t discard all that precious holiday wrapping material, here’s a suggestion: offer those cardboard inserts, tubes, wrapping paper and bows to the children for their creative pleasure.Image

Art-making from the recyclables is one way to find enjoyable closure to the holiday season (which seems to be starting earlier each year). After months of excitement and anticipation, having easily-accessible resources for artistic expression diminishes the post-holiday slump.

Guidlines for creating your re-purposing art center:

  • Find containers. Depending on available space and aesthetics, you can use anything from cardboard boxes to beautifully-crafted ones.
  • Let the children sort the materials and place in containers. (Teachers, sending an email to parents will likely unleash an avalanche of resources for the children to sort and use.)Image

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Children’s resourcefulness comes into play as they create from the materials they find around them. Once alerted to this “treasure-finding,” the children themselves will add to their supply. You may need to use the cover of night to do your recycling once children discover the joy of creating with these readily-available materials.

I am often told anecdotes and children’s quotes by the parents. “You’re going to throw that away?! Let’s bring it to school.” Or, “We don’t have to bring all that to Elyse, let’s keep it for making things at home.”

There are families who bring in shopping bags of recyclable material. Parents hold the bag and the children sort and place the items into the containers. When we run out, I have the children draw a picture of what is needed and those who love letters will add words, such as “Wish List” or “Please Bring to Expressive Arts.” In no time, the empty containers are filled again. In this way, the children take some responsibility for claiming Expressive Arts and doing their part to keep the program supplied. Feeling helpful and responsible expands their sense of belonging; being part of a community.

Beyond the fun and creativity, the skill-building, the process or product is the spirit of connection that surfaces. There are many moments in each day when I feel the quiet joy of children creating, collaborating and assisting each other. I become aware of the community spirit flowing to and from the classroom and am so grateful to still be teaching 28 years from the program’s conception. This idea of children, their families and teachers working together creatively is a simple means for modeling a better, more peaceful world.Image

Wishing you all Peace and Plenty in 2014.

Love,

Elyse

Entering Play: A Social Skill

“Can I play with you?” is often heard throughout our classrooms and school yards. This seemingly simple request can quickly become a lament when new children are stopped from joining the play in progress. While excluding is often a means of exerting power or defining friendships, it can also be sourced from a fear of the new person changing the play.

Entering play is a social skill that can be learned with our repeated facilitation.

  • Ask the child if they’d like some help
  • Observe the play in progress with the child
  • Inquire as to what the play is about. What characters are the children portraying?
  • Ask what would add to the play in progress? What else might be needed, whether it’s another character or a prop.
  • Stand by to see if they’ll need additional help.
  • Validate their efforts.

Three children were playing family. They were riding in a car they’d formed from a wooden bench.

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(Note the “blankets,” as San Francisco temperatures fell to freezing that week!)

“It’s not ok for you to fight,” said the child playing the mother. “You have to be kind. Mommy is going to sit down next to you,” the child told her “children.”

Another child was observing them from nearby. He loves animals and had been playing with a frog puppet until the dramatic play caught his attention. While he had been perfectly content to be animating his puppet, I wondered if he might want to join in. When I asked him, he nodded agreement, but remained still and continued watching.

I began to softly sing a song to him to the tune of “This Old Man.”

Connect your idea

To the play

Then everyone will say hurray!

Friends are friends through thick and thin,

Play together we all win!

It was a tune that a classroom teacher and I had collaborated on as a way of encouraging children to enter play with successful outcomes.

“You could ask them if they might need a pet frog in the family,” I suggested, as a way to add his unique play to theirs. “See if they can use that idea. I’ll watch.”

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“No, thank you,” was the reply from “mom.” For the older children, I offer or brainstorm other suggestions. With the youngest, if a coaching suggestion has been turned down, I often step in and help facilitate.

“He’d like to play with you, who can he be in the family?” The game initiator suggested that he be the daddy.

“Would you like to be the daddy?” I asked. He thought for a moment, then told me, “No, I have a daddy at home.” And with that he turned and walked away to continue playing happily with the frog puppet. I forget at times just how real their play can be. And while we may try to scaffold, ultimately it is the child who decides.

As written in the blog of Dec 4, 2013, one child’s idea for making a “sewing machine” continues to attract many of his peers.

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They each have a ball of yarn and invent ways of connecting and weaving and pulling on the yarn to create movement.

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Not all the children have learned to enter play in a way that keeps the original idea moving forward. I observed a child picking up scissors and moving toward the string-structure of his peers with a mischievous gleam in his eye.

He had been about to connect to the play by cutting the string that the other children had joyfully placed. In this instance, I intervened by coaching him with several open-ended questions:

  • What do you think will happen if you cut down the string?
  • How will the children feel?
  • Did you want the children to be upset, or did you just want to join in their fun?
  • What could you do instead?

He decided to exchange the scissors for a ball of yarn and was welcomed into the activity.

Learning how to enter play successfully is a life skill. Once inside the play, we can offer our ideas with a better chance of creating collaborative change.

Puppets, Puppets, Puppets

“Where are the paper bags“?” a 3 year old shouts immediately upon entering the room. I show where they are kept on the art cart and he brings a handful to the table.

“Where are the eyes? We need eyes, lots of eyes”!” cries another, as I bring the wiggly eyes down from a higher shelf. Some things are purposefully out of reach of the youngest. When it comes to small items, for safety sake, I like to keep my own eye on their usage. While these same materials were used in previous puppet-making sessions, as loose parts they can be used in many ways.

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“It’s a smile, a green smile,” laughs another child placing a piece of colored masking tape directly on the table underneath two pink eyes she’d chosen. She continues taping around her work, saying, “It’s a bus. He’s riding a bus.” I chuckle at the little creature she’s brought to life with only wiggly eyes, tape and her own inventiveness.

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I try not to ask questions that might interrupt or define their creativity, but sometimes I am unable to contain myself. As one 4 year old confessed about his “potty-talk,” “It just popped out.”

“Are you making puppets?” “popped out” to a resounding “Yesssssss” from several of the children.

As paper bags and wiggly eyes have been recently added to our open-ended “staples” in the art cart, I notice the 2-3 year olds choosing them repeatedly. Having materials from favorite activities available and accessible to the children encourages extended focus, exploring, self-direction and independence.

With accessibility and choice, many children are taking greater risks in their puppet making. Previously, only eyes and perhaps a smile were represented by most of the children. Now, they are elaborating on their creations.

They often choose materials that build on their last experience. They also taste (sometimes quite literally) the materials brought to the table by other children. Besides the staples, offering new materials adds excitement. More children become interested in the process as different materials are introduced.

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I watch another 3 year old deliberately choose and place his materials on a paper bag. The face itself was made from a piece of fabric that had been donated that morning by a parent. She was recycling her son’s Rainbow Ghost Halloween costume, which included the striped sheet and wild, fake fur. Colored sticks became the catalyst for the “matching” stripes on his puppet’s clothing.

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It was delightful to witness the creativity shown by the child. This 3 year old had found a way to express himself uniquely. That’s the beauty of open-ended materials. Who would have imagined creating both a smile and striped clothes using the colored sticks.

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I’ve offered some of the same materials for decades and continue to be surprised by how each child uses them. As teachers, we provide the materials and assist as skills are being mastered. The children provide the endless creativity and imagination.

A 2 year old is mastering two skills, stringing beads and cutting sticky tape. Using the beads (also kept high), she made a necklace for her puppet and a shiny pipe cleaner. She then went back to the task of cutting the desired length of tape without tangling it. Children often take natural breaks and work on another part of their project. Those who persevere with neither breaks nor success have an opportunity to learn a new feeling for their emotional literacy vocabulary: frustration. This then becomes an opportunity for group learning, with the children volunteering what helps them when frustrated.

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Having observed these young children stay focused on their puppets for almost an hour of joyful creating, I felt hopeful and optimistic about the state of our future world. I couldn’t help but think of how this self-directed play could be added to their repertoire of peaceful expression in their lifetime of learning toolbox.

SUGGESTIONS:

Your open-ended supplies, such as colored tape, wiggly eyes, feathers, string, yarn, oil pastels, paper, paper bags and markers can be supplemented with gathered and parent/community donated materials.

Families are very willing to bring in offerings for the children’s art making. You may want to post or let parents know of your wish list. Beautiful wrapping paper, small cardboard boxes, packing foam, anything that does not dictate how it is to be used is a resource for the children’s creativity.

We do not need to constantly change the loose parts, fearing the children will become bored. Their resourcefulness will utilize the same materials in many different ways. They have the capacity to expand their art-making as far as their imaginations will take them.

Product Recommendations from Discount School Supply®:

Rainbow or White Paper Craft Bags

Colored Masking Tape

Black Wiggly Eyes – 1000 Pieces

Super Feather Classroom Pack

Colorations® Acrylic Yarn- Set of 12

Colorations® Outstanding Oil Pastels – Set of 28

Lightweight Construction Paper, 9″ x 12″ – 500 Sheets

Colorations® Mini Dabber Dot Markers – Set of 24

A B C D: Fostering interest in reading and writing through the expressive arts

Inside one of the art cart’s drawers are the alphabet beads. The children use them in many different ways, connecting them by elastic string or pipe cleaner if they want to take them home.

I observed one three year old begin by writing an M on a piece of Manila paper. Matching an M from the letter drawer, he shouted enthusiastically, “M for me!” Indeed it was, as M is the first letter of his name: Matthew.

His delight was evident as he proclaimed, “I’m sooo happy.”

“What makes you so happy, “I asked? “School!  I’m so happy with my teachers and my friends. School!”

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He began using other letters, sounding them out and laughing. “This is a wacky game,” he stated as he realized the letters formed funny sounds. I was amazed at his ability to sound out the random letters. I asked if he did this at home. He nodded.

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He then noticed and asked about the letters on our art cart of loose parts. (Loose Parts: See blog of May 3, 2013: Open Ended Creativity)  Children from previous years, also interested in letters, had used colored tape to make the first letter of what was contained inside the drawers.  As the materials often change, at times the letters do not match.

“That’s an X,” said the boy, clearly puzzled, as he looked inside at the envelopes.

“Do you want to help me change the letter,” I asked. He did and directed the making of an E.

“You did it,” he cheered as the E became recognizable.

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I like to have letters, in many forms, included in our art cart of loose parts. Those who are interested will choose them, others will choose additional materials. As I see the children each year they attend preschool, I’m privileged to watch their interests grow and change.

One child who made letters using colored tape when he was three, (Photo in blog of May 3, 2013) now, at four, is able to sound out and write the words “Justin’s heart for mommy” on a large sheet of construction paper.

The heart activity emerged when I was asked by another child to draw them a heart. Instead, I showed her how to create one of her own by folding a paper in half and drawing and cutting on a curved line. Those interested mastered cutting along the drawn line and unfolding the paper to discover the heart. “Draw LOVE on your heart, “ Justin said. When the other child wasn’t interested in writing, he decided to make a heart of his own. Image

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When left to pursue what engages them, the children have a diverse range of interests. While these two children were very interested in letters, others are not. Those who develop their interest early become the teachers when their peers are ready.

Later, when other children ask me how to form letters, I ask those who have mastered the skill to teach their friends. (blog of August 1, 2013: Young Children as Mentors)

On the preschool level, readiness is the key to mastering new skills. Being able to make choices according to individual interest paves the way for a lifetime of learning.

GUIDELINES FOR PARENTS AND TEACHERS:

In blog of April 8, 2013, I wrote of setting up open ended materials and tools for working with colored masking tape, elastic cord, glue sticks, scissors, etc.  I keep the loose parts in an art cart but, there are many other options for containing materials.

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Having letters and/or numbers also available as loose parts will offer additional opportunities as their interest in reading and writing grows. Children who may not appear to be interested in writing, may surprise us by their interest in forming words and names when letters, such as the alphabet beads, are available in your expressive arts center.

Being able to work with many open ended material, and having them available to use in different ways than traditionally intended, furthers children’s creativity. Their confidence is built by our recognition and appreciation of how they express themselves.

Working within small groups, where we can be present as a child’s ideas emerge is another joyful aspect of teaching young children.

Product Recommendations from Discount School Supply®:

Colored Masking Tape – 1 Roll (Item #34CMT)

Supply Cabinet (Item #X9510JC)

Set of all 10 Packs – Colorations® Colored Pipe Cleaners (Item #IPCSET)

Colorations® Construction Paper Classroom Pack – 2500 Sheets (Item #MAJORPAK)

Preschool Puzzles – Letters, Numbers and Signs – Set of 6 (Item #PREPZST6)

NEXT: More on larger projects with loose parts and recycled materials

Playing with Puppets and Children

Here we are, back to school! You’ve likely prepared in many ways to create a comfortable atmosphere for the children new to your classroom. You may already use puppets to bridge the gap into the children’s world and help welcome them. If you don’t, this topic is especially for you.

Working with young children, you are already masters of improvisation. Working with puppets can be a natural extension of what you do every day.

Some of us are natural animators. We can pick up a sock, a stuffed animal, or a piece of cheese and give it a voice and movement. At the other end of the scale are those of us who are intimidated by using puppets in our classrooms or homes. We may feel self-conscious or simply think it is out of our skill range. But, if there’s even a spark of desire to use puppets, it’s worth navigating the process of getting comfortable with using them.

The concepts and practices I’m sharing were developed for a class at San Francisco State University. At the time, I was performing with life-sized woven puppets, including one called Ms. Tree. She was a scary and very unusual looking tree (birds were afraid to nest in her branches).

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I often used Ms. Tree to illustrate making friends with what or who we are afraid of. Getting to know those who appear different from us encourages inclusion. (Of course, for preschoolers on the first day of school, I’d suggest using a friendlier-looking puppet.)

To Begin:

Before engaging in collaborative puppet play with children, let’s prepare ourselves with solo adult play. Start by choosing a puppet that you are attracted to. Your home or classroom likely offers many choices. There are many inexpensive and expressive ones that you can purchase. You can also make one of your own from socks, material scraps, or found/recycled materials.

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I. GETTING COMFORTABLE WITH YOUR PUPPET

Before engaging with the children, you will need to get comfortable with your puppet. Start by noticing your own levels of comfort or discomfort as you get ready to play with your puppet. If puppetry is a new tool, you will gain valuable insight into what we ask children to do day after day.

Our own experience deepens our understanding of what children may experience. It’s certainly helped me gain greater compassion for their resilience and willingness for ongoing learning. Our adult play becomes a bridge to the child’s world. An additional benefit of naming and navigating our emotions is that it becomes an avenue of developing the puppets character.

Remember dancing endlessly in front of your adolescent mirror before going out on the dance floor? Practice at home. When most uncomfortable, I think of all the things we ask children to do that they’ve never done before. It also gives me insight into the many ways we can respond to something new. And then I practice until the awkwardness diminishes.

Movement:

There is a range of movement that will be unique to each puppet. Play with it; see what is possible. Does it have a full body that is capable of varied movement you can explore? Or are there only a few parts of the puppet that are moveable? Does it have a mouth that opens when you speak? Or will you have to demonstrate who is talking by some gesture or slight movement when it interacts with another puppet?

Voice:

Explore and find a voice you can sustain without strain. I’ve discovered some varied and interesting voices through trying on different ones, but some chatty puppets cause my voice to strain. You want to enjoy this and create as much ease as possible.

Once you find a voice that fits your vocal range, you can strengthen it by having the puppet become a “tour guide.” Move through your home, having it point out things of interest. You can have it tell stories of where items came from. Using memories or future plans, let your puppet speak aloud. It may seem awkward at first, but it is all part of gaining a certain level of comfort before you leap into working with children.

Developing a Character:

If we are willing to lean into either our discomfort or our sense of fun and curiosity, we will discover everything we need to enliven our puppets.

Feeling shy? Have the puppet move in ways that express this through movement or voice. Would it hide behind you? Whisper to you? Stay inside its shell? I’ve made a family of turtles that I’ve used for years to express both shyness and “sticking your neck out.”

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How would your puppet move if frustrated, angry, sad, insecure or excited? Use the feelings you notice in yourself to give life to the puppet. The feelings we embody are also expressed through behavior we’ve observed from the children themselves. The puppets become relatable to the children when you enliven them in this way.

II. STRETCHING BEYOND YOUR COMFORT LEVEL

Once you are comfortable, you’re ready to have your puppet interact with children. You might want to start with one or two children. It could be your own, your neighbor’s, young relatives or any of the children new to your classroom.

What Makes You Feel Better:
Have the children interview the puppet. In the process you’ll continue to develop its character. You can pretend the puppet is a new student at school. It can be the puppet’s first day as well. Have it express the myriad of feelings a child may have from withdrawal to elation.

With a withdrawn child, you can have the puppet ask for help. “What makes you feel better when feeling shy or uncertain?” The puppet may have to supply the answers, asking whether holding a stuffy, sitting on a lap, drawing a picture or writing a letter home to parents helps. In the process of the interview, you will learn much about what makes that child more comfortable.

When You Were My Age:
Have the children ask something they’d like to know about the puppet when it was their age. There are no incorrect answers. You might want to use your own childhood or those of your children.

Again, you may prefer to have the puppet whisper to you as if shy, and you speak the answers. Empathy develops with the puppet as you express more of how it feels and speaks of childhood events. Expressing vulnerability and transparency through the puppet is a way to create rapport between child and puppet

III. READY, SET, LEAP

Chatting with Puppets:

I often use this exercise for the first day of school and many of the days that follow.

Children will often talk to puppets with more ease and confidence than they might an adult new to their life. They are more open and willing to share their thoughts and feelings. A puppet is a “door” into a child’s world.

The more you practice and play with your puppet and children, the more you’ll learn about it. As you build its character, it takes on a life of its own. At times, I am convinced that I’m simply standing back and watching. I often have to stop myself from laughing aloud at the unplanned antics.

Each of us has a reservoir of creativity within. We also have a storehouse of behaviors that we’ve observed in our children. Some of us will intentionally emulate the children and some of us will intuitively call forth movement, gestures and often the children’s own words.

In the process of playing with puppets and children, you may find great enjoyment, fun and possibly a new passion!

Resource: Jacobs, Elyse. “Puppet Play Explores Feelings and Emotions,” Scholastic Pre-K Today, 1989.

Below are some product recommendations, from Discount School Supply, to get you started:

Excellerations™ Tabletop Puppet Theater

Excellerations™ Standing Puppet Theater

Animal Hand Puppets – Set of 12

Around The World Puppets – Set of 6

YOUNG CHILDREN AS MENTORS

 

“But I don’t knooooow the marriage dance,” the 3 year old lamented, interrupting the ”wedding” in the dramatic play area. “Now I can’t get married!”

The wedding party stood frozen. What would happen next?  I continued to observe as the “groom” stepped forward saying, “It’s easy. I’ll teach you.” He gently took her hand.

She began to follow his lead and soon they were co-creating their dance. The others smiled and went back to work, laying down a paper aisle for the reunited couple.

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Children often naturally mentor each other. We, their teachers and parents, can support and encourage them by noticing.

I witnessed a more-hesitant child focusing on a very skilled classmate. The girl was designing a process for making a stuffy. When the shyer child was asked if he’d like to make one, he shook his head vigorously.

“But I don’t know how,” he qualified. I waited to see if he’d ask or if someone would volunteer to help him. He glanced at the others who were all attending to their own work, but seemed unable to ask for help.

I paused, and then asked the girl, “When you’re finished, would you please teach your friend what you’ve discovered? He’d like to make a stuffy, too.”

She agreed, and with great patience and generosity, mentored him. He was then able to join her in celebration, joyfully parading their stuffies around the room, singing with glee.

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As I was writing this blog, two alumni appeared at the cafe. I asked the siblings if they had ever taught each other. They each nodded. The older brother then demonstrated by placing a green clown nose over his own.  He just happened to be carrying it in his pocket after finishing a week of clowning camp!  I love synchronicity!

From that same deep pocket, he withdrew a pack of cards. He then mentored his sister through clowning tricks he had just mastered.

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GUIDELINES FOR TEACHERS:

  • NOTICING:
    • “Catch them doing good” is what I first heard it called, while I was teaching language through the arts in a public elementary school.
    • Call gentle attention to a behavior we value through oral appreciation of what we have observed.

“I noticed that when your friend felt sad because she didn’t know the dance you taught her. Now she, too, knows how.”

  • INCLUSION:
    • Partnering children of different practical or social skill levels encourages scaffolding and greater participation. It contributes to an inclusive environment.
    • When a child asks for help, encourage a child who has mastered that skill to be a teacher. “You were able to figure that out. Can you now teach your friend what you’ve learned?”

As teachers and parents we have ongoing daily opportunities to create a more-peaceful and integrated classroom, family and community.

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