Tag Archives: teaching

Slowing Down to Toddler Speed


Today at the end of year picnic for my toddler class, I had a chance to spend some lovely moments hanging out with some little ones (1.8 – 2.5 year olds) that I’ve known for five months now.

It’s such a delight to slow down to toddler speed and sit down and BE with children. I saw one crouched down on her knees and peering closely at something, so I sat next to her, and we watched one tiny little bug until it hopped away. Then we peered around till we found an itty bitty ant, and watched it, then another bug and another bug. We just watched. I talked a little, she didn’t talk at all, but we were clearly both engaged in the moment.

Another child had something clasped tightly in his hands. He’d occasionally open them a bit, peek in, and clasp them tight again. I asked him to show me what he had, and he let me take a quick peek at the pebbles he’d collected before holding them close again. But then he and I shared a secret, so from time to time, he’d bring them by to show to me, and he let me know when he’d decided to set them down.

Then I was at the sandbox. I found a star-shaped sand mold I started to fill with sand. Which of course caught one of the children’s attention, so he took the star out of my hand. There was no need to scold him for “taking something”. I just said “oh, that star is interesting. While you play with that, I’ll use this castle mold.” I packed it with sand. Then I caught his attention and flipped it upside down to make a sand castle. When I lifted off the mold, he was delighted by the sand castle. So delighted that he patted it gently till it was destroyed.  Then he wanted to make his own. But the part of my actions that had made an impression on him was not packing the castle mold with sand… he’d been ignoring that part. He remembered when the castle was already flipped onto the sand, and I was carefully lifting the mold up to revel the castle. So, he took the castle mold, set it on the sand, and lifted it up to reveal… nothing but the sand that was there before… and an outline of the castle mold. He tested it over and over again before giving it back to me to do the magic again. As I demonstrated it again, he still just didn’t get it… that will come in time. But in the moment, he just enjoyed the exploration.

Then one child had a whiffle ball, and figured out he could put rocks in through the holes. A simple spontaneous shape sorter. Two other children started playing too, all working on putting rocks in through the holes. The inventor soon wandered away, but I sat with the other two for several minutes as we all put rocks in holes. Although 99% of the rocks around us were small enough to fit, one of the children had a magic talent for finding the rocks that were too big to fit. So I would offer smaller rocks in trade. Then we figured out that if you gently shook the ball, all the rocks would fall out. It was just a simple, quiet little game, as we all settled in and explored together. Simple but sweet.

Having all these quiet moments with children who used to be hesitant to interact with me and who have now welcomed me it was a lovely way to finish my year of teaching all these little people.

Inventors of Tomorrow: Class Structure


I teach a Family Inventor’s Lab, a STEAM enrichment class for ages 2.5 – 7.

We have designed the flow of the class so we begin with letting the children explore and discover on their own, making their own connections, and discovering their own questions before we give them any answers. After that, we talk about some big ideas, then send them to play with those ideas some more, then re-gather to share their conclusions. The maps above show the relation of this class structure to the scientific method and to an engineering process. Let’s look in more detail about how this works.

Set-Up: Before class, the teachers have set up a variety of hands-on activities related to the theme. They always include: building projects, toys for free exploration, art projects, some big motor activity, a sensory table and/or a water table, and books on the concept. (Just click on the “Inventors of Tomorrow” category in the right hand sidebar, and you’ll find plenty of examples of activities we have done on various themes.)

Discovery Time: The first twenty minutes is “discovery time.” We let the kids explore freely, trying things out hands-on, noticing patterns, and making their own connections and interpretations before we present the concepts of the day. Some children come in with a lot of prior knowledge on the day’s topic (like our resident paleontology fans on dinosaur day!) and quickly build on that knowledge. Others come in with virtually previous exposure to a concept, and are really creating connections from scratch. They are “gathering information.”

Opening Circle: We then have an opening circle with all the kids combined (up to 24 kids, ages 2.5 to 7). We ask them to share what they’ve seen, we ask a few children to share what they have made. (During discovery time, the teachers watch for kids who are creating really good projects to illustrate some concepts – they ask those children if they will show their work during opening circle.) We ask them what they think the theme is and how the activities connect to it. After we’ve first grounded in what they’ve discovered, we introduce the key concepts of the day, and talk about the other activities we’re doing. Sometimes we’ll give them a challenge to work on during tinkering time.

Tinkering Time: They return to the activities with fresh information and interpretation, and have 30 more minutes to explore more, tinker more, and test out ideas.

Teachers encourage kids to test ideas, then adapt them a little, then test them again, to learn more about the topic. We also ask questions which extend learning.

Outside Time: Our Rockets (older kids, age 4 to 7) go outside. We often have more ideas related to the theme that they can explore outside. But this is also a little time to just run off some steam, so they come back in better able to relax and attend to opening circle. (Learn about the mood and concentration benefits of outside time here.) [The Robots – age 2.5 to 4 have closing circle first, then outside time.]

Conclusions Circle: In closing circle, we talk again about: what did you observe, what did you build, what did you test, what did you learn? We do more activities related to the theme, often including a book on the topic to wrap up the day’s concept.

A few days after class, parents receive an email, which often has follow-up activities they can do at home, or pointers to this blog to learn about activity ideas we had but weren’t able to fit into class time or logistics.

We find that beginning with hands-on discovery raises the children’s engagement. Kids are naturally curious, but this format specifically harnesses that curiosity as a learning tool. They arrive to the opening circle open and ready to learn more. If we started by “teaching” them, they wouldn’t learn as much.

Check out this great article: What’s Going On Inside the Brain of a Curious Child. (It’s from KQED’s Mindshift series which is full of fascinating stuff about how we learn!)


Finding a Balance of Learning Methods

BalancedLearningChildren learn in a variety of ways.Parents and teachers can help them learn by varying our schedule and activities so they have a chance for some guided learning, some self-directed learning and some down time to process it all.

In this diagram by Kyle Snow, he divides four types of learning up by whether the teacher and child are active or passive. (His diagram shows the rectangles of types of learning – I have added the circles.) Whatever classes or daycare your child attends, it’s worth thinking about whether there are opportunities for all four types of learning.

Here’s how we use the four types of learning in my toddler classes with Bellevue College Parent Education.

Direct Instruction

Direct instruction is what we think of when we say “Teaching.” This is an adult telling information to a child, or doing an instructive demonstration of how to do something. Direct instruction from a parent or a teacher is a good way to convey core information and build “crystallized intelligence” – the database of information we carry around.

In our toddler classes, we offer little snippets of direct instruction throughout the day, doing simple things like showing a child how to pour rice in the sensory bin. But the main structured learning happens in circle time when we read stories, sing songs, and play with felt boards. We encourage all children to participate in the group activity together. (At the beginning of the year, we often have some wanderers, but by the end of the year most are engaged most of the time.)

Scaffolding / Guided Play and Free Play

The best way to build “fluid intelligence” – the kind that helps us adapt to new situations and learn new skills, is hands-on play and interaction with real world experiences.

We always have multiple stations set up around the rooms, and children have the ability to choose what to play with, how to play with it, and for how long. Sometimes the children play independently, exploring and discovering on their own. (Free play.) Sometimes, the parents or teachers are asking questions, giving suggestions, or modelling ways to extend the play and involve new concepts. (Guided play – read more about the teacher or parent’s role in play-based learning here.)


Children also need down time. Quiet time, with little to no input, so their brain can process all the new information, and cement the connections that help them remember what they have learned. Since our program is just two hours long, we don’t have a lot of down time built in – we hope that children are coming in well-rested, and that they have a chance to nap afterwards. (More on toddler sleep here.)

During class, we do have a book corner where parent and child can snuggle and read for a while. Children are also welcome to come sit with their parents during our parent ed sessions. Snack time also serves as down time for many kids.

Four Types of Learning at Home

Think about your family schedule for a moment. Do you have times when you’re teaching your child? Times when they are playing with you nearby, giving occasional suggestions or playing along? Times when they’re playing independently? Quiet time? A nice mix of these will help them learn and grow.

Some parents say “my child NEVER plays alone. He always wants me to play with him.” It’s wonderful when our children like us and want to spend time with us. But, it’s also good for them to learn to play on their own too. Can you choose some times each day where you say no to them and encourage them to play alone for a while. They may resist at first, but if given a moment to “get bored” and frustrated, most can find something to do. (You can plan ahead for these times by setting up “Invitations to Play” that you think will capture their attention.)

Teaching Safety Skills to Toddlers

In the early years of parenting, it’s completely the parents’ responsibility to keep the baby safe. But by the time our children  leave the nest at 18 or so, we hope that they are fully capable of making wise decisions to keep themselves safe without our help or advice. How do we get them to that point? We start when they are toddlers, by teaching them to assess their situation for safety vs. risk, and by teaching skills that reduce their risk of harm.

When teaching safety, think “prepare, don’t scare.” Scaring your child by over-protecting, hovering, or gasping with fear whenever they move can create a fearful child who is unwilling to explore. Preparing your child by teaching them how to explore their environment wisely and with caution when warranted is very empowering.

The Language (and Body Language) of Safety: Interpreting Situations for your Child

When our children are little, they have no experience with what is safe and what is not. They rely on us to help them learn. Babies begin “social referencing” at 8 – 12 months. When they encounter something new, they look at their parents for information. If you’re smiling, and verbally encouraging them, they move toward it. If you look worried, they may move away or move more cautiously.

You can help them to interpret the safety or risk potential in a situation by your responses when they do their check-in. It may help you to think about a few different levels of risk potential:

  • Green = it’s totally safe, I have no worries. When your child looks to you for input: put on a big smile, nod, and verbally encourage exploration.
  • Yellow = minor risk of harm to child (or property), but easy to avoid harm if they exercise a little extra caution. Look positive but thoughtful, lean forward to show you’re paying extra attention, say with a quiet voice “just be careful” or “gentle touch” or “it’s fragile, hold it carefully” or “watch your feet” – something that tells them how to be sure they’re safe.
  • Orange = risk of harm to child, and they must actively work to avoid it. Look concerned (not scared) and attentive. Stand up and move closer. Use a strong voice to tell them what the risk is and what they need to do. Emphasize the important words. “The oven is hot. Move over there” or “that would be a big fall –go that way, back to the slide” or “I don’t want you to slip and fall. Use walking feet at the pool” or “it’s not safe to run in a parking lot – hold my hand.”
  • Red = imminent risk of harm, child must immediately stop, or you must intervene. (Save this for when you really mean it, so they take it seriously.) Look intensely alert, and either scared or angry (whatever gets their attention). Move toward them. Use your strongest, most urgent voice, and as few words as possible to tell them what to do. “Stop!” “Danger!” “Back up!” “Don’t touch – hands up!” After they’re out of harm’s way, then explain the situation.

Teaching Safe Behaviors

The most common causes of childhood injuries are falls, animal bites, drowning, poisoning, burns and motor vehicle accidents. It’s important for parents to safety-proof, but we also need to teach our kids how to be careful about these risks. For example, if a parent always gated the stairs and never let his child use them, think what could happen the first time she encountered un-gated stairs…

Preventing falls / Moving safely:

  • Practice safe movement on low climbers and short stairs to practice skills for higher places.
  • Use safety language to let them know when they’re moving into dangerous territory.
  • Model how to move carefully, demo how to pay close attention to hand-holds, foot holds, being cautious around heights, etc. Teach that sometimes it’s safest to sit down and scoot.
  • Encourage them to trust their instincts: “You’re looking worried. That is really high, isn’t it? I think you’ll be OK if you’re careful. If you want, I can help you do it, or I can get you down.”

Preventing bites / Interacting with animals:

  • Teach your child to always ask the pet’s owner before touching it. (No touching wild animals.)
  • Teach gentle touch – say the words, model the behavior, hold your child’s hand to guide.
  • Teach that animals’ food dishes are always off-limits. And so are cat litter boxes!

Preventing drowning / Staying safe around water:

  • Enroll your child in swim lessons by age 3 – 5.
  • Teach your child to move slowly and carefully around water – getting in and out of the bath tub, walking around the pool, etc. Point out that wet ground is slippery, and these places are full of hard surfaces that hurt to fall on, and that falling into water is very dangerous.
  • If your child plays in a tub or pool with other children, set strict limits on horseplay (i.e. no pushing anyone’s head under the water!)

Preventing poisoning:

  • Get Mr. Yuk stickers from Poison Control. Have your child watch you put them on substances and teach your child what they mean. (Note: dangerous substances should be kept out of child’s sight and reach. Mr. Yuk stickers are your back-up plan, in case something accidentally gets left out.)
  • Teach your child to always ask you before eating anything.

Preventing burns:

  • Teach them what smoke smells like and that they should always let you know if they smell it.
  • Teach the word “hot” and model that they should move away from things you call hot.
  • Teach “hands up” and model how to keep their hands away from something dangerous.

Motor vehicle, bicycle, and pedestrian safety

  • In the car, they need to know car seat use (and seat belt use someday) is non-negotiable. They must ALWAYS ride buckled in. No exceptions! Even when just moving the car a few feet.
  • If you are waiting in the car for something, keep your child buckled in. You can move to sit next to them to read a book or play while you wait, but don’t let them play in the car.
  • When riding a bicycle or other wheeled vehicle, make the bike helmet mandatory. Model the importance of this by always wearing a helmet yourself.
  • In parking lots, teach that we never play near cars, and we always hold hands.
  • When crossing roads, teach to look both ways, listen for cars, then cross.
  • Play “red light, green light” game or freeze tag so they can practice stopping quickly when you say so.

All-purpose safety tip: instead of just saying no, or telling your child what not to do, find ways to tell them what to do.

No Substitute for Adult Supervision!

Although this post is all about teaching safety skills, it’s essential to remember that young children can’t be responsible for keeping themselves safe! There is so much about the world that they don’t know that they can get themselves into danger without realizing it. And even if they do realize there’s a risk, that knowledge won’t always prevent them from doing it – they don’t have the impulse control to resist their urge to try something new. Children rely on careful adult supervision to keep them safe.

Injuries are most likely when:

  • the child or the caregiver is tired, hungry, sick or stressed
  • family routines have changed (on vacation, after a move, new babysitter / caregiver)
  • the child learns new physical skills which enable them to do new (and risky) things

Thus, parents should pay extra attention under these circumstances.

For more info on injury prevention and treatment, look here.

Great article about more ways to teach safety skills is here: http://life.familyeducation.com/safety/toddler/53828.html

You can lead a child to an idea, but you can’t make him drink it in…

My 3 year old is crazy about planets. He talks about the solar system continuously. We read lots of books about planets, and watch videos of science shows. In doing this, he gets exposed to lots of other assorted science concepts.

Yesterday he was talking about solids, liquids, and gas. Today, as I was unloading the dishwasher, he was stacking plastic cups, saying “this one’s solid, this is a liquid, this is a gas.” I tried to tell him they were all solids.

Then, I had a sudden flare of inspiration. I grabbed a pot, and told his I was going to put some solid water in the pot. I asked him what solid water was, and he knew that was ice and that we kept that in the freezer.

So, I scooped up a bunch of ice, dumped it in the pot, and asked if we should turn the solid water into liquid water. He liked that idea, so I put it on the stove and sat him next to it (with safety warnings, of course!). We watched the ice melt, and talked about how solid water was changing to liquid water. Then it boiled and we talked about liquid water changing to gas water and spreading out through the room (yes, the new word I used with my three year old today was ‘dissipate.’)

We threw in more ice so we had solid, liquid, and gas all in the pot at the same time. .

We repeated this several times, having a great time together. We talked about it, I was sure he understood it. I was feeling like Genius Mama!

After our experiment, he went right back to playing with his plastic cups, saying “this one’s solid, this is a liquid, this is a gas.”

With my first child, I would have been so discouraged. I would have gone from feeling like Genius Mama to feeling like Foolish Mama. I would have thought that because he went back to the same game that he had learned nothing from our little experiment.

But now, with child # 3, and many years of learning about parenting, and learning about how children learn as their brains develop, I’m still feeling good about our experiment.

Did I manage to completely teach my child all there is to know about states of matter in one ten minute game so that he’ll understand and apply it for the rest of his life? Nope.

But, did we have fun? Yep. Did he see that we can explore ideas together that he has heard about in books? Yep. Did he see, and understand in the moment, that ice turns to water and then to steam when you heat it? Yep. Did he learn, at least in the moment, that you can call ice solid water, what we normally just call water is liquid water, and steam is water as a gas? Yep. With the plastic cups, did he show that he understands things can be sorted into three categories of matter? Yep. Some day he’ll get that plastic cups are solids. He’s got plenty more years to figure that out.

The best part? We had some fun, engaged quality time together. And there was no mess to clean up when we were done!