Category Archives: play

Montessori, Reggio, and other thoughts on toddler learning

Montessori

I like the Montessori approach of taking kids seriously and helping them develop practical life skills. On its recommendation, we:

  • got A- real glasses and let her use real plates: Duralex Picardie tumblers and Corelle
  • introduced spreaders, knives, and scissors early
  • involved her in cooking and doing household chores: The Learning Tower is such a great help.
  • got two sets of magnetic letters as our movable alphabet
  • chose simple clothes to promote independence
  • got a small pitcher (actually a creamer) so that she can practise pouring
  • resisted the temptation to go overboard on toys, keeping her play area organized
  • respected play as the work of the child: be patient with repetition, help her find the right level of challenge, and so on.

I look forward to using sandpaper letters and other manipulatives. I like the idea of self-correcting materials and may experiment with a few. On the other hand, they do take up some space and are essentially unitaskers. Maybe the Montessori tackle boxes approach might be a reasonable compromise.

We might consider the Montessori casa system next year, when A- is 3.5, if finances permit. I think she likes pretend play a lot, though, and that doesn’t seem to be as aligned with the Montessori approach. I think we’d lean toward a Reggio Emilia-inspired approach for preschool or kindergarten, mixing in elements from Montessori.

Reggio Emilia

The Reggio Emilia approach resonates strongly with me. I like its focus on child-led projects, with the grown-up focused on designing the environment, supporting exploration, and documenting projects. I like its support of play. I like its belief that kids are capable of amazing things if we let them, and the Wonder of Learning exhibit I got to see in 2016 had many examples of that.

The Ontario kindergarten curriculum looks great on paper, with lots of aspects like pedagogical documentation reminding me of Reggio Emilia. I’m all for play-based learning thoughtfully supported by grown-ups. While I’m home with A- and she’s more oriented toward playing with me than with other kids, I want to focus on supporting and documenting her play.

Here are some ideas In applying from Reggio Emilia:

  • Co-learning: A- is the primary investigator. I help ask questions and explore ideas, and I take advantage of the opportunity to learn from her too.
  • Art for exploration and expression
  • Pedagogical documentation: making learning visible
  • The use of technology: We take a lot of photos and videos, and A- loves reviewing them. I talk about taking pictures to help us remember. She also has her own waterproof, shockproof camera, although she still tends to take pictures with her finger over the lens. She sometimes asks me to take a picture for her.
  • Embedding print in play: I write down her order when we’re playing pretend restaurant, and I take advantage of other opportunities to model reading and writing
  • Going out into the community

I want to get better at designing her environment to provoke her interest, and collecting loose parts that we can transform.

I’m also working on building social ties with other families who might be interested in regular playdates so that the kids can come up with projects together when the time comes. I’m also really curious about floor books, but I’m not entirely sure how to implement them one on one with a toddler. Time to experiment!

There’s a Reggio-inspired daycare opening up close to us, but I’m reluctant to commit to it while it’s under construction. There’s a highly recommended private school that follows a Reggio-inspired approach for preschool and kindergarten, and we might go for that if finances permit. Alternatively, I can probably help make public school kindergarten a great fit with parental involvement.

Tools of the Mind

I’m curious about Tools of the Mind’s approach to developing executive function and self-regulation. Play planning sounds like fun. I want to talk about plans more with A- and model drawing the plans too.

In general…

A- is pretty good at learning stuff. She imitates quickly, can focus on an activity for a surprisingly long time, and comes up with new variations. She’s starting to ask questions, and I look forward to helping her explore them.

I tend to be pleasantly surprised by what A- can do when other people try activities with her, which probably means that my developmental expectations are calibrated a little low. Bringing her to drop-in centres and classes helps me work around that by exposing her to other people’s ideas and interactions. If I get better at pedagogical documentation and reflection, I might be able to improve my ability to scaffold her play, or I might be able to bring in more help from someone who can get more of a longitudinal view of A-.

If I keep involving her in daily life, I’m sure she’ll learn all the important stuff. I’ll also make room for unstructured play and exploration, because the world is an interesting place. If I pay attention to what she’s learning and how, I think I’ll have tons of fun and growth along the way too.

Bubbles

I’ve decided to spend on bubbles. I like being the grown-up with several bubble wands tucked into my bag for playground time. It’s nice to let kids take turns. Some accidentally spill bubble solution, and that’s okay. It’s a learning moment. Some have a hard time taking turns, and that’s also a learning moment. When I can, I like bringing a wand and a tray for making large bubbles. No automatic bubble-makers, though. I like the way manual bubblemakers require you to learn how to control your movement or your breath.

Regular bubble solution is easy to get during the summer. Giant bubble solution doesn’t seem to be as readily available here, so I’m working on getting the hang of mixing my own and forming large bubbles. I bought guar gum from Bulk Barn and Dawn dish detergent from No Frills, and I mixed up a batch of Quickest Mix:

1 kg water
50 g detergent
1.5 g guar gum
2 g baking powder

I may eventually try different frames and practise bubble-making techniques. Even the bubbles I can get from the Dollarama large bubble kit test most kids’ ability to resist popping large bubbles (they rarely survive long enough for people to enjoy looking at them!), so I don’t have to worry about making larger bubbles unless, say, we’re just hanging out in the backyard.

What about A-?

Small bubbles: A- She can both blow bubbles and wave bubbles out of the regular wand. She usually goes at the right speed, although sometimes she still goes too quickly. She holds the bubble wand container upright and can dip into it herself, and she gives it to me to close when she’s done. She usually dips it gently, although she gets influenced by kids who dip the wand multiple times quickly (that creates foam, which makes it harder to blow big bubbles).

Large bubbles: She can wave bubbles out of the large bubble wand, although they tend to pop on her clothes because her arms are short. She generally doesn’t blow bubbles out of the large bubble wand – maybe because she doesn’t want them to pop in her face.

Social: A- generally likes making bubbles, asking “May I have a turn?” She doesn’t seem to mind sharing the bubbles with other kids, and occasionally offers the wand to others. We usually attract quite a few kids who set up a regular rotation, so it’s a great way for her to see turn-taking up close. She can wait for a few people’s turns, although she prefers to watch instead of occupying herself with an alternative activity. I talk to A- about how happy the kids are because she’s sharing her bubbles, pointing out how they’re chasing bubbles or making bubbles.

A- doesn’t like chasing bubbles when there are lots of kids around, but she sometimes chases bubbles when it’s just us. It makes sense – a limited field of vision might make her more cautious in chaotic situations like that.

I sometimes keep playing with bubbles even after she’s moved on to something else, like digging in the sandbox. I like how bubble-blowing gives me something fun to do while I give her space for independent play. Sometimes she asks me to stop playing with bubbles and go dig with her instead, so I happily oblige. After all, I’m there to play with her, not just amuse other kids (or myself!) with bubbles. =)

Ideas for leveling up

  • Using bubbles to ease transitions
  • Trying a bubble wick
  • Trying a commercial giant bubble mix
  • Bouncing bubbles
  • Experimenting with the properties of different bubble makers and different solutions
  • Copper wire bubble wands, for custom shapes: maybe later on, when she’s more interested in crafts?
  • Bubble art, catching bubbles on paper: probably at home, might need more coordination
  • Bubble geometry experiments: later on
  • Keeping an eye out for bubble events in Toronto

What could awesome look like?

  • A background activity while A- plays at the playground
  • An ice-breaker and karma-builder
  • Practice in sharing and altruism
  • The occasional large-bubble hangout with A- and maybe a few friends
  • Something to contribute to grown-up get-togethers, too

Working on play

Parenting doesn’t come intuitively to me, but I mostly make up for that with deliberate study. I read books and research papers for ideas, experiment with different ways to play, observe A-, get her feedback, and reflect on things myself. I want to improve my ability to play.

I feel good about the research that has gone into the play-based approach to early childhood education. It makes sense to me, and I think it will be a good fit for A- too. There’s so much room for me to grow as A-‘s “stage manager, mediator, player, scribe, assessor and communicator, and planner”1.

  • Stage manager: How can I provoke her curiosity by adding interesting things, and how can I give her space by removing things? How can I manage our time to match her energy and give her opportunities for different kinds of play? What’s a good balance in terms of props to support pretend play and loose parts to encourage imagination? How can I start building relationships for playdates and other avenues for socialization?
  • Mediator: How can I support her interactions with other kids, modeling problem-solving and conflict resolution without dictating a particular approach? How can I help her learn emotional regulation and problem-solving techniques even when we’re playing by ourselves?
  • Player: How can I build on her play scripts without taking over? How can I reflect her energy and enthusiasm? How can I invite her into everyday routines through play?
  • Scribe: How can I help her play with writing and literacy? What can I model so that she can experience the power of writing, reading, and drawing?
  • Assessor and communicator: How can I document and reflect on our learning? How can I share that with her and with other people? I tend to narrate and actively play with her. Maybe I can experiment with taking a step back so that she can take the initiative, and so that I have room to observe, document, and reflect. I capture a lot of tidbits. I can practise selecting some and tying them together into stories so that I can make sense of them.
  • Planner: How can I help her raise the level of her play? How can I build on what she’s interested in? How can I share more ideas and experiences with her?

What could awesome look like?

  • We’re constantly learning and improving, and it’s fun. We enjoy spending time with each other and exploring the world.
  • I can keep up with the breadth and depth of her curiosity. We might even learn most things through experimentation, rather than my answering her questions.
  • Every so often, I summarize her learning in a specific aspect, marvel at her progress, and share the story with her, W-, and others.
  • As she begins to turn more towards social play with peers, we have group interactions at drop-ins as well as one-on-one or small-group interactions with more regular friends. She has the confidence to negotiate roles in peer play and repair minor mishaps. She’s had lots of opportunities to feel good about other people.
  • When she goes to preschool or kindergarten, she’s familiar with tools and materials. She can ask questions, think of ways to explore, enlist help, and take advantage of resources. She can tell me about her day, and we can think of ways to build on things when she’s at home.

What do I want to work on now?

During the day, I want to figure out how to play well with A-. I tend to narrate her actions and follow her lead. I love how she’s developed a large vocabulary and the confidence to make specific requests. I wonder about the possibilities that might open up if I step back and give her more quiet focus time so that she can take even more initiative. I also wonder about the possibilities that might open up if I engage her even more actively during pretend play, expanding scenarios and planning real-life experiences to enrich her imagination. There are benefits to both approaches, so it’s hard to go wrong. I want to get better at asking A- exploratory questions, too, and I’m looking forward to helping her develop the ability to think about ideas. Whee!

I want to use some of the time when A- is sleeping to organize and reflect on her learning. I have a decent workflow for capturing specific moments. I’m starting to pick ideas and look at them across time so that I can get a sense of her progress over months, like this one I did based on a year of music classes. The next level up is to take either a single moment or a group of moments and ask myself: “What could she be thinking? Why would she think that way? How can we support and explore that? What might she want to learn?” If I can share that, that would be even better.

How can I invest in learning this even better? What could the delta look like?

  • Stuff: What’s worth buying or adding to our play area? What can I share with the drop-in centres near us?
  • Experiences: What kinds of experiences will tickle our brains? What can we go out and try?
  • People: What questions could I ask an early childhood education consultant or teacher coach? How can I take advantage of someone’s professional experience while reflecting on A-‘s learning? How could that help me level up? How can I invest in building relationships and lifting other people up?

Footnotes:

1

The teacher’s roles described in Elizabeth Jones and Gretchen Reynolds’ book Play’s The Thing (2001), quoted in Full-Day Kindergarten-Based Learning: Promoting a Common Understanding.

Babysitting update: pretend play

Yesterday’s babysitting experiment was another success, making three for three. A- was looking forward to the babysitter’s visit and even postponed some of her morning play ideas. As soon as the babysitter walked in, A- switched to wanting to play with her instead of me. They built with Duplo, painted on paper, cut with scissors, and played with tape. Then they headed to the backyard to make sandcastles. They came back in for snacks, then played pretend. The babysitter guided A- through role-playing restaurant interactions, which she took to with much enthusiasm. Then A- wanted to go to the playground with both of us, so I wrapped up my consulting (2.2 hours, yay!) and headed out with them. While the babysitter pushed A- on the swing and helped her navigate the other parts of the playground, I worked on improving my phone workflows for tracking and drawing.

Having an agency babysitter come over one afternoon a week seems to be working out very well for both of us. A- likes the change in company and the one-on-one attention. I like overhearing how they’re playing so that I can pick up ideas. For example, it was great to see how quickly A- picked up a new scenario when the babysitter guided her, and how the babysitter nudged her to exchange roles in their pretend play.

I wonder what I can do to level up. I could send them my weekly review when I book so that the sitter can easily see what A- is interested in. I can make grab-and-go bags for going to the playground or other places. I can add a few dress-up items and props to enhance pretend play, and I can add paper and pens to support pre-literacy. I can line up questions to ask during downtime. Hmmm…

Playground kaizen

Warmer weather means more playing at the playground, hooray! I’d like to figure out how to make this almost a daily routine, and to see what we can learn along the way. I wonder what it would be like to elevate play not just for my kiddo but for a number of other families, and to wring out as much as we can from the time we spend there.

Today we experimented with little improvements in how we play at the playground. Since A- likes playing with the Duplo playground at home, I brought a number of Duplo pieces: a slide, three bricks, two minifigures, and a train segment. We quickly attracted a couple of preschoolers who had fun rolling their cars along the sand dunes and down the slide while A- watched with interest. A- also enjoyed sliding the train down the big slide.

A- had lots of fun swinging really high on the swing, and having me interrupt her swinging. She watched the big kids swing their legs back and forward, and she practised the motion while we ate snacks on the bench.

Bath before dinner worked out well, too. No sand in the bed, yay!

A few ideas to try next:

  • bring plenty of bubble wands for sharing, or even a bubble machine; bonus points if I can figure out a portable rig for large bubbles, although I’m not keen on lugging a lot of soapy water around. Maybe something like a Thermos jug, which I can then put into a grocery cart?
  • more snacks; treat it as afternoon picnic time
  • bring paper and pen for thinking
  • buy or make toy dinosaurs, bring paintbrushes, and bury the dinosaurs in the sandbox. Hmm… I wonder if I could use old playdough or plaster casting to prototype this. That might be even more fun than buying a box of dinosaur toys, although purchased toys are cool too.
  • make it more routine, maybe invite other people to drop by and chat
  • bring a tube and other unconventional sandbox toys
  • figure out how to dress up so that we can enjoy the playground even in light rain
  • figure out what I’m supposed to be doing about sun protection
  • figure out how toilet training can fit in
  • explore and model playing with loose parts

I can use the grocery backpack to test ideas that need props, and then get a small grocery cart if I think it’s worth the space at home. I can use luggage organizers to create modules: extra clothes, stuff for the splash pad, stuff for the sandbox, bubble kit, etc. It’s like having a mobile office.

I borrowed a few books about outdoor education from the library. Reading about nature schools and activities might give me more ideas for things to try with A-.

Plenty of room for me to learn stuff at the playground!

Labeling toy storage bins with photos and text using ImageMagick and org-babel

I wanted to make labels for A-‘s new toy storage: three low Trofast drawer frames all along the wall.

I liked how early childhood drop-in centres labeled their shelves with both pictures and text. That way, kids can find things before she can read, while still being exposed to print. I took pictures of the bin contents and renamed the files to the labels I wanted to put on them, such as 2x2 blocks.jpg. (We have a lot of Duplo.)

This time, I experimented with creating the labels entirely in Imagemagick instead of using LaTeX. First, I used a table in Org Mode to let me easily play with the dimensions and recalculate pixel sizes.

DPI   300
Columns 3  
Rows 5  
Paper width 14 4200
Paper height 8.5 2550
Minimum margins 0.5 150
Label width 4.3333333 1300
Label length 1.5 450

I passed the width and the height to the following code block by using header arguments. I liked using 400 pixels as the height instead of 450, so that’s what I used. My source image size was 4032×3024 pixels. If I resize them to a height of 400, that gives me a width of 533. Allowing 20 pixels for the text left and right borders gives me (- 1300 533 20 20) = 727 as the text width.

#+begin_src sh :dir ~/code/labels :var width=1300 :var textwidth=727 :var height=400 :var pointsize=72 :results silent
for x in source/*; do
  file=$(basename "$x")
  /usr/local/bin/convert \( \( "source/$file" -resize x${height} \) \
     \( -background white -fill black -font Alegreya-Regular -bordercolor White \
         -gravity West -border 20 -pointsize $pointsize -size ${textwidth}x caption:"${file%.*}" \) \
     +append \) \
     -extent ${width}x${height} \
     \( -fill none -stroke gray -draw "rectangle 0 0 $(echo $width - 1 | bc) $(echo $height - 1 | bc)" \) \
     "out/$file.png"
done
#+end_src

Sample resized label:

I moved the ones I wanted from the out directory to a ready directory and combined the ones I wanted to print into a PDF:

#+begin_src sh :dir ~/code/labels :results silent
montage ready/*.png -tile 3x5 -background none -geometry +0+0 print.png
convert print*.png -density 300 -quality 100 print.pdf
#+end_src

Then I printed the labels in colour on an 8.5×14″ sheet of paper (single-sided, landscape), cut them out, and taped them onto the bins with packing tape.

W- suggested taking macro shots that more clearly show the characteristics of things in the bins instead of just aiming down and taking pictures of the contents. Might be a good excuse to show A- basic product photography when we get back.

W- also recommended making the label text bigger. The first time I did it, I just picked a pointsize based on whatever fit the ones I wanted to print. I decided against letting Imagemagick maximize the font size because I didn’t want labels to have very different text sizes. After a little poking around, I figured out how to use caption: instead of label: to give me text that can neatly wrap within a given space, and that will probably let me use 90-point font instead of 72-point font. That will make the next iteration of labels even easier to read.

It’s nice having all these bins. A- is getting pretty good at heading straight for the bin she wants something from, and she even talks about them: “Horse is in animals bin.” I’m glad we labeled the most frequently used bins. I’ll tweak the labels when we get back from our trip. We’ll probably change some of the bin contents anyway.

Hooray for ImageMagick, and hooray for variables in org-babel blocks!