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Monday, July 27, 2015

Got a Case of the Mondays? Try Science...

What do you want to be when you grow up? For some reason, I get asked that a lot. My most common response is "a little bit taller" and I think that I may well be on my way. My feet have already grown a half size since giving birth to my son! There have been some other creative responses along the way, to which a dear friend once remarked that he never worried about me because I would never grow up. But just in case I do grow up at some point...

I'd like to maybe live in Mr. Rogers' neighborhood...

or maybe Dr. Honeydew and Beaker need a new assistant...

...and by far the greatest professional compliment I ever received was being told I resemble Ms. Frizzle. *Note to self, add some cardigans, a white lab coat, and some amazingly patterned dresses to my wardrobe...these should go nicely with my now size 7 shoes!

But in all seriousness, I love what I do. Being a wife and a mommy and a preschool teacher mixes all of my very favorite things into one wonderful, messy, amusingly chaotic and beautiful life. In going back to lead teaching last year, I enjoyed the very best of all worlds. I am privileged to have support and encouragement from my husband, amazing care for my son and the ability to still be home with him by 1:45 each day, and I work in a fabulous school. My classroom looks how I wish my house looked--thoughtfully decorated in the muted earth tones and methodical display of a Montessori inspired Jewish pre-k environment. (My home looks a little more like a tornado of Cheerios and applesauce came through.) Around January time, when the weather in Richmond, VA kept us indoors a bit more than out, I realized my thoughtfully decorated and methodically organized classroom needed something. It needed a splash of color. It needed stuff to 'splode. It needed a mess on the carpet, for goodness' sake! It needed science. And so, with inspiration from my mother and from my former supervisor and my own curiosity in tow (not to mention a very supportive and patient boss), Mad Science Mondays were born.

There are so many reasons I feel strongly about incorporating a science curriculum into my work with preschoolers. Science is more than just making stuff 'splode, though that is a fringe benefit. It is a way of experiencing and perceiving the world around. It teaches more than just chemical reactions--it fosters critical thinking, confidence, a value of process over product, an acceptance of failures as part of that process and in that, a drive to try again. By the end of the school year, my kids' favorite day of the week was Monday! Who loves Mondays?! Scientists in training do, that's who! And by that time, our lessons extended beyond the mess on my carpet.

Oil and water don't mix, but science and religion do! It is very important to me as a teacher in a Jewish preschool that my science lessons (or any lessons) are not separate from the religious aspect of my curriculum as a whole. Personally, one of the greatest factors that drew me into the flavor of Orthodoxy I practice is the role that science and intellect play. Chassidus encourages us to ask the tough questions, to dissect ancient liturgy and to use our brains in conjunction with our hearts and our souls--to use what naturally makes us human for a G-dly purpose. So, too, do I utilize lessons in science within my classroom to incorporate Jewish themes throughout our year. At Rosh Hashanah, we explored an apple from seed to stem. At Chanukah we experimented with liquid density as we learned how just like the matter in our experiment, the Jewish people rose above their circumstances like oil over water--and of course a little sensory bottle was a fun way to bring the lesson home for each student. As we lit wax candles in our Menorah by  night, we experimented with heat and wax by day. At Pesach, we found many of our science materials on our seder plate. Egg science always makes for some egg-celent egg-speriments (not to mention fabulous puns that even my 4 and 5 year olds got sick of after a while and I never do). There are very few experiments I love more than rounding up the troops (and we invited the 3 year old class in on this one) to perform the Magnificent Egg Drop Egg-speriment. Kids come of up with the most amazing ideas and ways to build an egg protector, and even photos don't do justice of the wonder and egg-citement in their eyes when they watch it being test launched from the top of our playground structure.

Some experiments worked... Simple chemical reactions are a hoot to watch, and our exploding science went beyond the basic baking soda and vinegar volcano. One of my very favorite lessons was one we did in the winter. I prepped a mug in the classroom with some baking soda hidden beneath a heaping pile of cocoa powder while the kids played outside. I used a ceramic pitcher and filled it with vinegar. When I brought them inside, I informed them that we would have science right after I made myself a cup of cocoa. They were annoyed: I was making myself cocoa during their science time?! I just needed to add the hot water (a.k.a. vinegar) to the cocoa powder (don't forget the baking soda underneath) and KABOOM!!! What just happened to my cup of cocoa?? Now, of course, their impatience has melted into laughter (they are still too excited to be angry that I totally just lied to them) and they were ready to use their scientific minds to figure out why the cocoa exploded. We had a lot of fun with exploding science--teaching about mixing colors, making exploding sidewalk paint. It's always enjoyable to see the results of an experiment work and work so instantly. Sometimes, however, our experiments required patience. We had to wait a number of hours or days or weeks to see results. Other times, experiments we tried did not work at all...

Failure is part of the process... I love that in the world of science, mistakes are OK. We had a few flops here and there. Color mixing mishaps. Garden science that turned into nothing but compost. Electricity science that never quite ignited... And that was a very important part of teaching science as well as life skills. Sometimes things do not go as we plan or hope. There is always something to be learned. There is always something to be gained. And we can try, try again. We would talk about why our experiments hadn't worked and brainstorm ideas about how to improve. Some of the world's greatest scientific discoveries were born out of giant mistakes!

The wonder of WHYs... Ever been caught in the crossfire of a battle of whys? This is very common with four and five year old children and rather than fight against it, I embrace it and go with it. Science encourages children to question their surroundings and to involve critical thought in their decision making. I love the magic and curiosity of childhood. I hope I never outgrow it. That said, I also love watching children use evidence in their growing knowledge of the world around to help explain and explore life's wonders. Science makes thunder less scary. Science explains the static shock when we zoom down the plastic twirly slide on the playground. Science helps us predict and observe and process a world that is so full of new and exciting and sometimes frightening phenomena.

Don't DO try this at home! Yeah, it can be messy and gooey and it takes time and planning and preparation. I do tell my scientists in training to always ask their parents before trying an experiment at home. As often as possible, I send them home with simple and inexpensive experiments to test on their own or with their families. Many of the materials we use are household items or items easily found in the grocery store, drug store, craft store, dollar store, even nature. I have seen science in my classroom produce qualities of critical thinking, self discipline and independence that are a joy and privilege to watch. I always love to hear from parents that their children have enjoyed Mad Science Mondays and look forward to it in school. I love even more when I hear that they incorporated these activities at home, be it in the yard or the kitchen.

As I prepare for the school year ahead, I'm sifting through some favorite old experiments and deciding if this will finally be the year I am brave enough to try this one. I am hoping to keep up with some of the process here on the blog as well. Now that the nine days and Tisha B'Av are behind us, I am off to test out the chemical reaction between piles of dirty clothes and linens and laundry detergent...

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Dear Parent I Used to be Overly Critical Of:

Dear Parent I Used to be Overly Critical Of,

This is an open letter of apology to you. I have worked with children for over a decade in a variety of venues. I graduated with a degree in social work and disability studies and a passion for early childhood that I previously confused with knowledge. When I first started teaching, I knew everything. After a few years of experience, I knew a thing or two. Now, I am a parent and I know nothing. Absolutely nothing. I mean, sure, there were some things about postpartum that surprised me. Did you know my feet are a half size bigger? (Some other things are also a half size bigger, but let's save that for another conversation.) And Momnesia--that's a real thing. I can tell you what I ate for dinner on a particular night in 1994 but don't ask me to actually finish a sentence once 4:00PM hits. (And for the record, I think "blowy" is a perfectly reasonable and logical way to describe windy conditions outside.) I did not know, however, that when you birth a baby, all of the wisdom and knowledge you once had about being a parent also leaves the body. That one was a real shocker! And what's worse, it isn't rectified by getting new shoes!

But let's get serious. Sure, to your face I was the picture of patience and compassion. You came to me for an opinion or maybe you didn't, but I have a million, so I gave you at least a few. We got creative, we problem solved, we tried and tried again. We were a team but at the end of the day, one thing separated us: biology. And that, my dear fellow parent, is one hell of a powerful thing. And so I am humbly writing today to apologize. I apologize for judging you. For thinking I would handle things differently or even worse, better than you if I were in your position. I apologize for questioning your motives or your logic or assuming that either of those factors were in any way flawed.

To the parent who had poor boundaries and projected every childhood insecurity and anxiety of your own onto your child, I am sorry. You frequently asked for things that were unreasonable or impossible in a classroom setting. You often labeled your child as shy or anxious or sensitive and I argued that these were becoming self fulfilling prophecies. Your child could do no wrong or even worse, at times your child could do no right. I felt impatient with you or dismissed you or found a way to verbally coax your feelings while proceeding with a grain of salt.

To the parent who used a screen as a babysitter, texted from the playground, bribed your child with chocolate or otherwise bought yourself some time, I am sorry. I thought you were using cheap cop outs. I thought you were self indulgent. I thought you were immature. I wondered how hard it could really be to just, you know, be a parent?

To the parent who had the wherewithal to know her child needed extra help or support but did not pursue it, I am sorry. You were a teacher or a psychologist or a social worker or an OT or PT or speech pathologist and your kid has obvious delays. You know that 0-3 are the most formative years of the brain in children and yet you delayed getting Early Intervention. It's free and they come to your house, and yet you delayed. I put it gently, I put it bluntly, I tried every tactic I could think of. Despite your expertise, you knew better. Your kid didn't have a delay, he was defiant or going through a phase or quirky. I questioned how you could miss the obvious or accused you of being in denial. Sometimes I even accused you of being lazy or negligent.

And now, knowledge-less, wisdom-less, and a little worn for the ware, I apologize to you because I am you. I am the neurotic parent who lacks appropriate boundaries.  We brought these little beings into the world who at times seem like mirrors and at times seem completely alien. They contain 50% of our genetic makeup and we know their cries, their scent, their preferences, their quirks. What we don't know as well is where we end and they begin, and how could we? We were part of something absolutely miraculous and uniquiely Divine: creation. And every artist is attached to his work; so too are we attached to ours.

And I am the parent whose infant has seen Arthur and Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood on Netflix because you can only fingerpaint and go on walks and play ball for so many hours before you need some mindless activity of your own. I make phone calls and return emails from the playground or by the sandbox because those are places where my son is engaged enough to not kvetch or attempt to eat the cell phone while I finally get back to the person who might even be my own parent who called three weeks ago. And no, I can't wait until he is napping because the sound of my voice wakes him up in an instant and the sound of the forest playing from the aforementioned cell phone keeps him asleep. And bribery? I've tried Bamba-training my kid to crawl. Yup, you read that right.

And I am the parent who may not have known everything, but knew enough about genetics and early childhood development to notice that my son has low muscle tone but at 12 months old and not crawling, still resisted the idea of seeking therapy or early intervention. And why? Not because I'm ignorant or lazy or even in denial, but because my son is so utterly perfect in my eyes that it breaks my heart to think that he falls short of that by anyone else's standard.

As a teacher, I have a firm and seemingly eclectic belief that children should not be forced to say "I'm sorry." While I do model this skill for children and encourage and assist kids in conflict to repair their relationships in their own appropriate ways, I do not force an apology. For one thing, sometimes we don't feel sorry and saying it in those moments is not genuine nor is it effective in cultivating empathy. Rather, a kid learns from this that he can hit/kick/tease/take a toy and it's OK as long as it's accompanied by an apology. Furthermore, when an apology is genuine and heartfelt, it can bring about enormous opportunity for growth. When we really feel sorry, we are humbled. We are open and vulnerable and there is room to learn and overcome. Today, I am genuine in the humility I feel. Parenthood is the most humbling and vulnerable experience I've had to date--even beyond that of building a marriage. Parenthood strips you down of everything you ever thought you knew while concurrently building you up to superhero status in the eyes of your little one. Thank G-d I don't see myself as even half as perfect as my son sees me, otherwise we'd need a second home just for my ego alone. Nonetheless, I do hope I will continue to grow and strive to earn my superhero cape both as a Mommy and an educator. I hope that rather than projecting my insecurities onto my son, I will allow him to transfer some of his inherent curiosity and wonder onto me. I hope I will always continue to grow (although I wouldn't mind if I could dissuade my feet from taking the same trajectory). I hope I will always be open to falling, failing, dusting myself off and getting on the horse again because I want and expect the same for my son.

And if I can tell you without a doubt that I would run into a burning building for this little boy who is snuggled up asleep right next to me, for sure I can also get through the calls, paperwork, and personal insecurities to advocate for him to get a little extra help and support in his motor development. He can keep being perfect in my eyes because it's natural for me to see him that way. He is my superhero. Heck, if he sprouts another tooth, I'm putting it on his resume. And G-d be willing, I won't have to run into a burning building for this little guy, but if I need to, you know where I'll be. And all of you, Parents I Used to Be Overly Critical Of will be there right beside me.

Supermom Early Childhood Specialist Only Human

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Camping We Will Go!

It's hot. Very hot. And humid. And we're in the nine days preceding Tisha B'Av, so no swimming or laundry! The laws/customs of the nine days are lenient for kids, and fresh air and natural light are so important to us all that I'm still including morning walks with S and plenty of opportunities to splash in his kiddie pool. Our theme this week for Mommy and Me Camp is all about camping. We will not be camping out this week, but we are camping in. I've set up a play tent in the living room and S loves playing in it, reading together in it, and even napping in it during nap times. Nature and the great outdoors are inherently vital aspects of camping, but given the current heat wave and current restrictions on pool time for the grown ups, many additional theme related activities are being enjoyed indoors.

One outdoor theme of camping that I can far more appreciate from the safety of my living room is bugs! Yesterday we read Eric Carle's The Very Lonely Firefly and adapted this fun craft using my favorite washable ink pads and our fingers/thumbs.

One would certainly hope not to run into any bears while actually camping, but my son LOVES the book We're Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, so we have enjoyed reading that again using some props and movements along with it. I loved the idea posted here to make story themed sensory bottles...
...but alas, I have made WAY too many sensory bottles over the last year! 

We are also having a lot of fun making shadow puppets and playing with flashlights. I may recycle an empty diaper box from Costco to build this star box. It will also lead nicely into our theme next week, Outer Space!
My husband really would like to take S fishing when he is older. In the mean time, I used some craft foam to cut out different colored fish shapes. S has loved playing with them in the tub, the kiddie pool and on "dry land" as well.

One other activity S really enjoyed this week was finger painting on canvas with homemade baby-safe fingerpaints. Although S has become age-appropriately more picky about what he will and won't put into his mouth food-wise, he *always* manages to put paint into his mouth when we're painting. Although I always use only non-toxic and child-friendly art materials, I still feel a bit better letting him fully explore when the ingredients all come from my kitchen. The recipe, as stated in the original post, can be a bit finicky when it comes to getting the texture you like.

Homemade Baby-safe Fingerpaint

1 cup cornstarch
1/2 cup cold water
1 cup boiling water

Mix cold water with cornstarch until it dissolves. You've just made Oobleck, stop here and play for a while because nothing is more fun and fascinating than a non-newtonian fluid! Next, slowly add boiling water. My paint immediately thinned far more than I had wanted even though I followed these directions. I toyed with heating it on the stovetop (which worked the best to thicken) and adding more cornstarch (which also worked somewhat). Lastly, divide into cups and add food coloring of your choice. Food coloring can stain skin, so I try to remember rubber gloves. Nonetheless, if you occasionally forget like I do and happen to touch blue barehanded like I do on occasion, you will look like a smurf.

I love using artists' canvas for children's artwork. It always comes out with such a clean and polished look--even if there is nothing clean or polished about artwork with children! My husband liked the finished product so much, he's already commissioned a piece for his office. S will certainly be glad to oblige after his nap this morning! Painting with S is inherently a full body sensory experience--my nice way of saying 'messy.' My favorite way to enjoy these types of projects is outdoors either in a contained or designated space (large shallow bins, kiddie pools or plastic tablecloths work well) and then having an immediate transition to the kiddie pool or tub!

Monday, July 06, 2015

Mommy & Me Camp: Weeks 5 and 6

We had a shorter "camp" week last week. Since S's first birthday was on the 3rd and it was a holiday weekend, we took a family stay-cation in Williamsburg, VA. The theme for the week was All About Me! S LOVED singing Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes. It's an especially welcome distraction for him now during diaper changes. To expand on this favorite song, I did a body tracing of S (not as easy with a wiggly one year old as one might think!) and we sang the song using English, Hebrew and Yiddish words. S also loves singing "If You're Happy and You Know It" using actions he can do--like wave or clap his hands. One of his favorite new books is this one that just arrived last month from PJ Library. We are working as a family to learn many Hebrew and Yiddish words to incorporate into our conversations at home. S also reached the exciting milestone of learning his first word in sign language---"more!"

This week's theme is Splish Splash: Fun in the Water! S LOVES all things water--bath time, his kiddie pool, the morning ritual of washing his hands when we daven (pray) with him every day and most of all playing in the pool. His kiddie pool is a favorite activity for him but he positively loves going swimming in "the big pool" with us. This was one highlight of our family staycation--an empty pool in the hotel--and he likes visiting the pool in our apartment complex as well.  I will surely incorporate as much water play as possible this week. Sensory play with kinetic sand will also be a fun activity for S with my supervision since he does mouth things a lot. He doesn't tend to do this in the makeshift sandbox I have for him in our yard, which will also be a fun ocean/beach related activity once I get more sand for the new plastic bin we bought to replace the original, which had an unfortunate run in with a lawnmower...
Discovery baskets are very exciting for S. He loves to explore everything, tinkering, tapping, shaking and otherwise discovering what I put inside the box or basket--and even likes playing with the empty bins. Sometimes I allow him to explore in his own way and other times I get down with him to play. Here's a peek at some of this week's water-themed materials: 
There are some great water related lap rhymes and finger-plays. S really gets a kick out of Row, Row, Row Your Boat either on my lap or sitting facing one another on the floor rocking to and fro. Here are a few other ideas I may try this week:

this mommy craft: 

plenty of sensory play with water and ice like the ideas seen here and here. There is already a collection of unusual things in my freezer right now, like soaked squishy balls and ocean critter shaped sand molds...
Hope everyone has a fun week and stays cool!