Authentic Learning & Authentic Learning Environments

A few weeks back a professional colleague asked what I thought an authentic learning environment looked like, this is my rather long winded answer 😊

Authentic learning “… is a pedagogical approach that allows for the construction of meaning grounded in real-life situations and the learners own personal experience” (Authentic Learning Environments). An environment allows for authentic learning when children have caring,  authentic relationships with educators and space to experiment and explore.

An authentic learning environment begins with authentic relationships between children and educators. Authentic relationships with children are hugely important because “[n]o significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”  (Dr. James P. Comer, professor of Child Psychiatry) When a classroom culture cultivates positive relationships and a sense of belonging and inclusion children have the security to learn in authentic ways.

In authentic learning environments children are allowed to make discoveries through concrete, hands on experiences rather than attempting to force them to understand a concept by filling out a worksheet or participating in a teacher planned lesson. As Bev Boss, early learning expert said, “If it hasn’t been in the hand and body it can’t be in the brain!”

Giving children the space and time to play and to construct their own understanding of the world is crucial if we want their learning to be meaningful to them. Educators in authentic learning environments are co-learners and play partners, scaffolding the children’s learning with open ended questions and gentle guidance.

The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.  – Alexandra K. Trenfor

Children are designed to learn, motivated to discover and understand the world around them. From the moment babies enter the world they are eager explorers visually mapping the faces of those closest to them, communicating with cries and smiles, and learning through interacting with their environment. As educators we must support that natural drive to discover by creating welcoming environments that inspire children to learn.

Reflecting children’s interests and individual needs creates a rich and meaningful classroom environment. Because teachers in authentic environments cultivate close relationships with children and their families they genuinely understand what topics will ignite their students’ curiosity and are able to weave them into the fabric of play.

Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire. – William Butler Yeats.

When teachers are sensitive to each child’s individual needs, interests and temperaments and the environment is conducive to exploration and play, authentic learning is a natural process that occurs organically. Authentic learning is distinctly meaningful to each individual child and it is the things that have meaning to us that linger in our minds and our hearts for a lifetime.

Learning Stories: My Favorite Method of Documentation

Learning stories are a type of pedagogical documentation that is particularly dear to my heart because it allows me to express how amazing it is to watch the children in my program learn and grow. What makes learning stories so wonderful is that they encompass not just the learning going on in the moment but also the teacher’s image of the child as a curious, capable and competent individual in the attentive and caring way they are written.

To make children’s complex thinking visible in learning stories teacher’s must be careful observers of play, taking anecdotal notes and pictures is necessary for this process. Educators must be familiar with the mechanisms of play as a method for discovery and share that information in the narratives they create for children and families.

So how do you write a learning story? The wonderful thing about learning stories is they can be short or long, to the point or written with dramatic flair. At its heart a learning story is a letter written with love to the children that are the protagonists of the tale and their families.

A learning story typically has three main components.

  • A description of the child’s or group of children’s learning which includes the educator’s interpretation and can also include links to professional learning documents, articles and/or theorists.
  • Plans to scaffold the ongoing learning of the child or group of children.
  • A space for parents to provide feedback.

An example learning story:

Screen capture from Red River Learning Stories http://rrlearningstories.blogspot.com

In the above example the ELECT document (Early Learning for Every Child Today: A framework for Ontario early childhood settings) is referenced to support the educator’s interpretation of the learning moment but teachers may also quote or refer to developmental theorists, professionals in the field, or even scholarly articles.

Developing plans to scaffold and extend the children’s learning demonstrates that the educator has taken time to reflect on their learning and what methods would be best used to support them. In this case the educator will include group games or activities that can be inclusive of all the children, despite their varying ages and abilities, to nurture their play in a mixed age group of children.

The example learning story shared here is a blog entry which allows families to leave feedback in the comments section. If it were a printed copy the teacher could provide a space at the end of the learning story or blank pages for the parents to leave notes on. Inviting families to share their reactions and interpretations of the documentation fosters positive relationships between home and school as well as a sense of belonging in the classroom culture.

Though the three elements mentioned above are usually included in a learning story the most important thing about them is that they are written in a way that makes learning visible to families and demonstrates the educator’s care for the children that they work with. As you write your own learning stories you will find your own style and rhythm to weave the tales of your students’ adventures, even small moments can be brilliant discoveries when you look closely.

Our children teach us what life is all about.

Yesterday morning as I was washing the hands and faces of the little ones who had finished their breakfasts my daughter leapt from her chair and shrieked, “Spider!”

I of course sprang into action to remove the eight legged invader from the table because spiders are a source of much fear for my eldest child … but the little arachnid was still, it’s legs curled up so it looked like a ball rather than a creature. I began to sweep him on to a piece of paper to toss into the trash.

“It’s okay, he’s not a live spider. He must have died,” I said offhandedly as I cast a glance at my daughter. The other kids had moved on to trains and cars and racing round the circle of the living room.

“Maybe he fell against the window and died,” she said matter-of-fact, chewing on the hem of her sleeve.

“Maybe.”

I whisked the little spider-body to the trash for a less than ceremonious “funeral”. When I looked at my little girl again her eyes were welling up with tears.

“I kind of feel bad for the spider,” she said, her voice cracking as I walked towards her and knelt beside her. Her entire five year old self fell into my arms and she cried for the little spider who died on our kitchen table.

Children have such big hearts, filled with empathy for even the smallest creatures on this planet.

Yesterday I learned to slow down as I helped my child find her way through her sadness. Grief is a hard thing to cope with, even when that sorrow is for the lost life of a little spider; children’s feelings are just as valid as our adult emotions.

Every moment I spend in the profession of early learning and care I am growing as an educator. I learn as much every day from the children that I work with as they learn from me and I’m lucky to have such kind little teachers.

Early Childhood Educator Appreciation Day

Early Childhood Educator Appreciation Day is set aside to acknowledge the huge difference ECEs make in the lives of families as well as the impact they have within the broader community.

Early Childhood Educators are experts in child development. We are passionate professionals that assess children’s needs and design curriculum to scaffold and support children’s individual stages of development and growth. We strive to cultivate healthy and trusting relationships with children and their families so that learning can blossom.

Everyday Early Childhood Educators are committed to providing exceptional learning opportunities for young children in environments that are caring and welcoming. We build bridges with families between school and home that allow us to work collaboratively to support each unique child.

Yet our work is still undervalued in society; we are seen as babysitters and those of us that work in the school system are often just thought of as assistants rather than teaching partners. This has to change! Research has demonstrated time and time again the importance of quality early learning and care programs and it is time that we begin to acknowledge the value of the educators who are committed to creating these high quality learning environments for children.

If you have an Early Childhood Educator in your life let them know how important they are today and everyday.

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops. – Henry Adams

13 Signs That You Might Be a Crunchy Childcare Provider

I’ve been called crunchy a time or two as a parent and I’m also a bit “granola” in my practice as an early childhood educator.

Now I can hear a few of you asking, “What does crunchy even mean?”

Well,  Wiktionary defines crunchy as “Having sensibilities of a counter-culture nature lover or hippie; derived from the concept of crunchy granola.”

Even though some people use the term crunchy with a sigh and an eyeroll, I’ve fully embraced my crunchy/granola/neo-hippy leanings. I think the kids in my class really benefit from the gentle approach I use as well as the close connection we share with nature.

Think you might be a crunchy childcare provider? I’ve compiled this handy list of signs below just for fun. Thanks for the help with it Lesley!

  1. Wearing a baby is your favorite fashion accessory, in fact you occasionally wear more than one!
  2. There is a jar of coconut oil in your medication box.
  3. You regularly meditate with 3 year olds.
  4. Kale chips are a treat.
  5. When you clean the guts out of a squash you save some of the seeds to grow in the spring.
  6. You’ve made your own yogurt for snack.
  7. You’ve also made your own granola and bread, often with the help of small people.
  8. Many of your students’ favorite toys are recycled materials or thrift store rescues.
  9. You’ve taken the children on foraging adventures.
  10. You’re not a farmer but you have (or want) backyard/play yard chickens.
  11. Single use plastics make you cringe so you make your own beeswax wraps for food.
  12. You have an essential oil for every occasion and know how to use them safely.
  13. You can sew or crochet just about any curriculum material.

What are some ways that you embrace your crunchy side in your program?

An Open Letter to Christine Blasey Ford

Dear Dr. Blasey Ford,

I want to thank you for standing up, for telling your account of your assault at the hands of Judge Kavanaugh even though it was painful and terrifying. Your bravery amazes me. I want you to know that I stand with you and that I believe you.

And I want to make you a promise.

You see, I am an educator. I work with brilliant, goofy and cheeky little people that fill my heart with hope for the positive ways this world can change and grow.

I promise you that I will teach them all that their bodies are their own.

I will teach them that when they say “no” it matters, and when they hear “no” they must stop.

I will model respect and kindness in my interactions with them and our broader community so that they learn to be respectful and kind.

I will show them the injustices of the world in developmentally appropriate ways and teach them that even little people can have a big impact when they stand up and make the choice to make things better.

Sincerely,

Natasha Kocher, RECE

Moldable Beeswax

The days are growing shorter and though the leaves have just begun to show their autumn colors winter is already on my mind. As the weather begins to cool I find myself bringing more natural materials inside, preparing for the days when the cold is too much for the little ones to bear.

I gather acorns and pinecones to adorn the shelves of my classroom like treasures for little hands to discover, sticks and pressed flowers, and dried goldenrod are scattered about like precious jewels for the children to create and imagine with.

I love to include nature in my program, especially in the months when the weather can be too harsh for our adventures outdoors. Beeswax is my favorite natural material to explore with my little friends on cold dull days when we are stranded inside; the smell of honey reminds us of the plump bumblebees we observed flitting from flower to flower in their sweet, clumsy way in the warm months of summer. We’ve made candles and polish for our toys from beeswax but I just recently discovered a recipe for moldable beeswax and I think the children will absolutely love it.

Moldable beeswax is a learning tool often used in Waldorf programs; it is an amazing material that allows children to practice fine motor, creative representation, and planning skills. Play with moldable beeswax requires patience as well because it must be warmed in the children’s hands before it is malleable enough to use.

Moldable Beeswax Recipe

Ingredients

1 pound of beeswax
5 tbsp coconut oil
4 tsp lanolin

Materials

Crock-Pot or
Microwave safe bowl
Measuring spoons
Spoon for stirring
Muffin tin & liners

Directions

Melt the beeswax in a crock pot (or microwave safe bowl in the microwave), then mix in the coconut oil and lanolin. Take a small amount out to test (carefully as it will be hot); If your wax mixture is a bit too crumbly add more oil, if it is too sticky add a bit more wax.
When you’re happy with the way it feels pour your wax mixture into a lined muffin tin and allow to cool.

(craftingagreenworld)

To make moldable beeswax children nust measure, observe and combine materials to create something new; it’s a fantastic, organic way to explore math and science. There are so many opportunities for learning in such a simple activity.

Plastic is Fantastic (As A Loose Part)!

When I think about loose parts I picture lovely pieces of sea glass, driftwood, acorns and rocks. Plastic is usually the last thing to cross my mind, yet as a loose part it can be so engaging! I wanted to take a little time to focus on its beauty and versatility.

Even though it is sometimes overlooked when we are preparing our learning environments, plastic is a fantastic addition to your loose parts repertoire. Plastic is durable, comes in a variety of sizes and shapes, and is readily available which means most families in your program would be able to contribute a piece or two (hello engagement!).

When we use plastic that would otherwise be considered trash in our classroom we rescue it from the landfill and teach our students a valuable lesson about reusing materials instead of wasting them. As early years teacher Samantha Kent points out, “Reused plastic loose parts are better used creatively than thrown into landfill. This allows children to see how materials can be used in multiple ways.”

“In any Early Years setting, there is no such thing as ‘waste’ – just resources,” explains Andrea Rose, Co-Founder of My Recycled Classroom. “Children need to experience playing with plastics and the things we would usually throw away in order to develop a deeper, unspoken understanding of their responsibility to our planet. Alongside this, we’ve observed at My Recycled Classroom, that enriched learning unfolds in all developmental areas when children are allowed to handle ‘ordinary’, disused items.”

Having a variety of items such as plastic, wood, fabric, and metal that have different textures, colors and weights for the children to use in their imaginative play extends their learning and challenges their thinking. Colorful plastic pieces mixed in with more muted wood cookies and other loose parts can add another dimension to the children’s play.

“We don’t have a lot of color in our play space so I welcome plastic,” explains Tammy Lockwood, early years teacher. “I just prefer it be donated or purchased used.  I’m not keen on purchasing new plastic items for loose parts. While I love natural items and I think that the feel of natural items is best, there is still room for plastic and teaches something entirely different.”

“I like what is free, recycled, and accessible,” says educator Carla Gull, administrator of the Facebook group Loose Parts Play. “Some hits have been the large rings with two or three holes that hold several spaghetti sauce jars together (lots of spinning with those), pvc pipes of varying sizes, large plastic spools, heavy duty plastic crates (will pay for these), pizza “tents” to keep the cheese off the box, plastic netting around produce, and anything with texture for use with playdough.”

Pieces of plastic and other recycled loose parts are amazingly engaging materials for children to explore; they not only add depth to the children’s play but teach them crucial lessons about environmentalism. Let’s save these valuable treasures from going in the trash and give them another life as tools for playful learning in the hands of our students.

Learning About Orange Shirt Day with Young Children

Every child matters.

These words emblazoned on an orange shirt are striking and true. They honor the story of Phyllis (Jack) Webstad who was just 6 years old when she attended one of the residential schools in Canada. On her very first day she wore a shiny new orange shirt her grandmother had bought for her, she was happy and excited to be going to school. However, when she arrived at the mission they stripped her and took her clothes away, including her very special shirt. It was never returned to her. Phyllis felt sad and hurt, but what was worse was the fact that her feelings didn’t seem to matter at all to the adults around her.  (orangeshirtday.org)

“The color orange has always reminded me of that and how my feelings didn’t matter, how no one cared and how I felt like I was worth nothing. All of us little children were crying and no one cared.” – Phyllis (Jack) Webstad   (orangeshirtday.org)

Each year on Orange Shirt Day I share Phyllis’s story with the children in my class. It gives the little ones a glimpse of some of the terrible things that took place in the residential schools from a child’s perspective.

It may seem like a difficult subject to approach with such young children but we have a responsibility to share the truth with our students about what happened to First Nations, Métis and Inuit children at the residential schools in ways that are age appropriate and consider their developmental level. Discussing the residential schools and those harmed by them in terms that children can grasp supports understanding and empathy.

The children in my program are very little so we use a lot of stories to explain the narratives of different cultures and people in our country and around the world. Many children’s stories have been written that talk about the history of the residential schools in simple ways that are easily understood by little ones.

Some of the books we’ve read about residential schools include;

Shi-shi-etko by Nicola Campbell
This is a story about a little girl leaving for a residential school; she spends the day before she leaves taking in her family’s teachings to protect her while she is away from home.

Kookum’s Red Shoes by Peter Eyvindson
In this story a grandmother recounts her time in the residential schools and how it affected her whole life.

The children and I spend time discussing how the First Nations, Métis and Inuit little ones must have felt being so far away from their home and being forbidden to use their own languages or practice their cultures. We talk about how the teachers were unkind to the children in the residential schools and it makes us feel very sad for them; no child should be treated harshly of be made to feel like they don’t matter.

Orange Shirt Day is set aside to reflect on the residential schools and to empathize with the First Nations, Métis and Inuit children who were so deeply impacted by their cruel practices. We learn Phyllis’s story because she explains in a very concrete way that something was taken from her and from all of the children in the residential schools; their material possessions, their languages and cultural practices. We remember and learn together to prevent this atrocity from ever happening again, but our work as educators doesn’t end with one conversation, one story, or one day. We must cultivate inclusion in our classroom, foster kindness, and ensure that our learning environments represent different cultures, races, and a rainbow of different human experiences because every child matters.

A special thank you to Joan Sorley, the director of the Orange Shirt Society, for taking the time to read this over for me before it was published.

How Learning Environments Enable Play

I first heard the term ‘enabling environment’ applied to child care classrooms in some of the UK early learning and care circles I frequent on social media. Curious about the meaning I did a little Googling (which is of course a verb now) and I learned that the phrase ‘enabling environment’ originates in the Early Years Foundation Stage document. According to Nursery Resources creating an ‘enabling environment’ “… is about providing a setting in which children can play, explore and learn in a safe, caring and supportive space.”

I took some time to reflect on my practice and I wondered, what do I feel are the elements of an early learning and care environment that truly empower and enable children to play and explore?

The phrase ‘enabling environment’ itself speaks to my soul as an educator; it brings to mind a space that is warm and inviting, filled with beautiful and engaging open-ended materials, where little explorers make eager discoveries each day with the support of caring educators.

Our classrooms are a reflection of our image of the child, “[f]rom the aesthetics of the space, to the type of furnishings and materials available, to the organization of time, the environment communicates a powerful message and contributes to shaping the actions that can be taken within it.” (How Does Learning Happen?) When we view children as competent, capable and curious individuals our classrooms will be intuitively structured as enabling and empowering spaces for young children.

Creating an environment that empowers children begins with educators that respect them as powerful and capable individuals. Both Loris Malaguzzi (founder of the Reggio Emilia schools) and Magda Gerber (developer of the RIE philosophy) expressed that from the moment children are born they are learning and connecting to their world; they are not just empty vessels to be filled with facts, but competent individuals able to construct theories and direct their own learning.

Allowing children to use open-ended materials that may seem challenging (or delicate!) and guiding them as they learn how to use them appropriately, shows them that we trust and respect them. Of course this does means that for awhile glasses may get broken and paint may get spilled, but giving children the opportunity to play in this way supports their learning and growth across the spectrum of development.

The atmosphere of a learning environment also matters. The way that a classroom feels can have a huge impact on the way children play within the space; “When children feel emotionally safe and secure they are able to explore and find out about the place they are in and the things they can see, touch, manoeuvre or manipulate.” (Early Years Matters)

The learning environment should be a safe space for children to express the full gamut of emotions knowing they will be supported in learning how to cope with and express them appropriately (Early Years Foundation Stage). In a classroom environment that is welcoming of all feelings children are comfortable to fail, feel disappointment, and try again.

A friendly, gentle, and welcoming teacher can make all the difference in how children feel in an early learning and care program. When little ones are valued, included, and supported by their educator they are confident and eager to explore. In programs that cultivate caring and supportive relationships children “… are happier, less anxious, and more motivated to learn …” (How Does Learning Happen?)

Encouraging families to participate in the learning environment, in ways that they feel comfortable with, gives children the opportunity to observe a positive connection between home and school which creates a welcoming classroom climate. “Children thrive in programs where they and their families are valued as active participants and contributors.” (How Does Learning Happen?)

The aesthetic of a learning environment as well as its overall emotional atmosphere play a crucial role in children’s learning and development because it sets the stage for their explorations and play (How Does Learning Happen?). Whatever term you use to describe the environment, ‘third teacher’, ‘enabling environment’, or something else entirely, there is no arguing its importance in the early learning framework.

How does your learning environment enable and empower children to play?