Be Well to Teach Well with Mindfulness Practices

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As a guiding teacher for Cultivating Healthy, Intentional, Mindful Educators (CHIME) with Nebraska Extension, I have the pleasure of guiding early childhood teachers as they learn about, explore and practice the concept of mindfulness.

What is mindfulness?

“Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention here and now, with kindness and curiosity, so that we can change our behavior. – Dr. Amy Saltzman

“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”  – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Why Practice Mindfulness?

  • Research suggests it may protect individuals from the effects of adversity on mental health and physical health
  • We can alter our perceptions and reactions through interventions that teach the practice of mindfulness
  • It may improve relationships and learning

Our nation is stressed right now with concerns over our health and well-being. Early childhood professionals are not exempt. Childcare is facing many challenges including workforce development, keeping up with COVID-19, managing staff shortages, overall health concerns, financial stressors associated with the childcare business, and personal concerns that accompany low wages in early childhood.

Children benefit from teachers who are mindfully present—consciously attending and responding to their needs (Jennings et al. 2017). In other words, teachers must be well to teach well.

Through frequent and consistent practice with mindfulness, one can build the capacity to be fully aware in the moment. We can then focus more intentionally on the children in our care and begin to discover what an infant or toddler is revealing to us. We begin to observe, notice, and reflect on what is happening both for the child and inside of us. These insights create a rich environment where relationships with children, families, and colleagues are nurtured (Siegel 2007).  

Isn’t being fully present with the children in our care what we all really want?

Research shows that for mindfulness to be effective with children, it must begin with the teacher. Thus, our CHIME class focuses on learning mindful practices to move teachers from reactive states of mind to being more reflective in their interactions with others. In CHIME, the practice is frequent and consistent over the course of 8 weeks.

The Benefits for Children:

Mindfulness has been shown to help children build skills for social awareness, self-management, strong relationships, and decision-making.

In her book “The Mindful Child,” Susan Kaiser Greenland refers to the “new ABCs of learning; attention, balance, and compassion.”  In practicing mindfulness skills children learn to soothe and calm themselves, paying close attention to what is going on around them. 

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) shares Recommendations for teachers

At home:

  • Experiment with being present during an everyday activity, such as washing the dishes. Notice the temperature of the water, the feel of the suds, and the sound the water makes on the dishes. Focus your attention on your physical movements.
  • Sit for five minutes during the day and close your eyes. Pay attention to the sensations of your breathing. Count your breaths up to 10 and repeat until the five minutes are up. If your mind wanders—which it probably will—acknowledge the thoughts and bring your focus back to your breath. Try not to judge your thoughts, feelings, or sensations.

At work:

  • Before entering work, take a few moments to intentionally refocus your thoughts. Notice what emotions you are feeling or thoughts you are having. Place a hand on your heart and take a deep breath while recognizing these feelings. Then enter the room.
  • Before picking up a baby, pause to take a few deep belly breaths, and slow down. Speak to the baby about what you are doing as you reach out and interact.
  • When changing or feeding a child, pause and notice your feelings and body. Then look at the child, make eye contact, smile, and talk about the present moment.

In our Cultivating Healthy Intentional Mindful Educators (CHIME) class this week, many of the preschool teachers were eager to share how they have been practicing mindful breathing and mindful movement, and how they have incorporated some of the breathing techniques into their classroom practices as well.

NAEYC shares the following strategies for adults

  • Deep belly breathing: put your hand on your belly and inhale deeply as you count to four, feeling your belly rise. Pause at the top of your inhale, then exhale for a count of six, feeling your belly contract. Repeat five times.
  • Progressive relaxation: intentionally contract all of the muscles in your body. Beginning with your toes and moving up to your head, relax your muscles.
  • Mental body scan: beginning with your toes and moving up to your head, notice any tension in your body and intentionally relax those areas. (This technique is especially helpful to ensure that you are calm and ready before attending to a task such as a diaper change.)
  • Intentional refocusing, take a few moments to bring your mind into the present. For example, without moving, notice 10 items of the same color. Or, using your five senses, notice the sensations you are experiencing.

Zero to Three shares Mindful practices for teachers and families to try when adults or children are experiencing big emotions. It is important to first practice these strategies when children are in a state of calm, in order to use them effectively when big emotions do arise.

There also many informal ways to practice mindfulness such as paying close attention to simple daily activities, like brushing your teeth or washing the dishes. For example, when you brush your teeth, notice the feel of the brush, the taste of the toothpaste, the temperature of the water. There is no single mindfulness activity or technique that works for everyone; whatever helps direct your attention to the current moment is a great way to practice.

As you begin your mindfulness practice, The CHIME program suggests asking yourself these reflective questions,

  1. What feelings am I having? 
  2. What am I sensing in my body?  Where do I notice it?
  3. What am I noticing about my thoughts?  My actions?
  4. What urges do I feel?  What do I feel pulled toward?  Away from?
  5. Do I feel in balance?  Out of balance? 
  6. How can this help me better understand the situation (as a caregiver, parent)?
  7. What will happen if I just lean back and take a deep breath?  Another?

May you be well to teach well. What practices do you think you would like to try?

LYNN DEVRIES, EARLY CHILDHOOD EXTENSION EDUCATOR | UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA

Peer Reviewed by Jaci Foged and Erin Kampbell, Early Childhood Extension Educators

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Reading to Infants and Toddlers

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There are many benefits of reading to young children. Being read to helps children develop language and emotional skills. Reading also supports bonding between babies and their caregivers. The best part? It is never too early—or too late—to start reading to the children in your life! Sometimes, it can be intimidating to read to infants and toddlers. You may wonder,
“What’s the point—do they even understand?” or think, “They never sit still long enough to hear anything anyway!” However, many researchers argue that reading to children—and from a very young age—is the single most important activity you can do to prepare them to learn to read. Reading to infants and toddlers sets the stage for a later love of reading and the development of pre-reading skills.

ZERO TO THREE offers suggestions for types of books and tips  for shared reading at different stages during infancy and toddlerhood. Here are some guidelines for reading to infants and toddlers.

  • Don’t worry about finishing every book, or even reading all of the words. Focus on the bonding experience.
  • Try to read together every day.
  • Ask questions while you are reading, even if your child can’t yet respond.
  • Read new books, and also read the same books over and over. Babies learn from repetition.  
  • When books aren’t available, talk. Describe the things around you. Narrate what you are doing. Make up a story.

Common Concerns

My baby thinks the book is a snack. This is not only common, it is also appropriate! Babies learn about their environment by putting objects in their mouths to explore the taste and texture. It is also common for babies to explore by ripping. If you can, provide sturdy books that will hold up to biting and tearing. You can also provide books with flaps, mirrors, and new textures to explore.

My baby won’t sit still. This is also developmentally appropriate. Continue to read out loud, even as they move away and explore other parts of the room. Show excitement when they show interest in the book.

We don’t have access to books. Start talking! Oral storytelling is a great way to expose young children to new words and ideas. It is also a great way to share family traditions and to help children learn about their cultural identity.

My child doesn’t enjoy reading together. Be flexible. Try new ways of exploring books, such as looking at the pictures together or flipping through to the pages your child likes. Don’t force your child to sit and focus only on the book; allow them to crawl around or engage with other toys. The goal is to keep the reading experience positive.

Resources


AMY NAPOLI, EXTENSION SPECIALIST | UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA

Peer Reviewed by Jackie Steffen and Lynn DeVries, Early Childhood Extension Educators

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Gratitude is Always in Season

Image Source: Lynn DeVries

What is Gratitude

Let’s pause for a moment to examine the definition of gratitude. The word gratitude is derived from the Latin word gratia, which means grace, graciousness, or gratefulness (depending on the context). According to the Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning, practicing gratitude supports social emotional learning competencies for social and self-awareness.

Research has shown there are many benefits to practicing gratitude. In a study by Dr. Robert A. Emmons of the University of California, Davis, and Dr. Michael E. McCullough of the University of Miami, they asked participants to journal on specific topics over the course of 10 weeks. One group wrote about things they were grateful for that had occurred during the week. A second group wrote about daily irritations or things that had displeased them, and the third wrote about events that had affected them (with no emphasis on them being positive or negative). The people who journaled about gratitude were found to have improvements in health and well-being, including increased energy levels, improvement in sleep quality, lowered blood pressure, less symptoms of pain, and feeling a greater sense of joy. Click here to read more on how Practicing Gratitude Can Increase Happiness.

Gratitude as a Mindful Practice

Practicing mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way, on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally (Jon Kabit-Zinn). Another definition states, “Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention here and now with kindness and curiosity, so that we can choose our behavior” (Dr. Amy Saltzman). Practicing gratitude can bring you to a more present-moment awareness and similarly, gratitude can lead to living in the present.

Mindfulness in Gratitude is the topic of the week for a class I am teaching for childcare professionals, Cultivating Healthy, Intentional, Mindful Educators (CHIME). The CHIME Program provides education and guidance on how to incorporate mindfulness and reflective practice into your daily routine, teaching and care giving. Engaging in mindfulness and reflective practice has many benefits for health and well-being of both providers and young children — including reduced stress, improved emotion management, better sleep quality, increased focus and attention, and enhanced relationships.

In my CHIME class, participants kept a gratitude journal for two weeks. After the two weeks, the early childhood teachers also noted a sense of greater happiness amongst themselves and others in their workplace. Another activity I modeled in the CHIME class was to make a gratitude necklace or bracelet. We selected beads that resembled a person or thing we are grateful for and shared among the group as we strung the beads. For example, I chose the blue bead as I am thankful for the fair weather and clear blue skies. The teachers will replicate this activity with preschool children.

Harvard Medical School suggests Giving Thanks Can Make You Happier and “Gratitude is a way for people to appreciate what they have instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes it will make them happier or thinking they can’t feel satisfied until every physical and material need is met. Gratitude helps people refocus on what they have instead of what they lack. And, although it may feel contrived at first, this mental state grows stronger with use and practice.

WAYS TO NURTURE GRATITUDE

Writing Thank-you-Notes or Emails

This practice can cultivate your relationships with others and help you to feel happier too. Don’t forget to send or deliver the message personally. I keep a bulletin board in my office, and it has pinned to it the special thank you notes that others have written to me. This little gesture of gratitude is a gift to the heart.

Keep a Daily Gratitude Journal

Keep the journal where it is handy to reach at a specific time each day, perhaps in the morning or in the evening. Write down 1, 2, or 3 things you can be grateful for each day. The things you write about do not have to be grandiose things or events, it can be the little things, hidden often in plain sight. It is important to stop and reflect on how this practice is going after about 2 weeks. What do you notice about your health and well-being?

Pray or Consider Thanking a Higher Power

Consider the practice of thanking a higher power to cultivating gratitude.

Mindfulness Meditation

Find a Gratitude Meditation Practice centered on what you are grateful for.

GRATITUDE PRACTICES FOR YOUNG CHILDREN


Julie A Reiss, author of Raising a Thankful Child from NAEYC says, “Teaching manners is a fine art of modeling but not always the making of meaning. Raising thankful children is a fine art of helping them make their own meaning.” We can model manners and ways to say thank you when appropriate, but it may not have meaning for children until later. Reiss suggests that learning to say thank you is not the same as being thankful, and that our role as caregivers is to model appreciation and reflect those genuine feelings back to the child.

What Does Modeling Gratitude Look Like for Young Children?

Here are some suggestions from Rebecca Parlakian and Sarah S. MacLaughlin, Nurturing Gratitude (Zero to Three, 2020)

  • Show appreciation to your children. Slow down and observe more closely. You’ll see things you appreciate about your kids—then tell them! Appreciation can be an even more powerful motivator than praise. Sharing appreciation is a strong way to feel connected to one another.
  • Show appreciation for others. Never underestimate the power of your words and actions. Your children are paying attention to the way you treat others, whether it’s friends, neighbors, a teacher, or the cashier at the market. They hear your tone with the salesperson on the phone. You set a great example when you model kindness, generosity, and gratefulness in your own everyday interactions.
  • Use the word “grateful.” Children need to learn what this new word means. Explain that being grateful is noticing something in your life that makes you happy. “I’m grateful that it’s sunny today because it was raining yesterday.” Mention gratitude when you’re doing an everyday pleasant activity, like hanging out at the playground or eating watermelon on a hot day. Pause and say, “I’m so grateful for this day!” or “Wow, this is fun!” Your enthusiasm will be contagious.
  • Make a Thankful Tree. Cut a tree trunk from cardboard or construction paper. Tape to a wall or window and cut out some leaf shapes. Ask your child to think of something they are thankful for and write one on each leaf. Then tape the leaf to a branch. Add your own “thankful things.” Have your child ask family members what they’re grateful for and add them to the tree.
  • Share stories of thankfulness, gratitude, and generosity.

As with any mindfulness practice, mindful gratitude practice does take time. The benefits may not emerge immediately, but rather gradually occur over time, and children will need to be exposed to genuine appreciation and to feel appreciated themselves. How do you practice gratitude?


LYNN DEVRIES, EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Amy Napoli , Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist and Kara Kohel Extension Educator, The Learning Child

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Big Questions

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Some questions only elicit rote answers and therefore will not spark a meaningful conversation or connection. Others encourage thought-provoking conversations and ideas.

Questions are powerful tools and they encourage children to think at a higher level. The types of questions that you ask young children can affect the quality of your conversation with them.

Having intentional and meaningful conversations with your children is critical to providing an atmosphere of emotional security.  Engaging with and listening to children help them to feel valued and respected. They learn to feel safe talking with you and sharing thoughts and feelings that may be otherwise difficult to discuss.

Here are some ways to inspire rich conversations.

  • Try to ask more open-ended questions. Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with one word. Instead of asking, “How was your day?” consider rephrasing and saying, “Tell me about the favorite parts of your day.”
  • Distractions are all around us. Take time to fully engage with your child and practice active listening in a one-on-one environment. That means removing electronics and getting down on their level. Giving children your full attention demonstrates that you respect them and what they have to say.
  • Make conversations a habit. The time of day that works best is different for everyone. Some might be able to connect deeply on the “to and from” school commutes, others at bedtime, or maybe around the table. Take notice of when your child feels the most comfortable opening up to you.
  • Do your homework. If your child is in school and you have access to daily announcements, lesson plans, or newsletters, use that information to help spark conversations. Children can fail to mention exciting events unintentionally. They may be surprised with some pieces of information that you know about their day.
  • Finally, remember that conversations are a two-way street. If you ask too many questions, children can feel like they are being drilled. Don’t just ask questions; open up and talk about YOUR day. Being authentic and modeling good communication with other adults in your house will encourage children to join in on conversations.

Asking higher level questions takes practice and time.  Think about what information you want to share with your child and what you would like to know from them.  Be genuine.  If it is tough to talk to them, don’t worry.  It is important to simply start practicing conversation skills, especially when children are young.  Have fun and keep a sense of humor and wonder.  Children will follow your lead.

Here are a few open-ended questions to get you started.

  • If you were the family chef, what would you make today for breakfast (lunch, dinner)?  Why?
  • If you could do anything today, what would it be?
  • What was your favorite part about the holidays this year?
  • This year has been hard for lots of people. Is there anything positive you experienced?  What things do you wish you could change? 
  • If you could ask me anything (parents), what would it be?

For more ideas on starting conversations and asking higher level questions, visit High Level Questions for High Level Thinking, https://learningchildblog.com/?s=big+questions, April 1, 2020 authored by LaDonna Werth. 

References:

Big Questions for Young Minds:  Extending Children’s Thinking by Janis Strasser and Lisa Mufson Bresson

SARAH ROBERTS AND JACKIE STEFFEN, EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Leanne Manning and Lynn DeVries, Extension Educators, The Learning Child

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Peer Review:  LaDonna Werth & Kara Kohel

Helping Foster a Growth Mindset in Young Children

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“Mommy you do it … It’s too hard for me … I can’t do this … I don’t understand.” The struggle is real. I think it is safe to admit we all have had moments where it seems easier to ask someone else to do something or just give up rather than to keep trying. Raising children can be difficult, and the pressure is on us to help our children be the best they can be. Too often, we might find ourselves jumping in to help the child accomplish something even though (with a little effort) they may be able to do it themselves. You might be thinking that jumping in and rescuing your child works for you. For instance, opening up the granola bar wrapper is relatively easy for you — but might take quite a bit of effort from your child. The child might whine or become frustrated when they cannot immediately open the wrapper. In the long run, our children need to be able to persevere, to fail and try again, to be disappointed and to put in the hard work.

Caregiving Adults

We might need to step back for our children to move forward. Dr. Carol Dweck is a researcher at Stanford University. According to Dweck, there are two types of mindsets — a fixed mindset and a growth mindset. In a fixed mindset, people believe their qualities are fixed traits and, therefore, cannot change. These people document their intelligence and talents rather than working to develop and improve them. They also believe talent alone leads to success, and effort is not required. Alternatively, in a growth mindset, people have an underlying belief their learning and intelligence can grow with time and experience. When people believe they can get smarter, they realize their effort has an effect on their success, so they put in extra time, leading to higher achievement.

Mindsets

Dweck has found that mindsets can change, and when a mindset changes, learners do better. History shows us there are a lot of famous people who have displayed a growth mindset. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team but went on to become a famous professional basketball player. The Beatles were rejected by Decca Recording Studios who said, “We don’t like their sound; they have no future in show business,” yet they went on to become a very popular group. Oprah Winfrey was demoted from her job as news anchor because she “wasn’t fit for television” yet she hosted the longest-running talk show on television which ran for 25 years. Growth mindset is real and attainable.

Graphic by Nigel Holmes

Fostering Growth

So how do we foster a growth mindset in the children we care for?

• Consider the language you are using with children. Words have meaning and communicate an important message to the receiver. The language we use tells others what to believe and what we think of them. Example, instead of saying, “It’s not that hard;” say, “You can do hard things.”

• Explain to children our brains can learn and grow. For young children, try reading stories to them which focus on growth mindset. Examples include Your Fantastic Elastic Brain by JoAnn Deak, The Most Magnificent Thing by Ashley Spires, Listening With My Heart by Gabi Garcia and The Dot by Peter H. Reynolds.

• Have daily learning discussions. Encourage children to be their best each day, to put their heart into their work. Remind children it is okay to start their day over whenever they need to. Failure does not mean we are finished; instead, see it as an opportunity to begin again.

• Encourage and model positive self-talk. If you notice your child being critical of themselves, ask them what they would say to a friend who is in a similar situation. Explain to the child it is important to treat ourselves with the same care and respect we treat others. It is small, but when a child tells you something (they cannot tie their shoes), add “yet” to the end of their statement. “You cannot tie your shoes, yet.”

• Encourage risk, failing and learning from mistakes. Remind children disappointment, setbacks and making mistakes are a part of growing up. Focus on effort by saying, “I like how you tried a new way to solve that.”

Suggested Resources:

JACI fOGED, EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Leanne Manning and Lynn DeVries, Extension Educators, The Learning Child

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More than Counting: Incorporating Math into Daily Interactions with Preschoolers

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Many parents report that time is their biggest barrier to teaching their children. Because there are limited hours in the day, math is the topic that often gets left out. However, it is important to recognize that we do not have to set aside specific time dedicated only to math. Math concepts can be incorporated into activities and routines that you are already doing. These strategies can help you maximize your time, and also show children how math applies in real world settings. It takes intentional effort, but once you have made math engagement a norm, your child will initiate many of the interactions.

1. Eating

Help your child set the table. How many people are eating the meal? Each person needs one plate, one fork, and one napkin. Meal and snack time also provide a great opportunity to expose your child to mathematical language terms (Would you like more carrots? Who has the most bread?). You can also count small snacks like raisins or crackers and ask questions (How many will you have if I give you one more? How many will you have left after you eat two?).

Resources: One Gooey Layer after Another, Eating Up Patterns

2. Reading

While reading to your child, try asking math-related questions and initiating math-related conversations (How many ducks can you see? Let’s count the animals with two legs and the animals with four legs and add them up.). ,

Resources: Mighty Math Books, Maths through Stories

3. Driving

While you are in the car or on the bus, you can help your child count and compare the things that you see. Turn it into a game! “You count the red cars and I’ll count the blue cars. Then we can compare them and see if we saw more red or blue cars.” or “I noticed that car is stopped.  You look for a car that is moving.”

Resource: Get Ready for Road Trips with Our Math On the Go Printable!

4. Playing

Think about some ways that you can incorporate math into playing with your child’s favorite toys. Does your child like dinosaurs? Sort them (by color, size, etc.) and then count the groups. Which group has the most? Which group has the fewest? Then try sorting them by a different trait and compare the groups again.

Resources: Sorting Socks , NAEYC Math at Home Toolkit

5. Talking

Ask questions that prompt your child’s mathematical thinking. Sometimes your child will say things that surprise you, or respond incorrectly to a question. Rather than immediately correcting, try to find the right answer together. Ask follow up questions that help your child figure it out on their own. This is also a good strategy when your child responds correctly. Try prompting with “Wow! How did you figure that out?” or “Show me why you think there would be three.”

Resource: Talking about Math All Around Us! On-The-Go Cards The most important thing to remember when engaging your child in math is to have fun. Set an example that math engagement is a positive and enjoyable experience. The interaction should center on a positive experience with you, with math learning as an added bonus.

AMY NAPOLI, EXTENSION SPECIALIST | UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA

Peer Reviewed by Lynn DeVries, Extension Educator, The Learning Child and Linda Reddish, Extension Educator, The Learning Child

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Creating Reading Routines During the Summer Months

Source citation: Jackie Steffen

One of the most effective ways to improve children’s reading achievement is by reading often and early to them.  When summer rolls around we may be tempted to ease up on academic expectations and the amount of quality time we spend reading with children or children spend reading on their own.  It is natural to get distracted by the nice weather, summer to-do lists, and the freedom from structured schedules.

There are many benefits to keeping the reading momentum going throughout the summer including improved fluency, increased vocabulary, expanded background knowledge, and greater confidence are just a few.  

How can you enjoy the beauty of summertime and still foster a love of reading?  Here are a few quick tips. 

  • Make reading a part of your daily routine.  If nighttime read alouds do not fit into your summer schedule because you are staying outside later and time slips away from you, consider changing the time of day that you and your child read.  Stories outside with the birds chirping and the cool morning air will start your day off with a close connection and rich, warm discussions.  A shared reading experience after mealtimes is effective as well.  Classroom teachers tend to do classroom read alouds after lunch; maybe that is tradition that would work well for your setting.  No matter what you decide is the perfect reading routine, remember to be intentional but flexible.
  • Encourage children to select books they are genuinely interested in and excited about.  Although reading books at grade level is desirable, reading choice should be the primary focus.  Books should engage children through text, pictures, and the story line.  Book selection is crucial to developing an intrinsic joy and it also promotes independence.  It is much easier for children to get in the “reading zone” when they are hearing or reading books by authors and in genres that are engaging to them. 
  • Connect reading to family outings.  If you are heading out on a bike ride, pack a couple books and decide on a special place to take a break and relax with a good story.  If you are visiting an aquarium, consider reading books about fish or hatcheries to prepare for the trip or to extend learning after the visit.  Listening to a family audiobook as you are traveling from destination to destination sparks conversations about a shared reading experience and will leave children anticipating the next time they get to travel and hear the rest of the story.  Sharing stories as a family can leave a lasting impression. 

Remember that reading books for meaning and pleasure should be emphasized above all this summer.  There is a contagious energy about books that are read for enjoyment.  Strong connections and relationships are developed.  Above all, summertime reading creates wonder, curiosity, and the eagerness to want to discover more.  

For more information and ideas for reading at home, visit https://www.readingrockets.org/audience/parents

Visit https://www.startwithabook.org/summer-reading-learning to get additional suggestions for summer reading activities.

To download fairy tale storybook guides to support literacy development, visit https://child.unl.edu/nebraska-4-h-stem-reading-connections-program

JACKIE STEFFEN EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Amy Napoli, University of Nebraska Extension Specialist and Linda Reddish, Extension Educator, The Learning Child

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The Great Outdoors Holds Great Opportunity for Your Child

Photo source: The Learning Child

As a child, I remember running around barefoot with my siblings,exploring woods, climbing trees, and building forts. Oh, the memories. I had scrapes, bruises, and even stitches at times, but they were worth it.In addition to the great memories made, did you know there are endless benefits of simply letting your child run outside and play? The next time you’re deciding whether to let your child play inside or outside, you might want to consider all the opportunities that come with the great outdoors.

Increased Physical Activity

Although it seems as if your child has endless energy, letting them play outside can help release some bottled up energy. Everything from walking, running, and jumping around, to climbing trees and carrying building supplies for forts, contributes to the development of strength, balance, and coordination. According to the Stateofobesity.org, Nebraska ranks 5th with a 2-4-year-old obesity rate of 16.9%. Yikes! Just think how our rates might decrease if children spent more time outside.

Development of Gross Motor Skills and Fine Motor Skills

Developing these skills directly affects the creation of strong, healthy, capable children. Gross motor skills help your child run, walk, and climb. Fine motor skills are used when they pick up sticks or make a nature bracelet with all of their outdoor treasures. Development of these skills requires lots of practice,and outdoor adventures offer just that.

Social Interaction

No matter if your child is playing with siblings, friends, or you, they are gaining social interaction. Being outside with limited toys can push children to expand their imaginations. When combining different imaginations, new ideas and brainstorming skills are created. Teamwork is also strenghtened. Whether they are ‘playing house’ or building something, your child will be working together with others, and learning teamwork young could benefit your child in their future endeavors.

Use of Imagination

I just mentioned that when your child is outside, it can force them to use their imaginations. Children need to experience boredom at times in order to create new levels of play. Once they do, they can see objects in new ways, such as using mud to make cake or pretending a stick is a mixing spoon. Also, when your child has free time, they have time to daydream, and that can lead to some of their most creative ideas.

It is the beginning of summer and that means it’s the perfect time for your child to go enjoy all of the benefits that the great outdoors offers!

LaDonna Werth, EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Leanne Manning, Extension Educator, The Learning Child and Lisa Poppe, Extension Educator, The Learning Child

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Supporting Unique Interests of Children

Image source: Jody Green

I am a professional entomologist. I studied insects and spiders at the college level, and I educate people about how to manage and prevent bugs from bugging them. Though I have always had an appreciation for insects, I didn’t know urban entomology and pest management would be a career option for me, and I was an adult when I decided on a non-traditional career for a woman. Unfortunately, many children lack the role models, resources, and support to follow their passion.

A true story that is near and dear to my heart is the story of Sophia Spencer, a Canadian girl whose love for bugs brought out a negative reaction at school simply because bullies believed that girls should not like bugs. Seven-year-old Sophia was ready to give up her favorite things, until her mom jumped in to help her out. As a parent, I can understand the feelings of frustration and helplessness, not knowing exactly how to help your child. Desperate to encourage her daughter, Sophia’s mother wrote a letter to the Entomological Society of Canada and a post on Twitter was sent out to entomologists around the world like a red alert. As a woman entomologist, I responded immediately by sending one of hundreds of messages intended for Sophia. Little did Sophia’s mom know, she initiated a huge movement, which is now associated with the hashtag #BugsR4Girls.

So, what can we learn from Sophia’s experience?

HERE ARE 10 WAYS ALL ADULTS CAN SUPPORT LIFELONG LEARNING, DISCOVERY, AND THE SUCCESS OF CHILDREN:

1. BE KIND

Teach kindness, empathy, and respect for each other.

2. SUPPORT THE CHILD

Commit to learning with them, foster their curiosity, and support their interests, whether it be fleeting or lasting. Do some research, buy or borrow some books, find a podcast, or a video.

3. ASK FOR HELP

Reach out to an expert in the field through a professional organization or college directory. Passionate people love to share their passion with others.

4. TOYS AND PLAY SHOULD BE GENDER-NEUTRAL

Set aside conceptions of what boys and girls should play with and how they should play, so that all children can benefit from toys and activities.

5. NATURE IS FOR EVERYONE

Encourage children, regardless of gender, to ask questions and use all of their sense to discovery the world around them. Nature play is beneficial for a child’s overall development, health, and wellbeing.

6. SOCIAL MEDIA CAN BE USED FOR GOOD

Whichever outlet you prefer, set your boundaries, and follow through. Social media has a way of bringing people closer, but can also be intertwined with negative outcomes.

7. BE A MENTOR

If you have an expertise in something, you can inspire, nurture, and help a child struggling to find a role model.

8. YOU’RE NEVER TOO YOUNG (OR OLD) TO INSPIRE

Role models come in all shapes and sizes. Small voices can be heard, we need to elevate them.

9. FOLLOW YOUR PASSION

Children follow our lead and if we show passion for our work or hobbies, they will seek out the same for their own lives.

10. LEARN WHY INSECTS ARE IMPORTANT

Image source: Jody Green

Yes, insects at times can be challenge, but they are also a major pollinator supporter of crops and flowers. Introduce children to insects through art, music, literature, and simple observations.

Sophia not only found a community of entomologists to encourage her love for insects, but in the last few years has co-authored a scientific paper and wrote a children’s book. To learn more about her experience in her own words and voice, read and listen to the NPR story from 2017 or recent (2020) CBC Radio story. She definitely showed the world that bugs were for her and she continues to inspire others with her story.

Resources:

Arthro-Pod EP 71: #BugsR4Girls with Sophia Spencer. http://arthro-pod.blogspot.com/2020/03/arthro-pod-ep-71-bugsr4girls-with.html

Jackson, M. and Spencer, S. (2017) Engaging for a Good Cause: Sophia’s Story and Why #BugsR4Girls. Annals of the Entomological Society of America, 110 (5): 439-448. https://doi.org/10.1093/aesa/sax055

Spencer, S. and McNamera, M. (2020). The Bug Girl (A True Story). New York: Schwartz & Wade Books.

4-H. Entomology Curriculum: Teaming with Insects. https://4-h.org/parents/curriculum/entomology/

JODY GREEN, EXTENSION EDUCATOR | Urban Entomology

Peer Reviewed by Linda Reddish, Extension Educator, The Learning Child and Katherine Krause, Extension Educator, The Learning Child

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Benefits of Reading Aloud

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Parents want what’s best for their children, and many ask what expensive toys they should buy, what extracurricular activities they should be involved in, or if they should be playing classical music at home to advance brain development. 

Jim Trelease, the author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, has a straightforward answer in regards to what’s best for children.

He says, “Read to your children.

Starting at birth, reading with children puts them on the path to success. In fact, researchers determined that reading aloud to young children is the single most important thing that parents can do to prime children for school success.

Here are three benefits of reading aloud with children.

Benefit #1: Increased Vocabulary and Sophisticated Language Patterns

When it comes to prekindergarten skills, vocabulary is a prime predictor of school success or failure. When you read aloud to children, they hear words that do not ordinarily come up in conversations. Because of this, it expands a child’s vocabulary faster than anything else does. 

The value picture books play in vocabulary development should not be underestimated. Many of them are written grammatically correct and include sophisticated writing that is rich in content and meaning. As children listen to these stories, their vocabularies strengthen without effort. 

Benefit #2: Ability to Make Connections

Reading comprehension is critical. We take the work of decoding out when we read aloud. This lets children use their mental energy to enjoy and make connections, which improves reading comprehension. 

Children need to understand what they read and apply it to what they know. That is making connections. Children connect the information they encounter for the first time with other facts and ideas they have already encountered. They compare it to other stories they’ve heard, personal events they’ve encountered, and to the world beyond themselves. 

Without even intending to, children make connections every time a book is opened. Stories allow them to slip into another world, think deeply, bond with characters, and educate their hearts and mind.   

Benefit #3: A Love for Reading

More important than teaching children, the actual skill of reading is to cultivate natural curiosity and love of reading. When we focus on nurturing children’s love of stories, we get both kids who can read as well as kids who do read. A healthy reading life has a tremendous impact on children’s academic success.

In a world full of noise and the hustle and bustle, pulling a child on your lap and reading is one of the best uses of your time and energy. It may seem simple, but being fully present and sharing good stories makes a huge and lasting impact because a childhood filled with stories inspires and nurtures children. Therefore, read widely to spark that ember. Author Linda Sue Park said, “A book can’t change the world on its own, but a book can change readers. And readers? They can change the world.”

So, the next time you spend time reading with your children, just remember, each time you turn the page you just might be changing the world.

Resources:

Mackenzie, S. (2018). The read-aloud family: making meaningful and lasting connections with your kids. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

National Association for the Education of Young Children. (1998). Learning to Read and Write: Developmentally Appropriate Practices for Young Children. Retrieved from https://www.naeyc.org/sites/default/files/globally-shared/downloads/PDFs/resources/position-statements/PSREAD98.PDF

TEDxBeaconStreet. (2015, December). Can A Children’s Book Change the World? Linda Sue Park. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/40xz0afCjnM

JACKIE STEFFEN, EXTENSION EDUCATOR | THE LEARNING CHILD

Peer Reviewed by Linda Reddish, Extension Educator, The Learning Child and Lynn DeVries, Extension Educator, The Learning Child

Make sure to follow The Learning Child on social media for more research-based early childhood education resources!

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