Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Handwriting—Right from the Start

Since I work as a Reading Specialist in my other life, I have recently had a couple of friends ask me about handwriting suggestions for their children.  Their questions, and a couple of new students with atrocious handwriting, have reminded me of how critically important it is to teach children proper handwriting skills.  Breaking bad habits in handwriting is EXTREMELY difficult; it’s soooo much easier to teach proper handwriting in the beginning.  So, my appeal to you as early educators is to teach correct handwriting in your programs and teach proper handwriting techniques to parents so that they can reinforce it at home.
Proper handwriting can certainly make a child’s written work more legible, but it does more than that.  It can help keep the child’s hand, wrist and arm from becoming overly fatigued when writing.  It can also help with the problem of letter reversals.

As with most other skills that children acquire, there are foundational skills that need to be in place before the child is ready to write.  These skills are:
  • Small muscle development
  • Eye-hand coordination
  • Visual-perceptual skills—being able to tell what is different and what is the same, recognize forms, and follow the movements to make the forms
  • The ability to hold the crayon, pencil, etc.
  • The ability to form basic strokes
  • The ability to understand the conventions of written language—top to bottom, left to right.

Improving the small muscle development of even the youngest child is a way to start preparing for handwriting.  Something as simple as “tummy-time” for infants can help strengthen the child’s wrist muscles in anticipation of eventual handwriting.  “Crab walking” does the same thing for older children.  Playing with playdough also helps strengthen the muscles in the fingers and wrist.  Other activities for developing these small muscles, while increasing eye-hand coordination include playing with squeeze toys or fidgets (like stress balls), using clothespins or tongs to pick up small items, and stringing beads.  Visual-perceptual skills can be acquired through completing jigsaw puzzles and doing matching activities.

While a very young child starts by holding a crayon in his fist, children who are beginning to write should have developed a more mature grip.  If a child is having difficulty developing a proper grip, there are tools like pencil grips that are commercially available.  If you’re not sure about what constitutes a good grip, there are a lot of online resources or, if you know an Occupational Therapist, I’m sure they would be willing to talk with you about it.  If the child is wrapping his wrist around when he writes rather than extending it, you can do wrist strengthening exercises and have the child write either on a vertical whiteboard (or chalkboard) or on a slanted board on the desk or table. 

There are a lot of free traceable downloads available to help children understand the basic strokes required in handwriting—top to bottom, left to right, diagonals, and circles.  Just make sure that you teach the children the proper strokes; don’t just give them the paper and let them make the strokes however they think they should.  Throughout the child’s time with you, you should be demonstrating the top-to-bottom, left-to-right conventions of our language.  When you read a big-book to children, use your hand to follow along with what you’re reading.  Any time children are writing, they should be writing from left to right. 
If children are taught correct letter formation from the start, letter reversals will be virtually eliminated.  For example, the two most confused letters are “b” and “d”.  A lowercase “b” should be formed with the line first, then the circle.  A lowercase “d”, on the other hand, is formed with the circle first, then the line.  If children learn to form them this way, and are taught a solid left-to-right progression, they will have much less difficulty in discriminating between these two letters.

So, from someone who works extensively with elementary-age children with very bad handwriting habits, please, please, please, teach them proper handwriting from the beginning.  And, don’t forget to teach their parents the same thing.  Many parents weren’t taught proper handwriting, so don’t know how to make sure their children are forming their letters correctly.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Substitute Employees in Child Care

In any job, employees will miss occasional days of work.  Some businesses can just live without someone in that position for a short time.  In child care, that is simply not an option.  We have teacher-child ratios and quality of care standards that have to be met, so we have to have substitute teachers when one of our regular staff members is unavailable. 

Substitutes are tricky.  Ideally, you will have a couple of part-time employees who can extend their hours for a day or two to cover for their co-worker.  Alternately, you may have an employee (or a few) who have agreed to work on-call.  In a smaller program, these people are more difficult to keep on staff as they do not usually get work frequently, but some are willing to stay for the opportunity for a regular position when someone leaves.  One other option, if there is one in your area, is a substitute agency.  You can contact them when you have someone out for the day and, ideally, they can provide a substitute to cover.  Of course, these agencies are significantly more expensive than paying your own staff member, but they may be a viable option if you don’t have anything else. 

Regardless of how you secure your substitute, you have to make sure the person knows what you expect of their employment, even if it’s just for a day.  We do this through a Substitute Agreement Form.  This form is a combination of our Employment Offer, Job Description, Standards of Conduct, and Statement of Understanding.  We don’t need those full documents for a substitute, but components of each of those documents are important.  We need to make sure this person understands that their employment is at-will and not guaranteed for any specific time or hours.  We ensure that the individual is qualified for the position for which we are hiring them.  We explain payroll procedures so there are no misunderstandings.  Finally, we go over the expectations for the job itself; how they are to guide and supervise children; keep them safe; interact with them; interact with the parents and other staff members; and use the program’s resources.  Making sure our expectations are clear from the start helps prevent future misunderstandings and gives our temporary employees the tools they need to be successful.

If you don’t have a Substitute Agreement Form yet, check ours out here.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Early Learning—Gross Motor Area

For most of us, our primary Gross Motor Area will be our outdoor playground which will, ideally, have a variety of hard and soft surfaces and a variety of stationary and movable materials.  As wonderful as the outdoor area can be, a Gross Motor Area inside can be very useful.  There are times when weather just doesn’t permit outdoor play and, of course, there are children who could use more gross motor time than you can provide outdoors. 

If you are fortunate enough to have a large, dedicated indoor Gross Motor area, you are in the minority.  So, we will talk about a Gross Motor Area within a classroom or Family Child Care Home.  Because of the activity level and noise level anticipated in this area, it should not be near any of your quieter areas.  Ideally, it will have a carpeted surface to provide some padding.  You will need to have mats around for any activities in which children are tumbling or off the ground in any way. 

Along with mats, you may want to include:
  • A balance beam or even just lines taped on the floor.
  • Balls of various sizes and textures.
  • Tunnels.
  • Large building blocks.
  • A small climbing structure.
  • Hula hoops.
  • Plastic cones.
  • A bean bag toss game.
  • Scarves or streamers.
  • A music player with some movement-type cds or mp3s.

Parents understand the need for children to get some extra energy out through gross motor play.  What we may need to help them understand is what their children learn through these types of activities.  Of course, there are the physical skills that are acquired, like hopping, skipping, bouncing a ball, balancing, etc.  But children can also acquire a sense of rhythm and the ability to move their bodies to rhythms.  Social skills are also huge in a Gross Motor Area.  Generally, this area won’t be big enough that everyone can do what they want at any given time, so they will have to learn skills like turn-taking and compromising; skills that will be important throughout their lives.


Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Early Learning—Science Area

Last week we talked about a Sensory Play Area in your classroom.  In this area, children often have the opportunity to learn some science concepts such as what sinks and what floats or what happens when you mix sand and water.  This week, we’ll talk about extending into a full-fledged Science Area. 
Obviously, in our toddler or preschool Science Area, we’re not going to include a chemistry set or anything else hazardous.  But, this is a great place for children to start learning about the world around them and about experimentation and basic scientific processes. 
Because children will be learning about making careful observations and thinking deeply about what they are doing, the Science Area should be in a quieter section of the classroom.  Ideally, it would be on a hard surface, for ease of cleaning, but with a washable rug for comfort.  Generally, children will be sitting at a small table or standing in this area, but it’s also always nice to have a comfortable area on the floor to sit or lie down, if desired.  Your Science Area should have some low shelves to separate it from the other learning areas and to neatly store your science tools and materials.
Your Science Area should be rotated frequently, but also have space available for long-term experiments to remain undisturbed.  You can rotate the materials according to your weekly or monthly theme and also with the seasons.  The goal of the Science Area is for children to explore the environment around them, so seasonal activities are very important.  Just make sure you provide a balance between varied activities and long-term observations.
Tools and/or activities for a Science Area could include:
  • Local seasonal items like leaves, pine cones, acorns, and snow.
  • Rocks and shells.
  • Seeds or plants to grow.
  • Pets, insect farms, or an aquarium (with everything treated humanely and provided with veterinary care as appropriate). 
  • Scales and balances.
  • Magnifying glasses.
  • Magnets and magnetic and non-magnetic materials.
  • Color paddles and color wheels.
  • Rulers and measuring tapes.
  • Science books.
  • “Tornado tube” with plastic bottles.
  • Posters of nature, weather, etc.
  • Gears, ramps, and pulleys.
  • Paper or notepads and pencils for taking notes.
The Science Area is a great place to have fun with your little environmental detectives!

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Early Learning—Sensory Play Area

Parents will often see the Sensory Play Area as just a play area and not understand the great skills that their children are acquiring in this area.  Not only are they learning math and science concepts, but they are learning critical social-emotional skills. 

From a social point of view, a child will rarely be alone in the Sensory Play Area.  For this reason, there will be a lot of give-and-take, a lot of cooperative learning, a lot of compromising.  What great life skills!  As for the emotional piece, sensory play can be very soothing.  We all have coping mechanisms for when we get stressed; perhaps chewing fingernails, smoking, or taking a nice warm shower.  These are all sensorial experiences that we have learned over time to soothe ourselves  (and, no, I’m not promoting smoking or even fingernail chewing, but recognize that these are commonly used soothing mechanisms for adults).  Some of us even have worry stones or stress balls on our desks.  This is what the Sensory Play Area does for children.  They can plunge their hands into water, let sand sift through their fingers, or squeeze playdough to soothe themselves when they are feeling stressed. 

Any learning area that involves water, sand, and playdough should not be located in a carpeted area of your classroom if possible.  If it must be located on carpet, make sure that you have a lot of plastic mats available to protect your carpet.  At the same time, your flooring must be non-slip so that, when it does get wet, the children (and staff) are not in danger of slipping and falling.  Ideally, your Sensory Play Area will be located near your back door so that it can be used both indoors and outdoors.  Specially-made sand and water tables are great, but not necessary.  If you don’t have the space or money for these, dishpans or plastic bins work well also.  Along with sand and water, you can use a variety of sensorial materials like clean mud (basically toilet paper, soap, and water), real mud, snow, packing peanuts, beads, and, depending upon your philosophical beliefs, rice, beans, or cornmeal.  (Keep in mind that your materials and water containers have to be appropriate for the age of children in your program.)  You also need tools for playing with these materials.  These tools could include: 
  • Rakes, shovels, spoons, and scoops
  • Buckets and sand molds
  • Cups and bottles
  • Sand wheels
  • Measuring cups
  • Funnels
  • Sifters
  • Egg beaters
  • Plastic boats
  • And don’t forget the smocks to help keep the children’s clothes clean.

Looking at these materials, we can see what types of things the children will learn in the Sensory Play Area.  We’re talking about a lot of math and science concepts here.  How many cups of sand will fit in this bottle…and how do I get it in there?  What happens when I mix water with the sand?  What will sink and what will float?  As with any learning center, you can change out both the tools and the materials to fit the theme of the week.

Next week, we’ll talk about expanding the learning about scientific concepts into a specific Science Area.