Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Have Yourself An Open-Ended Christmas

by Anne Castle-Deckert. Crossposted on Exploring With Teacher Annie

Let me be honest: if you offer me a choice between a nice gooey Snickers Bar or a crisp, healthy carrot, most of the time I’m pretty likely to take you up on the candy, and defer the carrot to “later.” And I’m an adult who knows better. But if sugary stuff isn’t one of the choices, I am quite happy with healthy rabbit food. Carrots are yummy, when you’re in the habit of eating them, and when you’re not comparing them to junk food. Besides, I’ve learned by now that I feel better on a diet of good veggies and other healthy things, and I feel worse when I over-indulge in sweets. But still…… if you give me the choice, I don’t always make the decision based on what’s best for me.

Similarly, many of the toys that are currently popular for young children just make me sad. That’s because they are the toy-equivalent of the above-mentioned Snickers Bar: they’re appealing and irresistible, but not nourishing. Many toys have features that immediately catch the eye and appeal to children, and therefore to parents. The challenging thing is to figure out which toys will “feed the brains” and stir the imagination of our kids, and which ones are intellectual junk food.

Here are a few of my “rules of thumb” when thinking about which toys are worth your children’s time. For simplicity, I’ll talk about only two categories: “Good Toys” and “Bad Toys.”

-If it needs batteries, it may be a Bad Toy, unless it’s a tool of some sort like a music player or a flashlight. Batteries mean that it will be producing some sort of action on its own, and therefore is likely to do most of the playing FOR the child, instead of allowing the child to play.

-Does it beep, flash, or make noises? Does it contain a computer chip? Bad Toys often do, because toy designers and sellers obviously think kids are stupid and can’t have fun on their own, without the toy “entertaining” them. Besides, think about how very tired YOU will get of those beeps and noises over time. Do you really need another irritation? Save yourself the anguish: skip the beeping, blinking toy aisle entirely.

-Is it something brand new that you’ve never seen before? Sometimes Bad Toys are exciting because they are new and novel. But think about it: many Good Toys are things that have been part of childhood forever, and will never be trendy, but will also never go out of style. Think about balls, blocks, basic dolls, simple toy cars and animals, etc. Not to mention the very basic playthings like rocks, sand, water, magnets, crayons and paper, and the Good Old Basic Stick or Deluxe Cardboard Box.

-Is it based on a tv show, movie, or video game? Is there a ride somewhere in a faraway theme park based on it? If so, be wary that Bad Toy-ness can be lurking beneath a seemingly innocent fa├žade. When a toy originates with a media character, 90% of the imagining has already been done, by the “professionals.” They even call themselves Imagineers! What 3 year old can compete with that? Most of the time, kids love media-based toys, but it’s clear that their imaginations do not soar to new heights with this type of plaything. They stick to the “script” when playing with this type of toy, and most of the benefits of pretend play are lost. We preschool teachers know that children are the “professionals” when it comes to play, and we look for toys that will be useful tools for their creative minds.

-Can it be used for just one thing, or can it be played with in many ways? Good toys are usually what we in the kid-business call “open-ended.” This means that the child can play with the toy in many different ways, and almost any way the toy is used will benefit the child’s development.

-Would you see this toy at preschool? (Meaning, a GOOD, developmentally appropriate preschool.) If not, maybe we don’t have it at school for a reason. Just like we try to discourage the serving of donuts and M&M’s at the preschool snack table. (Except occasionally to the grownups, when the kids are not looking.)

-Will your child be able to enjoy this toy for at least 3 or 4 years, or will the child become tired of it within weeks? Open ended toys (Good Toys) have a very long kid-life. They never go stale.

-Will it enrich your child’s life, or the toy company’s profits? Good Toys don’t have to be expensive, and you don’t have to have lots of them to have fun. Just as junk food is expensive even though it has little nutritional value, Bad Toys are a waste of money.

-Who are you buying the toy for: your child, or YOU? If your grown-up heart secretly desires the latest electronic beeping, jumping, singing, dancing, hot rod space captain nuclear star wars race car bunny rabbit, go ahead and buy it for yourself. But be sure to stock up on lots of batteries. You’re a grownup, and your brain is already supposedly finished growing. A Bad Toy probably won’t harm your development.

With a little bit of extra thought and strength of character on your part, your child can have a calm, happy, satisfying, growing time this holiday season, and this year’s new toys will follow him or her into many new stages of development in the future. But somebody probably needs to forward this message to Santa and Grandma, because they may not understand your child’s brain as well as you now do.

Ok, time to go raid the Halloween-candy-stash. I’m a grownup, so I can eat what I want, even though I’ll pay for it later. But while I nibble on chocolate, I think I’ll go immerse myself in a good book. Even though it’s really easy and appealing to flip on another episode of my favorite mindless TV show, I know I’ll get more benefits and feel happier in the long run if I give my brain the nourishment that it really needs.

Which reminds me: Good books are the BEST gift for children! But that deserves its own blog post, so we’ll talk about books another time.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

My Gym: a fun place to go on a non-school day!

by Lisa, TTH

My 3 1/2 year old son has been enrolled in My Gym's Mighty Mites (3 1/4 - 4 1/2 years) for about four months and we love it. It's a safe indoor playground where children can develop gross motor skills. My son loves the variety of activities…the entire configuration of the gym changes weekly. The flow of the one hour class is consistent, but the activities are always new. The class starts by everyone being prompted to introduce themselves and answering an age appropriate question, this week it was "what is your favorite vegetable?" They warm up and jump into some sort of group activity like a relay or other game. Then the class is broken in half for two gymnastics tricks where children learn basic skills like "airplane arms" for balance or "tuck your chin" for forward roll safety.

The teacher takes time with each child, skill level doesn't matter. Free play follows and simple rules are given and the kids repeat each time, "one friend on the trampoline at a time", for example. The class wraps up with a Simon Says sort of game and maybe a puppet show. Kids don't linger after class because there is a race to put shoes and socks to get "stamparoos". My son has really learned how to do a somersault, how to balance with airplane arms and generally try new things that seem tricky or scary.

We haven't done many enrichment programs, but I highly recommend My Gym on Bascom.I continue to be impressed with the quality of teachers, the positive discipline approach used in class and range of activities they do ever week. They offer "mommy and me classes" from 6 months to 3 years and independent classes from 3 years to 13 years. Enrollment in any class entitles you to come any time for free play sessions. The added benefit that keeps me coming back is that classes roll over if you miss - it isn't "use it or loose it" (unless you pay by the month).

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Seeing Double in the 4-Day Class

Amy's twins at Explorer's 4-Day outdoor classroom.
By Amy Trayer, Explorer board president and 4-Day parent

When you first walk into the 4-Day class at Explorer, you will probably see 25 very busy children building blocks, looking at books, writing in journals, eating a snack, painting, dressing up, riding bikes, making mud pies in the playhouse or playing with the classroom pet rat, Daisy. Children in this class have to be four years old by July 1, so at this time in the year some children are already starting to turn five while the others are anxiously counting down the months until their “big day.” What you might NOT notice right away is that there are SEVEN sets of twins in the class. Yep, you read that right--over half the class is twins. But wait, it gets better: two out of the three teachers in the class are a twin and two parents in the class have identical twins. Twins definitely rule in this Explorer classroom.

Why so many twins in one class? Let’s just say word travels fast in the twin community and a few years ago several of us who had twins quickly spread the word on our parents of multiples club online forum about this fabulous parent participation preschool. The play-based, developmentally appropriate curriculum and parent education is why you come to Explorer. Reality is as a parent of multiples (or even two small children) preschool can be quite expensive so affordable tuition is a big draw as well. We didn’t all know each other ahead of time--there were two new families that just happened to register and that just happened to have twins also. This class was destined to have many multiples!

Seven sets of twins on the class roster meant we had more children than parents. Scheduling six working parents in the classroom per day could get a bit tricky. Each parent of twins works double (two times per week, instead of one) and luckily we have a fabulous class rep who does all of the scheduling AND who happens to be a twin herself AND has a set of twins that graduated from Explorer’s 4-Day class two years ago. Thank goodness our class rep is a twin “sympathizer.” We all breathed a sigh of relief. If anyone could manage this crazy schedule, she could!

It’s been so much fun seeing all the twins in action. We have a great mix of boys and girls: two sets of g/g twins, two sets of b/b twins and three sets of b/g twins. They are all fraternal too! Having a sibling in the class is definitely an advantage, but it’s also important that they create other friendships as well--something we are all working on with our children. All the twins have been split up into different small group times and more often than not, they choose to sit next to someone other than their sibling during whole group times.
Other than having to work double in the classroom, having twins in the 4-Day class means double the laundry! Each child wears the Explorer T-shirt 4 days per week which means 8 shirts that need washing plus some extras (coming home messy means a good day at school). Most families carpool and luckily I was able to find two other moms with cars as big as mine that can fit four booster seats.

Personally, I have really enjoyed watching my boy/girl twins grow and change over the last three years at Explorer. This is the first year I’ve watched them be more independent from each other. My son, who in the past would want to play only with his sister, is now seeking out other children to play with and creating friendships. They will start kindergarten next year and the big question for most parents of multiples is whether to keep them in the same class or separate them. Some schools already have a policy in place, but our home school does not. I probably won’t know what my preference will be until the end of this school year because something tells me my twins are going to change a lot in the next few months.

If you do visit the 4Day class at Explorer, you might not notice the seven sets of twins when you first walk in because each child has a unique personality. What you will notice are the seven tired parents of twins who are working double time because being at Explorer is so worth it!

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How Much Screen Time Do YOUR Kids Get?

If you didn't catch the Mercury News article last week, Young Kids and Computers: A Balancing Act by Sue McAllister, you might want to check it out. Local families dish on what their household rules are on electronic media.

It would be interesting to hear how other Explorer parents handle this issue, in light of the the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that media use of all types should be limited to two hours a day and that kids under two years shouldn't have any screen time at all.

Do you think that's too much? Too little? What kind of rules do you have in your house and how do you enforce them? Comment below and let's exchange strategies. I'm sure Explorer Teachers have some thoughts on this, too!

Quoting Linda Murray, editor-in-chief of BabyCenter, I thought the article's conclusion was a good reminder about modeling:

Most important, the experts say, is a tip that might be the most difficult one for parents in Silicon Valley: to set a good example for their young children. That can be hard, when "we've got our BlackBerry, and we're checking it every second," Murray says. If parents want their kids to exercise, read and spend time with their friends, they need to do the same themselves. "That's really the most powerful teacher," she says.

Monday, October 25, 2010

It's not all about you

by Anne Castle-Deckert. Crossposted on Exploring With Teacher Annie

Sometimes I can't believe the things I say to parents in my class at preschool. The other day I told a terrific mom, "It's not all about you, y'know." Her child was screaming about something, and as parents often do, she was sort of taking responsibility for his behavior. She was talking to me about her worries that somehow, it was her "fault" that he screams when he's frustrated.

"It's not all about you." Me and my big mouth: that doesn't sound very professional. But thank goodness, this mom knows me really well and I think she understands the respect that's behind the sarcasm. But let me explain.

What I mean is: Kids are themselves. Period.

Parents are very, very important in helping kids to grow up happy and healthy. Good, earnest parenting is essential, and terribly hard to do. If kids have inadequate nurturing, they usually don't grow up to be happy with themselves, and often find many ways to make other people miserable as well. Parents have many vital roles in the development of children, starting with helping them develop a healthy sense of self, and learn the beginnings of self-regulation. Children NEED loving adults to steer them in the direction of productive lives and fulfilling relationships.

 Explorer's 2's Sand Kitchen, where conversations like this often take place. 
However, as parents, our magical powers are limited. Every child comes into the world as himself or herself. We can't change that underlying personhood, and shouldn't even try. The developmental theorists call this individuality "temperament" and it's been studied extensively. One set of research identifies nine distinct temperament traits that all people have in some degree, and they state that your temperament is the degree to which you possess each of the nine traits. The research shows that our temperament is inborn, and stays with us through our entire life. The person we are as toddler is still the person we will be when we're ninety years old, even if we have learned to hide or suppress it in many ways. Our temperament traits are neither good nor bad, neither positive nor negative. We are who we are, and our temperament is what makes each person unique.

Adults play a vital role in helping kids discover who they are, and learn about their own unique selves. We can often help children learn ways to "smooth the rough edges" of some of their more extreme traits. Parents can help children learn to cope with life, to appreciate themselves for who they are, and to use all their temperament traits in positive ways. A wonderful by-product of all this, is that children can then learn to appreciate the uniqueness in other people.

What adults cannot do is make an intense child into a mild one. Or an active child into a mellow one. Or a persistent child into a compliant one. What we can do is help our kids learn to thrive in spite of frustrations, and gradually learn how to meet their own emotional needs, as well as get along with other people.

In an ideal world, parents, teachers, and all adults who have contact with kids, are patient and ready to help in all situations. But in the un-ideal world in which we live, adults are just as tired, cranky, moody, and irritable as kids, and sometimes even more so. (Of course we are: and who do you think made us that way??) Living with kids can be exhausting, even though we love them dearly. So we CAN'T always do or say the right thing, and thank goodness, we don't have to be perfect. But sometimes we are able to calmly reflect back to children the "self" they are showing us at any moment through their behavior, instead of simply reacting with annoyance to the behavior. This reflecting helps our kids learn how to "be." Even though we can't do it all the time, due to the fact that we are grumpy or tired, the times we are able to do that are Golden Parenting Moments, and have a huge impact. When we're accepting, non-judgmental, and when we observe and listen, we are helping our kids become their best selves.

Your children will fuss, whine, hit, shriek, and cry. It's not your fault. They're not behaving that way because you did anything wrong. And by the way, you don't deserve all the credit for those moments when they are behaving beautifully and make you proud. Well, ok, you can pat yourself on the back a little, but the truth is that the child is the one responsible for his or her behavior. Some children happen to feel compelled to do more of the negative things than others, especially in the toddler years, and this is usually due to their inborn temperament. No biggie. Gradually they will outgrow most of these behaviors and learn better ways of coping, as they gain experiences with other people and with their own emotions. Your guidance and example will help. But you can't give them short-cuts through the learning process.

"It's not all about you." Jeeeezz.... I gotta be careful how I talk to parents. I'd hate to jeopardize my high-status gig as a preschool teacher! But sometimes I pack a lot of meaning into just a few words, and those words don't come out the way I intend. Thank goodness I have parents in my classes who give me the benefit of the doubt, and let me get away with it. But then, it's not all about me, is it?

Friday, October 15, 2010

Failing to Succeed: What preschool parents can do to counteract the pressures of America's achievement culture

By Lisa McLeod, MW2s

Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.
-- Ralph Waldo Emerson

My 2-year-old daughter loves going to school. She usually still makes it hard for me to get her dressed and out the door, but by the time I’ve got her in the car she is often talking excitedly about school, about how she gets to paint and pet the bunny and drive the bike. Her enthusiasm for school and learning is heartwarming and joyous, but every time I see it, I can’t help but wonder how it will be possible to keep that love for school from fading as she enters elementary, middle and high school.

Recently my husband and I attended a screening of the documentary film Race to Nowhere about the immense pressure that children, parents and teachers face in our achievement obsessed culture and school system. The film’s director Vicki Abeles was inspired to make the movie after her daughter was diagnosed with an illness induced from the stress of struggling with the pressures of school, homework, and extracurricular activities in her effort to do it all. But even after the director made changes in her own home and the way that she parented, she soon came to see that the problems she and her children faced were more systemic and widespread. Speaking with other parents, teachers, students and experts in various fields, she decided that the best way to help other struggling families was to make a film highlighting the need for change in the way that we view the purpose of schooling and achievement in America.

With the adoption of No Child Left Behind, the obsession with high stakes testing and increasing student achievement has pushed academic pressure down even into kindergarten and preschools. Teachers get pressure from administrators to “cover” all the material before the tests in April so that students will at least have been “exposed” to the material and have a better chance of guessing the right answer on the multiple choice tests. In an effort to cover all the curriculum standards, teachers send home packets of homework that they may or may not have had much opportunity to cover in class. Parents then feel pressure to make sure their children do all of their homework and master all of the material, but the end result of this system is that American schools are more concerned with broad coverage of material than about deep learning and thought. Students are taught to jump through hoops and pass tests, but once those tests are over, how much is truly retained? According to the students in the film, not much.

My husband and I are both high school teachers (though I am currently on leave), and we have had lots of first hand experience with burnt out students. We have both taught students on opposite ends of the spectrum of the achievement culture, from the honors students who have melt downs when they get anything less than an A to students who have straight Fs and long ago decided that school was a place of failure and boredom. It is a frustrating environment for teachers and students alike, and as a parent, I dread the idea of seeing my own child go from being a curious and eager learner to someone who just jumps through the hoops or gives up all together.

Of course that doesn’t have to happen. It is possible for children to retain their love of learning, their natural curiosity about the world, and their enthusiasm for mastering new skills, but it requires parents to be able to think deeply about what they value in their children.

All parents want what is best for their children, but how we define “best” determines what we provide for our children and what we expect from them. Too often in our achievement focused culture, we put pressure, consciously and unconsciously, on our children to be the “best” at school, sports, community service, and more in hopes that they will get accepted to the “best” schools and go on to get the “best” jobs. But is that what is “best” for our children? Is the purpose of school to learn and understand or is it just to build a resume that will obtain admission into an Ivy League university? We want our children to be successful in life, but what does that mean? What does success look like to us, and more importantly, how will we teach our children to define success? How do our preconceived notions of success affect the messages that we transmit to our children about their worth as human beings?

We need to rethink how we view the goals of school and education and what really helps children to achieve those goals. Does learning how to memorize and regurgitate loads of facts help children to become successful adults? If being successful is defined as getting a perfect score on the SAT, then maybe. But if being successful is defined as being a confident, competent, contributing member of society, then the purpose of school and education should be to teach children how to fail without becoming failures, how to fall down and get back up and try again, to experiment and take risks and learn from their mistakes. The purpose of school should not be to teach finite facts and skills that can be easily tested with multiple choice tests, but to teach students how to learn, create, and be resilient in the face of difficulty.

It's our hope that by sending our children to Explorer, this is the kind of education that we are giving our children. The school’s philosophy of child-directed learning helps children gain confidence in their own abilities and ideas, laying the foundation of self-confidence and resilience that will help them to maintain their desire to learn and discover well into their high school years and beyond. Rather than learning to read flash cards or mimic the directions given to them by adults, children at Explorer are encouraged to try things for themselves and see what happens, to “give it a go” and not get discouraged if something doesn’t work out the way they thought it would.

Because Explorer is a parent-participation school, we parents are also getting an education. We are learning how to put down the flash cards, put away the Brainy Baby videos and let our children take the lead, how to encourage our children’s learning without killing their internal motivation, and how to turn off (or at least ignore) our own internal voice that says, “how come so and so’s child can recognize her name and my child can’t even recognize a letter?” Because though we may think to ourselves, “I’ll never be the parent that pushes their children too hard,” it starts in small and insidious ways, with comparisons on the playground and the small nagging doubts about our children’s abilities. The parent who “helps” his child do her homework by taking over and doing it for her, may have started out by “helping” his preschool child make a snowman the “right” way.

Fortunately at Explorer, we parents are taught to take our hands off of the children’s activities, to not make examples for them to follow, and to learn and grow with grace when we forget and the teachers have to remind us to let the children take the lead. Through play and free choice, the children at Explorer learn how to feel confident in their unique creations, how to see value in their differences, how to keep trying to build something even when the blocks keep falling down, and how to fall off a bike and get back on. And we parents learn how to let them.

Though the film Race to Nowhere focused on children in the K-12 environment, our attitudes and beliefs are shaping the way our children will view school and learning well before they enter Kindergarten. When we learn to stand back and let the children direct their own learning we communicate to them that they are competent people who can make valuable contributions just as they are, without adults “fixing” their work, that it is OK to try and to fail, and that failure only really happens when you quit trying. And that, rather than getting a perfect score on the SAT, is truly the “best” tool possible for building successful, fulfilling lives in which their love of learning will not be dimmed, despite the best efforts of the American educational system.

Lisa Mcleod is a high school english and library media teacher with masters degrees in education and library science. She and her husband, Ted, are expecting their second child in March.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

David Shannon is Coming to Hicklebees!

Author/illustrator David Shannon will be at Hicklebees
Wednesday, October 13 at 3:00 pm

Anyone who's been through MW2s is probably familiar with David Shannon's No David!. Teacher Annie says, "I love No David, as my 2s are beginning to develop a real sense of humor mid-year and beyond. And no, contrary to popular parent-belief, this book does NOT give kids ideas. They already know about all that bad behavior. It comes naturally."

It's one of my boys' favorite books along with How I Became a Pirate and Pirates Don't Change Diapers. I recently also picked up It's Christmas, David! and he's up to his old antics--peeking, snitching and running naked in the snow!

Hicklebees is located at:
1378 Lincoln Ave. San Jose, CA 95125
(408) 292-8880

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Those Darn Trains

by Kim Kooyers, MW2s


My 2-year-old JB loves trains. I mean he LOVES trains. At home he carries around his “train magazine,” an issue of VIA (put out by AAA) with a feature on train travel. He sleeps with photos from his visit last spring to Niles Canyon railway, his favorite book is Freight Train, and he prefers to hold it on the steam engine page and narrate himself than to have it read to him. And, we have a train table at home, where he only has to share with his brother.

So, you can imagine JB at the train table at school. He tells other kids how to play: “Trucks go on ROAD!”“You go on THIS track!” He gets frustrated: the magnets repel each other, he gets the train to the top of the hill and before he can get around to the other side of the table, it falls backward; or, he reaches the end of the track and the trains fall off. The result is screaming, crying, and even the tossing of a train or two.

Last week, I walked into the classroom and JB was standing by the train table crying. My gut reaction was to walk up, comfort him and ask what’s wrong, and do what I can to make it better. But before I did, Teacher Annie let me know that Jack needed to cry right then. After a few minutes, he stopped and started to play again, proceeding to do what he was working on before.

What he needed right then was to work through his frustration, not for me to swoop in and fix it, which is what I do a lot at home. Not because I think that’s the right way to parent, but because it’s my first instinct: I’m tired, I’m overwhelmed, and I just want the screaming to stop. But as Teacher Annie said, it’s possible JB sees the trains as a safe and familiar place to express himself. And, if we can help him discover how capable he really is on his own, then there will be less screaming in the long run.

One of my other concerns is how JB dominates the train table. Annie’s response is that the other kids can either stand up to him or find something else to do. And when she told me this, I felt relieved. I don’t have take responsibility for everything interaction he has. And, more importantly, it’s okay for him to be who he is.

THIS is why we're at Explorer. To be in this safe environment of exploration—not just for little hands and feet, but also for emotions (I almost said little, but JB's emotions are not so little). To have the opportunity to see interactions modeled in the moment. To give me tools, ideas, and a sense of community. And I end up feeling like I’m not alone in this crazy world of parenting. My kid is okay. Maybe I'm even an okay parent.

Do you have an Explorer experience to share? We're looking for parent contributions to our blog! Email

Kim Kooyers is mom to JB, 2.5 and Ry, 5. She also blogs at gratitude365 and SpiroChicks.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Be-an-Animal-Day 2010

This post first ran on Annie Castle-Deckert's blog, Exploring With Teacher Annie

October is here. Time to think of Fall, and all the special celebrations that are coming up soon. I’m strongly suggesting to my 1’s and 2’s parents that for “costume day” this year, right before Halloween, we make it Animal Day. Everyone dresses up as an animal!

Costume Day isn’t a big deal for toddlers, because really, when you’re 1 or 2, every day that you put on clothes is sort of a "costume day" already. But sometimes Costume Day can be a big deal to parents, who remember the fun and excitement of Halloween costumes when they were children, and who want to participate in this tradition with their own kids. These little ones may or may not want to wear something other than their regular school clothes, but they enjoy seeing some of the other children, the teacher, and the parents playing dress-up!

So why is Teacher Annie messing with all this fun and suggesting that we only dress as animals on Costume Day? I have several reasons.

Why I Want Your Child To Dress As An Animal On Costume Day At School:

-It’s more creative, and therefore, more fun! One of the main things I’m trying to help your child avoid is dressing up as a character from tv or movies. These characters are very popular, but this type of costumes allows for no creativity. A child pretending to be a spider (and wearing a spider costume) has innumerable ways they can play and pretend. Their imagination can soar and they can stretch their minds in new ways. But a child wearing a Spiderman costume has very little pretending to do. They are limited to the script that comes from the movie/tv show/video game. They know from watching the show what Spidey does and what he does not do. Children seldom branch out from the scripts that the media gives them, when it comes to role-playing and pretending about media-based characters. I was talking to a parent in one of the older classes the other day, and she had been assigned to help the children “write” (dictate) stories. She said that the main stories children were telling her were about the Disney Princesses, Dora, and other well-known characters from movies and tv. The stories all followed the script of the shows, and the characters did not deviate from the role that the Disney (or other) creators had assigned them. So children were not engaging in creative thinking at all, but rather just repeating and reciting stories they had seen on tv. Remember what we all read last year in Taking Back Childhood? (Talk to me if you are new to our school or want to know more about this very insightful book.)

-Children love animals! They identify very strongly with them. It’s easy for young children to imagine themselves as a horse, a cat, or a bluebird. In interactions with real or pretend animals, children learn empathy and social skills.

-Language development! Animal play lends itself well to language development. As children talk about, learn about, and pretend about animals, they are first very inclined to make the sounds that animals make, and then they move on from there to learning about other aspects of language.

-Literacy! Animals offer many opportunities for literacy development as well. There are millions of excellent books about animals, both fiction and non-fiction.

-Science! Pretending about animals leads to a curiosity about science and the natural world. Once you’ve dressed up as a ladybug, you want to find out more about what it’s really like to be one.

-Lots of options! There are thousands of animals to choose from! And even if your child isn’t the only dog on Costume Day, every dog will be different.

-Parent-Friendly! Animal costumes can be very simple or very elaborate, allowing for the parent to choose how much time, money, and creativity they wish to put into it. You can be a rabbit with some paper ears and a cotton ball for a tail. Or you can go all out and order the $50 peacock costume online. Neither one of these is better, cuter, or more desirable than the other. And your child will quite likely have more fun in the cheap-bunny costume than in the expensive one.

-Happy, not scary! Traditional Halloween characters can be scary for toddlers. They can be scared of witches, skeletons, and ghosts, because at this age they still don’t have a very solid idea of where to draw the line between pretend and real. It’s ridiculous to think about having a day that is supposed to be for the kids to have fun, but instead, making them frightened.

So, help me create Costume Day at school this year, and walk, talk, and dress like a duck or any other animal. We’ll all have a wonderful, child-centered day.

I stole this great idea from Teacher Jackie, who borrowed it from some other teacher. Hmmmm...... I wonder what animal Jackie will be?

My daughters no longer let me “dress them up,” but unless my dogs, Gretchen and Timothy, protest too loudly we will be enjoying Animal Day at my house this year, for sure!

Annie Castle-Deckert teachers MW2s, Fri2s, and Together Time at Explorer, where she has been on staff since 1995.