Whether the Weather

Question: My director is always bugging me to take my kids outside, even when it’s cold or wet. I don’t mind that much myself, but as soon as they get out there they get wet and muddy, and half the time they don’t have clothes to change into, and their parents get upset. We have a pretty big multi-purpose room I can take them to for gross motor, so it’s not like they never get to run around. Is there actually a rule about this?

Answer: Licensing laws do require an hour outside every day for a full-day program, weather permitting. And going outside every day has huge benefits for children and teachers in terms of mood, physical health, and development. It can be tricky, though, if your outside space isn’t in great condition, or if the weather makes every change of scenery a major change of wardrobe as well. If you’ve got children who aren’t yet dressing themselves, or parents who don’t supply extra clothes, the challenges increase.

Indoors gross motor is a great option, but should ideally happen in addition to outside time, not as a replacement. Going outside helps strengthen children’s immune systems and prevent illness from spreading. It also stimulates curiosity about nature and science topics that children love to engage in: watching birds or clouds, finding leaves or pinecones, even investigating mud puddles, can all be great starting points for science learning. Many teachers and centers make outdoor learning a cornerstone of their curriculum, because there are so many possibilities for using materials in creative ways: painting with sticks, counting stones, building structures out of loose parts, etc. Bringing art outside minimizes the worry about messing up the classroom, and voices or music that would be too noisy inside are just fine on the playground.

A well-designed outdoor environment does minimize drainage problems, and provides a variety of surfaces for children to experience. If your playground has major water issues, or is just not meeting the needs of your children due to safety concerns or space constraints, it might be a good idea to talk to your director or board about what can be done. There are grants available to help centers improve their outdoor environments without too much financial strain.

It can help to include a statement in your parent information packet explaining your center’s policy: “The outdoors is a fundamental part of our learning environment here at the center, so we go outside almost every day, except in a case of severe weather. The space was carefully designed to provide opportunities for young children to strengthen their minds and bodies. Your children might get wet or dirty, so it’s important for their comfort and safety that they have at least one full set of extra clothes to change into, including shoes.” Enlist your director’s help in making sure parents understand that this is a requirement of the program.

You may need to talk through the importance of outside time with some parents, but it pays to be persistent. Due to safety concerns and lifestyle changes, children rarely get to play outside today the way they did in past generations. As adults, our fondest memories often center on running through our neighborhoods or local wild spaces with other children, playing freely with whatever we found. Even if that’s not possible for most of today’s children, we can still do our best to provide them with a chance to explore nature freely, building skills and confidence no matter what the season.

Intentionality

Intentionality

Question: I am a director at a large center, and some of my teachers are showing signs of burn out. They seem uninterested in their jobs, and are not receptive when I try to talk with them about doing something different. How can I help them become more engaged and feel supported?

Answer: Being a teacher is stressful, no doubt about it. Many teachers do struggle with feeling burnt out due to many factors. As a director, it can also be hard to meet all your teachers’ needs in ways that feel effective. One thing that can help, though, is thinking intentionally. The authors of a book called Coaching with Powerful Interactions talk about this idea, as well as some researchers at the Fred Rogers Center. These authors provide a model for connecting with your teachers at a deeper level, rather than staying in crisis mode, making it possible for you to collaborate for change.

Directors are often used to leading from above – you notice something your staff member is not doing correctly, and you address it by pointing out the mistake and asking/telling the teacher how to correct it. Sometimes you might offer – or require – additional training or assistance, but you are essentially pointing out for the teacher what she is doing “wrong” and how to “fix it.”

Intentional coaching offers another method entirely for relating to teachers, one that focuses more on collaborating with the teacher. This starts with you being willing to dedicate some time to observing teachers, looking for strengths and positive behaviors. It also requires you to be reflective, and set aside some unrushed time to really have a conversation with a teacher, not just a few words at her doorway. For example, if you have noticed a teacher underperforming or seeming uninterested in her work, you might spend a morning observing her classroom, and then schedule a meeting at a time and place where you are unlikely to be interrupted. Start by inviting her to talk with you about how she feels things are going. If she feels frustrated or defeated about a particular area, let her take the lead to talk about that. Do everything you can to ensure that she feels that her concerns are heard and validated before moving into talking about solutions.

When you offer feedback and ideas, stay positive: for example, if the teacher is frustrated by her children not listening during transitions, offer one thing you have observed her doing well during this period, even if it’s something very small. Rather than agreeing with her that it never goes well, offer feedback such as, “When I saw your class in the hall the other day, I noticed that you were holding one child’s hand, and that child was really paying attention to what you were saying. That was great, because it’s hard to get that child to focus, but you did!” Help the teacher reflect on how she can use and expand on what is working to increase overall success: “I hear you that getting them through the hall to the playground is really frustrating. I wonder what you’ve done that has worked sometimes, because it’s not always equally difficult.”

These types of interactions do take time, something directors often don’t have much of. But you’re teaching valuable skills around self-reflection that can actually end up making your meetings and interactions with teachers go much more efficiently.  You’re also helping build a relationship of collaboration and trust, which takes you out of the role of being the “boss” or the “bad guy” all the time, and helps the teacher see you as an ally, someone with useful resources and knowledge. One of the big problems in the field right now is high teacher turnover, which many teachers attribute to feeling unappreciated and unsupported. Using powerful interactions with teachers can help keep your staff happier and more likely to stay at your center.

The other benefit of using intentionality with teachers is that it models a way for them to use similar techniques in their classrooms. Really connecting with children can help teachers who are feeling burnt-out as well, because it brings them back to the most important and satisfying part of the job – building relationships with children. Powerful Interactions is a book that focuses on teacher/child interactions, and can be a useful resource for you to work with.