Anxiety and Bleach

Question: My two-year-old son is getting ready to start child care, and my friends have told me he needs to stop using his pacifier because it won’t be allowed in the classroom. Is this true? He’s used to having it whenever he’s upset or goes to sleep, and it seems like his first few weeks in childcare will be stressful and he’ll need it more, not less.

Answer: Policies about children having pacifiers and “lovies” in classrooms vary from center to center, and are unfortunately not always child-centered. Many directors and teachers have concerns about the challenges that these items present in the face of sanitation rules they need to follow – for example, if a child with a pacifier in his mouth drops it and another child picks it up, the pacifier should be sanitized. Similarly, if a stuffed animal that a child has been holding with unwashed hands (or possibly chewed on) touches a sanitized surface, that surface would need to be re-sanitized.

Although providers have legitimate concerns about sanitation issues, many centers also understand the importance of comfort items like pacifiers and lovies in young children’s success at adjusting to being in a group care situation, and learning to self-regulate. Group care settings are stressful for young children, especially at the beginning of a school year when the teachers and other children are not yet familiar. It is the responsibility of caregivers to make this transition as smooth as possible, which means providing developmentally appropriate comfort and responsiveness based on a child’s individual needs. For some children, this would mean offering a pacifier or favorite stuffed animal or blanket until they are able to find other ways to soothe themselves.

Directors and teachers can be overly zealous in their focus on sanitation rules, sometimes due to an incomplete understanding of what the rules really are. “Caring for Our Children,” a document that outlines the rules and regulations for child care providers, addresses the procedures for children having pacifiers and lovies in care situations, and does not prohibit their use.  It does provide specific guidelines about washing and storage, as well as policies to ensure safe use. It is, of course, important to make every effort to keep a child care environment clean and free of possible contaminants. However, the emotional impact on an infant or toddler who is in a new, stressful situation and not allowed access to familiar self-soothing techniques also needs serious consideration. Caring for children’s emotional needs is not less important than attending to the cleanliness of the environment.

It will be important for your child’s well-being to find out what your specific center’s policies are around this issue, and see if it feels like a good fit based on your child’s temperament and needs. You can ask the director as well as the teachers what they do when children have trouble calming themselves down, and how they help children adjust to the classroom routine. You also can observe a class in action on a visit, and pay attention to how teachers react to children who are upset or anxious. Although your son won’t be able to use a pacifier forever, the weaning process goes best when it’s done gently and gradually, in a way that allows him to still feel safe and secure.

Early Intervention Worries

Question: My child’s teacher gave me a form the other day asking permission to get her evaluated for speech delays. I know my daughter is shy and doesn’t talk much in unfamiliar situations, but I don’t think she has any delays! Do I have to have her evaluated? What happens if she won’t talk to the tester either? She’s 3 years old and has only been at this center for a few months.

Answer: It’s always upsetting when someone expresses concern about your child’s development, whether or not it’s one you share. Sometimes attentive teachers can tend to err on the side of caution out of a desire to make sure all our children get what they need to be successful. Having seen so many children over so many years, though, experienced early childhood teachers usually have a pretty good sense of what is typical for a child of a given age. So if your child’s teacher has concerns, it may make sense to heed them.

But, you know your child best, and many young children do behave differently at home and at school. You are under no obligation to have your child evaluated if you feel it’s unnecessary. On the other hand, the evaluations are free and can offer you a different perspective on your child than you may have gotten before. Speech delays are quite common for young children, and are often easily ameliorated with brief intervention. If that is in fact what’s going on, your child could benefit from receiving services before she starts school. Ongoing speech and communication issues can adversely affect any child’s ability to be successful academically and socially, but the earlier they are identified, the more easily they can be addressed. Since your daughter is 3, she would be entitled to receive services through the county or city where you live, were she to qualify.

If you do decide to go ahead with an evaluation, most testers try to see children in familiar environment: they will often work with a child in her own classroom or home. It could be that your daughter needs more time to adjust to the preschool environment, and will talk more as time goes on. Some questions to consider as you decide what to do: when your daughter does speak, do most of her words make sense? Can she make most sounds correctly and clearly? Has her pediatrician ever mentioned a concern? When you’re in an environment where she’s relaxed – with family, for example, or at friends’ homes – does she speak willingly, and is she generally understood by other children or adults who don’t know her well?

It may also be worth considering expanding your daughter’s opportunities to become more comfortable in a variety of situations. Library story times, Play and Learn groups, or any informal chance to interact with other children and adults can be helpful. Many children (and adults) can become tongue-tied when they aren’t sure what to do or say in a particular social situation, so practice with her. Having a sense of what to expect from others, and what to say in response, can help increase her confidence and ease in unfamiliar settings.

And finally, whether or not your daughter ends up qualifying for services, do check in with her teacher regularly about her progress. Teachers get a different perspective than parents, and they can be a valuable source of information and insight about your child.

 

 

Ready for Kindergarten Readiness?

Question: I’m the parent of a 4-year-old, and I keep getting questions from my friends and family about what I’m doing to get her “ready for kindergarten.” I’ve been lucky to be able to stay home with her, so she hasn’t had to be in day care. Just this year she’s been going to a half-day mixed-age program at our church, and she loves it, but I know it’s much different from what she’ll find next year. I’m worried that she might not know everything they will expect her to know when she starts school. How can I tell if my daughter is “ready,” and if she’s not, what can I do now to get her there?

Answer: “Kindergarten readiness” has become quite the buzzterm in the past few years, as school systems have increasingly moved to a high stakes testing model that penalizes teachers and schools if children are not performing at a certain level in each grade. This has contributed to making the early school years far more academic than they once were. A generation ago, most children did not even attend kindergarten, and when they started first grade they were not expected to know letters, numbers, or colors already: that’s what they were there to learn.

Now, though, it’s a different story. The increased pressure on teachers and school systems has been passed right down to kids, who are expected to master complex academic skills like beginning reading in the first few months of kindergarten. Many schools have also reduced play time and specials for young children in the hopes that more time focused on rigorous academics will speed up learning and boost scores.

The nature of children, of course, has not changed nearly as much as expectations have. Most children entering kindergarten are five years old, with brains that still require lots of rest, exploratory play, and hands-on learning. Although some five-year-olds are ready to sit quietly for long periods, learning abstract skills, many more are not. An increasing number of children are identified as having ADHD and other behavioral issues, which many experts believe is due in part to unrealistic expectations that their brains and bodies are simply not ready to cope with.

But, don’t panic! An enormous body of research has shown that children’s test scores and reading proficiency actually go up when they are given time to run around, use their whole bodies, and engage in free play periods throughout the day, and some school systems are trying to shift back to this model. Research also shows that the most important skills children come to kindergarten with are not about letters and numbers: children who succeed in school come in knowing how to make friends, interact with adults appropriately, follow directions, and are curious about learning.

Helping your child get ready for school really means teaching her how to learn, and exposing her to a variety of different social situations. A half-day program is great for that, as is interacting children in informal play settings like a park. Helping her feel confident as a learner also has a huge impact, so spend lots of time listening to her questions – 4-year-olds usually have tons – and helping her think through problems or topics she’s curious about. For example, if she asks what makes a car go, take her to the library to find basic books about engineering and mechanics. Talk to a mechanic with her, or a friend who likes to fix cars, and see if she can get a first-hand look at the insides of a vehicle. These types of experiences will give her a sense of herself as curious, smart, and capable, and be a great foundation for learning of all kinds once she starts school.

As always, you know your child best. If you really have concerns about her development, definitely talk to your pediatrician. I’d also encourage you to check in regularly with her teachers, to get a feel for whether they think she’s on track. Teachers can be a fantastic resource about child development and the types of skills that are realistic to expect at different ages. And remember that all children grow and learn in their own ways, at different rates and often in non-linear patterns. The best way to get your child ready for challenges at any age is to support her social and emotional development, encourage her unique interests, personality, and learning style, and help identify the type of environment in which she can best thrive.

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.

Family Child Care Homes

Question: Ever since I had my first child, I’ve been taking care of my kids and some friends’ kids while they are at work. I’m a stay-at-home mom with a big basement and fenced yard, and I love having babies around. I’ve actually had a number of other friends ask if I can take their kids too. I’ve thought about opening a real center in my home, but that seems like a huge undertaking. Is there something in the middle I can do?

Answer: The arrangement you’re describing is what we call family/friend/neighbor care – informal child care arrangements where an unlicensed caregiver takes in the children of people they know. It’s actually pretty common in Buncombe County, because, as you are undoubtedly aware, there is a critical shortage of child care spots available, especially for infants and toddlers.

Turning your informal arrangement into licensed family child care home can seem daunting at first, but there are many, many benefits to both you and the community. First of all, if you keep more than 2 children who are not related to you for more than 4 hours a day, you legally must be licensed under North Carolina law. This does mean some paperwork and regulations, depending on how many children you want to care for, their ages, and the current specifications of your house and yard. 

But, getting licensed allows you to care for more children, often at higher rates, leading to more income. You can also claim your house and property (as well as any renovations you may need to make) as business expenses on your taxes, giving you a higher profit margin. Enrolling in the federal lunch program can also save you lots of money if you want to provide meals. And creating more slots for quality child care is something that can help everyone in Buncombe County.

A good first step is to come to our Family Child Care Home Q&A on March 14th from 6:00-7:00. There will be experienced Family Child Care Home providers and licensing consultants to answer your questions and help get your process started. You can register at this link, or call 407.2058:   https://www.eventbrite.com/e/resources-for-informal-in-home-child-care-providers-tickets-32189528747

Inclusion and Special Needs

Special Needs & Inclusion – February 13th, 2017

Question: It seems like every year I have more kids with “special needs” in my room. They can be really hard to deal with, and I’m not a specialist in all their different disorders. The other kids don’t get to do all the interesting things I used to do as a teacher because I’m spending so much time and energy on a few kids, and we can’t even have all the materials I used to have. I want ALL children to have a good preschool experience, and this seems impossible right now. Is there anything I can do about this?

Answer: Many teachers report having more children with diagnoses or learning differences than they used to, and while the jury is still out as to why that is – changing diagnostics, or changes in the environment that are causing more issues – teachers are trusted to provide the best early learning experience they can to all children they have.

If you feel like you’re not equipped to handle the needs of children in your care, the first step is to be proactive and educate yourself. There are literally hundreds of books and other resources that can help you get a better handle on a particular diagnosis. You can even start by googling “best practices early childhood autism,” or “cerebral palsy early childhood” to get some starting points. It’s likely that you can find local or online trainings to take.

If that seems too overwhelming, any child with an IEP or IFSP has specialists (sometimes a team of them) that can be great resources. Schedule a time to talk in person or over the phone outside the chaos of the classroom, and explain that you need some concrete tips that will help you support this child. After all, 10 children with the same diagnosis can all have very different needs and abilities. It’s most important to focus on the one right in front of you.

Having children with a wide range of needs and abilities – inclusion – can be tricky, especially at first. Rather than focusing on what you “can’t” do with your class, however, get creative to figure out how you can make experiences work for everyone. For example, if you have a child who tries to eat paint or playdough every time it’s available, don’t use that as a reason to never do paint or playdough. You may need to carefully design those experiences, so that a teacher can sit with the eater and give one-on-one attention. If the child is receiving services or therapy in the classroom (which is considered best practice), talk to the child’s therapist(s) and see if painting or playdough would be appropriate activities to have open while the therapist is there.  Sometimes children with special needs qualify for a one-on-one at least part of the day to help with supervision and more intensive work.

But the goal here isn’t to isolate the child with a one-on-one or other adult. The goal of inclusion is to recognize all children as valuable members of the classroom community, to inspire a spirit of belonging that extends to everyone, whether a child has a disability, or is just extremely shy and lacks social skills. Start from a place where you, as the teacher, recognize every child’s intrinsic gifts and challenges. Yes, of course some children fit more easily in the classroom environment, but all children do grow, progress, and learn, each in their own ways. What a good day looks like for one child – learning to write her name, for example – can look very different for another child, who finally said her first words, but both are experiencing meaningful growth.

Provide opportunities for children with disabilities to engage in structured, special activities with another child or two who may be a good fit because of energy level, temperament, or interests. Find ways for children with disabilities to be in leadership roles, too, whether it’s helping the teacher by carrying things, pointing to images while singing or reading, or asking them to show the rest of the class how they do something special. It’s never too early to start a conversation in response to the questions children will naturally have about why one child cannot yet walk, or talks strangely, or acts unpredictably. Emphasizing to your class that we all learn differently, and we care about and help all our friends equally is something even young children understand. It may take a little more work, especially at the beginning, but the benefits of inclusion for children with special needs are tremendous, as are the benefits for typically developing children who will learn how to interact with and have empathy for people different from themselves.

Keep in mind too that building this awareness in young children can go a long way in changing how society treats people with all types of difference. Not so long ago, children who were deaf, for example, were considered unteachable and institutionalized. Having children with any type of disability or difference was viewed as shameful, and the children were often taken from their families. It is a long, ongoing battle for parents of children with special needs to make sure their educational rights are honored under the law. Typically developing or otherwise, no one really knows the capacity and potential of a child until she is in an environment that can help her grow.

The Art of Art

Question: My consultants keep talking about “child-directed art” and how I don’t have enough of it to satisfy ECERS requirements. What exactly is the difference between “child-directed” and “teacher-directed” art?

Answer: That’s a topic that often confuses teachers, because it can seem so subjective. Here are some guidelines and examples that might help you:

Generally, child-directed art refers to an art activity where children get to choose the materials and how they use them.  This doesn’t mean it’s a free-for-all of toddlers marking up the walls, of course. It might, though, look something like this:

  • Giving 3-year-olds pieces of paper and being allowed to choose their colors and paint with brushes or hands as they see fit.
  • Giving 4-year-olds a pile of magazines, sequins, paper scraps, and old buttons, along with some glue and scissors, and the freedom to create whatever they want.
  • Offering cotton balls, white paint, glitter, or some combination, and inviting children to “make snow.”

These experiences are offered with close supervision, of course, both for safety and for encouraging language development, planning, and thoughtful expression. The key piece is to not overly direct what they choose to do.

EXAMPLES OF CHILD-DIRECTED ART

What child-directed art DOES NOT look like:

  • a teacher dabbing glue on some paper and directing a child where to put three cotton balls to “make a snowman.”
  • giving children worksheets or coloring book pages.
  • pressing their hands in paint and then on a paper and telling them to go wash.

Granted, teacher-directed art projects like these can be very cute, and parents love them, but they don’t give children a chance to learn through exploring or expressing themselves creatively.  Some teachers limit teacher-directed art to special occasions like holidays in order to make gifts for parents, and then focus on child-directed art the rest of the time.

Child-directed art benefits children in many ways, the biggest of which is often simply motivation: children enjoy the chance to make their own decisions and explore materials freely much more than they enjoy following step-by-step adult directions, and they can take more pride and ownership in their finished products as well. This enjoyment motivates them to spend more time developing the creativity, attention span, and fine-motor skills that art experiences help build.

NOT CHILD-DIRECTED ART

Down in the Dumps

Down in the Dumps – February 3rd, 2017

Question: My center is going through rating scales, and my consultant keeps talking to me about how I need more materials in my 2-year-old room. I’ve tried to give my kids more things to play with, but they just dump everything out or break things and lose the pieces. Can I just get what I need and put it out when the window opens?

Answer: Anyone who has worked with toddlers or 2s knows they are exuberant dumpers, and don’t always know how to treat toys appropriately. Many teachers handle this the way you have – by limiting the materials kids have access to. Unfortunately, giving children a bunch of new materials right before an ITERS assessment to meet the requirements is a recipe for disaster. Raters can tell if children don’t typically have access to materials: they tend to mob anything new, fight over it, and they clearly don’t understand how to use it. Chaos quickly descends, which opens up other rating issues related to discipline and teacher interactions.

Your better bet is to do everything you can to actively TEACH your kids how to play appropriately, regardless of ITERS. That means sitting with them on the floor, modeling appropriate use of, say, blocks, by building, talking about what you’re doing, and encouraging them to try things out. If children are using materials in a way that’s dangerous – such as hitting with the blocks – it’s okay to put them up for a little while or to remove the child to a different center for a short period to help convey that this behavior is not safe. But it’s equally important to let them try again as soon as possible, and reinforce appropriate behavior with lots of praise and attention.

Also, remember that 2s at the beginning of the year are different animals than by the end of the year, and different materials are often needed as their abilities and interests shift, so you don’t need to have all possible materials out all the time. In fact, it’s often best to rotate toys in order to provide some novelty and to observe how they interact with materials differently as they grow.

Another piece of the puzzle here is that even though you can’t expect 2s to know how to clean up after themselves, you can start guiding them in that direction by using buckets or bins that are clearly labeled with pictures of what’s inside them, and identical pictures on the shelf. Showing them these pictures – and a lot of repetition — helps them begin to understand the idea of what goes where. Giving them very specific tasks at clean up time can help build these skills – not “everyone clean up!” but “Chloe, can you please help me put these potato heads into this bucket.” Arranging your shelves and furniture so there are clear boundaries and centers can also help contain the mess, as children often will tend to run or roam more in wide-open spaces.

It’s a natural part of children’s development that they love to dump, and that can create a stressful situation for teachers. Sometimes it helps to give children an appropriate outlet for this interest, such as providing purses and shopping bags they can put things in and carry around, or big plastic pitchers and bowls they can use to pour things back and forth. Actively playing with them can give them new, more interesting alternatives, too.

You might find that the more children have to play with, and the more time you spend interacting with them around their play, the fewer behavioral problems there will be. Boredom can spell disaster for a room full of 2s, but children with enough to do to engage their interest are usually too busy to get up to much trouble.

Why Ask Why?

Why Ask Why? – February 8th, 2017

Question: I’m a pre-K teacher, and my director keeps telling me I need to “interact more” and “talk more” with my kids. I love my class, but I really don’t feel like I need to constantly be interrupting them, as long as they’re behaving. Why do so many people insist we constantly talk at children?

Answer:  Try this little experiment, just for a moment: think back your earliest memories of day care, school, or home. What stands out for you? Was it toys, or places, or people?

For most, what we remember first and what makes the strongest impressions on our lives is our relationships with other people. And when we’re little, those relationships are built through lots of repeated interactions over time. Neuroscience research is revealing more all the time about how the brains of children are formed primarily in the first 2000 days of life, and how the vast majority of relational patterns – how easily we form bonds with others, how quick we are to trust, how well we can regulate our emotions – are formed in those early years too.

So that’s one reason to interact with young children as much as you can: you are literally building the parts of their brains that they will depend on all their lives to have strong, healthy relationships with others. Of course, their peers, families, and wider communities are doing that, too. You’re just one piece of the puzzle.

But you do have a unique role in the lives of children in your class. For however many hours a day they are in care, you are the most important grownup in their immediate environment. When you’re four years old, getting an important adult to give you sustained attention is pretty much the best thing ever, and something you will go to wild lengths to achieve (which can be why so many behavior problems arise when children are not getting enough attention).

By the time children are 4 or 5, they often can play together reasonably well, especially if there are enough materials and interesting activities. But you can still enhance their play, and teach them all kinds of things in the process. For example, if some of your kids are in dramatic play, go sit with them and listen to what “roles” they are playing, and suggest things they might be able to do or say in that role that they hadn’t thought of. Asking open-ended “why” questions to explore their thinking helps build language and reasoning skills.

For example, lots of kids like to use dramatic play to take care of babies, or take them to the “doctor.” Asking questions like “what’s the doctor going to do?” or “what is the baby sick with?” can stimulate more complex play scenarios. When they run out of ideas – because, after all, their life experience is pretty limited – you can suggest something else: “Why has the baby been throwing up? What do you think we should do to help her?”

Just sitting down with children and asking what they’re doing, no matter what materials they are playing with, tells them that they are valued, that their thoughts and actions are important to you, and also gives them a chance to practice explaining their activities and thoughts out loud. Saying “nice job!” to a child’s block building is nice, but much less effective in terms of developing their brains than asking “I’m curious why you put those big blocks there? Can you tell me about it?”

And chances are, you have enough kids in your room that you don’t have to worry that playing with them will keep them from learning to play independently or with their peers. There aren’t enough hours in the day to spend lots of extended time interacting with every child, every day. So join them as much as you can. It’s actually one of the perks of the job: you get to play too!