Monday, April 17, 2017

Neuro-Diversity: It's a Thing

By Becky Gamache 

She blows into our house each day like a tornado.  Backpack, jacket, socks, clothes hurtled in separate directions until she’s reduced to underpants.  She can tell you what the teacher talked about in school that day and if it’s interesting to her she asks questions and/or researches it further. She makes notes about what she wants to learn more about and what books to check out of the library.  She has at least four books going at a time and can tell you in depth about each one.  Her beloveds have been read to tatters. 

 Clothes don’t always feel right.  Noises and busyness can reduce her to tears.  She knows exactly what kind of a day you’ve had by looking at your face or by the tone of your voice.  If there’s tension in the room, it bothers her… a lot.  She feels and understands things on a whole different plane than me, but when she’s able to explain things herself, I always have an A-HA moment. 

By age 9, my daughter Caroline has had the alphabet soup of acronyms thrown at her…ADHD, ODD, ASD, SPD and GAN.  None of these acronyms even come close to helping tell her story, a story that gleans a new acronym depending on who you tell it to.  Instead, I use the term “neuro-diverse” to describe Caroline. 

 I don’t even really know if it’s a thing, but as far as I’m concerned it is the only term that begins to tell her story.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not afraid of a diagnosis for my child.  I’m afraid of a diagnosis putting her into a box, surrounded by inappropriate goals and expectations.  I’m afraid of a “one size fits all” approach to education that doesn’t support the diversity of children coming through the doors.  I’m afraid children are diagnosed to be pounded into the mold instead of diagnosed to allow the mold to be broken so the child can grow as an individual. 

 I call her neuro-diverse because I want the adults to change how they approach her and her learning.  I want the adults to recognize in her what I do and seek to understand like I do.  I want the adults to think of all children as neuro-diverse so that each child’s story and their journey into learning is their own. 

Unfortunately, where I live, the majority of school environments are set up for collecting arbitrary bits of data that have no real depth or understanding of what kind of learners the children are.  Each year is a carbon copy of the last.  If a class is struggling to learn a concept, the teacher feels pressure because now he is behind his grade level partners.  Learning is focused only on the “big test” and weeks of instructional time are devoted to reviewing for or practicing how to take it.  This is not the environment my neuro-diverse daughter thrives in and I would argue most children do not either.  

The environments where my daughter has thrived have been ones where the adults were responsive to the needs of all the children.  Those adults reflected on how they engaged with children and the interactions they had.  They wondered why behaviors were triggered or interests were piqued, looking to themselves and the environment for answers.  Those adults understood that all children are neuro-diverse and to be a responsive teacher you must continually observe, document, reflect, adapt and modify.  

There are children in our midst with and without diagnoses; they all deserve the mold to be shattered.  It’s the only way responsive teaching happens.

Becky Gamache has been an early childhood educator for over 20 years. She is a Home Base Teacher and Family Advocate for Head Start. Over the years she has been a consultant for early childhood programs, a presenter at local and state conferences and is adjunct faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. She lives in Hermantown, MN with her husband and two daughters.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

In The Process Of Trying

By Kisha Reid

A story of what is learned, in the process of trying:

It was the first really hot day, so in no time the children began asking for water. Cheers filled the playground as the first drips of water flowed from the pipes, it had been a long winter with very little snow, so the return of this natural loose part was highly anticipated.

The flow of the water immediately generated interest, busy children moving about all with their own ideas and methods of exploring them.

One child, in particular, noticed the water draining from the sand pit, " Hey the water's getting out a-dare!" he shouted as he ran off, he returned toting a heavy rock walking in a sort of rocking motion in order to balance the weight of the rock as he transported it from clear across the playground. He was visibly intrigued by the route the water was taking as it left the pit. He squatted close to the edge of the pit and quietly watched the water curve around the surface of the stumps and trickle down between two. " It's gonna flood the school!" he said in a voice that revealed a bit of anxiety and fear, at this point I was not sure if the feeling was fear or a part of a dramatic rendition of fear. I asked myself " Is he really scared that the school would flood? I didn't dare interrupt his process to ask the question for only he really needed to know that answer. I was merely a bystander to this unfolding of discovery.

He purposefully wedged the rock in the space between the two stumps, then waited and watched. A few seconds passed before he noticed that the rock only created a new path for the water to flow. Water began to trickle down and around the sides of the rock. This both seemed to frustrate and fuel the desire to figure this out and solve his problem.

He scanned the playground and when he spotted a pile of blocks, he was off again, this time returning with each hand stretched across a block. swinging by his side as he made his way back. Noticing the space under the rock, he began to shimmy the blocks under the rocks edge. He repositioned the rocks a few times after assessing how it's placement altered the flow of the water. When he was satisfied with their placement he returned to source additional materials to dam up the flow of the water.

The flow had now become a trickle, but the water was still escaping. He had added bricks, smaller rocks, and packed sand in the cracks of it all. In the end, he never stopped the flow of water, Many adults would see this as a failure, some would even see this as an opening to "teach" him by doing it for him, asking him leading questions or just telling him he can't stop the water.

He had a goal that he didn't reach, but if you look a little closer and observe a little longer, it wasn't stopping the flow of water that would deem this a success, it was what he learned in the process of attempting to contain the water.

He added to his layers of understanding about the properties of water, it's power, and how it's path adapts to its obstructions. He learned that his ideas were valuable, that it's OK not to solve the problem on the first try. His urge to figure this out pushed his physical limits as he carried heavy materials, he planned and thought through his plan adapting as he gathered new information about the water patterns, he felt a sense of purpose as he worked.

The space between this encounter and the next will be the time to process all of this new understanding. When he returns to this play, he will be starting from a new point of understanding, he will have a much deeper relationship with the water. I hope he doesn't figure it out anytime soon because there is so much to be learned in the process of trying.

 Trust in the natural development of children through play means that we allow that learning to be theirs, give them the full control of the process and how they internalize the learning they take away from "their" play.

Many higher level concepts are learned through play, often times a child is unable to totally verbalize what they fully understand. This does not negate their level of understanding of the concept. This is why quizzing and testing are not valid methods to use when attempting to measure understanding and mastery. Simply observing a child at play will give you a much fuller scope of their level of understanding of the world around them.

Other times children are chomping at the bit to share the details of their new discovery. Being there to receive this verbal processing without hopes of pushing or pulling them past their current understanding allows the child's learning to unfold as they explore the process of learning. Often just having space to think, or hear themselves verbalize their understanding causes them reach a higher level of understanding. As the adult, I often repeat their words back to them, or notice when they are wondering something.. " Oh you were wondering if the rock would hold the water in?" This interaction is always a reflection, never an interruption as the child is at play and is meant to echo their current path to understanding, not alter it.

This type of authentic learning unfolds in layers, with each layer it is sweeter, it is deeper, it is more filling. By allowing children plenty of time and space to play around with ideas, make new discoveries, and connections we provide the perfect recipe for learning.

Lakisha Reid
Owner and Educator at Discovery ELC

Co-Host of Dirty Playologist Podcast -

Founder of Play Empowers-


Hijacking Play

By Kisha Reid 

The other day two of the boys in my group spent the majority of the day in the mud kitchen, They filled pots and pans with natural loose parts, packed in dirt, rocks, and water into muffin tins and worked long and hard planning a party complete with a very well decorated cake. They used kettles to fill cups with mud mixed water and laid out found pieces of felt on wood stumps as placemats for guests.

 After spending the day setting up they collected paint chips and set off to cut up tickets. "What color do you want?" they asked as they cut tickets off of the color reel.

As  an educator, I am able to observe this play, see what each child is getting out of it, visualize their thinking, their process and ultimately their learning. I understand the value in the children's own natural intrinsic motivation.
As I observe children in the "Zone" I watch as they solve problems on the spot, share ideas and consider the ideas of others, collaborate on completing a task, use past knowledge to take themselves further in their thinking and understanding, in effect stretching their own learning. It's like their mind is set free and their vision is clear.

If  I am watching from a, what I call,  "outside of the bubble" position I can see the rich learning present in this type of organic play.  I can see the whole picture and all of it's moving parts. I can see children who have a deep understanding of numbers, fractions, equal parts, volume, one to one correspondence, language, vocabulary, and an understanding of how tools work. Not to mention the scientific understanding that is gained from manipulating natural loose parts, mixing mediums, and hands-on experiences with the Earths treasures. I see children who display impulse control, respect for others, turn taking, critical thinking, problem-solving, and the ability to create an imaginative story line based largely on past experience.

Now, what do I do with what I see, do I take it and plan a "CAKE MAKING DAY?" no, I allow the children to own the idea, it's theirs.. they own it. I will not hijack their play to make it fit into my mold of where it should go. I will not steer it in any direction, I will not rob them of the right to create their own play, by creating it for them.

If they evolve to the point of wanting to make this "pretend" party into a "real" party I will be there to support them as they write the list of what they need, I will take them to the store and shop for their needs, I will provide them with all the time in the world to experiment with this idea and again.. get out of their way and allow it to unfold, allow the natural learning to take place, to allow the children to own their process.

They have all of their life to learn how to do it "right", right now is the time to learn how to figure out what their "right" way is and that takes experimentation.  If they look to me as an expert in cake making and ask for my input, I will be there, asking questions, reading labels, and filling that role, but until I am pulled into the play, I am not barging in..                                                                     
 -Lakisha Reid 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Why The Box ?

By Emily Plank

It’s a well-worn theme of childhood that children would rather play with the boxes in which their toys were packaged than to play the toys themselves. But why? Why the box?

The answer lies in one of the primary functions of play in children’s lives: children use play to make meaning.

Through a series of back-and-forth coos, play is the way that babies learn to differentiate between “me” and “you.” With their whole bodies and full voices, toddlers play through daily welcome routines with peers, running and jumping and fake-falling as a way to say “Hello. I’m happy to see you.” Three-, four-, and five-year-olds develop increasingly sophisticated play scripts portraying the events of their lives: doctor, library, bus, parent and baby, grocery store, school. They add elements of fantasy to deepen the meaning of these moments.

As an adult, this particular purpose of play that I relied on as a child has been transformed by spoken and written language. At the end of the day, for example, I recount my comings and goings with loved ones by telling them what happened. If I encounter something intimidating or unknown, I will quickly send a text or call a friend for support.

Children, with their formal spoken language skills still developing, draw on a rich capacity to play in to process things that I process with words.

Open-ended toys like boxes help children make meaning out of their world because their use is so flexible. Blocks can be built into castles or animal cages or used as fire hoses. Fabric can be pinned into ballerina skirts or folded into baby blankets or left of the floor as hot lava. Cardboard tubes can be telescopes or trumpets or material for art projects.

When children have access to a variety of open-ended toys, it’s like giving them access to a complete lexicon. On the contrary, sitting them down with the shape-sorter is akin to giving me an Italian-English dictionary and forcing me to tell about my day in my non-native tongue.

Why the box? Because a box can be anything.

And with anything, children can make meaning of their world.

Bio: Emily Plank is an author and speaker. Follow her at or on Facebook, and read more in Emily’s book, Discovering the Culture of Childhood.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Mirror Image

By Lakisha Reid

Children are born scientists. From day one they study the world around them. First and foremost in their world are their parents. They hear our voices from the womb, they connect with our heart beat, our sleep schedules, and enter the world eager to connect and be loved. Early on they began to follow us with their eyes, they perk up their ears when they hear our voices, they seek our physical touch and emotional connection. They watch, listen, and feel who we are, how we move, the sounds we make, the expressions on our faces. 

They begin to form ideas and generate data based on their interactions with those that take care of them. 

As they grow into toddlerhood, they begin to form more complex language, they have studied the sounds made by their parents and others around them, They have looked for meaning in these words. Through this observation, toddlers define and properly use words learned directly from parents. 

They feel love, connection, protection, and power when parents and caregivers are loving and responsive to their needs.

 They feel isolation, disconnection, vulnerability, and powerlessness when parents and caregivers are not responsive to their needs. Through these early interactions, the child's emotional blueprint is designed. 

As children leave the solo play and parallel play stage and become of age to take on play partners, they reach back to their foundational social experiences. A child who has experienced rejection, excessive punishment and reward,  bribery and other control based tactics learns to use these same tactics in play. 

A child who hears harsh language, negative feedback, and physical punishment will learn that this behavior is a part of their culture, this will be written into their blueprint. 

As caregivers and parents, we must always remember that we are being observed. Our actions and behaviors have a direct effect on the actions and behaviors of our children. We ARE their first teachers. 

As parents and caregivers, we should make it our practice to take a look in the mirror and reflect upon the image that we see. 

The mirror I speak about is the mirror of our child's eyes, look deep into their eyes, if you look deep enough, you will find your own reflection.  Do you like what you see? 

 Lakisha Reid 
Founder of Play Empowers-Sharing The Power Of Play, 

Early Childhood Presenter and Consultant
Co-Host of Dirty Playologist
 Owner/Educator at Discovery Early Learning Center

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Powerful Messy Play

Rethinking Our Practice- Art 

     Created by a small group of 3&4-year-old children

It's a collaborative work that pushed me to the limit of my comfort zone, but I did some self-talk as I noticed the deeply engaged children exploring the paint in ways that are natural for children. They were in a state of mind only reached while in play, they seemed so enthralled with the process as the paint dripped, splashed and blended together, this creative freedom seemed intoxicating. The children were pulled deeply into the experience, closely observing, thinking, then adding elements as if answering questions or playing out assumptions they held in their minds and hearts.

Often as adults, we see experiences like this a frivolous, wasteful and careless.

With closer observation and a shift in mindset, we can see that this experience is bursting with meaning. It is providing each participant with a sense of belonging, a sense of power, freedom of expression, and pure joy. Moments like this are of utmost value and should be the goal of every preschool environment.

Supporting these intrinsic needs in young children in our programs requires educators to reflect on their program culture and environment, then alter their practice and design.

Program Culture:
What do your policies say about powerful messy play?

How do you support and inform parents about the importance of powerful messy play?

What verbal, non-verbal and/or unintended messages are we giving children about powerful messy play?

Program Design:
How does our program design support or hinder the act of powerful messy play?

Who are we designing for?

How can we alter our classroom design to support powerful messy play?

Starting here will create a ripple effect that will take you and your team to a place of deep reflection, re-creation, and rethinking of your practice around powerful messy play.

by Lakisha Reid 
Founder of Play Empowers, 

Early Childhood Presenter and Consultant
Co-Host of Dirty Playologist Podcast Owner/Director/Educator at Discovery Early Learning Center

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Learnable Moments

by Lakisha Reid 

There is some very interesting play going on around pipes. This arched piece has baffled a few. Its shape makes it attractive and also makes it difficult to handle. Once the child is able to successfully connect it to another pipe, they then attempt to insert objects. The downward positioning causes their mission to oppose the forces of gravity. Mission not accomplished...

As onlookers and facilitators of play, it is our responsibility to allow children to reach disequilibrium, a point in which their idea or belief is challenged causing them to alter their mindset. It is important that we allow the process to be the child's and realize that if we correct, explain, or fix the problem, we are robbing the child of truly discovering and experiencing the process of solving their problem.

Many times this process does not immediately culminate in a final understanding of the original challenge, but instead, makes way for bits and bits of layered understanding over time.

This layering effect fuels the intrinsic need for the child to return to the play to further gain understanding. It feeds their innate curiosity and drives them to continue to crave knowledge.

Allowing children to reach a point of struggle and make their way through it is the best way to support their learning through play.


Often this support is simply:

-Acknowledging their feeling of frustration "I see you are frustrated"

-Asking a question, " what is your plan?" being prompted to verbalize their plan often helps them hash it out and alter their approach.

-Giving them an out "Should we take a break and come back to this?" Sometimes a break allows a child to return to a problem with a new set of eyes.

The goal is to allow the frustration, allow the struggle, but support the process. Never just doing it for them, showing them how you would do it, or making it a "teachable moment", but instead seeing it as a "learnable moment" that spans a lifetime!

by Lakisha Reid 
Founder of Play Empowers, 

Early Childhood Presenter and Consultant
 Co-Host of Dirty Playologist Podcast  Owner/Director/Educator at Discovery Early Learning Center