Reading, Creating and Playing with Art

Playing with art on the SMARTboard

We have spent the last two weeks immersed in Wassily Kandinsky’s art. My kindergarteners have been talking about his art, tracing over it on transparency paper, playing with it on our SMARTboard, and creating their own “Kindergarten Kandinsky”. It’s been exciting to listen in on the conversations as the kids compared different pieces and wondered why Kandinsky made the choices he did as an artist. We have had fun playing “I spy” as the students looked closely for “the big blue circle next to the small triangle behind the three parallel lines”. They have enjoyed talking about the pictures Kandinsky made with shapes and we had quite an interesting discussion about how Kandinsky couldn’t have intentionally made an “Angry Bird” in one of his paintings since it was made 100 years ago. It started a great discussion about perspective, imagination and creating stories in our minds. I loved how they connected it to making pictures in our minds as we read!

They love looking at the big art prints on paper and the Kandinsky SMARTboard station has been a top choice during Explore time. I have a feeling the Kandinsky prints will continue to be a part of our classroom explorations and conversations for quite some time.

Cutting shapes for our mural

We ended our Kandinsky study by creating a class mural – our “Kindergarten Kandinsky”. The kids cut out a variety of shapes and lines and we carefully placed them on a large piece of butcher paper. We talked about where the shapes would go, how they would overlap, what the proximity to other shapes and lines would be and negotiated our artwork together. After everything was placed as the students wanted it, we glued it down. The kids were so excited to have a giant “Kandinsky” to discuss and talk about, just as we have talked about his original artwork.

Negotiating placement of our shapes on our mural

Our finished "Kindergarten Kandinsky"

After spring break, we are starting a photography study of the alphabet through found pictures in the environment. I think the Kandinsky study has opened our eyes to reading pictures and seeing beyond the obvious. We are ready to look for letters in nature and in our environment. Stay tuned for a post in a few weeks on this new project!

What makes you happy?

I enjoyed hearing Pat share about¬†The Happiness Project over dinner last week, and just started reading it last night on my iPad. It got me thinking about what makes me happy in teaching. I’ve had some difficult years where it was very hard to focus on what made me happy. Years where the days that ended in tears far outweighed the days that ended with a smile. Years where I really questioned whether I could stay in this career or not. This year, in my first year teaching kindergarten, I am happier than I’ve ever been in my teaching career. On my run this evening I reflected on why – what is it that has me being so happy as a teacher right now?

1. The kids. I absolutely love my students. They are funny, sweet, caring, energetic, loud, wiggly, creative, bouncy, squirmy, fabulous, thoughtful, inquisitive, wonderful little people. They love being at school and make our classroom such a happy place for us all to be. They force me to be in the present – in the “right now” – because that’s where their world exists. They celebrate the littlest things and help me see the beauty and magic in the 1/2 inch that our plant grows overnight, the magnets in our science center, the first words they put in their books and that first book they read all by themselves. Every day has little celebrations woven throughout. Even when things get tough (and yes they do get tough, as in any classroom) we work through the problems and end up back in our happy place. They seem to get, in their 5 and 6 year old wisdom, that life is short – fix our problems quickly so we can hug and go back to play. I learn so much from my students every day.

2. My team. I work with 2 dedicated, passionate, fun teachers and 3 amazing instructional assistants, as well as a wonderful ESOL team. I feel supported, encouraged and connected unlike any year before in my teaching career. It makes all the difference when you have team members you can share with, reflect with and create with. I never realized the power of collaboration until this year. I learn from these wise educators every day.

3. My school. I feel respected as an educator and trusted to make decisions in my classroom. This is huge. I am VERY aware of how little this happens in other schools around the country. Being trusted as a knowledgeable professional in your classroom and school is empowering and motivating and something ALL teachers should have. And it can make all the difference in how happy you are at work.

4. The play. Our day is full of play. Pure play, playful learning, playful discoveries, outdoor play, dramatic play, literacy/math/science play. Purposeful play that supports children in learning and growing in a developmentally appropriate way. How can you not be happy when your day is full of play? I work hard every day. I go home utterly exhausted. But I like to think of it as playing all day, because it rarely occurs as “work”.

5. The books. Reading books to kindergarteners is pure joy. I love sharing my passion for books with my young learners. They get so excited when I introduce a new book, they love reading books by themselves and with a friend, and they love hearing books read aloud. I get to plan great books to read for our curriculum and share them with my kids. It’s really one of the best parts of my job. Helping to cultivate a love of reading and writing through complete immersion in the wonderful children’s books that are out there is a tough job. But someone has to do it. ūüėČ I’m so happy it gets to be me.

What makes you happy? 

How do you stay happy in the face of the many challenges facing education and educators currently?

Playing with the Big Kids

This morning on the CBS Morning Show there was a story about a high school student who has possibly figured out a cure for cancer. Angela Zhang got interested in bio-engineering as a freshman. She started reading doctorate level papers and began to see it as a puzzle that she wanted to decode. She eventually talked her way into the lab at Stanford University and was doing her own research as a junior in high school. What I kept thinking as I watched this story is that she was playing. She found something that interested her and made the time to play around with it. She had the support of teachers who encouraged her to go beyond the curriculum, to follow a passion and to play. And look what happened.

So what if we built time for students to play into the school day? Not only in our primary grades – but in the upper elementary grades, middle school and high school as well? Recently at a staff professional development session my principal asked us what Explore time would look like in the upper grades. I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I think there are so many possibilities for having an open-ended exploration and play time in all grades. After watching the CBS show this morning I’m even more convinced that carving out the time for this (our biggest challenge, perhaps) would be worth so much. Having this time would engage our struggling students as they find things they are interested and successful in and are motivated to pursue. Our students would be able to challenge themselves and pursue areas to research and explore that may not be part of our standard curriculum. We would help students find a passion and stick with a project over time, creating, problem solving, exploring and playing.

A few ideas I came up with for Explore time in grades 2-6 are:

*Legos, blocks and ramp building – including architectural design books and magazines as well as websites for constructing (this is a picture of kindergarteners building ramps – can you imagine how much further older kids could take this?)

*games – Scrabble, Boggle, Life, Monopoly, Yahtzee – just to name a few – these games are full of fun learning opportunities, yet we often don’t have time to play them in school

*science experiments – I think of all the cool experiments and projects at Steve Spangler Science, and countless other science resources, and think that older kids could experiment and play with a variety of science tools, engaging in problem solving, hypothesizing and persistence to a task they are interested in

*photography Рchildren could explore photography and various editing tools that allow you to manipulate and alter photographs such as ColorSplash and Photoshop, using digital cameras,  iPods or iPads

*art – exploration with a variety of mediums, as well as books, websites, etc. to get ideas from

*technology – kids could Tweet, create their own blogs, create digital stories, make movies, etc… there are SO many possibilities here

*reading – I know I would love an extra 30 minutes or so in each day to read whatever I chose – books, magazines, blogs, etc.

*writing – kids could work on their own books and stories or work with others to create collaborative pieces

*projects and research on topics in the curriculum that kids want to explore further or topics that students choose

I feel that with older kids simply giving them the time and then challenging them to create a project of their choosing would be all you really need to do. Of course, you would provide materials, guidance, etc. – but I think they could come up with ideas beyond what we can think of. Finding the time is a challenge in an educational climate where it seems as if every minute is planned with curriculum objectives and pacing guides – with the standardized tests being the ultimate goal. But don’t we want thinkers, problem solvers, engaged learners, and motivated students in addition to good test scores? I would argue that providing this time would improve test scores, especially in your reluctant, struggling students who aren’t invested in school. It would get them hooked on learning, motivated to learn more and I think great results in math, reading, writing and the content areas would be seen. Isn’t it worth a try?

I’d love to hear from you if you are trying anything like this with your students.

How do you make the time? What types of Explore activities/projects/etc. are your students engaged in? What advice do you have for teachers wanting to try this?

Literacy Explore

Our kindergarten literacy block is structured with time for whole group instruction, small group & one on one instruction, book box time, sharing and choice stations. Literacy Explore is similar to reading and writing stations. In fact, I call it that so the children know that it’s not quite as open-ended as our Explore time. During this time I expect the kids to be engaged and playing in a literacy activity of their choosing. The children choose from the choices on our work board. They can move freely from station to station, as long as there is room. Reading from book boxes or our classroom library and writing are always a choice with no restrictions on how many kids can be doing this. I also have a time when everyone is reading from book boxes or the classroom library – in addition to our literacy Explore time. I want to make sure that everyone is engaged in texts of their choosing at some point in our day, in case they are not choosing this during Explore.

An example of some of the choices available as reading and writing stations are:

-reading around the room (children have pointers and can walk around the room looking for letters or words they know)

-writing around the room (children have clipboards and can walk around the room writing down letters or words they see)

-big books (all the big books we have read, as well as class big books we have made are in a bin for children to reread – I also have a big picture dictionary they love to read)

-puppets (I have a variety of puppets and stuffed animals from books we have read. Kids can create their own puppet stories or retell books we have read.)

-magnetic letters (a variety of magnetic letters and words on an oil drip pan and cookie sheets for kids to make words, match and sort letters, etc.)

-letter sand boxes (see this previous post for a photo and description)

-name bottles (we interviewed each child and then created a name bottle for them – it’s a bottle with all the letters of their name plus some glitter – kids can match a name bottle with a name card at this station)¬†

-story retelling (I have props for several stories we have read numerous times – the children can retell the story with the props)

-rhyming and letter games (various games where kids can match objects that rhyme, objects to a letter chart, objects with similar beginning or ending sounds, etc. – a good source for ordering lots of little objects is from Time for Tots on Etsy)

-poems and songs on charts (Children can reread familiar poems and songs with pointers at this station. I laminate all of our charts, tape a plastic hanger to them, and hang them on a chart stand. I have several hooks around the room for kids to hang the charts on while they are reading them.)

-iPad and iPhone (A variety of literacy apps are available at these stations – I especially like the digital story apps Fotobabble, StoryKit, and Storyrobe) as well as the SMARTboard (literacy games and websites).)

-letter stamps (Kids can make books, stamp names or words, sort letters, etc. with the ABC stamps.)

-flannel board (I love my “old school” flannel board! It is great for retelling stories and creating new ones from having multiple felt pieces available. Story Time Felts has a wide variety of stories available on felt and for a few dollars extra, they come pre-cut. Check with your librarian, many times old flannel boards are just in a closet, not being used.)

This is just a sampling of some ideas. I leave the choices up for a few weeks, adding new ones in and rotating ones out if I see that kids aren’t going to that station. I can then reintroduce a station later with renewed interest.

For our youngest literacy learners (and really, all literacy learners), I feel that it’s particularly important to make literacy accessible, playful, meaningful and engaging. When children have the opportunity to choose from a wide variety of stations they are certain to feel empowered, successful and in control of their learning. This helps set the foundation for strong literacy learning, and allows our stronger children the chance to go beyond the curriculum.

I’m sure there are many more literacy based exploration ideas out there. How do you do literacy stations? Please share!


“In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior. In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.”

Lev Vygotsky

Several years ago I had a huge “a-ha” moment while reading Serious Players in the Primary Classroom: Empowering Children Through Active Learning Experiences. If you’re interested in meaningful, purposeful play and learning then this book is a must-read. My “a-ha” moment resulted in creating one of my favorite times of the day – Explore. I started Explore when I was teaching second grade, and have done it with first grade and now kindergarten. We start and end each day with 15-30 minutes of Explore time. When my students enter our room every morning they unpack and then choose an Explore station. I have a work board where the children move their name to indicate their choices. Choices might be: blocks, art, iPad, dramatic play, sand table, garden rocks, Legos, puppets, puzzles, games, math manipulatives, play-dough, building ramps, etc. Reading in the library and writing are always choices.¬†¬†I typically have 12-16 choices with space for 4 children at each station.

Because my room is on the small side, I don’t have the supplies out in pre-set stations, for the most part. I teach the children where to get the materials and how to put them away. Children are free to move from station to station as they wish – as long as there is room, they can change stations as much as they’d like. As the year goes on, it is my hope that Explore will turn into student-generated projects and stations that they create as an extension of our curriculum. I leave the board up with different options each week, but the children know they can let me know if they would like to create their own Explore station.

One year after a trip to a folk art exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, a group of second grade students decided to create their own folk art exhibit during Explore time. Just the other day we found a HUGE box in the hallway waiting to be taken out with the trash. We grabbed that box and it is currently being painted as a Fairy Princess Castle House. What will happen next is yet to be seen. It’s up to the children what they choose to do with the box. It’s up to me to provide the supplies and space for their creativity to shine.

During Explore I want kids to do exactly that – explore different things in our classroom and play! This is an important time for me to interact with the children. Walking around the room I take pictures, engage in play with students, ask questions, wonder out loud and observe. Kid-watching during Explore time gives me tons of anecdotal notes to help guide my teaching. This is a time rich with oral language opportunities and a chance for all students to be successful, empowered problem solvers. They are engaged, invested and learning a tremendous amount.

Explore is a time in our day that I couldn’t live without. It’s messy, fun, productive, exciting and full of learning that may not happen within the normal day and set curriculum. I can easily say that I don’t have the time for this. But I believe that we make time for what is important. And this is¬†important work for children.

Have you tried a version of Explore? Please share your experiences with open ending exploration and play time for children. We would love to hear new and different ideas!

I’ve taken the idea of Explore and carried it over into math and literacy as well. Stay tuned for my next post on how Literacy Explore works in our classroom. And check out Kassia Omohundro Wedekind’s post on Math Explore over at Math Exchanges.


Just as teachers need strong mentors, so do our young readers. We are very lucky to have our 5th grade book buddies! Every other week, the 5th graders check out a library book to share with their kindergarten buddy. ¬†After they finish reading their book, the kinders pick a book from our classroom library to share with their book buddy. Last week we invited our 5th grade book buddies to do Explore with us. They loved playing with blocks, the iPad and pretending in the dramatic play area with their kindergarten buddies. It was so fun watching the kids interact and play together. Do you have a buddy class? We’d love to hear what you do!

Don’t Say They Can’t Play

“Play is a child’s work.” – Jean Piaget

Last week we began a science study of squirrels in our classroom. Squirrels are a piece of our county curriculum and we are required to teach about these animals connected with winter. I integrated this science unit into our language arts time and we read several books about squirrels (comparing fiction to nonfiction), created vocabulary boards with key words, put up a squirrel feeder and binoculars in our window to observe the squirrels, danced to squirrel songs and created a squirrel habitat in our science center. It is through observing children playing in our habitat that I am seeing just how much they are learning.  I provided branches, leaves, acorns, moss and several plastic and stuffed squirrels and stood back and watched as the play began.

The children made a drey (squirrel nest in a tree, in case you don’t know that term – I didn’t until this study), and a den (squirrel nest that is in a hole in a tree). Observing the children play I hear key vocabulary words used correctly, witness scientifically accurate construction of the dreys and dens (correcting each other if anything is not as depicted in our books), see them using different books we’ve read as references in building the nests and replicating what they see the squirrels doing in the pictures as well as what we’ve observed them doing outside. I watch them as the mother squirrel prepares her nest for her babies and then nurses them – using the larger stuffed squirrel as the mom and the smaller plastic squirrels as the babies. I watch them make the squirrels chase each other, scampering up and down the tree, gathering acorns and hiding them in their nests – declaring that winter is coming soon so we have to store lots of acorns. They have mastered the county objectives – plus much, much more. They have experienced squirrel life through imaginative play. They have turned into strong observers of squirrels outside so they can replicate it in their play. They have truly become squirrel experts – through play. Would this have happened with only a read aloud, or a squirrel worksheet? No.

Don’t say they can’t play. Let them play. It’s how they learn.

How are you facilitating and encouraging playful learning in your classroom?