Childhood Joy and Preservation

Take off that dress!

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Boys – wearing the dresses! in the dollhouse area! carrying a purse!  rocking a baby!  This is not where they belong!

You have heard in once, twice, a million times!  Why is my child (boy) playing in the dress up area?  Sometimes it is a worried Dad.  Sometimes it is a concerned Mama.  This article is an exploration of gender development and why we should not ask a boy who loves the dresses to hide in the closet or discourage him if he loves to play in the areas that are “not traditionally” the boy areas.

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If a girl plays in the block area with cars we seem to feel comfortable with that but as a society boys in areas that are stereotyped as “girl” interests seem to create an alarming reaction.  Parents and sometimes teachers often send the message (or directly tell) boys to take off that dress!  But, why?  Is there some reason why boys should be excluded from certain avenues of play?

Every year of teaching there is at least one boy that is in love with playing in the “girl” areas (whether it be the dolls, dress-up clothes, the housekeeping area, or the doll house).  Which means every year I am looking for fuel to back me up when I am asked about why the boys are wearing dresses or holding baby dolls.  Every year I need to collect more evidence about how the benefits are endless and that the risks are simply unlikely fears.  My most recent fuel finds include:

  • Boys and Girls: Superheros in the Doll Corner by Vivian Paley (I recently stumbled upon this and now plan to read this cover to cover)
  • Why Kids Should Play with Baby Dolls (YES, even BOYS!) (a blog entry from a trio of Mommies and professionals an OT, pediatric speech-language pathologist, and a clinical psychologist.
  • My Princess Boy by C. Kilodavis (a children’s book written by a Mom with a little boy that loves playing princess)

Dressing up, whether in fireman hats or dresses (boys or girls) gives children a chance to explore roles and the attributes associated with these roles.  Yes, sometimes playing a role is testing it out.  But, just because a boy plays Mommy doesn’t mean he desires to become a Mommy (or a girl).  Just as every pretend Hulk does not produce a future green monster, every little police officer does not end up a crime fighter, every “bad guy” does not grow up to be a criminal, or every pretend doctor does not aspire to work in the medical field.  Sometimes a child chooses a role because the others are taken.  Sometimes he chooses it because it is the character who is in charge (so he may end up the Mommy so he can control the play scenario).  Sometimes he just loves that dress because it is green and green is his favorite color.  At preschool age children are defining their personalities and expressing their preferences.  The are exploring all the places and experiences offered to them.  Play allows children to explore the world safely and will full ambition.  Even if a child chooses to dress up because he likes to be pretty – who are we to say he shouldn’t?  Do we want to send the message to our children at a young age that we have already found ways to exclude them or judge them?  I think not.


A boy playing Daddy (or Mommy) in the housekeeping area provides practice for care taking and kind behaviors.  Any child whom engages in baby doll play, housekeeping roles, and dress up is given the opportunity to expand socially, emotionally, and cognitively.

Would you object to a child learning how to:

  • be gentle
  • care for others
  • be independent
  • complete daily tasks
  • excel in the role of parenthood or family member
  • organize
  • negotiate, cooperate, and communicate with a group
  • plan and direct an activity
  • appreciate the design of materials and environments

I wouldn’t and I am sure that nobody else would either.  These are all skills that happen in the dramatic play area (the place where dresses hang, dolls sleep, houses filled with mini families exist, and where Moms and Dads cook in the pretend kitchen).

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The fact is that in general society sends the message that non-traditional activities should be discouraged.  We feel that if we let a boy dress up in a dress or carry a purse when he is 3 then he will want to do so later.  When really this is not factual evidence.  There will be boys that dress up in dresses at 3 and that never will again.  There will be boys who did not like to dress-up at 3 and may like wearing dresses later in life.  As adults we should be more concerned about what we can do for our child’s present being than worry about how every current play experience will shape their lives 20 years from now.  It is not to say that we should not provide quality experiences that will shape the future of our children.  However, we should consider the possibilities side by side.  As adults we need to realize the benefits out weigh the chances of these behaviors carrying on in adulthood.  We also need to reevaluate why we fear these possibilities.  The love for our children should be priority and not our intolerance.  Is it worth saying that a child should miss out on all of the benefits (including: extended vocabulary, social just behaviors, compassion for others, daily life skills, leadership skills) of dramatic play, dress-up, and doll play because there is a slight chance that he may like pink robes and purple flowers when he is a grown man.  It is more likely that those amazing housekeeping and dress-up skills will lead to impeccable architectural designs, award winning chef creations, creative artistic results, well spoken project leaders, and men with gentle fathering skills.

It is time to focus on letting children explore who they want to be in this moment rather than who they want to be as an adult.  By providing love, support, and quality experiences we are letting children build a healthy foundation for the future.  Boys will be boys – and everything else their heart desires.


Childhood Joy and Preservation

Freeing Childhood

Preserving childhood and the joys of it are critical.  This next posting is actually a September 2012 archive from my prior blog.  However, I feel the message is so important I am carrying it over to this new blog and re-sharing it.  A familiar child advocate, Fred Rogers, once said:

 “Life isn’t about what you’ve done, but what you can do”.

There is always something to do for children because they need someone to be their voice in times when they can not speak or speak loudly.  Protecting children from the trickle down of today’s pressure driven education system is crucial.  This posting reminds us that children are young people that have the right of free choice just as much as any one of us.

Freeing Childhood

When we provide children with open ended opportunities and space to explore they uncover the most amazing discoveries.  Discoveries rooted in free thought are hard to come by these days.  In today’s society we often box our children in by scripting their days for them – the wheres, whens, and whys of their daily happenings.  We often decide what they will have for dinner each night, that dance is at 7 on Tuesdays, soccer on Fridays at 5, or that they can or can not bring their princess crown or batman in the car.  Reflecting upon this is very important because do we also want to put our children in boxes when we send them to school?

Traditional child care programs, preschools, and public schools often script a child’s day as well.  They decide when they will they sit at the table for snack, what time the children will do music, if the puzzle can go to the writing table, and even what the daily writing  topic will be about.  Could you imagine someone telling you that you have to wait until 11 to eat breakfast no matter how hungry you are, that you can’t listen to your i-pod while you clean the house, that your flower arrangement can’t be put into the green water pitcher because that pitcher is for holding drinking water, that your sneakers must be tied this way on not that way because that is the way we do it, etc.

The reality is that the future is demanding innovative thinkers and inventors but we are teaching children to only think and do what we wish and what we know.  By not providing them with opportunities to explore their environment and test their own ideas we are saying become followers – become worker bees.  Instead we should be saying be free thinkers, be creative, be innovative – Invent something!  Solve problems!

How do we allow children to become problem solvers or inventors?  We let them have freedom to play, learn, and explore.  These three are interwoven concepts.  It is not that play is separate from learning or learning is separate from play – or exploration is something that is independent of either of these.  Play, learning, and exploration are like grains of sand – you can not sift out one grain from the other.  They coexist together – they are one in the same.  When a child is allowed to dig in the dirt and add water into the mix they are playing.  During this experience they can use containers to experiment with concepts of volume, measurement, and conservation.  They can discover texture, temperature, pressure, movement, colors, and cause and effect as they explore the properties of water and dirt and the relationship that emerges during mud play.

The discoveries children find on their own are more meaningful and last longer because they are owned by their own thinking and being – therefore, each self  discovery and learning experience becomes vitally important to the child.  What is interesting to one makes a greater impression.  So we need to let children read by picking up a book when they are ready, let them come to the table with friends and set their own setting when they feel under undernourished, let them explore math and science with water and blocks, let them climb hills barefoot, paint what they desire and not fill in a coloring page, emerge in the joys of nature, let them play to learn, and learn to play.

The Environment, The How To Dos

But, When do you teach them the letters?

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A common question for play programs – especially progressive play programs is “But, when do you teach them the letters?”.  We don’t!  Well, we do.  But, we don’t teach them in the traditional way.  Working for a progressive program, myself and the other teachers I work with embrace what children are interested in, we meet the child where they are, and we provide for what the child is ready for.  Each child is at a different place in their development.  We have children who love to write or are very interested in the letters in their own names or those of their classmates.  But, we also have children who are not ready to embrace that learning experience yet.  There are much better lessons that they may be ready for.


If you asked me how many times a particular child identified a particular letter or how many letters they know I would not be able to tell you.  I could tell you that one of the boys dictated a beautiful story about a “noise at night” last week, that another little girl drew a map of a magical land and wanted each part labeled, that the little boy sitting next to the map maker pulled out magnet letters of each child’s name that was near by.  I could tell you that one of the older girls labels most of our dramatic play areas with signs.  Last week I spent at least an hour at the writing table playing with children as we used Montessori wooden letters to guess peoples names or randomly string together letters and try to sound out the silly words (a game inspired by the children and not planned).  Everyday one little guy sorts the nameplates that were looked over at the doorway.  He places each remaining child’s nameplate on the side of the door that matches the daily group assigned to the given child.  The children use letters and writing everyday!  But, how they use it is in the way they are ready for and in the context of their play.

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Teaching Reading and Writing through Play is Important because:

  • Children will remember experiences that are meaningful to them.  It is more likely that a child will remember labeling the rocket ship they helped build then N is for noodle as they create a noodle art work at a center table.

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  • Children will find learning to read and write as a joyful and useful experience if it caters to their play scenario.  If a child is forced to complete an alphabetic task or writing project the joy of learning is extinguished.
  • Children, like all  learners, learn through multiple intelligences.  Play provides opportunities for children to learn letters, pre-reading, and pre-writing skills in ways that are visual, auditory, and kinesthetic.  Multiple modes increases the probability of retention.
  • Children learn best through concrete and hands-on activities.  Play is a natural provider of hands-on and concrete experiences.

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How to Stage the Environment for Reading and Writing:

  • Build writing and literacy experiences around children’s interest (provide map making materials for pirate fans, garden markers for a plant fanatic, patient sign-in sheets for the little doctors in the classroom).

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  • Provide experiences that nurture future reading and writing skills (e.g. play-dough or spray foam soaps or creams for fine motor development).

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  • Provide materials that personally connect to the children (e.g. name plates, materials that have been specifically requested by the children, or items that build connections with home).


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  • Ensure play areas are staged in a way that provides materials for children to write and read if they desire to do so.  This includes an inspiring writing area and comfortable reading area but is not limited to these areas.  Other play areas should have materials available for the children to utilize.  A basket of books in the baby doll area, a book related to a play area placed strategically, a cup of markers and writing pads in the dramatic play area are just a few materials that can extend reading and writing play experiences.

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I am proud to say that at my school there is not a letter of the day!  There are sign makers, story tellers, name tag sorters, artists, investigators, project leaders, and all sorts of readers and writers.  I am even more proud to say that even though we do not tick off the letters that each child learns they are growing into solid readers and writers.  The evidence is there and the joy for reading and writing is abundant!




What is progressive?, What is progressive?

What is Progressive? …and why there are no pros in progressive education!

Progressive Education: attending to the whole child, community, collaboration, social justice, intrinsic motivation, deep understanding, active learning, and taking kids seriously – Alfie Kohn, “Why it is Hard to Beat, But also Hard to Find”.

These elements are the pieces to the progressive education puzzle. These pieces are easy to pick up, place down, and interlock together; but keeping these pieces together and thriving is much more difficult. The fact is that there is no Pro in progressive education and there shouldn’t be. As educators, we should always be striving for best practices and changing with needs of the children, environment, and circumstances. Embracing these pieces and adopting other developmentally appropriate practices ensures that we give our best to the children and the arena of education. Pro implies perfection – Education is never perfected – It is ever evolving and transforming. Join the journey: share and learn about how progressive education ignites children and teachers with the joy of lifelong learning.




There is no Pro in progressive education.

There are professionals.

There is progress.

There is proactive thought and actions.

There is product and most importantly process.

There is provocation.

But, there is no pro in progressive education.

There is not one person, not one teacher, not one advocate that can say they have mastered the implementation of progressive education.

Pro implies that one has perfected the task at hand. Perfecting progressive education is impossible; it is ever-changing and based on the moment of each child and classroom community. There will be moments as educators that we just get it wrong.

This blog is dedicated to the journey of finding ways of getting it right. I am not a pro. I am in the process- I have the privilege of being an educator for a(n amazing) progressive nature based preschool program (just a hint of bias, but a heap of sincerity). I believe we learn through experience and sharing our experiences. Here you will find the things I have come to know about early childhood and the world of progressive education.

– Jeanne, Teacher at ALPOE

project pic slide 001Jeanne is an early childhood educator for a progressive nature preschool in California. She is a Western NY native. She believes PLAY is a child’s work and learning platform. When she is not submerged in her passion of teaching she is connecting with family and loved ones (including her adorable chocolate lab).

Credentials: Educational Leadership Masters Extension Certificate from Pacific Oaks College, Masters in Reading and Literacy from Walden University, B.S. in Early Childhood Education from SUNY Fredonia

Teaching Experience: Toddlers, Preschool/Pre-K, Head Start, K, 2nd, and Youth Soccer Coach.

Advocacy Work: CCAEYC (affiliate of NYSAEYC & NAEYC), Learning through Play, Nature and Outdoor Play


The How To Dos

Following the Child’s Lead

When we treat children’s play as seriously as it deserves, we are helping them feel the joy that’s to be found in the creative spirit. It’s the things we play with and the people who help us play that make a great difference in our lives.

― Fred Rogers


Following a child’s lead is crucial to the success of progressive education.  But, it is much more difficult than it sounds.  It is easy to say that we are going to listen to a child’s idea and base our plans on it.  However, catering to the child’s idea and facilitating it in a way that helps it flourish is a challenge.  One of my cooperating teachers said it best this month, “sometimes our idea of wedding, trains, or garden are different from what their idea is”.  As teachers, we may notice that the children have an interest in a particular topic.  But, the adult in us can not get upset when we tailor the environment to this interest and the children lead it into another direction.  Instead we must follow the child’s idea and provide them with support.

A couple months ago the children in my preschool were in love with trains (actually, they still are).  They pulled carts around filled with friends or items.  They stopped at pretend stations and traffic lights.  The children recruited teachers and children to be the train pullers.  They sang songs or made train sounds while riding.  They gravitated towards the train track building sets.  As teachers, we ran with this theme.  We built box sides to fit over wagons for train cars, provided whistles that sounded like a train, placed a gear set on a manipulative table, staged the outdoor dramatic play house as a train station, and so on and so forth.  We thought this theme would burst into weeks of exploration.  We discussed maybe bringing the theme inside and exploring how the mechanics of a train works or incorporating some other aspect of train play.  Turns out the children had different ideas.  They still love train play months later.  However, that week the “train station” became a movie theater and the train box sides became sleds for the compost pile.


The adult in us wants to say “don’t take apart the train, please” or “movie ticket, this is where we buy train tickets”.  But, we can’t.  If we are truly respecting that a child’s idea has value we need to follow their lead.  We need to grab the shovels when they ask, bring them paper for their rockets, allow our staged areas to transform into other areas of purpose, and let go of a portion of a theme that may just not fit what a child is asking for.

This presents one of the biggest challenges to me thus far in progressive education: extending the theme.  This is a task I use to master.  Webbing the theme out and providing weeks of activity based on a theme was easy for me.  However, this year my classroom is multi-aged (2-5), the classroom is a well spaced indoor classroom with 2 acres of outdoors and a team of teachers, and the interests of each child varies tremendously.  Following the children by selecting an interest that a large portion of the class population is intrigued by and that will last over time is tricky.  Each teacher will have their own environmental or contextual challenges.  However, I do not feel it is impossible to meet the children’s needs.  As time passes I feel that myself and the teachers I work with will be able to overcome the challenges.  I emphasize this because “Rome was not built in a day”.  I will not have this perfected the first few attempts and it can not be expected that any other teacher will either.  It takes practice.  Some days will be better than others.  Mastery of this will come with time and practice; The most important task is to stay dedicated to following the child’s lead.

Tips for following the lead of a child:

Observe and Listen – Watch how the children play.  What areas do they enjoy?  Track how many times they visit certain areas or topics.  Listen to what they talk about.  They will tell you what they want to do and what they want to know.  There are times that I will come right out and ask them, “what should we learn about next?”.  But, at other times I flip through my documentation (pictures, anecdotal notes, and language clips) to see what commonalities exist and what ideas seem to continue to resurface.  Sometimes a deep exploration and interest is easy to find and at other times the hints are more subtle.  For example, this week we started to really focus staging our environment for the children to explore gardening.  There was not a pile of notes showing this interest but two events that made it apparent that the children were interested in this topic.  Everyday our director invites the children to travel up to the garden with her and harvest some of the vegetables we have planted.  Sometimes we gather them to cook, to give to our families, or to feed our preschool bunny and tortoise.  But, this invitation always is widely accepted.  The children gather in bundles to travel up to the garden.  They dash up to the top to be a part of the harvest.  In addition to this we recently planted some bean sprouts on the window together while exploring the story Jack and the Beanstalk (another theme that came from their interest in giants and fairy tales).  Almost every child wanted to be a part of the planting and then they excitedly watched as the seeds sprouted.


These two small observations could go unnoticed.  There was not piles of documentations of the children in each area talking about the garden.  Our environment was not staged to encourage this.  But, the fact that the children always want to visit the garden and be a part of planting tells us (teachers) that more of our environment and activities should be dedicated to this. It is important to remember not all note worthy observations are verbally delivered from a child (especially when working with infants and toddlers).  Watching where a child goes, what learning experiences they gravitate towards, what objects they continuously pursue, what experiences make their eyes light up are all clues to what makes a child tick.  Every child has the right to be a part of the classroom.  Be sure to write down that Molly always carries a baby doll around or Johnathan played with blocks and cars the entire day.  The things we see children do and hear them say are the maps to what they are ready for next.

Staging the Environment – The next step is to take the collection of your observations.  Choose a theme that the children have demonstrated a strong interest in.  Plan the classroom environment around this theme and be sure to incorporate what the children are asking for or showing a need to know about.  Sometimes this process includes making a list with the children.  While they are playing doctor with the stuffed animals ask them “If we had a doctor office for the animals what would we need?”.  The children may tell you: band aids, blankets, stethoscopes, medicine, etc.  This gives you information for what you need when you set up a dramatic play veterinarian hospital for the children.  Sometimes the props the children ask for may surprise you.  Try to incorporate authentic materials for the children to explore:  real scrub shirts and stethoscopes for the vet/doctor’s offices, real firemen hats and boots for the the fire station, and real seeds and shovels for the garden shop.  Providing real items allows the children to expand their knowledge of and build connections with the real world.  The environment should be reflective of the children and the classroom community.

Following the Cues – This is crucial and often where a great plan can fall apart.  This is the area that I myself and working on improving.  Once the environment is staged follow the children’s cues.  When the children ask for fabric to make a cast for the doggy or tape to measure the length of a jump- go get it!  Don’t just say that is a good idea!  Go get it!  If you can get it that moment do it!  If you can’t then the next day tape and fabric should be there and ready.  Extending learning and play can only be done by continuing to observe and provide for what the child needs.


In progressive programming the teacher is the facilitator.  If a child asks for something and it doesn’t seem fitting ask what their plan is.  Maybe they have a great idea that needs to be facilitated.  As a teacher I can say that I am a great fetch-er.  I will usually get what they ask for.  But, the difficult part is taking the cues gathered from the week and rolling that information into the next week.  It may mean staging the next week with the same theme but with more or new but related materials.  It could also mean that the materials need to be adjusted to what the children really need.  Again, a teacher’s idea of what something should be could be different from what the children envision.  The end of the week does not mean the end of the interest unless the children are asking for something different or the cues that they are providing communicate “I am looking for something else”. If the children do not dive into and environment that was staged for them ask yourself:

  • Did I truly record their interest?
  • Did I invest enough thought and ideas into the theme so that each area or most areas catered to the interest?
  • Did the areas have multiple purposes? (Each learning area should have multiple ways to explore.  If a child can only participate by using one linear method then the area has lost its flexibility to each individual learner.)
  • Was my vision of the interest different from their interest?  (and if so) Do I have the ability to re-stage this in a way that will meet their needs?
  • Did too much time pass from when the interest was recorded?  (Some ideas need to be addressed in the moment and others can be stored away for the following week or even months later.)
  • Was there something in the environment or other events that the children found more important?

Taking the Lead – A great teacher takes the lead by giving the children the power to lead.  As an early childhood educator you can not just be a supervisor.  You have to be a facilitator and sometimes even a play-er.  As Fred Rogers says, the things we play with and the people we play with do make a difference.  One of the most important jobs for a teacher is to be the person that provides the materials and environment needed for deep and rich explorations.  This can only be authentically done by following a child’s lead.  Play will provide learning but a child will tell us what they are ready to experience and learn.  The learning experiences that stick with us, whether we are an adult or child learner, are the ones we have invested an interest in – the ones we say “I need to know that”.