The Environment

Literacy Development the Natural Way

As a progressive educator, I have the privilege of weaving in many philosophies in my teaching practices. One thing that I really love about Waldorf curriculum is the slow awakening to the instruction of literacy.  The philosophy lends itself to inspiring creativity and imagination first, foundational components to literacy development that often are underestimated.

But the truth is that with the more opportunities to listen to and to create their own tales and stories using props and imagination, the more children find joy in literature and stories.  Joy is the most important step in the early years of reading and writing.  It is motivation.  Motivation for knowing and wanting to learn more.  A child is ready to learn the characters of the alphabet and enhance their comprehension skills when they ask for the information.  When the ask for you to scribe their stories, how to write a letter from their name, to read a book… then they are ready.

Many Waldorf practitioners refer to storytelling play as “learning for the heart” and not learning by rote memory or practice.  This is critical in preschool.  Our most important job as a teacher is to create connections and relationships, to create moments for “learning for the heart”. There are many ways to do this.

Providing invitations for children to connect to the world of stories and imaginary places is one way to support their natural journey to literacy based learning opportunities. Waldorf often does this with props for storytelling.  Their characters are made of natural materials such as wood, wool, felt, fabric, and pieces from nature. I have often been enchanted by these little small world props. I have created some of my own in the past – fairy worlds, castle scenes, farm worlds, and forest scenes. But recently the children have been in love with a small autumn fairy and pumpkin village.  It is a decorative one set up in the front of the school entryway.  They check on it often and seem to be so connected to the idea that it is a real living village! So this weekend I spent a little time creating some props for their very own pumpkin gnome/fairy village. I quite like the way it has turned out.  But, I think next time I will stick with keeping the props faceless.  Although it looks eery at times, the intention behind the expressionless faces is to allow the children to imagine their own expressions and feelings of the characters – uninfluenced by the pre-created details of a doll/character. I actually am intrigued by this and would like to try it. I leaves the whole story in the hands of the child.

But, for now I have a little pile of gnome people with wood platforms and a real carved pumpkin house. I will stage the invitation on the light table.  I can only wonder what stories and conversations that will happen here, a place designed for “learning for the heart”.20151025_211745 20151025_211715 20151025_204639

The Environment, The How To Dos

Young Scientists

alpoe august 103

Science inspires children to engage in activities that provide foundational characteristics we hope they will carry with them for a life time of learning:

  • innovation
  • inventiveness
  • problem solving
  • creativity
  • teamwork
  • safety
  • attentiveness

These skills are essential when engaging in hands-on science experiments and explorations.  When we start children young on becoming scientists we give them the gift of developing these skills at an early stage through meaningful and exciting projects.

alpoe august 120 alpoe august 133 alpoe august 135

Allowing children to explore science materials openly gives them the power to discover learning on their own.  Independent and hands-on discovery allows for children to internalize learning and retain information in a deeper way.  The Chinese proverb states it well in saying: “tell me I’ll forget, show me I may remember, involve me and I’ll understand”.  From an educational platform we know that children learn best through concrete experiences as their brains have not fully developed the capacity for complex abstract concepts.  As well as, Gardner’s exploration of Multiple Intelligences supports learning through multiple modes of learning.  Science allows children to explore key developmental and academic concepts through multiple modes of learning.  Many experiments and explorations include visual concepts, kinesthetic activity, naturalist experiences, spatial concepts, logical/matematical concepts, linguistic experiences, and interpersonal opportunities.  Learning through science becomes a rich experience because it is exciting and filled with real props and results.

This year many of my preschoolers know that vinegar and baking soda create a chemical reaction of over flowing fizz when combined.  They discovered this on their own by being allowed several times throughout the year to combine the substances.  Several times “labs” were set up with containers or test tubes of materials for mixing.  Many substances were added to the palate as it was important for the children to see each substance produced a different result and that only the baking soda and vinegar combination created the “fizz” or “bubbles”.  The children quickly discovered water did not work, soap made different bubbles, paint changed the color, cornstarch made it thick, and other varying results.  They moved their experiments to other locations: mud-pit craters and sand area volcanoes.

alpoe august 196

These experiments encourage the exploration of properties, cause and effect relationships, vocabulary development (yes, we use real vocabulary with the children: chemical reaction, absorb, ingredients, test tubes, lab, etc.), problem solving, and turn taking (oh!  Is that a tough one when the results are so exciting!  You want to be next now!).

It is important to let the children decide what the steps should be.  Multiple attempts at a procedure allows the children to truly learn what makes an experiment work, what materials are absolutely necessary, and have a bursting sense of pride when their attempts are successful.

Exploring new areas such as learning stations set up with insects, gems/rocks, rubber-bands, and magnets gives children the opportunity to make detailed observations, attentively explore materials, actively discover relationships of physics and movement, and develop predictions about the world and living things.

Inquiry based explorations ensure children will desire involvement – most science explorations should follow this model.  It is often based on the interest of the children and the here and now of the current environment or happenings of the classroom.  Inquiry based learning allows children to pose the questions that need answers.  As a teacher you are responsible for facilitating learning, fetching materials, and encouraging conversation or further exploration in the current environment or a staged activity.  Some of our inquiry based explorations have been inspired by sunflowers, bears, worms, the garden.  It is important to follow the child’s lead and provide materials for them to explore in order to find answers to their wonderings.  I recommend the texts “Worms, Shadows, and Whirlpools” by Grollman and Worth and “Discovering Nature with Young Children” by Chalufour and Worth for more information.

Throughout the year we spent a variety of moments focused on science and a majority of our time on nature experiences.  However, one fantastic week in summer we dove into an array of science experiments and even geared up as scientists for the week.  I recommend selecting materials and experiments that the children already express an interest for and not simply model your exploration after a list.  But, just as a stepping stone I will provide a list of materials and activities we shared with the children.

Materials and Experiments for Young Scientists:

  • Volcanoes (baking soda and vinegar)
  • Dinosaurs
  • Gems and rocks
  • Magnet Kits
  • Rubber Bands with Clay and a variety of props
  • Test tubes
  • Goggles (a must for our little guys, they love these for any dramatic play set up they can be deemed necessary)
  • Lab Coats (donated daddy button downs)
  • Liquid Water Colors
  • Ooblick (see sensory-sational page)
  • Flubber (see sensory-sational page)
  • magnify glasses
  • Mentos explosion (diet coke, kit, mentos)
  • recycled and found materials
  • A variety of child safe substances for mixture (under supervision): baking soda, cornstarch, salt, water, colorings, oils, vinegar, soap…
  • Sink Float Set Up
  • Flim Canister Explosions (Elka-seltzer Tabs with colored water: use caution!!! and research the many methods of doing this project until you find which version best fits your classroom.)
  • balloons
  • Elephant Toothpaste (see resources – credit to Lisa Murphy)
  • a wide variety of science books

As early childhood educators we must commit to incorporating science in daily activity.  Science in the early years is vital for helping children become young explorers and independent seekers of new information.  Research shows that young children with rich early science experiences have a solid foundation for future learning and development in the academic arena (see recommended links for supportive evidence).

Recommended Links:

The Environment

Small World Play

Republished from archived blog Polliwog and Flutterbys October 2012


There is a popular form of play called small world play.  It is very common across the ocean but here in the US we seem to forget about it in the classroom.  As teachers many of us pile up the animals, figures, and little world props in manipulative bins.  But it is a missed opportunity when we do such.  If we took those materials and staged little worlds for the children we are essentially setting up a platform for major learning.  By attracting children to a small world filled with scenery, figurines, and related play props we are inviting them to be social with others, to expand their language skills, to use their imagination, to move things with their hands (which enhances fine motor skills necessary for writing), and to open themselves up to becoming storytellers or project collaborators.  So take those lego guys out of the bins, the mini animals, the little dolls, the cars, and other small play props and design a eye catching world for the children to engage with.  It will be well worth the time and I think you will be pleasantly surprised to see what the children do there.


smp3 smp4


The Environment, The How To Dos

But, When do you teach them the letters?

2012-09-17 08.05.50

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.

iphone spring 2013 442

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.

iphone spring 2013 349

  • 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.

preschool 005

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).

iphone spring 2013 183

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

iphone spring 2013 405

  • 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).


iphone spring 2013 063

  • 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.

2012-09-17 08.34.39

iphone spring 2013 039

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!